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Romancing the Screen | The Nation

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Romancing the Screen

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VINCENT CANBY

As a memorial tribute to Vincent Canby, the "Arts & Leisure" section of the New York Times recently published half a page of excerpts of his prose, as selected by The Editors. Implacable beings of ominous name! With grim rectitude, they shaped a Canby in their image, favoring passages where he had laid down principles of the sort that should be cited only under capitalization. These were Sound Judgments.

For those of us who admired Mr. Canby (as the Times would have called him while he was alive, and as I will continue to call him, knowing how the style fit the man), soundness of judgment was in truth a part of his merit. A hard man to fool, he could distinguish mere eccentricity from the throes of imaginative compulsion, the pleasures of pop moviemaking from the achievements of film art; and when he was offered sentimentality in place of feeling, his heart didn't warm, it burned. These powers of discernment allowed him to bear with extraordinary grace the responsibility of being the Times critic. They also contributed a lot to his need for responsibility, since it was his sureness, as much as the institutional weight of the Times, that made Vincent Canby so influential.

That said, I confess I read him to laugh. At present, I can give only tin-eared approximations of his wisecracks--correct and ample quotation will become possible when someone smart decides to publish a Vincent Canby anthology--but I can hardly forget his review of Salome's Last Dance. This picture was the latest chapter in Ken Russell's phantasmagorical history of sex in the arts, or the arts in sex. Mr. Canby's lead (more or less): "As the bee is drawn to the flower, as the hammer to the nail, so Ken Russell was bound to get to Oscar Wilde."

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I also recall Mr. Canby's description of the used car that Jim Jarmusch peddled to the title characters in Leningrad Cowboys Go America. It looked, he said, as if it had been dropped from a great height. Writing about I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film of relentlessly life-affirming whimsy, he claimed he'd been cornered by a three-hundred-pound elf. A typically self-regarding, show-offy performance by Nicolas Cage (was it in Vampire's Kiss?) inspired him to write that other actors must enjoy working with this man about as much as they'd welcome being shut up with a jaguar. And once, when forced to think up copy about his umpteen-thousandth formula movie, he proposed that the only way to derive pleasure from such a picture would be to play a game with yourself, betting on whether you could guess what would happen next. "As you win," he wrote, "you lose."

From these few and random examples, you may conclude that Mr. Canby's principles often emerged with a deep-voiced chuckle, and that they involved matters that went far beyond the movies. Some of these concerns were political in the specific sense, as when he gave a favorable review to Alex Cox's Walker: a film that offered a burlesque insult to US supporters of the Nicaraguan contras, in government and at the Times. His concerns were also political in a broader sense. Witness the 200 words he devoted to a little African-American picture titled Love Your Mama: a heartfelt, thoroughly amateurish movie produced in Chicago by some people who had hired an industrial filmmaker to direct their script. While quietly letting his readers know that they probably would not want to watch this film, Mr. Canby conveyed a sense that real human beings, deserving of respect, had poured themselves into the project.

Of course, the best places in which to seek Mr. Canby's principles were within the films he championed. He would have earned his place in cinema history (as distinct from the annals of journalism) had he done nothing more than support Fassbinder's work. And yet I'm not surprised that The Editors found no space to reprint Mr. Canby's writings on this crucial enthusiasm. Fassbinder, like his critic, was preternaturally alert to political and social imposture, to the bitter and absurd comedy of human relationships, and also (for all his laughter) to the pain and dignity of those who go through life being pissed on. Mr. Canby recognized in Fassbinder's work all these qualities and more (such as the presence, in the person of Hanna Schygulla, of one of cinema's great fantasy objects); but these matters seem to have been judged too unruly for an "Arts & Leisure" tribute.

Now, I've been allowed to do some work for "Arts & Leisure" and have received from my editors nothing but aid and kindness. Surely the people I've dealt with at the Times would have chosen excerpts from Mr. Canby that were funnier, sharper, more challenging. So maybe, when the Times moves to memorialize somebody as one of its own, a higher level of control takes over. It's as if the paper means to show its own best face--or rather the image it wants to see in the mirror, urbane and solid--and never mind that man in the old tweed jacket.

This tendency of the institution to eclipse the individual figures prominently in a new book by another major film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum. By "major," I mean that Rosenbaum is highly regarded by other reviewers and film academics, and that he's gained a certain public following (concentrated in Chicago, where he serves as critic for the Reader). But if you were to ask him how he fits into American film culture in particular and US society in general, he would locate himself, quite accurately, on the margins. As his friends will tell you (I hope I may count myself among them), Rosenbaum is one of the angel-headed hipsters: a sweet-natured, guileless man, wholly in love with art and wholly longing for social justice. And for these very reasons, he has become the angry man of American film criticism, as you might gather from the title of his new work, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, $24).

Rosenbaum argues--"argue," by the way, is one of his favorite words--that those American writers, editors and TV producers who pretend to cover film are for the most part hopelessly self-blinkered. It's in their interest to look at only those movies that the big American companies want to promote (including the so-called independent films that have been ratified by Sundance and Miramax). So journalism collaborates with commerce, instead of acting as a check on it; informed, wide-ranging criticism gets shoved to the side; films that might have seemed like news flashes from the outside world fail to penetrate our borders; and everyone excuses this situation by claiming that "the people" are getting the dumb stuff they want. Rosenbaum is enraged that moviegoers should be viewed with such contempt; he's infuriated that well-placed journalists should justify their snobbism (and laziness) by dismissing whatever films and filmmakers they don't already know about; and he's mad enough to name names.

In Movie Wars, Rosenbaum advances his arguments by means of a crabwise motion, scuttling back and forth between general observations (which are newly composed) and case studies (many of them published before, in the Reader and elsewhere). This means that some stretches of ground are covered two or three times. I don't much mind the repetition--even when the material shows up in a second new book by Rosenbaum, his excellent, unabashedly partisan monograph on Jarmusch's Dead Man (BFI Modern Classics, $12.95). I do worry that indignation, however righteous, has begun to coarsen Rosenbaum's tone and push him into overstatement.

When Rosenbaum is at his best, his extraordinary wealth of knowledge about cinema informs an equally extraordinary power of insight into individual pictures; and both these aspects of his thinking open into frequently astute observations of the world at large. You can get Rosenbaum at his best in his Dead Man monograph and in three previously published collections: Moving Places, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics (California). By contrast, Movie Wars is a sustained polemic, with all the crabbiness that implies.

It's a welcome polemic, in many ways. Most rants against the infotainment industry are on the level of Michael Medved's godawful Hollywood vs. America; they complain, in effect, that the movies tell us too much about the world. Rosenbaum recognizes the real problem, which is that our world (filmed and otherwise) has been made to seem small. I agree with much of what he says. But when, in his wrath, he digresses to settle scores or rampages past obvious counterarguments, I begin to wish that he, too, would sometimes pretend to be urbane and solid.

"There's a hefty price tag for whatever prestige and power comes with writing for The New York Times and The New Yorker," Rosenbaum says, "and I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to worry about paying it. Film critics for those publications--including Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael...--ultimately wind up less powerful than the institutions they write for, and insofar as they're empowered by those institutions, they're disempowered as independent voices."

To which I say, yes and no. As bad as the situation is--and believe me, it's woeful--I've noticed that news of the world does sometimes break through. David Denby, in The New Yorker, may contribute to American ignorance by being obtuse about Kiarostami (as Rosenbaum notes with disdain); but then, as Rosenbaum fails to note, Stephen Holden and A.O. Scott in the Times delivered raves to Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us. Individuals in even the most monolithic publications still make themselves heard; and the exceptional writer can manage (at least in life) to upstage an entire institution.

Rosenbaum himself has pulled off that trick at the Reader; and Vincent Canby did it at the Times. To the living critic, and all those who share his expansive view of the world, I say, "We've lost a champion. Better stop grousing and pick up the slack." And to those who mourn Mr. Canby, I say, "You can still hear his laughter. Just don't let The Editors get in the way."

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