“I’d like to see you hire a new film reviewer! I’m really sick of Shepherd! He is too down on everything!” (Betty Jo Bums)
“The doom and negativism of his reviews are . . . depressing. C’mon Dune, don’t be such a grump.” (Shannon Bailey)
“Duncan Shepherd sucks! Can’t you get rid of him? I’m really sick of his boring negativism! I have a master’s degree, and I’ve been a teacher, a P.R. person, and a management consultant. I’ve also travelled world-wide and I’m 34.” (Anne Ames)
The recent swell of Letters to the Editor (printable and, mostly, unprintable) on the subject of my sourness, or sore-headedness, or however it’s diagnosed, has reached a point where it seems advisable for me to step forward and say something conciliatory before the grumblers out there band together and show up on the doorstep with battering ram and lynch rope. Now, I’m not in the habit of rationalizing my behavior, and I don’t intend to cultivate the habit until I’ve taken care of a few others of higher priority (changing the oil in my car every 3000 miles, visiting the dentist twice yearly, and balancing the checkbook at the end of each month). But in order to attack some of the common attitudes that seem to block and snag the reader’s understanding of a movie reviewer’s job. I’m willing to do a little light gardening work, pruning, weeding, rooting up.
The popular theme in this season’s batch of grievances is my alleged negativism. In a typical case, this accusation comes from someone who advocates love, fun, coolness, and peace, and who then demands my head on a platter. If I wrote about movies in the same terms these sunny positivists write about me, they would truly have something to squeal about. Anyway, the charge of negativism draws from me an immediate I-doubt-it-very-much reaction. Which is another point for the prosecution, I suppose (there he goes again, naysaying). On second thought, though, the charge is not one that I’m sure I want to worm out of.
Negativism in a movie reviewer is to a large extent a matter of proportion, and consequently a matter of circumstance. And a cold statistical calculation of negativism is readily misleading. (A man may come up to me and deliver a deft soccer-style kick to the shins. “How do you like that?” he tests me. Not very much, I shrug. He drills his finger tips sharply into my solar plexus. “Take that.” I’d rather not, I decline.* Offended, he spits in my face. “And that?” My face goes ashen. “What’s the matter with you?” he cries, echoing the sentiment I hear approximately every week of my sorry existence. “Don’t you like anything?”) Put me on a strict diet, two weeks long, of D.W. Griffith films, for example, and I would be almost as cheerful as Helen Gurley Brown, Joe Garagiola, or Hubert Humphrey. But how much fulfillment can a movie reviewer be expected to find in the narrow mainstream of American commercial movies which, with few exceptions, fill the theaters of San Diego?
The letter writers, riled by my stingy show of enthusiasm week after week, can call themselves movie lovers, and can demonstrate their love by attending one movie a week or one movie a month (preferably the one movie which has won five Oscars or which has appeared on the cover of Time magazine), and can satisfy themselves that I am a cold fish because I have expressed a few reservations about that movie. But for how long could these enthusiasts hold their happy note if they, like the daily-weekly movie reviewer, were sentenced every week to attend Embryo, Won Ton Ton, Gator, Follow Me Boys!, W.C. Fields and Me, etc., and they had to write about these movies whether they were interested in them or not? (Most of the movie lovers who pen angry letters, in fact, seem disinclined to argue on behalf of any specific movie. They prefer to characterize me as an obvious hopeless case, and let it go at that. Cuckoo's Nest is possibly a better movie than it seemed to me, but it isn’t better simply because I am a certifiable pinhead.) It doesn’t require any special capacity to sit through All the President's Men or Taxi Driver; but to sit through virtually everything, from the revival of Le Jour Se Leve at the Unicom to It's Alive at the California, takes a peculiar kind of gluttony. I don’t think any working movie reviewer needs to prove his devotion to movies beyond the mere exercise of his job. In my own job, I. think, contrary of course to what everyone else thinks, that I have always tended to be overly lenient as a result of the low level of competition in the San Diego movie market. It isn’t much, like the Cannes competition around here. If I were anxious to show contempt for movies and moviegoers, I would model my writing after the blurbs in newspaper ads (“I don’t know how you can proceed with your life until you’ve seen All the President's Men," etc.).
Negativism is an occupational malady of film reviewers. At precisely the point where a movie is most successful, criticism is most inadequate; and it is inevitable, then, that criticism address itself to the failings within its reach. Moreover, the longer that a piece of criticism is strung out, the more equivocal it is apt to become. At 100, at 1000, or at 5000 words, it is not easy to perpetuate the giddiness of a Rex Reed blurb. Unhappily, most people’s idea of movie criticism these days is probably based on the blurbs they read in the newspaper ads. Blurbs are not conducive to good reading habits, and they are not conducive to movie appreciation either. But it is just that level of socko-wow-hooray that the average moviegoer probably hopes to experience when he purchases a movie ticket. He goes to a movie in order to like it. Which is plainly a different approach from the critic, who, from a professional standpoint, couldn’t care less whether he likes a movie or not. The paying customer, if Letters to the Editor are any standard to go by, is susceptible to interpreting a movie reviewer’s comments as attempts to spoil the moviegoer’s fun and ruin the entire evening. In reality, the reviewer is undoubtedly having insurmountable difficulty getting his thoughts down on paper properly, and nothing is more remote from his mind than the intention of molding the reader’s opinions. It is a common misconception that the reviewer harbors any thoughts of coercion. More often, it is the other way around. The disgruntled reader would like to bring the reviewer to heel (who in God’s name does he think he is?).
Behind the complaints of my negativism is not, I think, a belief that I don’t like enough movies. (There are almost always enough movies that I find interesting to keep moviegoers busy during the week if they care to follow my personal preferences. I see no reason why they should follow my preferences; I just don’t want to hear that I don’t like “anything” from anybody who didn’t bother to go to L'Avventura at the Unicom this last week.) Rather, what the complainers must mean by my general negativism is my specific disagreements with them: I don’t like the movies they think I should, or (a more passionate movie lover’s complaint) I don’t like them enough. What they want in a reviewer is someone to express their own views. The reviewer’s responsibility is to write not as he sees the movie, but as the reader does, or will, or would have. If for any reason the reviewer is unable to carry out this solemn responsibility, he ought to be sacked forthwith.
Speaking for myself, which I usually do, I don’t think anybody, even a movie reviewer, should lose his job for favoring the “wrong” movies. I have never tried to hide the fact that I have my own concerns in movies. I care about how shots look, and how they connect, and other such things, and I don’t care very much what a movie is trying to say except insofar as it translates onto the screen. And I don’t see why I should abandon the concerns that originally prompted me to write about movies in order to appease the readers who want a reviewer to reaffirm their point of view; that is, who prefer to be reassured they are perceptive and sensitive instead of having to prove it on their own. All of this prattling is not simply about my own misbegotten concerns. A couple of weeks ago in the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris, who has occupied those pages since 1959 and might anticipate a certain degree of understanding from his audience, chose to assail a program of experimental movies at the Museum of Modem Art and the field of experimental movies in general. This touched off an avalanche of letters, whose enraged authors chose to defend experimental movies in general by declaring Andrew Sarris to be irresponsible, incompetent, and mindless (all in all, a very careless use of language). The avant-gardists are entitled to their view, of course. But why should Andrew Sarris be expected to champion that view? And why, if he doesn’t share that view, should he be required to stay shut about it? And why, if he expresses his own view, should the avant-gardists fume about it? The only important way in which a critic can be “wrong” is in the misstatement of his ideas. And every critic knows, better than anyone else, how often he is wrong.