How many Schickels is an Altman worth?

Probably for the same reason that you don’t often see movie stars diss other movie stars for their acting, or directors critique helmers they think are less imaginative, film critics and writers tend to avoid making negative public comments about each other’s work. There are exceptions, however. Armond White of the New York Press has made a habit of, apparently reflexively, viciously attacking most of the films praised by other critics while praising whatever all the other critics hate, and then adding an extra step and implicitly, or not so implicitly, attacking all the other critics and viewers who may agree with them for being so intellectually lazy as to not see things in  the same eccentric way as he. So, he’s taken some well-deserved crap, although some writers still harbor some affection for his earlier reviews and sometimes even still find him occasionally insightful. Not me. I could never stand the guy’s insanely self-important writing or verbal pronouncements.

Richard Schickel, however, is a more complicated case. Also a strong documentary filmmaker who mainly covers filmmakers of the classic era and his favorite contemporary director, Clint Eastwood, as well as a highly readable writer, I’ve nevertheless have always felt somewhat suspicious of him going back to his eighties reviews in Time Magazine. Those feelings crystallized to some extent when I heard him and critic Emanuel Levy take to task a rabbi on Los Angeles public radio while discussing Robert Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful.” They all but called him a bad Jew for not finding the film offensive and daring to admit he was moved by it, or at least that’s how I remember it.

Still, I’ve enjoyed not only several of his cinephile-friendly documentaries, but also some really good audio commentaries recently featuring Schickel discussing another one of his — and my — favorites, Howard Hawks. I’ve been in a forgiving mood.

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Then, however, some editor at the L.A. Times had a very bad idea last week. I guess there’s no law that says, say, that if someone hates Picasso or Oscar Wilde or whomever, they should not review a new biography of them.  Ideally, I suppose, by itself that should not be a deal-breaker — as long as the writer in question can step away from their dislike of the subject enough to actually review the book rather than simply yell to the heavens that the revered creator being chronicled is wildly overrated while slipping in some snide remarks at the author’s expense for daring to think her subject is worth composing an entire book about.

Schickel, however, is clearly not big enough to do that, as he proved in writing this anti-Robert Altman screed disguised as a book review for the Los Angeles Times.  You can read Anne Thompson‘s take and then Patrick Goldstein‘s critique and defense of Altman, which also includes a letter from Altman’s one-time protegee, Alan Rudolph, a pretty strong and prolific filmmaker in his own right.

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RIP Henry Gibson

I was going to cover some of the usual folderol I cover here today, but, sadly, we have another passing to note with the death at 73 of Henry Gibson from cancer.

Gibson — whose stage name derives from an early character he did with roommate Jon Voight — was a personal favorite of mine. Not a large man, he was the kind of actor who might have one or two scenes in a movie, but was pretty much guaranteed to bring something detailed and memorable to his usually hilarious scenes; a relatively recent case in point was his great turn as the befuddled shocked clergyman towards the end of “Wedding Crashers.” He’s also familar to fans of “Boston Legal” as one of the show’s recurring judges.

With his eccentric but unassuming air, he gained his greatest fame as a cast member on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” a faster paced, but more shtick-laden late sixties/early seventies forerunner of SNL. His signature bit involved him reciting absurd, vaguely counter-cultural, poetry in his ultra deadpan style while holding a giant flower and bowing with exaggerated politeness at the end. (He was famously spoofed on the show by John Wayne, who brought his own unique socio-political sensibilities to his verse.)

Numerous movie and TV roles followed, including probably the closest Henry Gibson ever got to a leading film role, cast brilliantly against type as a controlling and hypocritical country music patriarch in Robert Altman’s masterpiece, “Nashville.” Later, he’d play out-and-out villains, but usually in more comical contexts. Fans of eighties comedies have a special affection for his commanding role as the patriarch of a very strange family who loom in Tom Hanks‘s fevered imagination in Joe Dante’s comedy horror homage, “The ‘Burbs.” He was also the head neo-Nazi in “The Blues Brothers.”

All in all, the loss of Gibson at the relatively young age of 73 is a sad one and hit me personally a bit harder than expected. I’ve loved Gibson’s work since childhood and, whether he was playing a Napoleonic villain or a gentle preacher totally out of his depth, there was an abiding soulful quality to his work that made him all the more funny. Truly original performers like him are few and far between.

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My friend, Zayne, has a very nice remembrance of Mr. Gibson at More a Legend than a Blog, and Edward Copeland shares my appreciation of his work as country music legend Haven Hamilton.

There’s less of him than I’d like on YouTube, but I did find a few fine moments of Gibson, which you can check out after the flip.

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