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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In which “Basterd” week gets going (updated)

It wouldn’t be the week of a new Quentin Tarantino movie without a little controversy. Now esteemed critic, film historian, and occasional hair-up-his-keister provocateur (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Jonathan Rosenbaum helpfully supplies it in discussing a Newsweek piece, comparing good ol’ QT to both Holocaust deniers and Sarah Palin in one short blog post. (H/t David Hudson.)

Unlike Rosenbaum, I haven’t seen the movie yet so I’ll withhold comment. However, my bias is obviously pretty pro-Tarantino and pro- not seeing it as some kind of dangerous revisionism. What’s one boldly ahistoric movie against thousands made before it? It’s not like Tarantino’s deleting them from Netflix. I also fail to see how Rosenbaum can even begin to speak for the reaction to the film of real-life Holocaust victims. It’s putting an awful lot of power on the movie to imagine it’s causing any real distress to them without some evidence.

I’m a pretty proud secular Jew myself, so I take the Holocaust seriously. At the same time, I take the sort of ownership some Jewish thinkers take over the history of what happened at the time, and how filmmakers deal with it, with a huge lack of seriousness. Some years back, Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust tearjerker, “Life is Beautiful,” started a different sort of controversy and I felt many took excessive offense. I was moved by the movie, almost despite myself, but I could certainly understand why a lot of people disliked it. However, the level of vituperation still puzzles me. I once listened to two well known Jewish critics verbally bludgeon a well-known Los Angeles rabbi for daring to speak well of the film on a local public radio station. What gave them to right to decide how the rabbi was allowed to react?

Many years before that, Mel Brooks took some heat for daring to make fun of Hitler in the original film of “The Producers.” Even the deadly serious, extremely well received, riveting and thought provoking historical drama “Downfall” worried some because it presenting the monstrous dictator as a human being. That was, I thought, deeply wrong. It’s crucial that we remember, always, that Hitler was as human as any of us lest we start to act as if we are beyond evil, a popular belief among the actually evil.

Of course, adding comedy to anything touching on the Holocaust is really asking for trouble from some quarters. I haven’t been able to dig up a review of “Downfall” by Rosenbaum online, but I wonder what Rosenbaum thinks of the “Downfall” subtitle Internet meme? Would he agree with the take offered below?

What does Hitler think of the Downfall meme? – watch more funny videos


UPDATE:
Roger Ebert’s e-mail interview with Tarantino deals with “Basterd” history and actual film history.

  

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