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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That Hamilton Woman

That Hamilton Woman

This 1941 historical biopic from producer-director Alexander Korda about the illicit affair between the heroic nemesis of Napoleon, Admiral Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier), and the vivacious Lady Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh) benefits from the magnificent production design of Vincent Korda and some extra acting oomph drawn from a real-life adulterous affair between its two A-list stars. On the other hand, there’s an idea out there that it has been unjustly dismissed ever since its release as ponderous wartime propaganda and an overblown romance. I might say exactly the same thing, minus the “un.”

Essentially commissioned by wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who later proclaimed it his favorite movie, “That Hamilton Woman” suffers from some ham-fisted parallels between Hitler and Napoleon as well as a certain amount of hypocrisy on the question of empire. (English colonialism good! French colonialism bad!) Far worse for the movie’s entertainment value, however, is its tediously stolid hero, an awful lot of gassy romantic dialogue, ponderous pacing, and an excessive 125 minute running time. On the plus side, the young Vivien Leigh, fresh off “Gone With the Wind,” is allowed to show her powerfully sexy and funny sides, and the film’s relative frankness in dealing with an open adulterous affair is something of a miracle considering that this British production was shot in the U.S. and made under American censorship. Nevertheless, the extras on this typically crisp Criterion DVD make the case that the making-of story here is far more engaging than the actual movie.

Click to buy “That Hamilton Woman”

  

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