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.
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.
Again, there’s no law that says a critic cannot despise the output of a director widely seen as a great master. I happen to really and truly hate the three or four films I’ve managed to sit through by Michelangelo Antonioni, yet I know a lot of great critics and filmmakers have had their lives changed by his work. Even if we disagree, a certain amount of respect is due to all those people who are just as smart or smarter than me but who simply see something I don’t. At minimum, then, Altman’s many admirers deserve at least the respect of writing a proper book review.
Also, if you’re going to claim that you’re not disliking him simply for having a loose filmmaking style, citing such top-ranking classical formalists as Bergman and Renoir won’t get you very far. I’d like to know if Schickel has any respect for the more improvisational and experimental French, Italian, and English New Wave directors and neorealists (not my favorite style, by the way) who obviously influenced Altman far more.
As for me, I don’t see the relevance of whether or not Altman was constantly using alcohol and pot. Apparently, Winston Churchill was forever nursing a brandy, which allowed the possible ADHD sufferer to concentrate enough to fight Hitler and save Western Civilization. Whether or not Altman actually had a drug problem or was self-medicating is not for us to know or even care — whatever he was doing, he lived to eighty-one despite serious illnesses and made 45 films starting when he was about 45 with “M*A*S*H” (he’d made films previously, but he was primarily a television director before that), several of them regarded as masterpieces and a number of hits that also happened to be really good movies, and some really good movies that weren’t hits. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, let’s find out what he was having and ship a case/pound of it to all our directors.
And now, two movie moments from probably my two favorite Altman films, Nashville and The Long Goodbye. Coincidentally, they both feature stand-out work from, among others, two performers who became known via “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” specifically Lily Tomlin in maybe my favorite scene in any film of the 1970s, and the late Henry Gibson.