A Critical Mass

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Julie Salamon and Charles Champlin
Title: “A Critical Mass”
VTR: 4/16/88

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I know very well what Bernard Shaw had to say about my own chosen profession: “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”. I know that Shavian barb too well, in fact, to have anything at all negative to say about that still next oldest profession that my guests today embrace…they are critics!

They are also old friends. Charles Champlin, Arts Editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. And Julie Salamon, movie critic for the Wall Street Journal.

Now, for purposes of full disclosure, I would remind you that when I’m not teaching at Rutgers or doing THE OPEN MIND, I commute between New York and Los Angeles as Chairman of the motion picture industry’ film classification system. You know, G, PG, PG-13, R, X and all that. Yet, premier film critics though they are, I haven’t asked Chuck and Julie here today to talk about “The Industry”, though earlier in the week we recorded this program as the Academy Awards once again made “The Industry” the talk not just of the town or of the nation, but of so much of the rest of the world as well.

The fact, of course, is that not only are my two guests powerful film critics, they are writers…first and foremost…for print. Julie Salamon has just published her compelling and delightful first novel, “White Lies”…and soon we’ll see Chuck Champlin’s new book of essays” “A Past Recaptured”.

Besides, both of these creative writers have thought long and hard about the continuing tension between the creative and the critical processes…the impact of the one upon the other. And I’ve asked them here today to further THE OPEN MIND’s continuing analysis of the impact of what (critically, editorially) we say and write upon what (creatively, even politically) is done (the real stuff of the world). So think you both for joining me today. Let me just begin with the obvious first question, and maybe it’s the one on which we disagree the most, or you two disagree the most…has to do with the effect of criticism. We had a series here on THE OPEN MIND called “The Editorial We” and it had to do with the effect of editorials. What in the world, without taking refuge behind the notion that there’s no one in here but us chickens, what in the world is the effect of criticism, if you can generalize, criticism of print…Julie, your new book has been given reviews. What has been the impact of reviews upon it, upon you? Chuck, you’ve been doing film reviews for so long, what do you expect the impact is?

Champlin: Well, I’ve always thought that the impact of the critic is probably less than the critic would like to think it is. I think it’s rather specific, too. But if you’re a critic for a major newspaper you are a kind of consumerist, I think, and you are giving some guidance on whether people will or will not go see a film.

Heffner: Will? Or should?

Champlin: Should, I don’t know, I worry about that word “should”. I would say “will”. It seems to me that you’re giving the reader some information on which he’s going to make his own decision. I’m not sure that I can, how many people I can steer to a film or steer away from a film. It’s very hard to tell. If it’s a lousy film you feel that word of mouth gets there before you do. But I think that there are certain kinds of films in which you have a big influence. I mean small films, art films, difficult films, independent films, then I think the critics collectively have some considerable influence. But on something like JAWS or RAMBO one, two, three, four, five or six, I think the critics matter very little. If the critics mattered a lot, RAMBO II would never have gotten off the ground obviously. But somebody was not heeding the critics. DEATH WISH one, two, three, four, and five, critics had no influence whatsoever, even thought I would say they generally tended to dislike them considerably. But there are films in which the critics have some influence. “Should?” I don’t know, I don’t feel I’m telling people they…in most cases they “should” go see a film. I say, “If you go, this you may well enjoy”.

Heffner: Julie?

Salamon: Well I think with films it’s a little bit different than it is with, say, books or other art forms. I think that because movies are reviewed so widely, I agree with Chuck that there are a lot of different outlets for people to find out about the movies. Because, we were talking earlier, critics’ first function is as a reporter, really. You’re bringing the information that there is this thing in the world that exists and you’re telling people about it. Number one in a way that’s not bought, you’re not an advertiser, you’re a reporter. You’re telling somebody that here’s this even that’s taking place and it’s a film and you try to bring your critical judgment to that. But it’s first an informational function. I think when you get out into the world of books or plays or works of art, I think then the critic may have a more powerful impact because they choose what gets written about. Most films get reviewed…unless they’re pure exploitation films, but by and large there aren’t that many films that come out a year so they get paid some attention to, whereas there are 50,000 books published a year and very few of them get reviewed. So there the critics’ power, first of all, will they review it at all? Will they allow people even to find out that it exists?

Heffner: What…how do you evaluate that power? How do you feel about the power that is given to those who review or are critics for the press, to pick and to choose, to pay attention to a book or not to?

Salamon: I think it’s a tough job because I think all kinds of variables go into play. If you were the book review editor at The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times or the Wall Street Journal, you review a handful of books comparative to the number of books that are published, so you have to consider, as you’re going through these massive numbers of books that are coming in, “What will be of interest to our readers?”, number one, just by subject matter. And then it’s just sort of luck of the draw. I mean somebody’s flipping through this book, trying to decide is it important or not, is it worth…it’s the same kind of judgment that people on news desks make every single day. What event is worth covering, what event isn’t? Certain events are self-evident. Tom Wolfe writes a book that’s going to have a hundred thousand copies, if that’s the number, that’s going to appear in book stores all over the country. I think most people are going to sit up and take notice. Just like with the movies, when RAMBO comes out, you know, nobody really wants to review it, but they have to review it because it’s going to be in fifteen hundred theaters. So it’s out there and people want to know, “Well, what does your newspaper think of that?” And you are the voice of your paper or magazine, if you’re writing for a magazine.

Heffner: Chuck, when I’ve read your reviews in the Los Angeles Times, the book reviews, does something different go into them? As Julie in a sense suggests, there is a choice, a selection that you make. How do you compare the two?

Champlin: Well, I think it’s really tough because, I mean, there is a power of non-reviewing is what we’re talking about here. Unfortunately, when we figure at the paper that we review, acknowledge, at some length or another, maybe 3,000 books a year, and that’s daily and Sunday, out of 50,000, you’re talking about maybe one in sixteen books susceptible of review, that you actually get to. That’s an uncomfortable power. I mean most reviewing power is very uncomfortable and that is even more uncomfortable than anything else. And you have terrible decisions to make. And I, for example, I’m now doing a monthly column reviewing mysteries, called “Bloody Sunday”. Thereby getting some mileage out of all that time I waste reading mysteries, (Laughter) you know, so…But, even if I review six or eight mysteries a month, that means I’m ignoring probably twice that many and in a good month maybe more than twice that many. And it’s really tough. I mean it becomes…if you don’t get reviewed, therefore, that’s a measure of the importance or the unimportance of the book.

Heffner: You said, all reviewing is “uncomfortable”. What do you mean?

Champlin: OH, I think it’s…I think unless you have some real ego need for power and love to power-trip, I think that you bear it as a great responsibility. I mean you’re, you know, sitting in the movies, you’re sitting in judgment on a thing that’s taken two to four to ten years of somebody’s life. A lot of peoples’ lives. I mean just don’t think you can be casual about that. And I think that scorn and contumely and all those kinds of things sit uncomfortably on somebody who really knows anything at all about the making of movies. I think it’s fun to find things that you like and it’s rather uncomfortable to find things that you know have begun with high intentions and high hopes and then have just crumbled into little pieces before your very eyes.

Heffner: What’s your discomfort level, Julie?

Salamon: My discomfort level is pretty high. You’re looking at me like you don’t believe it (laughter). But it is.

Heffner: No, no, I wondered.

Salamon: It is. You know, every once in a while a film and this is rare, comes along that just irritates you so much in every way that you don’t mind sort of going at it with your knives sharpened, but most of the time that’s not the case. Because, for two reasons…one, in a lot of ways an interesting negative review is easier to write than an interesting positive review because when something goes wrong or something doesn’t seem to work the things that are wrong just fly out at you, are easy to identify and easy to write pity commentary about. When something’s good, it works and everything meshes together and so it’s harder to think of a way to write about that in just as interesting a way without sounding like a gooey, sobby sentimentalist. And so…but to get back to your question, yes, my discomfort level is very high because a lot of times you see something where you know the people who worked on this set out to make a good movie. They didn’t set out to make a piece of garbage. And you feel badly having to tell this. I’m not a mean person. If you ask me how you look today, I’ll say, “fine”, even if your tie’s crooked. So I…you know, I can lie.

Heffner: Are you telling me something?

Salamon: (Laughter) No. I can lie to you, but I can’t do that in the paper because it’s a responsibility and people eventually trust your judgment. So that’s the flip side of the responsibility.

Heffner: Well, now, with both of you. What about…what about reviewing books? How does that differ? What about the discomfort level there? Do you think it’s the same?

Champlin: Well, I think it’s obviously much more focused on, the focus might be one or two people, something like that. You get into a different sort of question with books, I think, because you do have that terrible problem of choice. I mean what are you going to choose to do? Then, when you’ve decided what it is that you’re going to do…maybe there’s another way to talk about that question, Dick, is do you choose a book that you know you’re not going to like? Oddly enough, starting out you know whether you’re going to like a movie or not. But when you begin to read a book, pretty soon you’re going to know whether you like it or don’t like it. Again, we’re talking about one in sixteen. I tend to choose books that I, well I think positively about. So you get the reputation of being a soft critic or something because you like everything. Well, that’s not true. But why, when you’re going to ignore seventeen books, why go out of your way, unless a book is terribly important, like Tom Wolfe, you see that you can’t ignore that book. But we’re talking now about a whole middle range of books that you can ignore. And you feel very uncomfortable about the sixteen that you’re not reviewing and you do, I think, tend to take books that you feel are important and are worthy of your respect and they tend to get positive reviews. So there’s that kind of difference, you don’t have the same kind of choice in the movies, because if you’re reviewing for a mass journal, you tend to be committed to reviewing everything.

Heffner: But now, what about when the shoe was on the other foot. “White Lies”, which I loved, Julie, “White Lies” comes out. Are you sitting there chewing your nails, waiting for the reviews?

Salamon: You better believe it.

Champlin: (Laughter)

Salamon: For a couple of reasons. One, a review is a way of getting, in writing, from somebody who has to put it on the line, what they think of it. And for some reason, once something’s in writing, in a publication, it automatically is given this kind of weight, that in all honesty, probably a lot of times it shouldn’t. Because you don’t know who the person is reviewing, especially with books, which are often farmed out to free-lance writers, you don’t know who it is. And yet, you’re terrified. And the other is a purely practical reason. My book’s gotten a wide range of reviews, very positive, some mixed reviews and a couple if not-so-good reviews. And one of the less enthusiastic reviews was in The New York Times Book Review, which is painful from a very purely practical point of view – it hurts sales. And that’s a very realistic thing which I think, which I think also affects filmmakers, the small filmmaker. A review can hurt your sales because somebody takes a New York Times Book Review and decides whether or not to stock the book. I mean, you can’t blame them.

Heffner: In a dialogue that Chuck had on film, he said, he referred to the fact, and I’m sure you find it…the first thing you’re asked when you walk into a room is “Who chose you? Who picked you? Who elected you to review my films?”. Do you feel that way about the book reviewers, too?

Salamon: Oh, to an extent. Except, you know, I think to a little bit of a degree it helps to do this for a living at a large newspaper because, at the Wall Street Journal, our book reviews are primarily done by free-lance writers. And I know how they’re chosen, by chance a lot of times. I mean the Editor thinks, “Well, this book would match this person” and the Editor sometimes likes the book, gives it out to a writer, the writer has a different opinion. The Editor has to go with the writer that they chose. And so a lot of it is serendipity and I’m the first person to realize that. How many times do I see a film that I loathed? And then it will get some fabulous write-up someplace else and vice versa. So, even though it hurts, you know, if I’ve gotten uniformly negative reviews or uniformly positive reviews, that’s one thing. But you know that a lot of the name of the game is that ten people can read the same book and come away with ten very different feelings about it.

Heffner: Not in this instance. The ten people I know who read “White Lies” all loved it and that’s true. Chuck, in this same dialogue, you said, “We try to create”, meaning critics, reviewers, “we try to create the impression that we have Plato whispering in on e ear and Aristotle prompting us in the other ear and Demosthenes waiting for us in the lobby. But it’s not true. It’s all very personal”.

Champlin: Yes.

Heffner: Is that an admission? An indictment? A claim? A joyous tribute to reviewing? Or what?

Champlin: Oh, I think it’s just a statement of truth. I think all writing is autobiographical, but I think criticism is finally about as autobiographical a form of writing as you can find because everything you are, you know, you’ve experienced, you’ve seen, you’ve hear, it all comes to bear on a given review, at a given moment. It is very personal. I mean you maybe have had access to the wisdom of the ages, but essentially, it’s what of that wisdom that has clung to you like lint, usually in very small pieces…But there you are. And I think it is personal. Sure. I’ve got to go back to that thing about being reviewed because by its nature and by the nature of the publisher, my book did not get much reviewed. And, but I discovered that you very quickly are on the other side of that coin and having been asked at cocktail parties in Hollywood, “What is it?”, you know, through clenched teeth, “what it is that qualifies somebody to review my film?”, then you find yourself (through clenched teeth), “what is it that qualifies you to review my book?”.

Heffner: (Laughter)

Champlin: (Laughter) And there you are frothing at the mouth and saying, “that’s a personal review, that’s just a…you know, that’s revenge” and so on and so forth.

Heffner: Well, listen, this business “it’s a personal review”, you say this is a fact. But are there no principles, are there no eternal verities to which you two and all the other reviewers and critics repair?

Champlin: Well, I think there are. But I mean, again they are personally perceived I think. Oh sure, I mean I think that you…Julie and I were talking before the program…that we have both done some talking in public about what we do and in talking you suddenly realize, “Oh, that’s how I do it”, you know. And “that’s what I think” and you do it, you learn by doing it, but once you’ve done it then you have some ideas about what you’re really trying to do, some objectives I’m sure that Julie does, I certainly have.

Salamon: I think one of the things that happens sometimes, with some reviewers you almost…and I think not good reviewers, is when you almost feel like they’re trying to live up to some esthetic they’ve set up for themselves and they’re writing about something that has nothing to do with the thing that’s in front of them, whether it’s a book or a movie. You know, I sort of take the approach, you respond to something, something engages you, one way or the other. Either it engages you with anger or it engages your admiration or your emotions in some way and part of what you do as a reviewer is to sort of split your brain in half and on one half you’re having this emotional response, especially with the movies, it’s a very emotional kind of medium, you’re sitting there looking at people. They’re blown up to gigantic proportion and it has an effect on you. And then what you do, usually afterwards is try to analytically figure out what caused that emotional reaction in you. And did you like it. And did you like the way it was done. And I think that that’s very much what a part of the whole process is. And it is personal. But I don’t think you can say there’s a list of rules. I mean there’s a certain list of rules, you ought to say who’s in the picture and what’s it about and certain basic things like that. And the same thing with a book. But I do sometimes feel that some reviewers are almost writing for the critical community rather than for any kind of an audience. And I think that’s not…I don’t know if it’s bad reviewing, it’s not the kind that I like to do.

Champlin: I agree with that. I think it’s a frequent charge about reviewing and I think it’s…often times think it’s true.

Heffner: That was the point. I know it’s a frequent charge and you are such a gentle person, I wondered how often is it true among our major reviewers?

Champlin: Well, I don’t know how often it’s true. But I think you can detect it. And I think you know…critics are susceptible to criticism and being criticized. And they probably ought to be criticized more on fair grounds I think. There are obviously critics that we could all think of who are developing their own cults of personality and seeking to become legends in their own time. And I think that there are…I think there’s mediocrity in criticism, just as there is in the art world at large. But I think that the critics that survive and the critics that develop the credibility that Julie was talking about are the critics who have been judged over any number of reviews and found credible. And that’s, I think, what a critic has to hope for, is that kind of credibility. And I don’t think you get that by coterie reviewing or anything else.

Heffner: You and I are old fogies. Julie’s very young. But I just wondered in terms of what Julie…

Salamon: But I’m still a fogy. (Laughter)

Heffner: Well, you’re a young fogy.

Champlin: but she’s unusually mature. (Laughter)

Heffner: I wondered about the changes that have taken place, if you can identify them in our times, in the nineteen eighties, do the critics seem to have a different function? Do they have seemingly more power, less power, different kind of power? Let’s take film and then books. Is there a line that runs back or is there a change?

Salamon: Oh, well, in film there’s a huge change. And it’s happened in the nineteen eighties and that’s the emergence of the all-powerful television critic, I think. I think that…

Heffner: You mean the critic on television?

Salamon: On television. The, you know, the Siskel and Ebert, I mean Gene Shalit’s been around a long time, but when the Siskel and Ebert show came out and began so successful because that was a show devoted entirely to movie criticism and then they’ve had all of the knock-off shows. That changed the quality…quality is the wrong word…it changed the…

Heffner: Changed the quality?

Salamon: It changed the quality of film reviewing because all of a sudden the critics became celebrities, number one, and the whole, you know, there’s always this uneasy feeling of a critic being part of this giant promotional machine when you’re writing about Hollywood movies, and all of a sudden that was carried…that promotional aspect of the critic was carried to an entirely different level. When the critic is now a celebrity, you know, half the times when Siskel and Ebert are writing about the movie, they’re more famous than the people who are in the movies that they’re talking about. And I think that’s been a tremendous change, at least in film criticism. I think in book criticism, that’s not the case. Or in any other kind of criticism, but in movie criticism, the television critic talking about movies has been the single biggest change.

Champlin: Yes. I don’t think there’s any question about it. And I don’t see any comparable change in books, at all. Book reviewing goes on as before. I don’t find any particular change.

Heffner: Yes, we do have the…

Champlin: There’s one change.

Heffner: Go ahead.

Champlin: Which is that paperback books are reviewed now in a way that they weren’t before. Paperback originals and just paperback reprints, they’re now reviewed and they weren’t before.

Heffner: Well, I was thinking of the cult of personality. Julie was earlier in a sense talking about that, given the means that these critics have. Hasn’t it always been true of theater, perhaps? The leading critic, the theater critic you all turn to who can kill a play, which is much more susceptible to sudden death thanks to a critic, I guess, than films are.

Champlin: Yes, well the drama critic is another case entirely because they are exactly the opposite of what Julie was talking about before. I mean there are so few reviews of anything theatrical work in any community that, I mean, it’s a cliché to say that if Frank Rich gives a straight play a negative review in The New York Times, it has very few chances for survival. I mean even if the other reviews are very enthusiastic, The New York Times, it’s not specifically Frank Rich, it is The New York Times as an outlet, has pretty much a life or death power so far over a straight play, not necessarily a musical. But I mean in terms of a straight play. And I think that critics…drama critics…are even more uncomfortable than film critics because they have no back-up. In Los Angeles, if the critic of the Los Angeles Times is really negative or even lukewarm about a big show, it’s in some kind of trouble. Now in Los Angeles it’s a little better because there’s a big subscription sale, so that you get some sort of cushion. I don’t think that exists here particularly. But that’s quite a different situation. I think going back to film, I think there’s one other change that happened historically. That since the movies went wide open, you know staring maybe in 1968, in which both the spectrum of movies was wider in terms of their intensity, in terms of their content, in terms of their focus on audience…

Heffner: Are you going to knock the rating system?

Champlin: Certainly not. I’m just giving it wonderful words of praise. And if weren’t for Dick Heffner… (Laughter) No. I think that since the movies have gotten so much more varied, that the role of the critic, again in being a reporter, in describing the film, in introducing that particular film to the particular audience for which it is aimed is very important. And I think that the best critics have understood that. They don’t get away from their critical powers, but I do think that their descriptive powers in identifying the film in terms of its intensity, in terms of its seriousness, in terms of its point of view, I mean it’s…

Heffner: I would suspect, Chuck, that perhaps Julie doesn’t have to worry about that as much, given the nature of the readership of the Wall Street Journal as contrasted to the Los Angeles Times.

Salamon: You mean about sort of setting up a warning signal about…

Heffner: Yes.

Salamon: I don’t. I don’t worry about it. To be honest with you when I write my reviews I think that if you’re writing for a paper that’s a local paper, even if the locality is as gigantic as Los Angeles or New York, you do have to think about making that differentiation. I’m sort of an extra, I’m the second paper, so I can just…I don’t have to worry about that. Although I think in the course of writing about the film, that stuff emerges anyway. You know if the film is very violent, that emerges in the review. If there’s a lot of nudity or sex or whatever the things are that seem to bother people, that emerges in the course of talking about the movie. And if it doesn’t then you’re leaving certain pertinent facts out, more than likely.

Heffner: Do you think that the…we focused on books and films, do you think these industries have changed in any way in response to the nature of criticism?

Salamon: I think very much…well, yes and no…I don’t know how much they actually respond to criticism. I think the industries always use whatever they can to try and sell their products. And you know, so now you see these, I think certain aspects of the process have become meaningless. You know, now the blurbs. You’ll see these blurbs…a movie opens that there’s thousands of blurbs from critics from all over the country and I think that if those things ever had any impact, they have much less now.

Heffner: Chuck, in the half…

Champlin: I’m not sure that I agree with that. I mean I think it’s a commentary on the lack of credibility of movie advertising that they seize on those blurbs to give them some kind of credibility they wouldn’t otherwise have. I mean it gets a little ridiculous sometimes because there are so many. If often have said in the past that when I am quoted in an ad in The New York Times, it means that I was probably wrong and they had to come all the way to the West Coast to find the favoring review, you know. Which may or may not be true. But I think that they do. It’s an interesting question. I mean we talked about power of the critic in terms of his ability, her ability to move audiences to buy tickets. I don’t know. I mean I’ve always been curious as to what the subtler impact is in the councils of the industry. I mean can you help careers for example. Can a cinematographer be helped by collectivism?

Heffner: It’s clear that the answer to that question has to come in the next program we do.

Champlin: There you go.

Heffner: Julie Salamon. Chuck Champlin. Thank you so much for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guests, today’s topic, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.

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