Charles Champlin

Of Books and Films: A Critic’s View

VTR Date: August 7, 1985

Guest: Champlin, Charles


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Charles Champlin
VTR: 08/07/85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. For my sins, I suppose, I commute between New York and California. But a blessing, a golden nugget lies not to far buried in that burden. Namely, the fact that a dozen years ago I came to know there in the Golden West the brilliant and delightful arts editor of The Los Angeles Times. Gentleman, scholar, wit, and general good guy, Charles Champlin has been the Times’ principal film critic, became its book critic, and always touches on films and books and ideas as the paper’s critic-at-large, in which capacity the whole darned world is his oyster, from Hollywood to Hammondsport, New York, that wonderful home town to which Mr. Champlin repairs frequently in person and in print for intellectual sustenance. Because, rather than despite, my own involvement with the motion picture industry, I won’t press Charles Champlin too hard on the movies. But since he’s been a critic both of film and of books, I want to ask him not only about these media, but about the art of criticism as well.

And chuck, welcoming you here, I won’t start off with criticism, per se, but ask you, as I noted here so that I wouldn’t forget, whether you think there’s more than meets the eye on the screen or in print? Or less than meets the eye?

Champlin: What a hard question. I think that the movies give messages, whether or not they intend to. Books give messages below the text and between the lines because they intend to. I think what’s interesting for the film critic is to see what the films are saying that they may not even have intended to say. I mean the question at the moment, Rambo, let’s say, I mean, how political a film is Rambo? Are they simply using Vietnam revisionism as a commercial device? I mean, that’s an interesting question as to how intentional all of that is. I don’t know if that’s an answer, but id o think that, for example, if you go back in film history, go back to the Depression, for example, all those wonderful films set in penthouses with white telephones. The Italians call them “The white telephone films,” as you probably know. And I think that obviously the films were saying something by not saying it. They were saying, they were ignoring the fact that there were an awful lot of people in the country who were well below the poverty line and having a lot of trouble but who, when they could, went to the movies to worry about the problems of the very rich, which I think is a rather charming state of affairs. But I think the movies always have something going for them that they may intend. Obviously, the better films always have a power of implication. Bergman is rich with implication, and so are all the interesting filmmakers, Fellini and so on. But all films say something, even in their staggering banality.

Heffner: It seemed to me that when you said “Hey look,” not quite, “I’ve had enough,” but, “I’m going to look at books; I’m going to become a bookie for a while,” you were saying – and stop me if I’m wrong – that what it was that film was saying is not something to your own delight. Is that a fair statement?

Champlin: Yes, it was. At the end of 1980, I had been doing it about 13 years, and it just seemed to me that there were fewer and fewer films that really pushed against the boundaries of what film can be and do. They seemed to have really nothing to say, so all of their allowable inferences were of a kind of intellectual sterility and a timidity which I find still obtains to a large degree in the making of movies. And it seemed to me that there was some possibility of a richer experience in books. Having been a lifelong reader and an English major and all that sort of thing, the chance, which had then become possible at the paper, to become a book critic seemed to me to be almost an inevitable move. Now, we can argue about whether that was a wise move from my own point of view or from the readers’ point of view. But it seemed to me that there were just fewer movies that were interesting to write about. And if you’re a critic, whatever else you are, you’re a writer. And I think you have to stretched and challenged as a writer. And it just seemed to me there were fewer films that were really interesting, lots of films that were worth attacking. But I mean, the films that were worth thinking about and rolling around on the tongue somehow were fewer and fewer.

Heffner: And books?

Champlin: A book’s an embarrassment of riches. I mean, the frustration is absolutely at the other end of the scale when it comes to books. We reckon that there are maybe 10,000 books published a year that are of interest to the general reader. I mean, as opposed to cookbooks, textbooks, law books, so on and so forth. Ten thousand books. I mean, maybe with all the luck in the world we can accommodate 3,000 in the daily and Sunday editions of the paper, so that the problem of choice becomes immense. And particularly the deal, I mean, the problem of looking for those unknown authors. I mean, one can always find the known authors, the LeCarres and historians and so on and so forth, Daniel Bourstin, for example, but what you’re always looking for is maybe the first-time author, the unknown author. And that’s very hard to do when you’re confronted with these mounds of bound galleys. You have the feeling after a while that all books are published in Barnstable, Massachusetts where all the bound galleys are put together.

Heffner: But you know, it’s interesting. You’re as enthusiastic, as the audience can see, about what you call “an embarrassment of riches.” Not too long ago, a couple of weeks in a row, I had major people in the publishing industry here. Editors-in-chief and presidents of publishing companies. There seemed to be some embarrassment, but it might not really be an embarrassment of riches. And they were concerned about the problems of the publishing industry. They were concerned about truth in publishing.

Champlin: Interesting.

Heffner: Do you find yourself bumping in the middle of the night into those problems?

Champlin: Well, again, that’s a very provocative question, and I suppose I’m looking at it as a critic looking for one book to read and write about that will excite me. And I’m always looking for books going in that I’m going to like. I mean, I don’t go out of my way to pick books I’m not going to like. But…

Heffner: But of course, whether you..Excuse me, Chuck.

Champlin: Yeah.

Heffner: when you said bye-bye temporarily to film, you could have said the same thing. You could have said, “There are those individual films…”

Champlin: Yes. Oh, I would love to do, to go back and then I’ll come back to the question of publishing. If I could have done maybe one film a month – I mean, I write about them now as a sort second-day critic.. I mean, I still write about the movies – if I could have done one a month, that would be fine, but that’s a bit had cheese, as they say in England, on whoever is going to be the regular critic. And when I moved out of film criticism, I felt it was only right to have a principal film critic, and I hired a marvelous woman named Sheila Benson to do that. And I felt that it was unfair of me to come in and skim off the cream and do that one film a month. I would like…books are different. You’re doing, you know, maybe doing one every couple of weeks is about my schedule now. However, let me just say this about the difference I’ve found between book publishing and filmmaking now. I find that the people who run the publishing firms, they are caught in the same kind of cash nexus as the people in Hollywood are. They’ve got to have those auctions for the paperback rights and they’ve got to pay exorbitant sums even now for the bestselling writers that they know will sell well like, you know, Shagan and Sidney Sheldon and people like that. But I find that the people who run publishing love books. And the people at the very top, merchandisers, they may be hardnosed businessmen, they would still rather like to find a new book of poetry, they’d like to find a new first novelist and go along with him. They still have that kind of passion for publishing, for what they’re publishing. Whereas the filmmakers, I’m sorry, I just find that they are businessmen who have come through agenting, through law, through marketing, whoever it is. I don’t find that they have that same kind of gut passion about filmmaking that the moguls did, the vulgar, old moguls of the old days, because they had an instinct maybe, an unlettered instinct for the movies. I don’t find much of that now. And it disturbs me about the movies. And it, you know,, it maybe increases one’s anguish about book publishing because they are caught in inflation squeezes and everything else.

Heffner: But, you know, Chuck, it sounds as though you’re saying they are caught in inflation squeezes and everything else, but they’d rather publish a book of poetry. The question is, do they? You’re talking about desire and personal interest. But is that what you really find?

Champlin: But I think they, you know, I think they still do. I mean, you find that it’s tough, I mean, a very nice little publishing firm run with high idealism by a man that I knew, I mean, went belly-up not long ago, and we all felt terrible about it because he was a man of great passion who just didn’t find that one runaway bestseller that would underwrite all the things that didn’t quite make it. But I think that you find, you look through a list, it’s just amazing the books that still get published. The first novels, I mean, I don’t know how many first novels are published a month. That would be interesting to find out sometime. I wish I knew. But I think you’ll find a lot of first novels of great quality that get published. Books of short stories. The short story now survives in collected form. There aren’t that many major magazines that cover short stories anymore. But, I mean, my shelves are overrun, I’m delighted to say, with wonderful collections of short stories, which is now where it survives. So that I think they do, I think they’d o it. I mean, you can’t say that the movies don’t do those wonderful films. And there are still, I mean, a brave film like “Under Fire,” you know, still gets made within the major commercial apparat of Hollywood. They still come through. I think there’s much more…maybe there’s another parallel between book publishing and filmmaking in a sense that I think most of the vitality in American filmmaking now is coming out of the independent sector. Independent made films packaged independently which may be distributed by the major organizations but nevertheless, their impetus creatively comes from outside. And I find that there are now a number of small presses – there are three or four in California, and they’re all over; Northpoint Press, for example – who are doing really terrific things and managing to stay afloat.

Heffner: and what’s your role in all of this, the role of the critic?

Champlin: Hmmmmm.

Heffner: To help continue the flow of good things?

Champlin: Sure.

Heffner: Simply to interpret what is flowing out? What’s the mission?

Champlin: Well, I’ve always felt the critic’s function is basically positive rather than negative. Whatever the image is. The critic is a critic, I think, because he loves the medium, whether it’s rock or visual art or literature or film. He is there because he loves it. He is constantly in search of excellence, loves to identify it, and, I hope, to celebrate it, to interpret it, whatever needs doing. But, I mean, if you work for a major paper, obviously you are somewhat consumerist. You have to be. You’re giving some kind of identifying guidance to things that people ought to know about. But sure, you’re looking for that exceptional novel and trying to persuade people that this is an excellent novel for these reasons, and it has these claims on your attention, and I hope urgent claims on your attention. That’s what you’re trying to do. I think it’s what you’re trying to do with a film. I mean, you can be clever night and day talking about films. Loved war; hated peace. I mean, they were wonderful, you know, you can just be endlessly glib that way. But, I think what you’re really trying to say is, this is something special, I mean, this is cries and whispers, let’s say. I mean, this is about love and death and pain and so on and so forth.

Heffner: It’s interesting you use the phrase “somewhat consumerist.” That there is an obligation.

Champlin: Oh, there absolutely is. Yeah.

Heffner: And as a book critic?

Champlin: Yeah.

Heffner: Less so; more so?

Champlin: Well, I think less so, just because you’re in a different kind of numbers game. You can’t presume that the same number of people are reading about books in the newspaper as are reading about films. One wishes that were so; but it’s just not, it’s not so. So that you’re talking to, you are talking to a smaller audience. I don’t think there’s any question about it. But you’re not talking necessarily about the bestsellers either. I mean, you have to assume, I think, to some degree, that the bestsellers are going to take care of themselves. They’re going to have the big promotion budgets. There may be, in the case of certain, you know, flamboyant bestsellers, there’s probably not a lot to say about them. You know, I felt that about certain films. It doesn’t make any difference what you say about “Jaws” one way or the other. I mean, you could say it’s terrible, but better not to stand in front of the box office as you say it. You could get trampled to death in the rush, you know. That doesn’t happen with films. One of the fine things that has been a change for me to get used to in being a book critic, from time to time, is the silence of it. It mean, particularly working in Hollywood as a film critic, you have this resonance. People, you know, are right up on you and saying, “Dope, how could you like that?” or, “How couldn’t you like that?” because they’ve already seen it and they know about it and they have an opinion about it. Books, they’ll say, “Well, it was a nicely written review,” but it may be months, if ever, that any substantial number of people that you run into will have read the book that you’re writing about. And it’s very quiet out there.

Heffner: Where is the power in the two media?

Champlin: I think the power in both cases comes if you develop some credibility. You see, I think that any critic develops credibility over any number of reviews. People say, “I’ll never read you again,” after one review. Nonsense. I mean, credibility comes over a number of reviews. And if you develop it, over the years, then I think people pay heed to what you say. Sometimes people position themselves against you: “If he likes it, it can’t be worth a damn, and I won’t bother to see it or read it or anything.” But presuming you stay at it long enough and you have some kind of credibility, then when you say a small obscure film is really a masterpiece, gut-wrenching, luminous, you know, all those wonderful critical words, then people will say, “All right, maybe I ought to go take a chance on it because he’s not led us astray too often.” And I think that, again, the frequency is a little different with books. You don’t review books as frequently as you review films. But I think after a while people understand their tastes in relation to your taste. And if you say that you were deeply affected by a particular book, I think there are people who will be persuaded to put the review aside and wait for the paperback (laughter) or something. I don’t know what it is. But, you know, they will make note of it and either buy it or rent it or borrow it from a friend or something like that. So I think you do have some – I get back to what I said before – I think you have some positive power, and it’s born of your credibility which is born of your taste.

Heffner: Is there any indication, statistical information, accurate information, information based upon numbers rather than the two of us sitting around talking about, about the impact of reviews?

Champlin: Very much harder to do with books than with film. I have been told by studio people who I think were not buttering me up that in the days when I used to do a Sunday review before a Wednesday opening, that a very –and they were positive, I mean, and I thought it was unfair to prereview a film negatively – but a positive review on the Sunday before a Wednesday opening would assure a big, big business Wednesday. That happened with, you know, films that I can think of like “Black Sunday” and others. Now, they may have, the word of mouth may have subsequently been different, negative, and so on and so forth, which is the most patent thing. And no critic would put himself up against word of mouth. But I have that evidence. I think that “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” the John Slesinger film, was a testimony to the power of the critics. UA thought it had a sure loser. They’re going to play it a week contractually in New York. It got almost unanimous rave reviews from the new York critics. UA took it back, looked at it again, said “Maybe we’ve got something here,” put more money into giving it more conspicuous openings elsewhere in the country. And I think that, it was never going to be a big film for the or anything like that, but I think that the critics probably made sure that “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” got the audiences that it might ever be going to have had. Now, books a little harder to calculate. To get personal, I gave Hemingway’s Letters a very big page-one Sunday review, very positive. And I notice that it showed up on our bestseller list in the Los Angeles times earlier and stayed longer than it showed up in New York – I don’t even remember if was on the New York Times bestseller list – but it was certainly on ours. Never at the top. I mean, it was never…but it was down, you know, eighth or tenth or something like that. And that seemed to me to be one instance where maybe my review…I mean, why should there be more Hemingway enthusiasts on the West Coast than on the East Coast? Maybe we haven’t gotten the word. I don’t know. It’s so far west, of course. The same thing happened with Monsieur Quixit, Graham Greene’s, one of his recent novels, which again got a Sunday page, full front-page review which was, you know, quite positive. And that again showed up on our bestseller list sooner and stayed longer than it did in New York. And again, why should Graham Greene be more popular on the West Coast than on the East Coast? So that, you know, those are very minor examples of what might be attributed to the power of book reviews.

Heffner: Is there any difference, Chuck, in terms of your own approach, to film and book films and books in terms of this should be something you’ll see, or this will be something you will see or read? In other words, the consumerist point of view. Are you concerned about what your readers will like more in books than in film or in film than in books? Or no difference whatsoever? Do you tell them what they…

Champlin: Well, I’ve often said that you’re doing a couple of things in reviews of any kind. One, you’re obviously giving a very personal opinion. You are saying, “I like,” or “I don’t like,” even though it may be couched as “I think it works; I think it doesn’t’ work, and here’s’ why.” It seems to me that you are also trying to identify the piece of material to the audience that may be interested, particularly in terms of movies. I mean, you’re talking to the audience out there that’s now bifurcated, decimated as between Old Disney at one end and advanced XX at the other end of the scale. Not that you’re going to review much XX in, you know, in the LA Times or anyplace else. But I think that part of your function is simply to describe the material – with a point of view, no doubt – but describe it well enough so that people will say, “Well, that’s not my kind of material.” Go back to “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” I mean, tell what it’s about, and one-third of your audience says, or one portion of the audience says, “I wouldn’t see it on a bet. I just don’t’ care about that kind of material.” Another audience says, “I must see it, whether the film is good or bad, just because of my interest in the basic material.” And a third of your audience, again, going back to credibility says, “If it’s a masterpiece, and he says it is, let’s go check him out and see if he’s right.” So that you have, you do that kind of guidance. And I suppose, in a sense, you’re doing it not quite so dogmatically as that with books. Books are subtler. You know. I think again you are trying to convey the experience of the book and try to give some sense of why you, you know, are taken with it, if you are. Again, with books I think it becomes more important to choose books that are going to be, that you’re going to feel positive about. Unless a book is going to have a major promotion and is likely to, again as a consumerist you are thinking, “Is it going to come to the attention of an awful lot of people?” Maybe you’re going to warn them away from it. But I think basically you’re trying to find books to celebrate because you’re only going to do, you know, one book in ten that’s published every year as a whole newspaper. And you, yourself, are going to maybe do 15 or 20 books a year. So I mean, it seems wasteful of your time and reader’s time and the whole sense of possibility of your publication to center on a minor, negative, disappointing book.

Heffner: Well, wait a minute. You say, “ A minor, negative…”

Champlin: Maybe disappointing. Forget minor. I mean…

Heffner: Because there are people who disagree with this approach, I would say. I mean, you say, to the extent that you can, pick films, books, in particular, toward which you will feel positively.

Champlin: Yes. But I think one measure of it is, you know, is importance. I think that you can always find superior mysteries to write about. And I’ve done that fair enough, often enough. But, no, no. I think you, you see, you’re working also on two kinds of time scales. I think you’re working immediately. I mean, this book is out now, this film is opening now. But on the other hand, I think what you’re writing – and maybe this is sort of critical arrogance – but what you’re writing has got to not embarrass you if you read it five years from now. I mean, I think you’re, I won’t say that you’re writing under the guise of eternity. But on the other hand, I think that you are trying to make both an instantaneous judgment and a judgment that will place the book fairly on some longer kind of time scale.

Heffner: Have you been embarrassed under the guise of eternity, looking back?

Champlin: Oh I think so. I think you always want to readjust the dials. I think you probably over enthuse occasionally, maybe. But that’s all right. I’d rather be guilty of over enthusing than of under enthusing.

Heffner: Why?

Champlin: Hmm?

Heffner: Why?

Champlin: Well, I think if you’re too hard on a piece of work, you know, I think that’s too bad. Because, I think you do maybe have some power to damage. I’m just not sure. And you have probably done your readers a disservice if you have done more denigrating and negative about a piece of material than you should have been. I don’t say that, I can’t think of many cases where that’s happened. But I think that more often what happens is it’s like adjusting a television set. I think that you would, “Well, maybe I should, a little bit too much red in that, a little too much green, or blue,” or something like that. You want to adjust. I’ve never felt any great urge to go back 180 degrees and reverse a judgment totally. Thank heaven. I touch wood on that.

Heffner: You don’t take too much to this notion about grand difference between reviewers and critics, do you?

Champlin: No. I think that “reviewer” is what a critic calls another critic he doesn’t like. (laughter)

Heffner: “That reviewer…”

Champlin: I’ve felt that “reviewing” is used as a term of denigration. I think that there are differences you can make. The critic maybe is an analyst. But it seems to me that in modern usage both the critic and the reviewers are introducing material to readers who are not familiar with that material. And I think that’s the only possible difference you can make, is…

Heffner: Well, isn’t the reviewer though more of that consumer-oriented person?

Champlin: Well, you know, again, I think it becomes a judgmental term. I mean, what sort of a job are you doing? I think that they always spoke about “film reviews” and I think maybe that we still use that as the kicker line on our reviews at the paper, “film review.” To me it came out of a tradition when some fellow redeemed from service on the night desk in the sports department has given the studio synopsis and adds for bells or something like that and says, “I liked it a lot,” having paraphrased the synopsis in between. But I think that a lot of what now happens in newspapers is film criticism. I think it is done with a good deal of backgrounding in the medium, and I think that most book reviewing is in fact book criticism. I mean, you can, I mean, I think that probably, maybe there is a judgmental difference to be made in which a review is just a lot of synoptic material with a very cursory judgment. But when I think of criticism – and I find this in newspapers and magazines – when I think of criticism, I think of somebody who brings a good deal of intellectual background to the piece of material at hand.

Heffner: You know, I wondered whether there is as much rewriting or, “I would have have written it this way,” in the film critic’s area as it seems to me that there is in book criticism.

Champlin: “Here is the book you should have done?”

Heffner: Yeah. And not indicating that, not, “This is the book you should have done,” but attacking a book. And when you go behind the returns, it’s because it wasn’t written the way the critic would have written it.

Champlin: I’m not sure. I really don’t know. I think that there are interesting differences in the kinds of problems with book reviewing and film reviewing. What happens with film reviewing – and I think it may be a healthy thing – is you’ve got the same person sitting in judgment on maybe – I used to review 100, 125, 150 films a year. I think that the matching of reviewers with books is a very, oftentimes mischievous operation. And there are five of us who review fairly regularly for the Los Angeles Times. Dick Eider is now our, formerly of the New York Times, is now our regular reviewer. What I’m saying is that I think you’ll get often kinds of loaded reviews in books that you don’t get in films all that often.

Heffner: That’s what…

Champlin: I think you’ll find the academic reviewing another academic’s book from a very loaded point of view. You don’t often find that in film reviewing, I think.

Heffner: But you used the word “mischievous.”

Champlin: On the part of book review editors. Absolutely right. I name no names.

Heffner: For controversy’s sake?

Champlin: Yeah, I think so. On the grounds that maybe you’re going to get a livelier review. But I think maybe unfairly. We had one example: we don’t’ allow anybody to choose a book to review in the LA Times anymore because we once had an academic who requested a book to review, and it came in and it was near libelous. It was toned down but still run. And it turned out that he was reviewing the book of a close professional rival.

Heffner: What is this academic business? Why are you attacking us academics?

Champlin: I’m not sure that…

Heffner: Because we’re the ones who do it?

Champlin: …applies only to academics. But I think that, oddly enough, there is a certain kind of competitive thing in academia that we have discovered – maybe it’s out in the far west and never would happen in New York, of course, but out in the far west. (Laughter)

Heffner: Thank goodness it doesn’t happen in newspapers and it doesn’t happen in television, it doesn’t happen in film or in publishing

Champlin: In this most privileged of all worlds.

Heffner: Chuck, I think I’m getting the signal that our time is up. Am I? Okay, I am. And I have to say goodbye, regretfully. Thank you for joining us.

Champlin: Come west and see how we live out there. (Laughter)

Heffner: Oh come on, don’t kid, don’t kid.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”