By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Nowadays the line between journalism and publicity is often blurred, and one common, systematic method of blurring it is the movie junket. Generally a studio flies journalists to a location where a movie’s being shot or to a large city where it’s being previewed, puts them up at fancy hotels, then arranges a series of closely monitored interviews with the “talent,” most often the stars and the director. The journalists are expected to go home and write puff pieces about the movies that run in newspapers and magazines as either reportage or as a form of film “criticism.” If the journalists don’t oblige–and sometimes obliging entails not only favorable coverage but articles that emphasize what publicists want emphasized and suppress what they want suppressed–then the studios won’t invite them on future junkets.
There are probably more of these articles about new or forthcoming movies in newspapers and magazines than any other kind, and many entertainment writers–including plenty who double as film reviewers–make a profession out of these junkets. The stories that result are meant to be read as news rather than as promotion, and most newspaper editors seem to have few qualms about fostering this impression. In fact, publicists often work directly with editors and get particular journalists assigned to write particular pieces–in effect, the articles are commissioned by the studios or distributors.
It wouldn’t be fair to ascribe this practice only to big-time movie-industry players, since even marginal distributors sometimes get into the act. I blush to admit that I was once approached by the distributor of a film by Jean-Luc Godard about writing something for the New Yorker to promote its release; the distributor had already been in touch with an editor there and was trying to set something up. Given my sympathy for the film, the offer, however questionable, seemed irresistible, and I obligingly sent a letter of proposal to the editor. If memory serves, the final piece–which wound up as a small item in the magazine’s listings section–was written by the editor himself.
The only full-scale junket I ever participated in–which I’m not proud of either–was in late 1981, when an old college friend who was an editor at Omni arranged to have me visit British Columbia, where John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing was being shot. The offer came almost immediately after I was fired from the Soho News, a Manhattan weekly where I’d been working for over a year as a film and book reviewer–my main source of income at the time–so it was hard to turn down this opportunity. Like many freelancers participating in the game, I needed to pay the rent. I flew to Seattle in mid-December, staying over in a hotel at my own expense (with the promise of an eventual refund), then flew to Ketchikan and took a bus to Stewart (where I first discovered the 100-proof Yukon Jack, bottled in Connecticut). There I was put up at a motel along with the only other journalist on the junket, Bob Martin, who edited three teen magazines (Starlog, Fangoria, and Twilight Zone). The next morning we rode in the darkness up a mountain, were given special jumpsuits to prevent us from freezing, and were led to the remote site where Carpenter, cast, and crew were shooting, assisted by artificial wind and snow machines. Martin and I got to witness the explosion of a cabin and say hello to the star, Kurt Russell, but Carpenter was too busy to talk to us. This proved to be no problem; as soon as I returned home Carpenter phoned me, and all I was expected to do, according to junket protocol, was pretend that whatever he said to me was said on location. (It was a lot harder to get my refund for the Seattle hotel room; it came down to placing collect calls at odd hours to the publicist and eventually the producer.)
Junkets and what they produce have never been a secret, but even as sophisticated a writer as Time art critic Robert Hughes was shocked when he went to see Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace with his girlfriend’s kids in 1999 and discovered that it wasn’t what the hoopla had promised. He complained in the New York Daily News that George Lucas had “managed to broker, or more exactly, enforce, a situation by which hundreds of thousands of promotional words have been churned out and published about The Phantom Menace by writers who were specifically forbidden by Lucas to see it; and the said writers went right along with it, because, in the end, the tail of Hollywood was wagging the ass, if not the whole dog, of journalism.” What’s surprising about Hughes’s outrage is the implication that if all these journalists had seen The Phantom Menace weeks in advance they might not have written the same sort of promotional blather. But Lucas had the entertainment press on its knees, proving that a critical reading of the movie was irrelevant to what the mass media saw as its duty.
To my mind, the fawning over The Phantom Menace was no more egregious or grotesque than the front-page coverage accorded to, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK or the American Film Institute’s “One Hundred Best American Films” in the New York Times, or the kind of promotional reviews Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan received almost everywhere in the U.S. when they came out. Media overkill of this kind was fully operational well before The Phantom Menace was a gleam in Lucas’s eye, though his movie may have made it more obvious. Newsweek ran a cover story on it complaining about the media overkill, though it fully acknowledged that it was part of it–unlike Time, which simply went along with the drift.
If you’ve ever wondered where all the enthusiastic superlatives from reviewers in movie ads come from, you might be surprised to learn that many of these quotes aren’t extracts from longer reviews but blurbs supplied by professional blurb writers. Some of them go to the trouble of writing their own blurbs, but others commission blurbs from writers who attend press screenings. Studios reportedly often suggest several possible blurbs to these writers and invite them to select one. If such practices lower the credibility of film criticism as a whole, I’m inclined to regard this as a healthy development, if only because it encourages more skepticism toward infotainment–an industry that, realistically speaking, includes most film reviewing as well as most so-called film journalism.
It also includes such things as TV coverage of film festivals. I’ve never attended Telluride, but I’ll never forget a national TV report on that event a few years back that showed members of the cast and crew of Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, including Stone, seated outdoors hawking their movie–and incidentally commenting on how pleasant the festival was because you didn’t have to “do” press there. I had a flashback to my teen years in Alabama when I was paging through an issue of Photoplay and came across a photo spread devoted to Fabian’s very first date as a star without the interference or presence of any press or photographers. The infotainment industry has been around as long as movies and was fully in place back in the 50s, even if it didn’t have a label back then.
One of my oldest and dearest friends, Meredith Brody, is a cinephile who lives in Hollywood and frequently writes about movies. She’s as addicted to movie lists as I am and keeps a scrapbook devoted to all the films that open locally, pasting in newspaper ads of them.
While I was visiting her in December 1998 she started to read aloud some of the Hollywood titles in her scrapbook, all pasted in over the previous six months. Most if not all of these movies had played in Chicago, which meant that even if I hadn’t seen them, I’d read promotional material about them and written a descriptive capsule or assigned them to the second-string reviewer at the Reader and read her review. The disturbing thing about Meredith’s list was that a good 80 percent of the titles had no resonance for me, even after she read me the ad copy.
Could it be that I’m going senile in my mid-50s? I doubt it, because if I heard a list of random commercial titles from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s I wouldn’t draw the same blank. Some might argue that it’s easy to forget how many wretched movies were made during those decades, when the task of regularly furnishing theaters with product made the likelihood of indifferent and unmemorable work high, but I’m sure I remember more of the lesser movies of 1956 than of 1998. The reality is that movies can get away with being terrible these days without causing any crisis in the film industry because no matter how much the capacity to make movies that matter has been impaired, the capacity to advertise, market, and disseminate them has only improved.
If most Hollywood movies today have become as terrible as I’m implying, wouldn’t people stop seeing them? Maybe. But I don’t think the will of the people is as decisive an influence as we like to believe it is. Much as the enforced “consensus” of the Stalinist state made it impossible to figure out what Soviet citizens really wanted until that state was overturned, the interests of corporate executives make it hard to find out what the American public really thinks about movies. And we can’t turn to journalists for a definitive answer, because most of them are devoted to doing variations on the corporate stories.
Consider what might happen if Roger Ebert couldn’t find a single movie to recommend on one of his weekly shows, which has undoubtedly happened. How much freedom would he have to give a thumbs-down to everything, especially if he did it three or four weeks in a row? For all the unusual freedom I enjoy at the Reader, how long could I keep my job if I had nothing to recommend week after week? For just as communist film critics were “free” to write whatever they wanted as long as they supported the communist state, most capitalist film critics today are “free” to write anything they want as long as it promotes the products of multicorporations. The minute they decide to step beyond this agreed-upon agenda they’re likely to get into trouble with their editors and publishers. This isn’t to say that critics aren’t free to express their dislike for expensive studio productions, but most of them aren’t free to ignore these releases entirely or to focus too much of their attention on films whose advertising budgets make them marginal as far as the mainstream media are concerned. That I have considerably more freedom to focus on what I want than most of my colleagues is merely the exception that proves the rule, and it’s true only of my writing for the Reader. As I’ve noted recently in these pages, the only two times I’ve appeared on Chicago Tonight I’ve been forced to speak almost exclusively about studio releases. The first time, in 1994, was around Oscar night; the second time was the day after Christmas two years later, and, weary of being obliged to promote only movies that were “important” because of the studio muscle behind them, I agreed to appear only if I’d be allowed to speak about a couple of foreign and independent pictures. This privilege was eventually granted to me–after a show devoted exclusively to promoting garbage such as Evita–over the brief closing credits, and it’s why I’m unlikely ever to agree to appear on the show again. (I had a much happier experience appearing on Roger Ebert’s TV show in July 1999–along with fellow reviewers Dann Gire, Ray Pride, and Michael Wilmington–on a special show devoted to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a film all of us liked, in contrast to most of our New York colleagues. This experience confirmed my suspicion that network television is paradoxically more open to alternative points of view than PBS. The constraints of the show’s format clearly limited what we could say, but I think the final editing of Ebert’s show fairly and accurately represented what we said during the lengthy taping.)
No less typical was the refusal of the New Yorker to give even capsule reviews to either Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man or Andre Techine’s Thieves, two of the most important U.S. releases of 1996 and the two movies I wanted to discuss on Chicago Tonight. Neither feature was deemed important enough by its film reviewers, yet Dead Man was distributed by Miramax and Thieves by Sony Classics. I don’t think Sony Classics could be blamed for the New Yorker ignoring Thieves; that neglect undoubtedly has much more to do with an overall neglect of foreign-language movies spearheaded by Pauline Kael during her last years as critic there, something that’s become commonplace in virtually all mainstream magazines since. But I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Miramax played a role in the neglect of Dead Man, especially given that it was the first of Jarmusch’s features to be snubbed by the New Yorker and that it happens to be his best feature. As soon as it became apparent that Jarmusch, protected by his contract and by his ownership of the film’s negative, refused to allow Miramax to recut Dead Man for its American release, the distributor’s lack of enthusiasm for the film became obvious. When, for instance, the programmer of a Jarmusch retrospective contacted Miramax about showing the film, he was advised not to because it was lousy. Jarmusch himself publicly denounced Miramax’s handling of the film when he accepted an award for Robby Müller’s cinematography at the New York Film Critics Circle’s annual dinner and was supported in his protest at the same event by Albert Brooks, who had dark stories of his own about how his own first feature, Real Life, had been handled by its distributor.
A good example of the sort of film Miramax puts its muscle behind is Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove, and good examples of major films it has chosen to dump over the past few years are Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, the color version of Jacques Tati’s Jour de fete, and the restoration of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort. The Wings of the Dove was treated with vastly more respect and attention by the national press than the rest of these pictures, implying that a soft-core, middlebrow reduction and distortion of a late Henry James novel was vastly more important than key works by some of our greatest filmmakers–and this was almost entirely a consequence of the message sent by its distributor’s advertising dollars and overall handling. The implication that this respect accurately reflected the taste of the public is both insulting and impossible to disprove. But if Miramax’s campaign “worked” on the public as well as on the critics, then a comparable campaign on behalf of the color Jour de fete might have worked as well, even if the targeted audience would have been substantially different.
In Chicago Jour de fete and The Young Girls of Rochefort received limited runs only because the Music Box made repeated requests to show them; when Miramax finally agreed, it stipulated that no money be spent advertising either picture. Through the Olive Trees received an even more limited run at the Film Center; no advance screenings for the press were permitted, and requests for videos for preview purposes were denied. So is it any surprise that none of these pictures was reviewed on Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s TV show (though on other occasions they went out of their way to support relatively independent efforts such as Jon Jost’s All the Vermeers in New York)? That Disney owns Miramax and produced the Siskel-Ebert show might prompt conspiracy theories, but none are necessary. Miramax has the clout to dictate which of its releases are important and which are not, and magazine and newspaper editors, TV producers, and reviewers don’t have the nerve, imagination, knowledge, intelligence, or wherewithal to buck the system–and none of them expect to be called on their decisions because those decisions are virtually invisible to the public.
Also invisible are their qualifications. The whole notion of expertise in film criticism is tautological. According to current practice in the United States, a “film expert” is someone who writes or broadcasts about film. Yet most film experts are hired not on the basis of their knowledge about film but on the basis of their capacity to reflect the presumed existing tastes of the public. The late Serge Daney understood this phenomenon perfectly–and implied that it wasn’t an exclusively American one–when he remarked that the media “ask those who know nothing to represent the ignorance of the public and, in so doing, to legitimize it.” Case in point: Chicago film critics who often attended the same screenings as Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were aware that Ebert was a hard-core film buff and Siskel, who died in early 1999, was someone whose interest in film, at least to all appearances, was almost exclusively professional (when he first started writing for the Chicago Tribune, his main beat was real estate). Ebert attends several film festivals every year. Siskel generally made it to few or none; he attended Cannes only once, as a TV reviewer in 1990, and showed no interest in returning, and one could surmise that his relatively low recognition factor abroad might have been partly to blame. Ebert reviews a good many film books, and to my knowledge Siskel never did; if he ever read any books about film on his own it would surprise me. Inside the profession, Siskel was famous for making so many gaffes about movies in his weekly print reviews that in the Reader Neil Tesser used to inventory them in an occasional Hot Type item called “Siskel Watch”; Siskel’s mistakes apparently became fewer after his copy began to be checked by others.
I didn’t always wind up agreeing with Ebert’s judgments more than Siskel’s. Siskel had a commonsensical approach based on his own extensive experience as a reviewer, and it often served him well. But if I mentioned to someone who watched their show but wasn’t a critic that one of them was clearly an enthusiastic film buff while the other just as clearly wasn’t, most people asked which one was the enthusiastic film buff. In other words, though Siskel and Ebert were the best by far of the TV reviewers, the show’s format made it virtually impossible to recognize informed opinion or expertise, and matters of film history and aesthetics were virtually beside the point.
So I wasn’t surprised to hear it said of Siskel shortly after he died that he “loved movies”–an assertion made repeatedly, including on the cover of TV Guide, by Whoopi Goldberg on the 1999 Academy Awards telecast, and by Janet Maslin (whose own lack of interest in movies, apart from the movie business, may even surpass Siskel’s) in the New York Times. If he did love movies independently of his professional duties, he did a superb job of hiding this from his colleagues. The only extended conversations I ever had with him were on the subjects of Anita Hill (at the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings) and his show, and I never heard about him casually discussing any movie, new or old, with any other colleague.
Yet Siskel’s TV profile was such that in July 2000 it was announced with some fanfare that the new, expanded headquarters of the Art Institute’s Film Center would be renamed the Gene Siskel Film Center. It was telling that this new name was widely perceived in Chicago as a way to make the Film Center better known outside the U.S.; as Tony Jones, president of the School of the Art Institute, expressed it, “We think it is a fitting tribute to Gene because he helped focus the international entertainment spotlight on Chicago.”
But did Siskel do that? If the Film Center’s new name draws a wider public for its cultural agenda, then the renaming would be justified. But I doubt that the name will enhance the institution’s international reputation, because outside the highly circumscribed world of U.S. television, Siskel’s name is no more meaningful than that of, say, O.J. Simpson. (Siskel was also far from the Film Center’s most faithful supporter as a journalist; in a recent Reader piece Patrick McGavin counted only one Film Center program he’d reviewed between 1986 and 1998–in contrast to the hundred or so pieces done by Dave Kehr for the Tribune over seven years or the 341 by Michael Wilmington in only five years.)
Ebert and Siskel’s show may well have represented one of the many places where reviewing shades into promotion and coverage becomes more important than evaluation. Given the huge promotional budgets of most studio releases, this is probably inevitable. Furnishing clips for a TV review or for a TV preview isn’t necessarily the same thing, but to the untrained viewer it often looks like the same thing and in many cases it virtually is.
The first contemporary film critic I ever read regularly with admiration was Dwight Macdonald, who wrote a monthly column for Esquire between 1960 and 1966. I was 17 when his columns started running, and for the first couple of years I was friends with one of his sons, Nick, who later became a filmmaker. Toward the end of Macdonald’s stint at Esquire I was an undergraduate at Bard College and running the Friday-night film series on campus. I invited him to give a lecture and spent an enjoyable evening with him.
I can’t say I agreed with Macdonald’s taste in everything–my favorite film in the mid-60s, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, bored him to tears. But he provided much of my initial route into film as an art form, and I was as enthusiastic about his polemical prose style as I was about his taste and critical perceptions. Yet by the time he compiled his film pieces in the late 60s, in a collection called On Movies, my feelings about his work had changed. Partly this was because Macdonald’s positions seemed to have changed: he’d essentially launched his Esquire column by heralding and defending Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, John Cassavetes’s Shadows, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, but he concluded his stint as a reviewer by denouncing films such as Resnais’ Muriel, Antonioni’s Eclipse, and Orson Welles’s The Trial while ignoring the subsequent films of Godard. But I also had a growing suspicion that Macdonald’s grasp of film history was limited and in some ways superficial. This was eventually brought home to me by the juxtaposition of two statements in On Movies. The first is: “I know something about cinema after forty years, and being a congenital critic, I know what I like and why.” The second occurs 17 pages later, in a passing remark on a letter James Agee sent him in 1927: “‘Why was movie jargon puzzling?’ [Agee] begins and proceeds to explain the ‘lap dissolve’ (which I must confess it’s taken me forty years to realize doesn’t refer to holding the camera in the lap but to overlapping; should have read his letter more carefully).” It’s characteristically refreshing of Macdonald to cheerfully concede his ignorance about a technical term, but his candor is also highly revealing, exposing how little is expected of film critics and how little many of them expect of themselves. Try to imagine a respected literary critic writing at the end of his career, “I know something about literature after forty years,” and then confessing without embarrassment a few pages later, “I’ve just discovered that a semicolon is something other than part of the lower intestine.” It might be argued, I suppose, that the importance of the semicolon in literature exceeds the importance of the lap dissolve in cinema, but I would counter that the lap dissolve is every bit as important to the work of Josef von Sternberg (a director Macdonald treats fairly dismissively) as the semicolon is to the work of Henry James. I would argue further that the importance of lap dissolves and superimposed images in Sunrise is fundamental to its art. This doesn’t mean that an acquaintance with the term lap dissolve would necessarily have altered Macdonald’s appreciation for Sunrise, but it does suggest that his objections could have been voiced in a more sophisticated and intelligible fashion.
Magazine and newspaper editors, book publishers, and TV producers seem to deem a basic knowledge about the medium–considered obligatory for people writing about painting, sculpture, theater, dance, architecture, literature, history, psychology, sports, and countless other disciplines–inessential when it comes to film. Consequently, Macdonald’s passionate if imprecise engagement with cinema was every bit as unexceptional as Siskel’s “love of movies.” The haphazard way in which the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement assign reviewers to books about film–which isn’t the case with books on other subjects–often results in ill-informed reviews that perpetuate misinformation in the books. For example, Janet Maslin’s rave review of David Thomson’s Rosebud in the Times Book Review presumably paved the way for his recent article about Citizen Kane in the Times’s Arts & Leisure section, in which he repeated the popular myth that Welles didn’t write any part of the script–something that was definitively disproved many years ago by Robert Carringer and other scholars.
Why this obtuseness? Part of the reason is that movies are regarded as a “democratic art,” which means that anyone and everyone is entitled to have an opinion about them–a position I’m not interested in contesting because of my belief in democratic values. But problems begin when opinion becomes confused with expertise–when individuals are proclaimed experts because they’re publicly stating an opinion. I don’t mean to include either Siskel or Macdonald; as I’ve already stated, both had their areas of competence as well as distinction. As do other colleagues I think even less of–respected reviewers who either hate what they’re doing or feel so alienated by it that they wind up writing not about what they like but about what they think or assume their readers will like.
It’s clear that even alienated critics can provide a service to some people. But I object to their alienation being turned into a norm of criticism–which is what I see happening all around me–and to low estimations of audiences being used to rationalize low expectations of reviewers. When alienation of this kind enters reviewing, a whole set of agendas that aren’t concerned with the movies themselves wind up determining much of the shape of the critical discourse.
Excerpted from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See, which is being published by A Cappella Books this month.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.