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Movies Like Magic: Peek Behind the Film Critic Curtain in this Excerpt from 'Rainer on Film'

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by Matt Singer
May 20, 2013 11:50 AM
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Peter Rainer has been a film critic for thirty years. In that time, he's worked for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, New York magazine, and New Times Los Angeles; currently, he's the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and the president of the National Society of Film Critics. He also has a new book, "Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era," which features reviews and essays from throughout his three decade career.

In this excerpt from the book's introduction, Rainer talks about his life as a critic, from watching the "Million Dollar Movie" on New York television to working alongside the crime reporters at the Herald Examiner. If, as Rainer says, "movies are like magic acts," then this is a fascinating peek behind the curtain.

"Rainer on Film" is available now.

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Some of my very first memories are of movies. My hazy recollection of Kirk Douglas and the giant squid in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" may not qualify as Jungian or Freudian or primal or prelapsarian, but it tells me that movie love is bred in the bone. I suspect this is true for most people who care about movies.

I started watching them regularly when I around six or seven, on the New York TV show "Million Dollar Movie," which replayed the same film over and over throughout the week. The show always opened with Max Steiner's soaring theme from "Gone with the Wind," which initially proved confusing when I finally saw "Gone with the Wind." I am convinced that "Million Dollar Movie" set an entire crop of kids on the road to a critic's connoisseurship. By week's end, you could just about memorize how a movie was put together, whether it was "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with Charles Laughton or "The Body Snatchers" with Boris Karloff. I fashioned a pantheon and peopled it with my own roster of stars.

Bogart was, for many years, chief luminary. He wasn't just a tough guy -- a prerequisite for me in those days—he was a tough guy with a cruel and curdling humor. He came wreathed in cigarette smoke that was like Hollywood hellfire. His wily, insinuating baritone, which could rise suddenly to a maniac's crescendo, was the obbligato of my pulp fantasies. 

Around this time, in the mid-sixties, my father bought me a copy of "Agee on Film," which had recently come out in paperback. This book remains for me the most rapturous of discoveries. The impassioned way Agee wrote about movies, including many of the forties Bogart films, legitimized my time in the dark (as, later, he helped legitimize my desire to become a critic). I would set my alarm clock so I could watch as many Agee-anointed films as possible on "The Late Late Show:" "The Story of G.I. Joe," "Hail the Conquering Hero," "The Best Years of Our Lives," and "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" (again and again). The experience of watching films like these in the dead of night had an illicit tingle. It made me feel as if I were part of a secret society, and sure enough, in the years ahead, I met many other supplicants of the sect -- an entire film generation of them. I became a fixture at the New York revival houses and film societies. Hallowed ground for me was the Bleecker Street Cinema, where a typical double bill might be "La Grande Illusion" and "Un Chien Andalou;" the New Yorker on Broadway and Eighty-Eighth Street, where I first saw "Citizen Kane" and freaked out at "Freaks;" and, close by, the Thalia, which sloped upward and gave many a vagrant trying to sleep it off his first taste of Fellini. 

The New Yorker had a massive wall of directors' head shots in the lobby, a murderers' row of mugs (Dovzhenko, Dreyer, Huston, Hitchcock ad gloriam). Inside the theater's low-lit entryway was a big, ledger-like book where you could write down screening recommendations. I would puzzle through other people's wish lists, poring over the pages as if they were leaves in an illuminated manuscript. Not enough is made, I think, of the replenishing role that movie theaters play in the whole tone of a movie lover's experience. At least this was true before Twitterized patrons crammed the cubicles of the fifteen-plexes.

Back then, paradise was seeing "Dr . No" and "Potemkin" on the same day. I loved the way movies could reach high and low. This was, after all, a time when students were still required to memorize Joyce Kilmer's "Trees." Movies were a splendid rebuke. Pauline Kael's first collection, "I Lost It at the Movies," came out around this time, and the elegant rowdiness of her writing, her high-lowness, was unlike anything else; plus, unlike Agee's, her reviews were for the most part about the fairly recent movie scene, which made their immediacy even greater for me.

I read Dwight Macdonald religiously in Esquire. I loved biblical epics -- this was, as a critic friend of mine describes it, my Pre-Taste Period -- and Macdonald left them flapping in the wind (his takedown of "The Greatest Story Ever Told" is officially the Funniest Review Ever Written.) Manny Farber's essays, which were later collected in "Negative Space," laid bare a strange and beautiful mindscape, brambly as hell. The pile-on of pronouncements continued with such critics as Stanley Kauffmann (still very much at it, illustriously, in his nineties), John Simon, and Andrew Sarris, whom I recognized as a kindred obsessive list-maker. None of these critics seemed to agree with each other on much of anything. The free-for-all was exhilarating, and also somewhat perplexing. I was accustomed to canons. By the time I entered college, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a film critic. I wanted to be in the cult. I wanted to try out my ideas in print and see if I could progress from idiot savant to savant.

For three years in the early seventies -- between anti-war rallies and other extracurricular frolics -- I was the chief critic for my college newspaper, the Brandeis Justice. I also helped program the college film society. I would bound onstage, offer bumbling preambles about mise en scene, and then signal the projectionist to start up "Ugetsu." My audience, both in print and in the screening rooms, was captive. Films were much more central to the zeitgeist then, and the best of them were much better. I could write about "Five Easy Pieces," or "McCabe and Mrs . Miller," or "Straw Dogs," or "The Godfather," and the Justice would be dumped in bundles in front of the student union building and the reviews would be hashed out that day in the dining halls and dorms. My professors would argue with me about what I wrote. There was a marvelous urgency to all this, and my experience was not atypical. The big reason so many movie critics came out of my generation is that we all passed through the same ether.

I was wide-eyed enough in those days to regard film criticism as a calling rather than a profession. My rude awakening came several years later, while I was film critic for Mademoiselle magazine (my first review was of "Chinatown"). A higher-up declared that, forthwith, every story in the magazine had to answer at least one of two questions: "How do I dress?" and "How can I get laid?" My column held in for a while longer, perhaps because of its date-night utility concerning that second question.

When I began writing film reviews for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, a big city daily where I happily spent most of the eighties, I hooked into a vast dynamo of late-breaking deadlines and bottom lines. The critic business, it seems, was an adjunct of the news business. Critics and crime reporters, having perhaps more in common than not, worked side by side. I would sweat over "Places in the Heart" and hear next to me, "Was the head completely severed?"

Being a film critic in Hollywood was (and is) especially risky. It's a company town. The knives come out. Reacting to negative reviews, movie companies would pull ads, hoping to guillotine the offender. Remarkably, my editors at the massively money-losing "Her-Ex" didn't cave. This honorableness is the exception, and not only in L.A. Wherever lucrative advertising money is to be had -- and there's less of it to go around in these digital days -- there will be problems. One reason movie critics, that endangered species, often can't be heard anymore above the din of the marketplace is that many of their outlets have become co-opted, subtly and not-so-subtly, by the studios, or by conglomerates or publishers or editors cozying up to the studios. For a lot of critics now, no longer just the blurb whores, being quoted in the ads is part of one's job description. Critics comply by running their deathless prose through the blurbo-matic. In the quote ads, the studios reproduce the publication's logo. Quid pro quo. 

There is a gilded nostalgia now for the critic wars of yore, but it's remarkable how little traction those wars have had. Auteurism/anti-auteurism, midcult/masscult, white elephant art versus termite art, movies versus cinema -- these came out of a time when the way you talked about movies was as important as the movies themselves. (With my fingers fervently crossed, I trust that the current death-of-the-movies hoo-ha will prove no more predictive than that old controversy over the death of the novel, not to mention God, although our Incredible Shrinking Screens, alas, bode best for pygmy cineastes.) But the dirty little secret of film criticism is that system-building is, thankfully, damn near impossible. You start out a theoretician and end up an impressionist. Film is such a confusing art form. Norman Mailer once said, "Literature haunts our intellect, movies haunt our dreams." If you're lucky, they do.

Years ago, when Hollywood churned out nonstop slews of teen pix -- or was this only yesterday? -- I questioned whether I was in the right profession. I questioned the movie medium itself. Where were the movies with the richness of, say, great novels? It was important for me to know that movies could be great in that way. If the essence of what I was writing about was, even from a purely entertainment level, negligible, then why bother? Then a friend said to me, "What about the films of Satyajit Ray?" He could have named a dozen others, but I was already off and running, jolted back to sanity.

A great movie is, almost by definition, perplexing, because it scrambles our radar. Movies are like magic acts. You are constantly trying to peek behind the curtain; you want to be fooled, and you don't want to be fooled. You want to be mesmerized, but charlatanism is rife, and sometimes charlatans mutate into geniuses, and then back again. New Waves wash ashore, leaving a bubbly wake of broken shells and, occasionally, a pearl.

If you stay a critic long enough, you grow old right alongside the movie stars you came up with. When I was a kid, I could watch Bogart in revivals and he was both fully alive to me and a memento mori. His iconography was freestanding and for all time. When I watch an actor like Dustin Hoffman now, or Robert De Niro, my responses are much more complicated. So many of the actors who meant so much to my college generation have nestled into comfy, spoofy character roles. It's tempting to see this as an erasure of our pasts, a betrayal. Why should this be? It is because of the extraordinary, spooky intimacy of film itself. If you care enough about movies, the trajectory of, say, an actor's career, or a director's, inevitably becomes a part of one's own autobiography. But I hasten to add that autobiographies get rewritten all the time, some old timers have held up quite well indeed, and, like any other self-respecting Lothario, this critic is always on the prowl for fresh ecstasies.

"Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era" is available now.

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