In response to:
No Popcorn from the November 19, 1964 issue
To the Editors:
Robert Brustein’s attack on the New York Film Festival, uttered in the tone of a sociological cop temporarily in the employ of the Theater of the Absurd, although possibly excusable as directed against something held in Lincoln Center, seems to me a product of a rather thoughtless contempt for movies.
Brustein is entitled to like popcorn, but just how relaxed were his observations? I gather that he didn’t see some of the Festival’s best films—The Taira Clan, for example—and he seems to have managed not to see much of the films he did attend. How can he believe, for one thing, that Rosi’s Hands Across the City ended in “a long and incoherent trial scene?” There was no trial scene in the film at all; it may be that he confused a scene in the city council of Naples with a trial, but that’s a pretty feeble explanation, and it’s more probable that he wanted to postulate such a scene in order to make his curious political point about Rosi, that “this director, a Marxist, is unable to understand an event until he has translated it into its bureaucratic equivalent.” Even this point would be more convincing, however, if (a) the other Rosi film, Salvatore Giuliano, had in fact also ended with a trial scene as Brustein says it did—there is a long trial scene in it, but the film ends with an elaborate scene in the Palermo prison in which the principal figure dies of poison, followed by a very short scene showing an unsolved murder in a public square, neither of which can easily be confused with a trial, as they would have to be for Brustein’s statement that “both movies ended in long and incoherent trial scenes” to be even half-true by some arithmetical standard, and if (b) the trial in Giuliano did not have a more obvious relation to the facts of the situation about which Rosi made his film than to the director’s putative Marxism, and if (c) Rosi approved of the translation of events into their bureaucratic equivalents, instead of disapproving of it and making films that condemn this very attitude.
Mr. Brustein has shown himself in the pages of The New Republic and in his recent book to be an extraordinarily perceptive writer on drama. (Incidentally, I’d have thought that a drama critic would have been interested in Jan Lenica’s short film based on, and vastly improving upon, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.) But when he adopts the peevish tone of this piece, when he praises commercial pseudo-realism when it is about “a dignified young Negro,” when he refuses to open his eyes to the unconventional or the difficult in films, he embraces precisely the faults he condemns in reviewers for the Times. It seems to me that Brustein manifested his ignorance of the language of movies in his earlier review of Dr. Strangelove, where he, neglected the implications of the film’s technique to concentrate, instead, on the surface content of its dialogue and its verbal puns; he saw it, in other words, as a piece of good and amusing propaganda. Movies being a series of sensations to be ingested with popcorn, his tactics suggest, they can be treated as social phenomena. Similarly, he saw the film festival as an event having a fixed social meaning, and he interpreted the specific films within that formal context, which is a good deal more abstract and less interesting than the formal context of the view of films that he ridicules.
New York City
December 31, 1964