In response to:
No Popcorn from the November 19, 1964 issue
To the Editors:
It is perhaps too much to ask critics to be constructive; Mr. Brustein’s article on the New York Film Festival is no exception.
The director’s have no control over the quality or quantity of films produced abroad, but only the responsibility of choosing a representative selection. This was admirably done in 1964.
In direct contrast with other competitive festivals, the main function of the one in New York is to provide us all with an opportunity to see films that might otherwise never be shown. This function has been completely fulfilled in the first two years.
Whatever one may think of the individual films themselves, the festival itself deserves better than the ill-considered comments in your article.
Cyrus I. Harvey, Jr.
Robert Brustein replies:
In trying to avoid putting my shoe in someone’s back, I seem to have landed it on a number of sensitive toes. Let me reply to these three indignant cinéastes by restating a position I had thought was obvious in my article.
I have boundless respect for the films, not only as potential entertainments but also as potential works of art. I am so far from condescending to this potential that I would like our film enthusiasts to use the word art a little less recklessly than they have in the past; I would like them, in short, to measure serious movies as severely as critics measure any other works. It is true that I would rather see a superlatively entertaining film (say, A Hard Day’s Night or From Russia With Love) than a pretentious dud with high intentions (say, Last Year at Marienbad); but since I have exactly the same attitude towards the theater, my standards for both media are identical. It is Mr. Vogel, and not I, who seems to doubt the value of films. Otherwise, why is he so anxious to validate as meaningful, significant, and important the second-rate stuff he admitted to the Festival? We owe it to serious film-makers, I think, not to confuse the attempt with the deed; these exaggerated claims may be very good for the ego, but they do not make for a very exacting critical climate. All I said in my article was that “the movies are only very rarely a high art, and that most of its serious efforts are as full of fudge and fakery as those in any other form.” Is this to demean the films? Or simply to say they frequently share the same deficiencies as any other serious art forms?
Mr. Breslow taxes me with not having seen most of the films in the Festival. To my sorrow, I saw them all, except for the Canadian entry and the short subjects (which were not screened for the press). If I did not mention The Tiara Clan, it was, I assure him, out of motives of charity—this movie seemed to me hopelessly banal, though prettily photographed by his technical standards. Mr. Breslow, moreover, is unhappy about my treatment of Rosi, especially because Hands Across the City ends in the city council and not in court; but this scene was clearly cast in the form of a trial, with the villain’s culpability being determined, and his fate decreed. I am also guilty of writing erroneously that Salvatore Giuliano “ended” in a trial scene, when two more scenes followed. How absolute this hairsplitter is; we must speak by the rood or equivocation will undo us.
A more serious charge, made both by Mr. Vogel and Mr. Breslow, has to do with my critical credentials, and this is related to my critical approach. Both accuse me of treating the film as an aim of drama or literature. Well, I accuse them of treating the film as an arm of painting or photography. What all these accusations boil down to is the ancient feud between the formal and substantive schools of criticism. I have a personal dislike for formal film criticism. It is usually rather boring, and it always runs the danger of falling into purely technological jargon or the kind of incoherent gush we used to hear applied to Action painting (vide Mr. Vogel’s “to force us into largely subconscious associations predetermined along the line of montage by the director by means of carefully structured juxtapositions of images, sequences, objects, and movements,” etc. etc.). On the other hand, I recognize formal criticism to be a valid and viable approach to some films, despite my own indisposition against it. Cannot these two gentlemen concede that—since most films are imitations of an action—they should also be approached from the point of view of plot, character, theme, and style like any Aristotelean work of art? This is particularly true of a movie such as Doctor Strangelove, where, to speak of “technical implications” is as cogent as discussing the “technical implications” of the hydrogen bomb.
Finally, I am charged with a certain hostility to film festivals, and there I must plead guilty. If I emphasize the need for relaxation in the movies, it is because I would hate to see them endure the fate of the theater, the symphony, and the art gallery, all of which now suffer from exasperating stiffness and piety. This is, to be sure, a sociological point, but it is one that is intimately linked to the enjoyment of films as art or entertainment. Perhaps because of their popular beginnings, the movies have thus far remained relatively free from the claws of the culture vultures; the New York Film Festival, and its adherents, are now threatening to end all that. If Mr. Harvey wants “constructive criticism” (which, by the way, no critic is obliged to supply), I have a few suggestions for the future. First, the New York Film Festival should be extended over the period of a year (one movie every week or so) instead of two short weeks. This would give the directors a chance to make their selections from a wider range of material, and would also spare the eyesight, patience, and reason of the spectator. To preserve the spectator’s enthusiasm for the movies, which may also begin to wane at Lincoln Center (along with his enthusiasm for theater and music), I would suggest, secondly, that the whole Festival be moved to a nice, comfortable, preferably half-empty neighborhood theater.
December 31, 1964