When Critics Mattered: Kael, Ebert, and ’70s Film
by Jonathan Kirshner
The years from the late 1960s through the middle of the 1970s were remarkable ones for American movies. In the words of critic David Thompson, it was “the decade when movies mattered.”
With the collapse of the draconian censorship regime that had imposed a strict moral code on the content of films, the decline of the studio system, and economic and demographic changes in both the industry and its audience, a window of opportunity opened for a new type of commercial film. At the same time, the content of these movies was inevitably shaped by the social and political upheavals of the era: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, and the Shakespearean saga of the Nixon presidency.
These films, filmmakers, and, implicitly, their audiences, were dubbed the “New Hollywood.” New to reflect their relative youth, but also as a nod to the foundational influence of the New European cinemas of the 1950s and 1960s; Hollywood because the makers of these personal, ambitious, arty films nevertheless hoped to return a fair profit. During this golden age, a night at the movies was still an evening’s entertainment, but it was also an invitation to discuss important works of art that were shaped by, and in dialogue with, the political, social, and philosophical issues of their times.
The New Hollywood was a cinema of moral ambiguity. The notorious Production Code Authority, in ruins by the close of 1966, had insisted on movies about right and wrong, with right winning in the end. By contrast, in the world portrayed by the “’70s film” (and in tune with the tenor of the times) choices are not always easy and obvious (Klute, The King of Marvin Gardens), authorities and institutions are compromised (Medium Cool, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and, finally, the “hero” rarely wins (Chinatown, Night Moves). Individually ’70s films offer character-driven explorations of troubled, imperfect protagonists and complex interpersonal relationships, with no obvious solutions or clean resolutions proffered (or expected). Collectively they reflect a thriving and identifiable film culture—movies that “don’t supply reassuring smiles or self-righteous messages,” but share “a new openminded interest in examining American experience,” as the critic Pauline Kael put it at the time. “Our filmmakers seem to be on a quest—looking to understand what has been shaping our lives.”
These were movies to talk about, and fight about, and accordingly it was also the decade when the critics mattered. An ambitious cohort of film critics, shaped by new sensibilities, expectations, and experiences, led a tumultuous public debate about the movies, their meaning, and their relationship with society. Of these critics, the argumentative, bohemian Kael was the most influential. A singular voice in the Berkeley film scene during the 1950s, Kael made her way East supported by a Guggenheim fellowship and then landed a job at McCall’s, from which she was fired soon after dismissing The Sound of Music (1965) as “a sugarcoated lie.” A brief stint at The New Republic also ended unhappily, but in 1968 she would land, and remain, at The New Yorker, having established her reputation with an elaborate, breathtaking defense of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). That review fills out twenty exhilarating pages of her new Selected Writings, and it remains well worth reading (and re-reading). Kael wrote in a distinct, jazz-inflected style, offering a personal, emotional reaction to what she saw on the screen. Her reviews were steeped in the rich context of film history, but, in contrast to the stentorian lectures of many authoritative critics, Kael told you what she felt, and if she didn’t feel it, it wasn’t worth seeing. (Her first collection of reviews was called I Lost it at the Movies.)
Bonnie and Clyde, in what would become a watershed moment in the emergence of the New Hollywood, was originally dismissed and buried by establishment critics as a brutal, immoral farce. With its outlaw heroes, rule-breaking portrayal of bloody violence, and counter-culture sensibilities, Bonnie and Clyde was particularly offensive to critics such as Bosley Crowther, the enormously influential guardian of good taste at the New York Times, who famously trashed the film in print not once but three times. Kael, in dissent, opened her review with a question: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” For Kael, “Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about.” It is a film that “upsets people,” even viewers who pride themselves in maintaining an emotional distance from what they see on the screen. But “Bonnie and Clyde, by making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back in death.”
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