When Film Critics Gather

"American life is not a work of art!"

This observation by Dwight Macdonald could be the most foolish utterance ever made by a critic, regardless of his or her discipline, but it's also one of the many highlights in the recording we offer you today.

Alas I cannot tell you the exact date or the location where this took place, for I do not know either. But the year is 1963, and at that moment in time film criticism was so far along in its development as a cultural phenomenon . . . something one could observe as well as read . . . that a gathering of this character could actually attract a crowd as sizable as the one you'll hear.

This so-called symposium . . . as always this is a blinkered term in the context of film; revealing far more about those who use it than it ever could about its nominal subjects . . . was initially broadcast over KPFA, Pacifica Radio's flagship station in San Francisco, and features three film critics about whom the term 'legend', for once, can safely be used: To wit, the aforementioned former Partisan Review editor and recidivist Trotskyite, Dwight Macdonald; Pauline Kael, then a freelance art-house veteran and latter-day flapper; and John Simon, someone whom a friend of mine once referred to rather unkindly as the Slobodan Miloševic of arts criticism (unkind and also unfair; to the best of my knowledge, Miloševic was never heard to exclaim "Gays in the theater! I can't wait until AIDS kills them all!"). Of the three, two have gone on to their great reward; the other has inspired many to wish he'd made that trip long long ago.

With no great prodding from the moderator, Roger Rosenblatt, the three rush headlong into a lively and altogether jovial session of Let's Find Out, offering the assembled spectators a detailed glimpse into their methodologies of watching, 'reading' and writing about different modalities of cinema. In order to maintain the cultural lie that one form of expression in this realm is quantitatively different from another (thereby sanctioning an artificial segmentation and . . . dare I say it . . . segregation of the filmgoing audience), three films are selected for the panel to hash over: Martin Ritt's Hud, Fellini's Otto e mezzo and Alain Resnais' Muriel. What insight one can wrest from this event's format is anyone's guess, but it brings out the best in its three principals. And that's not a minor accomplishment.

By turns comic (Macdonald and Simon's chiding of Kael for her preoccupation with the American Experience as it is reflected in our cinema; Kael's flat-out dismissal of any film that bores her), vicious (Simon's brutalization of Satyajit Ray) and well-targeted (Macdonald launching a tactical assault upon Andrew Sarris's critical approach a good four decades before beating up on the guy became fashionable), this is a phenomenal document from that heady first decade of American Cinephilia, when film critics could engage one another before the public without either coming away diminished; before Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert went on television and turned the whole thing into a demented sitcom whose final episode we shall not live to see.

My deepest thanks to David Oberman for providing me with this recording.

Part One (40:05)

Part Two (33:32)


Dennis Cozzalio said...

Tom! Whoopee! Well, I guess I know what I'm going to do with approximately 73.5 minutes of my Monday evening tonight. Thanks so much for posting this. I've always hoped to hear Kael and Simon in the same sympo-- er, forum, hashing it out, and I've never heard MacDonald speak at all. Sound unheard even, this is a treasure, and I really appreciate your offering it up for us all. I sense another link coming on! (I'll check back in once I've actually had a chance to listen to this!)

andyhorbal said...

I'm listening right now. This is fantastic...

Eric Henderson said...

Fascinating. Already I find myself aligning myself with Pauline Kael against my better impulses (i.e. the implications of her heavy accent on endorsing Hud as an A-MER-ican film), simply out of being unable to accept John Simon's lugubrious "fear" of intelligent people taking to heart "the most vile" sort of trash cinema and raising them to the standards of Griffith, Pabst, and Welles. I resemble that objection.

On another note, while Simon's voice sounds almost exactly as I'd given voice to it in my imagination, Kael has apparently smoked many thousands less cigarettes than my mind had assured me she puffed under various marquees.

Vanwall said...

Wonderful! The cut & thrust of rapier wit, and a few clumsy cutlass strokes thrown in for bad measure! How paronizing Simon comes across - We are not impressed. Kael sounds much as she did in other interviews I've heard, a sort of overly-didactic bedside nurse, explaining the symptoms of your disease with a dispassionate hauteur. Somewhat deserved, tho, as she became a bit of A-MER-ican critical royalty - she could pass for the Auld Monkey (QE2) a bit.


N.P. Thompson said...

Thanks for posting these historic meetings between three great writers – I can’t wait until I’m in a time and place when/where I can listen to them at my leisure. But until then, I felt compelled to comment on the misleading, out of context quote from Simon, the bit about “I can’t wait until AIDS kills them all!” Simon’s detractors, including that old fuddy dud radio interviewer Leonard Lopate, nearly always resuscitate that line when they feel the need to paint Simon as homophobic. What happened was: In 1985, on leaving a production of a play wherein the director had particularly compromised the playwright’s intentions, Simon, as we’re all wont to do in private moments of political incorrectness, mentioned to a friend the above salvo. Unfortunately, the gossip columnist (and professional hatemonger) Liz Smith overheard the remark, and she created the resulting fracas. To me, it’s Smith who deserves the comparisons to Miloševic. What people rarely mention is that soon thereafter, Simon granted a lengthy interview to the gay newspaper New York Native, in which he and composer Ned Rorem addressed what led up to that “kills them all” statement and in general put to rest the issue of Simon’s supposed homophobia. A decade or so later, Rorem republished this interview in his book Other Entertainment – it makes for informative reading.

D. K. Holm said...

At the risk of evincing Simonian pedantry, it's spelled "Macdonald," not "MacDonald."

Tom Sutpen said...


(thanks for poinnting that out)

Jeff Duncanson said...

Tom - I finally got around to listening to this , and yeah, it's a real treat. Sadly, this kind of stuff is going the way of the dodo bird. The highlight for me is hearing Simon crap all over Alain Resnais, who I've always thought was the epitome of the "Emperors New Clothes" filmmaker.

HarryTuttle said...

Really interesting soundbit.
Critical confrontation and justification to peers is the only form of film criticism I know.
This actually happens twice a month on a french Radio, Le Masque et la Plume, for 50 years now.

Aside from their bickering about the best critical approach, the underestimation of Muriel, Marienbad, 8 1/2, The Birds, Antonioni and Satyajit Ray really doesn't make them look good in retrospect...
I'd almost forgive Kael for her great defense of Ray, but apparently it was by chance.

The collective debate was at least thought provocative, on the form, if not on the content.
Thanks for posting it.

Chandak said...

What an excellent post - thank you very much. I am doing some research on the international response(s) to Satyajit Ray's films and it was very interesting to hear John Simon in action. He is even nastier here than in his review of Ray's Distant Thunder. And he was downright wrong in some of his facts. Even in 1963, Ray had made only 3 short films from stories by Tagore, for example, while Simon says almost all of Ray's films are from Tagore.

But Kael, I think, was not very effective in her rebuttals - of course, Ray hadn't made too many films yet but she seemed to be apologizing for the man instead of explaining clearly why she loved his work.

Anyhow, that's my 2 cents' worth and thank you again for posting this material.

Earl of Rozland said...

This is beyond classic, it's incredible! Bravo!