I grew up in San Francisco reading the film reviews of Mick LaSalle. He’s reviewed films for The Chronicle for the last 20 years, writes in a pleasing, conversational tone, and his taste in films is respectable if not adventurous. At least that was my opinion until recently, when my brother forwarded me this rather embarrassing article cum confessional in which LaSalle admitted to having not seen several canonical American films and then proceeded to review a few of them for the first time. In light of the project of this blog – as well as the fact that LaSalle was one of the film critics I looked up to in my youth – I felt it necessary to comment.
First, here’s a couple of key paragraphs from the article in which LaSalle defends his having not seen recognized classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey (all of which I had seen by the time I graduated college):
Film critics see a lot of movies. But most film critics actually like movies, so that’s not so bad. In my leisure hours, I often watch movies, but those leisure hours are precious, so when I do watch a movie, it has to be something I really want to see. There are plenty of classics that I want to see, plenty that I’m excited to see, but then there are titles that seem merely obligatory – and it’s very easy to postpone seeing the obligatory ones, and to keep postponing them indefinitely.
There’s another thing. Everyone who watches movies prefers one genre or actor over another. Critics are no different, but just in the course of doing our work, we end up seeing movies in all genres. I’m not particularly fond of action movies, but I’ve given lots of good reviews to action movies, simply because I can tell a good one from a bad one. But that doesn’t mean that, in my leisure time, I’d put on a “Stone Cold” Steve Austin picture. Likewise, if science fiction isn’t a favorite, you could easily end up going years before strapping yourself into a seat to sit through “2001: A Space Odyssey” – especially if you’ve been warned by just about everyone (including people who like it) that it’s the most boring movie on earth.
His arguments here strike me as fairly reasonable – it’s safe to say that every cinephile has their own blindspots. Last summer, in the wake of the brouhaha surrounding Jonathan Rosenbaum’s diss of the late Ingmar Bergman, Rosenbaum admitted to not having seen one of Bergman’s most lauded works, Fanny and Alexander. (He later corrected that oversight, though he was unimpressed by the film). There were definitely phases that I’ve experienced where I would avoid – consciously or unconsciously – a certain film or a director’s work as it seemed that I had already absorbed all that I needed to know about it from second hand sources. But sooner or later I’d get around to seeing it, whether out of a sense of completist duty or compulsion, a feeling that many cinephiles out there know too well. I’m just surprised that Mick LaSalle isn’t one of them. When we think of our favorite film critics, how much do we assume that they have a certain breadth of literacy, that they’ve seen all the films we think they need to see to have an informed opinion on any given film? And just what are those films and how many of them are there? Would it be the AFI 100 American films? Or the top 100 from They Shoot Pictures?
And if breadth of movie viewing is an issue, then how about depth? LaSalle picked five classics that he neglected to watch and review for the first time. Here’s a sampling of his comments:
“To Kill a Mockingbird” strikes me as a movie classic that has outlived its shelf life and is maintaining its classic status based on false memory and reputation.
“Young Frankenstein” (1974): As is typical of Mel Brooks, this movie is a mix of dumb jokes that aren’t funny, dumb jokes that are funny and brilliant, inspired bits that are classic and nothing can diminish them.
“An Affair to Remember” (1957): I liked this a lot more than I thought I would, and it was not quite the sappy indulgence that I expected.
“Blade Runner” (1982): I never saw “Blade Runner” when it was in theaters because I wasn’t much of a sci-fi fan, and I didn’t see it later because I didn’t know what version to see. Having consulted aficionados, I decided to watch the latest version, which people tell me is the best. It’s an excellent movie, and if I were reviewing it I’d have to give it the highest rating. At the same time, it’s not what I look for in entertainment, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it so much as intellectually appreciate its virtues. It’s eerie, beautiful to behold and an impressively realized imaginative universe.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968): virtually unwatchable, a boring, impenetrable experience that I’m glad to finally have behind me.
His opinions notwithstanding, what strikes me is the level of insight – these look like comments one would typically find left by users on the film profiles of IMDb. Really, anyone can perform this level of film criticism. So what’s to distinguish LaSalle as a leading film critic in one of the largest metropolitan areas of the U.S.?
It’s sad, because there are lots of great critics around the country who are losing their jobs in this current wave of mainstream media consolidation and syndication – and a critic like LaSalle is not helping their case. What’s just as sad is that, while you can find thousands of amateur film reviewers on the web who could give you as interesting a review as LaSalle’s, there is also a much smaller and more outstanding number of hardworking and thoughtful young critics whose writings you can find by the bushels online, who have seen these and probably dozens more films than LaSalle had at their age (doubly sad given that by my calculation LaSalle wasn’t even 30 when he got the Chronicle gig), who are more than willing to watch anything and everything (and give a damn about it) and are therefore more qualified to do his job. I’m sorry to call LaSalle out on this, but frankly he did it to himself with this arrogant confession.
Graphics are of the “Little Man” whose various states of reaction accompany each film and theater review in The Chronicle.