This film critic actually gets paid to flaunt his film illiteracy?

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.

Author: alsolikelife

This is my pet project

  • http://willaroundtheworld.blogspot.com bill

    These days, LaSalle spends more time answering fan mail than watching films. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/02/24/PK4NUP5C0.DTL

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  • Joe Armenio

    When I lived in DC I would spend every Friday morning fuming over Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hunter’s reviews in the Post. Any insight about movies was usually swallowed up by his right-wing politics and gun fetishism. For me his success is proof of the daily papers’ disdain for film: they think, we don’t need a critic who knows anything about movies (what’s to know?); just give the job to a pleasant non-entity, or someone with a distinctive writing style. Sure there are plenty of people who could do the job better, but they don’t want the job done better. Movie reviews are branch of the gossip page. The Post sent a second-string guy to Cannes the last couple of years, and he spent his colums talking about the parties.

    Now I’m in Cleveland and I don’t even want to talk about the critic for the local paper here. He makes LaSalle look like Bazin.

  • http://www.erratamag.com/ davis

    You know, I can excuse anyone for holes, even big ones, in his or her viewing history. I have big ones, for sure. It’s hard enough to come up with a defensible canon that isn’t also an absurd distortion of the world, so it’s hard to fault someone for taking a more personal approach. Film criticism is initially a selection process.

    But it’s one thing to have seen a different set of films from me; it’s another to be blatantly incurious about films that so many of one’s colleagues revere or films that have set deep roots in the culture. Despite his claims, I’ve never heard someone who likes 2001 warn someone else that “it’s the most boring movie on earth,” a nearly sophistic thing to say (as is calling it “virtually unwatchable” after copping to a certain “fascination” with aspects of it). Of his list of recent viewings, this is the one that grates, not (entirely) because it’s a favorite of mine, but also because — unless I’m wrong — LaSalle must have seen it on DVD, which is telling because the film plays annually, at least, on a giant screen in San Francisco. Lazy, lazy, but again, I could be wrong.

    Although I live here in SF, I’ve never read LaSalle with enough regularity to form an opinion on his commentary, partly, I imagine, because we see different movies. If he were writing about the James Benning film screening at the PFA, I’d probably have stopped by, but the realm of mainstream criticism knows no geography — 2000 screens on opening weekend begets a lot of reviews — so he was never high on my list.

    But [shrug] even people who like him warn me that he’s the most boring critic on earth, so I’m glad to have read this column and put the whole thing behind me.

  • http://rozmon.blogspot.com/ Michael Kerpan

    I suspect that those of us who are determinedly un- (or even anti-) canonical can have more sympathy with the holes in this critic’s viewing history — and his lack of urgency as to filling such holes.

    I personally would only take issue with his blowing off 2001 so casually. Not that he needed to _like_ it — but as Mr. D noted above it would appear this was watchyed at home on DVD — and I would be willing to bet with no more than half an eye, as he did sudoku puzzles (or the like). Whatever faults one might find with 2001, his utterly generic comments show he still has not really watched the film — and thus has no business offering even a mini-review.

  • alsolikelife

    Thanks all for your comments. I just realized that this situation is all the sadder as in just two days we’ll be losing one of the finest regular print critics in America – Jonathan Rosenbaum is retiring from the Reader!

    Joe, I’m wondering if your Cleveland critic is the same guy Mick LaSalle refers to in the first paragraph, the critic who has never seen CITIZEN KANE? (I shudder to wonder how much that lapse in film literacy is indeed the norm???)

    davis – SF may not have had a respectable critic since Wesley Morris left for Boston and Chuck Stephens left for Thailand. I shudder to think what the SFBG is like these days. I haven’t lived there since around that time, so I’m wondering who in the local review circuit do you like?

    Michael – I agree, my issue isn’t so much the deliberate holes in his canonical viewing (as davis says it’s a universal prerogative that makes us all unique for our predilections) – it’s the general air of what davis called incuriousness, and relative lack of insightfulness. Like you said, such tossed off comments are not even worth printing since you can find its ilk by the bushel on any given movie chat board. It’s an embarrassment to the profession, plain and simple.

  • R.A. Bartlett

    I’ve never much liked LaSalle. The summer of 2003 he wrote a pretty thin dismissal of “movie today” that came with all the requisite nostalgia filter talking points.

    He can tell a good action movie from a bad one? Well, I’m sure those who have seen “Catwoman” beg to differ.

  • http://www.erratamag.com/ davis

    Kevin, I’m sad to say that there aren’t any local critics that I read, outside of blogs. (We have lots of good film bloggers.) But there may very well be some good print reviewers who I just don’t know about. I sort of feel that way about local news in general, that I’m somewhat out of touch just because I get tired of wading through garbage in the Chronicle and end up not reading it at all. It’s embarrassing to hear about local stories only when they get written up in the New York Times … but it happens to me quite a bit.

    It’s not so bad with film. I know what to expect when the Costa retrospective comes to town and where to turn for discussion. (On the web, that is.)

    BTW, I was disappointed to hear about Rosenbaum’s retirement, too. We’ve still got Kehr (doing DVDs), Edelstein …

  • http://www.myfiveyearplan.net Brendon Bouzard

    Lasalle’s willful ignorance of his own subject has raised the ire of many in the animation community, essentially shitting on an art form by telling its practictioners that motion capture is inately more expressive than the animated face. A good archive of Lasalle’s awful review of Monster House (a movie that inspired a lot of dumb criticism from people who probably shouldn’t be writing about animation) and the animation community’s responses is here:

    http://forums.cgsociety.org/showthread.php?t=386645

    Jenny Lerew’s response and the comments it inspired are particularly good:

    http://blackwingdiaries.blogspot.com/2006/07/my-goat-gotten.html

  • San FranCinema

    I live in San Francisco and long ago gave up reading LaSalle’s reviews. They’re frankly just not smart enough and stimulate no real thought on my part.

    I like to read film reviews *after* I’ve seen a film, not before. I pick the films I want to see or that trusted friends recommend, and then when I’m done I go home and scour rottentomatoes.com. This is my way to have a “conversation” with smart folks who’ve seen the film and want to discuss it.

    But LaSalle’s reviews are just not analytical. He doesn’t have a strong point of view. He tells you what he sees, makes comparisons to other films the star or director has done lately, and then he tosses off a rather superficial evaluation of how this one does or doesn’t succeed. He doesn’t expand my overall experience of film I’ve just watched.

  • http://vinylisheavy.blogspot.com Ryland Walker Knight

    I, too, grew up reading Mick. I even enjoyed some semi-regular email correspondence with him as I began to get more interested in film criticism. But, as I began to read more criticism, and get serious about its practice, I started to read him less and less. Then his blog started and it became clear that he should have attended law school, and been a lawyer, or a speech writer, instead of a film critic. Still, I often find at least one or two lines in his reviews that make me giggle. He’s always bold, and he argues well enough, but, like you’ve all said, it’s fairly lazy. When he’s on, it’s a great thing — he was one of the few print critics I knew of that championed _The New World_ — but when he’s off it can be plain annoying — this _2001_ toss off, or his _TWBB_ pan.

    Also: I haven’t seen a ton of movies. The only thing I ask of a critic is to demonstrate a good understanding of the film language and medium and I think you can know a lot of that without seeing a lot of “canonical” films. It’s that curiosity thing: the willingness to question and investigate and inhabit an film’s argument. So, to call _2001_ “virtually unwatchable” is, well, dumb. I agree with Rob: he probably didn’t even watch it. Or, at the least, he didn’t watch it in the correct setting. He’s written about his disdain of the Castro before but, c’mon, if there’s a film to “risk” the audience at the Castro over it’s _2001_. Beyond that, I think it’s one of the best things ever every time I walk out of the Castro.

    As for the whole criticism in the Bay thing…I read blogs, too, not print. In fact, there’s hardly any print I read anymore. Even the print I do read I read online. Guess that says something. But I have work to do, as ever. Like, for instance, finishing a post about how I’m gonna write up the PFA’s Costa series for THND.

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  • http://www.erratamag.com/ davis

    Ryland, for the record, I championed The New World in print, not that anyone’s necessarily picking up Paste for the erudite film criticism. :-)

    I’m very glad to hear that you’ll be writing about the Costa retro. Perhaps we’ll finally meet up.

  • Christian

    LaSalle’s ability to read films is shaky, no doubt, but I get just as disturbed by assumptions that creep into well-written criticism. Take the post from Joe Armenio, who writes, “When I lived in DC I would spend every Friday morning fuming over Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hunter’s reviews in the Post. Any insight about movies was usually swallowed up by his right-wing politics and gun fetishism.”

    –I disagree often with Hunter, but he’s a fantastic writer — and that’s half the battle in getting me to read anything. I’d rather read his MISreading of film after film than the superficial swill served up by LaSalle. What bugs me about Joe’s post, however, is his obvious disdain for “right-wing politics.” This is common among film junkies, who are usually Leftists. I don’t say that with disdain. I lean Right, but I think I’m stating a fact, based on my film studies courses and dialogue over the years with many film lovers. The mere fact that there’s one critic — one! — who occassionally makes favorable mention of the military or unapologetically writes about guns is not something to be too worked up about. (Oh yeah, and the guy won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, for whatever that’s worth.)

    I wonder if Joe gets exercised every time he reads the latest slam against conservatives in the reviews of the revered Jonathan Rosenbaum or Andrew O’Hehir. (I read both regularly, incidentally).

    Joe continues: “For me his success is proof of the daily papers’ disdain for film: they think, we don’t need a critic who knows anything about movies (what’s to know?); just give the job to a pleasant non-entity, or someone with a distinctive writing style. Sure there are plenty of people who could do the job better, but they don’t want the job done better. Movie reviews are branch of the gossip page. The Post sent a second-string guy to Cannes the last couple of years, and he spent his colums talking about the parties.”

    –Look, I agree that Hunter isn’t a great film CRITIC, but please don’t put him in the same box with the gossip reporters. He’s much more complex and fascinating to read, even when he wears his fetishes on his sleeve. (He does objectify women, as the Letters to the Editor page reveals on a regular basis. I don’t approve – just as I don’t approve of his review of any film that might be considered “spiritual.” Hunter never “gets” those films. But he’s honest to simply admit that. You know where he’s coming from.)

  • http://cc.usu.edu/~alexjack/viddied.html Alex Jackson

    Exhibiting any discretion whatsoever in what you watch is the film buff’s version of original sin. Everybody does it, but if you any soul you’ll beat yourself up about it.

    I know one critic, fairly infamous for his pan of 28 Weeks Later, who told me that he refuses to see Resident Evil 2. I hate Resident Evil 2, but to me this is just as reprehensible as refusing to see 2001. It’s possible that by not being familiar with Resident Evil 2 he won’t be able to see 28 Weeks Later in its proper context. If you don’t familiarize yourself with the mediocre, I think you tend to have a very skewed perspective toward film.

  • hawksian

    LaSalle comes off as someone assigned to the movie critic “beat” and who could be just as happy writing on the sports page or in the metro section.

  • http://vinylisheavy.blogspot.com Ryland Walker Knight

    Well, Rob, I wasn’t hip to your game at the time, although _The New World_ was, in fact, my entry into this corner of the blogosphere and online film criticism. But this is off topic, something to talk about in person.

  • http://shoottheprojectionist.blogspot.com Ed Hardy, Jr.

    I’m from the Bay Area as well and, frankly, what surprised me is that you ever bothered to read this joker in the first place.

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  • Joe Armenio

    Christian wrote:

    “I wonder if Joe gets exercised every time he reads the latest slam against conservatives in the reviews of the revered Jonathan Rosenbaum or Andrew O’Hehir. (I read both regularly, incidentally).”

    Well, I think my politics are pretty similar to Rosenbaum’s, and I respect him and read him, but I often disagree with his take on the politics of certain films. Same with O’Hehir, Michael Sicinski…also critics I like a lot and respect and have learned a lot from, but also disagree with sometimes. But I have the kind of respect for them that an eager student has for a good teacher, because I know they love movies. I don’t think Stephen Hunter cares very much about movies. It’s just a gig for him, a forum he uses to write about whatever he wants.

    “Look, I agree that Hunter isn’t a great film CRITIC, but please don’t put him in the same box with the gossip reporters. He’s much more complex and fascinating to read, even when he wears his fetishes on his sleeve. (He does objectify women, as the Letters to the Editor page reveals on a regular basis. I don’t approve – just as I don’t approve of his review of any film that might be considered “spiritual.” Hunter never “gets” those films. But he’s honest to simply admit that. You know where he’s coming from.)”

    I admitted that he has an interesting writing style, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s not very good at his job. If the Post took film seriously, they’d hire someone who was a good movie critic, not just a good writer.

  • Jan

    Hawksian hit on something when he wrote, “LaSalle comes off as someone assigned to the movie critic ‘beat’ and who could be just as happy writing on the sports page or in the metro section.”

    From what I hear, that’s just what happened. He was assigned to the beat 15 or so years ago, electing to write with the pseudonym, Mick LaSalle, thinking it wouldn’t last. His real name is Al or Tony; can’t remember. Anyway, he devolped a following and edged out co-critics Peter Stack and Edward Guthmann.

    Pauline Kael wrote in one of her essays that many editors consider knowing too much about film to be a detriment to a film critic. They like the idea of their critic reflecting the readership’s taste and sophistication or lack thereof.

    I’m sure they love Mick at Chron.

  • Pat

    I don’t know about writing ability or depth of knowledge in the area of film, but I do know that he’s one critic who can’t take criticism. He can only hand it out. Try challenging him on something and you’ll get a snarky response.

  • Jan

    Regarding my reference to what Pauline Kale wrote. The actual quote is:

    “To be the movie critic for a network, no training or background is necessary; ‘too much’ interest in movies may be a disqualifiication. Novices are thought to speak to the public on the public’s own terms. They age, but, like the critic on your home-town paper, they remain novices in criticism, because there is no need for them to learn; they understand that their job is dependent on keeping everybody happy, and they are generally not the kind of people who learn anyway.”

    This is from Kael’s January, 1971 essay, “Notes on Heart and Mind,” included in her “Deeper into Movies” anthology.

    It’s 37 years old (!) and yet as relevant as ever, partiuclarly in reference to “local” movie critics.

    I don’t know about Kael’s individual reviews, but her occasional essays are must reading for every would-be critic and film aficionado.

  • Jan

    Excuse me for misspelling Pauline Kael’s name in the above post!

  • http://memoriesofthefuture.wordpress.com jesse

    I grew up with The SF Chronicle as well, or at least when I could get my hands on it–for all it’s shortcomings it’s still certainly a big step up from the local Fresno Bee!

    I am sympathetic to a certain degree; and of the five films LaSalle sites, I haven’t seen two of them, actively dislike two of them, and Mockingbird doesn’t inspire a whole reaction on my part one way or the other. But like you I rather take offense at the lines (I can’t even bring myself to call them “capsule reviews”) of the films he watched–which is more than a bit insulting. As you say, it’s working on a level of criticism that anybody and everybody works out without much effort or imagination, let alone knowledge.

    And in response to Michael’s comment–I think there’s a bit of difference between his situation and LaSalle’s. With Michael you think, “okay, avoiding X doesn’t bother me because he really knows his shit about Y,” and that is the justification. You could say the same thing about someone like Rosenbaum. But LaSalle? Not that I’m aware of anyway…

    -jesse

  • alsolikelife

    Brendon thanks for those links – I didn’t realize he had already created a stink on the blogosphere.

    SanFran Cinema, the kind of critical processing that you do on your own is surely preferable to relying on a single local critic for insights. What you’re describing also describes what I did in my youth, going to the library to pore through magazines and newspapers from around the country to gague the critical consensus on films that I mostly couldn’t even see, at least until they would come out on video months later, and then I would know which films to pursue. And yes, LaSalle was one of those critics.

    Much better is the kind of interactivity you get on the blogosphere. By the same token it’s kind of sad to think that these online discussions have largely supplanted the old days in most metro areas where groups would go see a movie and then hang out at the bar or cafe talking about it afterwards (I’m envious of older generation cinephiles who relate those kinds of experiences).

    Ryland – LaSalle has disdain for the Castro? Why, because they don’t show enough pre-code? He’s really off his nut.

    do you read sfbg at all? i remember when i was rejected for the film section internship there because my film viewing at the time wasn’t extensive enough. haha

    Alex: “If you don’t familiarize yourself with the mediocre, I think you tend to have a very skewed perspective toward film.” This is something I discreetly suspect about myself and beat myself up about now and again. And now and again I’ll make overtures to upset my own apple cart, but then stuff like this happens to scare me back into my cloister:
    http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/film_review.asp?ID=3413

    Ed: I was 16 at the time, I was young, I was naive, what else can I say???

  • alsolikelife

    Jan, that’s a great Kael quote. It made me think of this excerpt from a Senses of Cinema interview between Steve Erickson and Dave Kehr:

    http://alsolikelife.com/shooting/?p=264#comment-14048

    D: My experience lately has been that editors don’t want “experts.” “Populism” has become the buzzword, although it means something completely different from what these people think it means. They want standard Joes who won’t have some “pointy-headed” reaction and just want to flop out on the couch before movies or TV. It’s this American leveling tendency at its worst, where the sense that you can bring any kind of knowledge or experience to the subject matter is the last thing editors want. In fact, they find it disturbing and intimidating. The New York Times is one of the few exceptions in America.

    S: I like Serge Daney’s term “passeur” to describe what the ideal film critic should be.

    D: It’s a nice metaphor, especially when you’ve got to give people something in the guise of something else. You’ve got to be a smuggler to get anything vaguely intellectual past editors, or they’ll cut it out and make your life miserable. “Populism” boils down to the attitude that “our readers are morons, let’s treat ’em that way.” That was the attitude at the Daily News: undisguised contempt for their readers.

    Jesse, that’s so funny that you were looking for the Chronicle to supplement the Fresno Bee back in the day! Thank god we have the internet now.

    The SpoutBlog linked to this article, and I came close to stating my essential thoughts on this matter in their comments section:
    http://blog.spout.com/2008/02/29/blockbusterly-illiterate/

    The breadth of films that one watches is not so much the issue as quality of insight. I think many of us will agree that we gravitate to our favorite film critics and writers not because we know they’ve seen thousands of films, but because they write in such a way that, whether their opinion is favorable or unfavorable towards a film, they demonstrate enthusiasm for film as entertainment and art, and that enthusiasm is passed on to us as viewers. In other words, their job is the cultivation of a healthy and vibrant film culture. The problem I have with LaSalle’s “reviews” of those films is the pedestrian quality of his insights, which does nothing to make movies sound like more than something we do just to pass the time away.

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  • kurt anthony

    I read LaSalle for years, and always found him useful. When I was on the fence about seeing a film, and he hated it, then I would go see it, because I almost always felt the opposite of him.