“And my feeling that everything was dead…”

Forty years ago thinking people had to pick sides with Kael or Sarris in the great auteur debate; today we get to pick between Richard Schickel and Harry Knowles, a pair of vainglorious empire-builders who manage to be repulsive in totally different ways. The Schickel quotes in that article are pretty staggering for someone who does nothing to discourage the popular perception that he’s a film authority, and even in the one instance where he’s right, he’s right for the wrong reasons: Harry Knowles is, indeed, “a gross human being,” but it has fuck-all to do with his appearance. If you’re ever looking for a vivid contrast in critical styles, just listen to the DVD commentaries for the three spaghetti westerns that Clint Eastwood made with Sergio Leone. The terse, insightful commentaries by Leone scholar Christopher Frayling on the first two movies are those of someone who loves certain films and has spent some time thinking about them, while Schickel on The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—certainly the plum assignment of the trilogy—is content to provide a lazy recap of what your eyes are already relaying to your brain, which is about what you’d expect from someone who mistakes Clint Eastwood for a great filmmaker.

I have to admit being tickled to hear that Paul Schrader also had to realize that he was living through a “historical aberration.” I eventually reached the same conclusion but with the handicaps of being almost a decade younger than Schrader, knowing next to nothing about Hollywood history, and never spending so much as a day of my life in show business. I turned 18 in 1972, and, as Ray Liotta put it in GoodFellas, “It was a glorious time.” The years 1970 to 1974 saw a bumper crop of films that were “great” in the canonical sense, but which worked even better as cinematic off-road vehicles: when the lights went down you couldn’t be sure where you’d come out. (Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange were released as Christmas movies, for crying out loud.) 

The thing is, I didn’t realize it was glorious. When you’re 18 and just coming out of the Sixties, it’s easy to misconstrue situations like that as the natural order of things, and it’s only as the space once taken up by movies like Mean Streets and Badlands is consumed by Kramer vs. Kramer and Rocky sequels that you notice something funny, but not ha-ha funny, is going on. People like to blame Star Wars for dropping the curtain on the renaissance, but the truth is things weren’t ever going to stay that way, with Robert Altman literally getting his dreams greenlighted, and Coppola and Cimino breaking entire studios (or themselves) on the wheel of their follies.

What didn’t have to happen, though, were all the ugly things that did happen…

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