The two most frequent questions are: “How many films do you see a week?” “Don’t you get bored with going to films?” I’ve been writing about them in TNR since 1958, with one intermission of a year and a half, have heard each of these questions at least once a week in that time, and am always pleased by them. As for the first, the number has varied sharply from none to 12—usually it’s about three—but the point is that most weeks it wouldn’t have been less even if I weren’t a critic. And, grown gray in the ranks, I still get a thrill out of getting in free. I have figured with my wife that, by the money we have saved on tickets, we are now abstractly, if not in the Nelson Rockefeller class, at least up there with William J. Ronan. Once in a great while there have been too many. On two separate occasions there were two days in which I had to see four films each day—no kind of record but sickening to me. After each of those pairs of days it was a week before I could see another picture. But most of the time when I’m asked the question, I can’t really remember how many times I’ve gone in the previous week or two, it all seems so natural. And therefore pleasant.
As to the second and more interesting question, the answer is a firm no. A happy no. To salute the obvious, this doesn’t mean that I never see boring films or that I am unborable. On the contrary I’m somewhat more acutely borable—by reason, I tell myself, of professional acuteness—than most of my friends. But the idea of going to films is never boring. The editor of TNR once generously suggested that I also write about television from time to time. The prospect of merely crossing the living room to switch on TV dramas was numbing. But even when I have to leave the house to see the most unpromising of films (and I limit myself to those with at least some promise), there is something beyond the specifics of the film that tingles and attracts.
To begin with there is the elemental kinetic aspect. Like billions of people throughout the world since 1900, the mere physical act of filmgoing is part of the kinesis of my life—the getting up and going out and the feeling of coming home, which is a somewhat different homecoming feeling from anything else except the theater (and which is totally unavailable from TV). When I am not going out, rather frequently, to films (as a New Yorker this is also true for me of the theater), it’s because I’m ill or sore beset with work or isolated somewhere in the country. To have my life unpunctuated by the physical act of filmgoing is almost like walking with a limp, out of my natural rhythm.
Past that there is the community, also known to billions, of being in a group dream, a group reality. This is true of the theater as well, but with films there is paradox: because of the greater darkness there is, even in the middle of a group, the sense of private ownership of the occasion. That ownership has attachments. No one goes to a film theater—or a press screening room—without taking with him all of his filmgoing past, including his initial fear. (For years students have been writing papers for me on their recollections of their very first film experiences, and, more often than not, that first experience included a feeling of fear.) That fear is never quite lost, perhaps, though gradually it is understood, is used to underpin and nourish other responses. No one can go to a film theater without taking with him his parents and small friends and the first grapplings of romance in the balcony. And no one can sit in a film theater without acknowledging, however secretly, that this is where some part of his psyche originated. Messenger boy or mogul, peasant or Pope, there can hardly be anyone alive whose secret fantasies, controlled and uncontrolled, have not in some measure been made by film. This has never been so widely true of any other art. My guess is that it is not yet true of TV, may never be true. The size of the film screen in itself plays a part in its sacerdotal function; it ministers down to us while the TV screen paws upward, smaller than we are, vulnerable to dials and switches. (If films ever really become principally available through TV cassettes, as sporadically has been prophesied for years, whole psychic orders will have to be redeployed.)
All this exercise and enjoyment even before we touch matters of art, discrimination, esthetics! Once we get to the question of specific films rather than genetic experience, the specter of boredom raises its threat. Some films turn out to be just as boring as feared, though not so many as the fulfilled dreads in the theater and not many more than with new fiction. No one assumes that a literary critic gets bored, yet having worked in both kinds of criticism I know that the rewards of poor films are more savorable, more certain, than those of poor novels.
In Westerns, however rotten, there are horses, the creak of leather, the reach of landscape. In any film there are likely to be attractive women or, if you prefer, attractive men. For myself, heterosexually straitened though I am, I get a kick out of seeing O’Toole and Newman and Redford, just as I used to with Cooper and Grant and March. Then there are syntactical rewards. Richard Lester’s maritime thriller Juggernaut misses the boat, but its editing and photography are in themselves thrilling. Visconti’s Ludwig was drear, but the costumes were sumptuous. The music in Once Upon a Time in the West was like a Puccini sauna. I don’t suggest that anyone go to see those films for those reasons: I’m just answering the once-a-week question.
There are other, greater things. Direction, for instance. Joseph Sargent, out of TV, has done a really crisp job with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I enjoyed the way he used the subway tunnels and the racing through the streets and the compact arena of the hijacked subway car in a picture that, as a whole, was fading before it finished. (I couldn’t read the novel.)
And in some dismal pictures one can often find bright spots of acting. A thriller called 11 Harrowhouse is laden with Charles Grodin and Candice Bergen and a finale that was apparently devised by a moron on LSD; but James Mason plays an aging diamond expert, dying of cancer, who revenges himself on his niggardly employers by collaborating with thieves and he creates a whole man, quietly, in the middle of roaring nonsense. Jon Voight has the leading role in a more seriously inane thriller The Odessa File and presents the young German journalist he is supposed to be, even to a beautifully precise accent. (Following that hilarious convention under which Germans in Germany, speaking English to one another in English-language films, use German accents.)
It would be easy to put together a large bouquet, a garden, several hothouses of flowers culled from poor pictures. They don’t quite compensate for those pictures, not even for the waste of themselves in those pictures, still they are rewards not easily accessible in poor examples of other arts. Theater performances, yes, when they stand out from a bad script and/or a bad company. As for other matters, although the theater’s symbolic systems are just as “real” as film’s, they are less intensely packed to the square millimeter and, when one is forced away from the foreground by tedium, the theater’s supportive symbols are less varied, less continuingly interesting. Boris Aronson’s beautiful setting for Company didn’t continue to make up for a dullish evening as Tonino delli Colli’s cinematography almost did for Pasolini’s Decameron.
But that’s enough of scrounging, of beggarly gratitude for edible scraps amidst the swill. The chief reason for never being bored with the idea of film is that boredom is incompatible with hope, and hope is more of a constant in film than in virtually any other art in America. Fiction and poetry and dance and theater performance (as against playwriting) are in good estate, with good prospects; but (say the experts I’ve met) this is not true of painting or sculpture or musical composition or architecture. And no art is more persistently, almost irritatingly pulsing with prospects than the film.
Distribution of films is in difficulties, but it always was: only the type of trouble changes. The vulgar and the violent are more popular than the good; some what else is new? Nothing rotten that happens in film—and most of what does happen is rotten—can negate the fact that it is still an avenue of possibilities, an expanding nebula of esthetic mysteries, a treasury of aptness for our time.
Eight years ago I published an essay called “The Film Generation” that is now sometimes knocked because the size of the audience has not much increased, has not regained anything like the size of the mid-1940s, and worse, because some of the best pictures that come along—works by Bresson and Bellochio, for instance—have short first-run lives. But I wouldn’t alter much in that essay today. (Except for one addition: I’ve learned since writing it, by a lot of travel around the country and through the chance to serve on the Theater Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, that theater appetite among young people is lesser only in size, not in urgency, to film appetite.) The film audience is smaller than it used to be because, obviously, free movies are available at home, as well as free vaudeville; but the fact that the film audience has not completely disappeared in the face of that situation is itself proof of that audience’s vitality. Far from disappearing, that audience is now increasing. (Variety front-page headline, Oct. 9, 1974: “U.S. Film B.O. Runs Highest in Years.” Their estimate is that this year’s total receipts will be the highest since the 1946 peak, even allowing for inflation.) And if the TV-threat argument were valid, there ought now to be no film theaters at all.
Blacks flocking to cheap “blaxpoloitation” films, yes. Kung-fu kooks, yes. Hard and soft porno for hard and soft fans, yes. But if statistics prove that those types account for a lot, statistics prove other things as well. Somebody is taking those thousands of film courses in those 600-plus universities and colleges that offer them; somebody is buying those films books and magazines that continue to flood out, and attending those festivals that continue to spring up and those film societies and campus and community series. It’s not quite a nation of Bazins and Agees as yet, but to argue that the smaller audience has not improved qualitatively is either a confusion of cynicism with taste or a fear of improvement, a nostalgia for Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood. The fact that Ozu doesn’t run very long in the nation’s biggest city doesn’t prove any more about the status of the art and its audience than the fact that Boesman and Lena didn’t break the Hello, Dolly! record or Berryman’s Dream Songs doesn’t outsell Rod McKuen.
Film is in money trouble these days because of inflation, but so is everything, including book publishing. Proportionately money doesn’t control the making of films as great deal more than it does the publication of poetry and fiction: if investments are higher, so are possible profits. The money squeeze is not new: finance has always worked cruelly in the film world even when money seemed to be more free (true of publishing, too), distribution has always been tyrannical, you’ve always been just as successful as your last picture, the rotten ones have always seemed to be surging up to our nostrils, and still the good ones have been made here and abroad—where the difficulties are difficult only in nomenclature—and the lesser ones have had their compensations.
To me this combination of views is hard-headed, with no touch of Polyanna—unless there is also a touch of Pollyanna in the human race’s general insistence on survival. Concurrent with our lives runs this muddied, quasi-strangulated, prostituted art, so life-crammed and responsive and variegated and embracing, so indefinable no matter how long one strings out phrases like these, that to deny it seems to me to deny the worst and the best in yourself, a chance to help clarify which is which, and which is the ascendant on any particular day. No matter how much I know about a film's makers or its subject before I go, I never really know what it's going to do to me: depress me with its vileness, or just roll past, or change my life in some degree, or some combination of all three, or affect me in some new way that I cannot imagine. So I like being asked whether filmgoing ever gets boring: it makes me think of what I don't know about the next film I'm going to see.