Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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'71-In Brief

I once had a friendly argument with a film critic who thought it deplorable that an admittedly non-obsessive movie fan like myself should secure a platform as (relatively) prestigious as this column when so many cineastes are starving, hacking, or getting their money from the Department of Welfare, and I admit he had a point. Not that I'm a complete amateur--I've done movie columns in the past for Cheetah and Ramparts. Not that there aren't many people writing about film who are even more spottily informed than I am. And not that many of those destitute film nuts can write their way out of a term-paper bag. But basically, my interest in movies is casual. In popular music, I'll match my overview and supply of factual information (as well as my fannish enthusiasm) with anybody's but unless I were to abandon all other interests, never a propitious thing for a writer to do, I couldn't be into movies in the same way. I probably wouldn't want to be even if I could.

This presents me with something of a problem as I prepare the journalist's customary annual round-up: Movies 1971. I don't even have a whole year of casual professional attention to fall back on. In the early days of rock journalism, there was some really comical stuff written by analysts who just happened to know nothing about the music--Richard Poirier, Leonard Feather, and Albert Goldman, who continues the hustle to this day--and I live in occasional fear of committing similar pomposities. Only the talented outsiders--Leslie Fiedler and James Stoller come to mind--who do write good things about rock keep my hopes up. I come to this column as a popular culture nut whose personal obsession is music and whose fan interests include baseball, pornography, comics, and movies. Popular culture is best consumed for fun. If it happens to provide a few apposite metaphors that help you understand your life, so much the better. But fun is always one of those metaphors, perhaps the central one, which is why pop culture and youth culture are thought to be synonymous.

This year, I want to keep my round-up fun. No big theories about the relationship of Hollywood to hip exploitation, the continuing power of the family movie, the financial hassles that are damaging the industry, etc. Just lists, stuck at six instead of ten because of all the likely prospects I simply haven't seen yet--and also because I've only seen six movies all year that I think are worth enshrining on a list. First, my errors of omission. On the best side, there's Claire's Knee (which almost everyone I know has liked), Taking Off (I love Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde and Fireman's Ball), Rio Lobo (the latest Hawkes), and Innocence Unprotected (the Makavejev film that came between Love Affair, a fine movie in the Godard tradition, and WR: Mysteries of the Organism, a confusing one). If all of those movies are as good as reported, which isn't likely, I would have a Top Ten, and I will go out of my way to see any of them. With a little more work I could also have had a Bottom Ten. I still haven't seen El Topo, which may become a project with me. My last such project was David and Lisa, which finally reached me via television this summer, where it looked a lot more innocent than I hope El Topo will look in ten years. I also managed to miss Two Lane Blacktop, Sweet Savior, The Love Machine, T. R. Baskin, and countless other promising baddies.

So, my Top Six:

  1. McCabe and Mrs. Miller
  2. Murmur of the Heart
  3. The Last Picture Show
  4. Vanishing Point
  5. Sweet Sweetback's Baadaasss Song
  6. Bed and Board

And my Bottom Six:

  1. Bless the Beasts and Children
  2. Blue Water, White Death
  3. Viva la Muerte
  4. Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?
  5. Billy Jack
  6. A Safe Place

I've already mentioned every film on the worst list in my column, so there's no need to expatiate, except to mention that a film as modest in its pretensions as Blue Water, White Death has to really do a flopperoo to be worse than Billy Jack or Harry Kellerman or Viva la Muerte. As for the best, let me say a few nice things about the three new titles. Murmur of the Heart is from an uneven nouvelle vague director named Louis Malle, who made a wonderful zany comedy called Zazie about ten years ago, but who has also been responsible for that treacly-sentimental romantic melodrama, The Lovers. Murmur of the Heart is a zany melodrama about growing up in the family of a French gynecologist in 1954, and anyone who wants to know more should look up Pauline Kael's review in the New Yorker, which is brilliant enough to discourage a mere rock critic from writing about it. Vanishing Point is a mostly ignored B-movie that has some rock stars in it and may show up at your local rerun house some day. Remarkably, its whole virtue is visual rather than romantic--you have never seen such tacky characterization in your life; the only thing that saves it is its brevity--but that doesn't mean that it's at all arty. If you haven't heard about it, do yourself a favor and go no questions asked, preferably after a little cannabis. Bed and Board is the most recent Truffaut movie. It is slight and somewhat sentimental, but I have a weakness for Truffaut of low-key domestic analysis, and recommend this one highly.

For deeper insights about the state of cinema, wait till next year.

Fusion, Jan. 21, 1972