Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Practical, Winsome Approach

I rarely went to the movies as a child. On Saturday afternoon, when all the other kids were up at the Rosy, as the Roosevelt Theater in Flushing was called, I did something else. I don't remember what, though--did I read? play stoopball with myself? listen to Lacey?--and I don't remember why, either--probably some combination of finances and incomplete socialization. Anyway, I feel deprived. Our post-bohemian fascination with pop has a lot to do with preserving the best of our youth, and I'm sometimes afraid my responses to film are doomed to the same shapeless irrelevance that muddles the work of rock critics who first got turned on by Rubber Soul or Jim Morrison. I love westerns--Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks is my favorite movie--but I suspect I might love them differently had I seen a few hundred amid the popcorn hubbub of Saturday afternoon at the Rosy. Of course, by the late Fifties the kids' matinee was already a dying institution and we all saw lots of westerns on television. But television lacked that mythic scope.

Maybe McLuhan is right. Maybe the small size and low definition of the video image does induce audience involvement. But it seems to me that most of us have opted for another kind of involvement, the energy of which can be said to originate in the work rather than in the audience. You're not so much involved at a Who or Grand Funk concert as you are overwhelmed, and I really wonder whether kids who grew up in the movies aren't overwhelmed, too, by the grandeur of all that color and dimension. Although I became a regular filmgoer during my first year of college, I didn't come to a comparable perception until much later. I was never especially pompous about it, but my motives were definitely aesthetic in the silly collegiate sense, and I was accustomed to taking my art at a distance. I remember coming away from The Horse's Mouth with vertigo because my seat was in the third row, too close to observe a movie rather than experience it. Over the years, though, I ranged closer and closer, and now I usually choose to sit almost at the front, entranced. When I'm in the mood, almost any moving image can satisfactorily fill my field of vision. Is it romanticizing, or rationalizing, to identify that mood with the wonder of a child?

I offer this as my own version of the invocation to technology that almost everyone who writes about film feels obliged to make. Of course, the metaphysics of these invocations vary. Rudolf Arnheim would say I am inviting "a most disagreeable and obvious misrepresentation of what the artist intended" by sitting close, while Parker Tyler would probably commend my intensification of the surrealistic displacement which he perceives at the center of cinema, but I go along with Andre Bazin, who posits an "obsession with realism" as the force behind our fascination with movies. It's more intrinsic than the old business of dull films brightened by one or two lovely moments. It is simultaneously comforting and exciting merely to sit in a dark place with a random company of your fellows, usually including a friend or lover close by, as colorful simulacra of the world--sometimes in its most familiar aspects, sometimes at its most exotic--pass before your eyes. This fascination doesn't imply the kind of passivity mass culture critics habitually deplore, either. Anyone who goes to a lot of rock concerts gets used to the volume and learns to gauge his level and angle of involvement, and every moviegoer undergoes a similar process, although I must admit that often my judgments only begin to feel real back in the light.

My most practical and winsome approach, of course, is to render those judgments and let the theory be--even on those nights when absolutely any movie will do, you'd rather see a good one. I am nothing if not practical and winsome, but I am a little dubious about the virtues of abstracting the art/entertainment experience. You will note that another bastard aesthetic dimension has been nosing into all this technological revery--namely, the sociological. Despite the almost limitless plasticity of the film medium--it is as meaningless to speak of an art of film as to speak of an art of words, as if the same considerations inform a lyric and a newspaper story, or a Harry Smith animation and a documentary--the movies are a very special kind of phenomenon. There is a movie audience, and a movie industry, and a movie tradition, and even from the third row every film relates to all three. In fact, without the movies there would be no third row, even if there were still films. If the transcendent wonder of the moving image hovers somewhere to the left of every movie, Hollywood hunkers solidly over on the right. My attention is apt to wander fitfully over all three.

Fusion, Nov. 10, 1971