(Ivan R. Dee, 304 pages, $18.95)
By Richard Schickel
Since 2001, Time movie critic Richard Schickel has occupied an only partly enviable berth as a monthly reviewer of movie-centric books for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Only partly enviable because, as he admits in his introduction to Film on Paper, a sterling collection of these writings, movie books are “unlikely, as a whole, to be entrancing: star bios are not exactly my idea of fun.” The upside, as he and his editor realized, was that “many of the books might serve as ‘occasions’ to generalize about this or that aspect of the movies without getting too bogged down in detailed criticism of self-evidently bad books.” This may sound dismissive but he’s right. The ratio of good to bad film books is heavily skewed towards the tedious, the over-researched, the ineptly written and the impenetrably academic.
These, happily, are not flaws we can attribute to Schickel, who has always combined clean, clear writing with pugnacious iconoclasm and a nuanced critical judgment that most of the reviewed authors simply cannot muster, resulting in a compilation that is worth any 10 of the books he is reviewing.
Schickel’s brief kiss-offs are toothsomely forthright: “About as dreadful as a star bio can be” (Lee Server’s Ava Gardner); “too much the film geek;” “repetitive, digressive and tiresomely written...”, and so on. It’s a tonic to see so many fools suffered with such a bracing dearth of gladness. The hacks thus dismissed, Schickel then offers his own, often starkly contrasting views on the subject at hand. He is agreeably hard on the manufactured mystique of Katharine Hepburn (“her career may belong more to the annals of celebrity than it does to the annals of performance”) and rightly scoffs at the alleged sexual magnetism of Mae West. His examination of the sad career of Stepin Fetchit looks far past the shuffling negro caricature that whites saw to discern a sly subversiveness that was far more evident to black moviegoers.
Schickel has also been around long enough to take on some of his fellow big-dog critics without fear, pointedly opening the collection with a refutation of David Thomson’s The Whole Equation, even as he lauds its prose. When he encounters a book he likes, though—such as Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler—he is generous in his praise and respectful with his differences. With over 60 reviews, Film on Paper offers a rich survey not just of the books, but also of Schickel’s capacious and splendidly contrarian mind.
Review written by John Patterson.