Shooting The Wounded

Critics, it is said, come down from the hills after the battle is over and shoot the wounded.

For the better part of the 1980s, I shot the wounded as the movie critic for The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper. Even then, with her influence waning, it was hard to write about movies without the echo of Pauline Kael resounding through one’s critical subconscious.

The most famous and influential critic of the 1970s, Kael is back in the news again, the subject of two newly published books, a biography by Brian Kellow titled Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, and a selection of her writings,The Age of Movies.

I first read her work when she published a thick volume in 1965 titled I Lost It At the Movies. This was long before I became a movie critic, and I’m not sure I knew what to make of her, but the writing was dazzling, and her aggressive, take-no-prisoners pronouncements left me reeling. It was a way of looking critically at movies I had never encountered before.

In those days, my favorite movie critic was Clyde Gilmour who wrote for the Toronto Telegram and then The Toronto Star. I read him avidly and even collected his reviews in scrap books.

Gilmour was a no-nonsense reviewer, as far away from Kael as you could get, but in is time he exercised a great deal of influence. Today, Gilmour is usually remembered for his long-running CBC radio show, Gilmour’s Albums, rather than for his critical work. But exhibitors swore that if Clyde liked a movie, the box office increased; if he didn’t like it, the movie suffered accordingly.

No other Toronto film critic before or since has had that kind of clout. Certainly I didn’t. Ironically, the kid who grew up avidly reading Clyde Gilmour and collecting his reviews, replaced him at The Star when he decided to retire in 1981 (he died in 1997, aged 85).

Not only did Clyde continue to cast a large shadow when I started writing for The Star, but it turned out I wasn’t the best critic around. The guy down the street at the Globe and Mail was–Jay Scott.

Jay was an American, born Jay Scott Beaven in Lincoln, Nebraska, who came up to Alberta in 1969 to escape the draft, and ended up at the Globe in 1977. He cranked out witty, insightful, beautifully written  reviews. He did this with a speed and alacrity that left me in awe. He wasn’t just the best movie critic; he was the best critic period who ever worked in this country.

He was an original, but alas, an original at a bad time, writing about a medium already lapsing into mediocrity.

A great critic requires great things to write about. Kenneth Tynan was the foremost British theatre critic of his day not just because he was a fine writer, but also because he was present at the birth of a revolution when a clutch of hot young playwrights and actors swept away decades of musty theatrical convention.

Tynan was right there, championing the cause, a brilliant critic able to identify the tectonic shift in British theatre and write about it brilliantly.

Likewise, Kael writing weekly in New Yorker magazine, eloquently and passionately championed a group of innovative young filmmakers–Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese among them– who were making groundbreaking American films that for a time shook up old Hollywood conventions and stereotypes.

But by the time Jay came along, the drought had already set in, the movie landscape was becoming a wasteland. Jay was a great critic with nothing great to write about (the fact that he wrote from Toronto, rather than New York or Los Angeles, didn’t help). Those of us who loved the movies we’d come of age with in the 1960s and seventies, couldn’t find anything like them in the eighties.

The last great movie era more or less ended with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The blockbuster mentality created in 1977 with Spielberg’s Jaws (a movie Kael liked, incidentally) now began to infuse everything the studios produced, to the point where they were interested in little else (since then it’s only gotten worse).

The eighties destroyed Pauline Kael. There was nothing much left for her to write about, little that was worthy of a champion. All her railing about Hollywood crap had no effect at all. Hollywood simply increased the amount of crap. So much for critical influence. Increasingly despondent over the state of film, she left the New Yorker in 1991 and never wrote about movies again. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and died in 2001 at the age of 82.

Many of her lightning-bolt pronouncements, to say the least, have not withstood the test of time. Her defense of Bonnie and Clyde, mounted in a seven thousand word piece in the The New Yorker, still stands. But her comparison of the unveiling of Bernardo Bertolucci’s  Last Tango in Paris to  Stravinsky’s  Le sacre du printemps, which caused a riot when it premiered in Paris in 1913, seems laughable. Tango caused no riots and is barely remembered today, let along considered the game-changing masterpiece Kael thought it was.

By contrast, Clint Eastwood, whose work Kael despised and went out of her way to attack, continues to make movies and is generally regarded as one of the great American directors.

Increasingly uncomfortable in the job I had coveted since childhood, I made my escape after less than a decade. Jay held on at the Globe until he died, tragically and far too early in 1993, at the age of only 44.

I often wonder what he would have done with his talent had he lived. Perhaps he would have been content to stay where he was. I hope not. But certainly he loved being a critic.

I remember once we got on a New York-bound plane together. We decided to have a few drinks on our way to the premiere of a Michael Douglas movie, The Jewel of the Nile. Upon arriving at our hotel, we decided to have a few more.

As soon as we took our seats in the theatre that evening and the lights went down, both of us fell into a deep sleep. I woke up about twenty minutes before the movie ended. Jay was snoring away beside me.

When the lights came on, Jay finally jerked awake and sat up. “Well,” he announced. “What a piece of shit, that was.”

Shooting the wounded–even in his sleep.


Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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