Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Newsweek: Going -- Going -- Gone?

So we’ll soon be saying farewell to Newsweek as an actual magazine. Which makes me nostalgic for those long-ago days when my contemporaries and I were getting to know the world around us. In that era, the choice between a subscription to Time and Newsweek was serious business. I went with Time, mostly because Time seemed to have far more imaginative cover art. (That old saw to the contrary, you can tell a magazine by its cover.) Recently, Time issues have gotten much skinnier, and I notice I’m frequently being reminded that if I want complete arts coverage, I need to check Time’s website. As Newsweek does its disappearing act, I suspect Time too is running out.

In the Sixties, though, we movie buffs looked forward each week to reading what our favorite critics had to say. If a hip critic smiled on a newly-released film, we’d all plan to see it. If it was labeled “uncool,” we’d stay away in droves. That’s why it took me years to experience Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a socially important movie deliberately designed to make Middle America feel good. And why I felt a serious obligation to check out Antonioni and the French New Wave.

But the movie above all others that was saved from oblivion by young critics was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. As a small, brutal film that was loathed by the studio (Warner Bros.) that financed it, Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be buried after a few token weeks in the Deep South. But it also played, to rapt audiences, as the first-night attraction at the Montreal Film Festival, and soon afterwards opened in New York City. An early reviewer was the venerable Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who had already penned several rants about the violence in such 1967 hits as The Dirty Dozen. He griped that “Bonnie and Clyde is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Soon afterward, the anonymous reviewer at Time accused Bonnie and Clyde of “sheer tasteless aimlessness,” and Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek dismissed the film as “stomach-turning.” A week later, though, Morgenstern did something unheard of: he reversed course, publicly berated himself for his misguided earlier opinion, and gave Bonnie and Clyde an unqualified rave for daring to confront violence in a meaningful way.

The most influential voice speaking out on the film’s behalf belonged to Pauline Kael, whose 9000-word essay in praise of Bonnie and Clyde won her a regular reviewing gig at The New Yorker, a sinecure from which she stormed the mostly male bastions of film criticism with eloquence and wit. Beginning with a blunt question -— “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” —- Kael explored the film from many angles, emphasizing its cinematic antecedents and its visceral power. The attention paid by Kael to the cultural resonance of Bonnie and Clyde helped transform modern film criticism, and made Bosley Crowther’s crotchety complaints seem all the more out-of-touch. By year’s-end, he had been eased out of his influential post at the Times. His replacement, Renata Adler, lacked reviewing experience. But she was under thirty, and was doubtless being positioned as someone Baby Boomers could trust.

What fun we used to have, reading all the critics and enjoying their intellectual tug-of-war. Those were the days when we looked forward to the contents of our mailboxes. How very quaint that now seems.

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By the way, do check out an interview I did for BZFilm, a site for fans of low-budget movies that’s based in (would you believe?) Azerbaijan. Thanks, Tim, for the great questions! Film really is a universal language, but I’m awfully glad you and I could communicate in English!


  1. I had no idea that Bonnie and Clyde was initially panned by critics, or that it gave Pauline Kael a boost in her career. The story about the Newsweek reporter is particularly fascinating! I will be sad if print publications go away -- I subscribe to many (too many) magazines, and reading them on iPad just doesn't have the same appeal. My husband would agree -- without magazines, what would we leave in the bathroom to read? :)

  2. Excellent point, Hilary! Though I suppose the bathroom of the future could have an Ipad as a permanent installation.

  3. I am saddened too that a great institution like Newsweek is ending their print run. I always enjoyed the coverage of the arts in Newsweek and Time. My high school library had big bound editions of Time and I really enjoyed going through and reading the movie reviews from the 60's and 70's.

    I quite enjoyed your interview with BZFilm - they seem to have really done their research in coming up with questions!

  4. Yes, BZFilm did a great job of looking for new things to ask me. I thoroughly enjoyed feeling like a celebrity (once again)! Big thanks to Tim, whose mastery of English is really impressive.

  5. I was a bit disturbed when these Kindles were becoming popular. I prefer to have an actual book or periodical in my hands as opposed to downloading. Reading online is nice, too, but nothing quite beats a physical copy hot off the newsstands or bookstore shelf held in your hands.

    Excellent, highly informative interview, too, Beverly. An unusually eclectic mix of questions!

  6. Hey, welcome back, Brian. So glad we agree about the pleasure of turning actual paper pages!