Darkness Visible

ENTROPY, REVOLT, DISSENT, discord, alienation: Nowhere were the hallmarks of 1968 more profoundly reflected in the New York Times than in the columns of its chief film critic. Renata Adler, who held this position from January 1968 until February 1969, did not mask her ambivalence—and sometimes outright antipathy—toward the job she was hired to do or toward the institution that employed her. To read all her Times pieces from this fourteen-month stretch, collected in A Year in the Dark: Journal of a Film Critic, 1968–69, is to witness, and marvel at, the fatigue and exasperation that leaks out. “In criticism, I think there ought to be evidence of time taken, trouble ironed out, of a kind of American Gothic zeal for suffering,” Adler writes in her introduction to the volume, an essay that details the agony and absurdity that went with the occupation. If “the highest criticism,” as Oscar Wilde insisted, is “the record of one’s own soul,” then Adler’s reviews should rank among the most exalted in the annals of appraisal.

Adler was offered the job in October 1967—the month she turned twenty-nine—to replace Bosley Crowther, who had been reviewing movies for the paper since 1940. His priggish pan, in April ’67, of Bonnie and Clyde scanned as unforgivable proof of his old-man taste and led to his “retirement” that year. Prior to her appointment, Adler had been at the New Yorker, where she began earlier that decade as a book reviewer; she’d soon be writing rigorous dispatches on, among other topics, the Selma March, the scene on the Sunset Strip, and the Six-Day War. She had little direct training for her Times post—Adler had reviewed five films before joining the newspaper—but editor Arthur Gelb, who hired her, admired her icy, combative style. (That sensibility is evinced by the title of the compendium of her ’60s New Yorker articles, Toward a Radical Middle, published, as A Year in the Dark was, in 1969.)

She started her new gig ablaze: “Even if your idea of a good time is to watch a lot of middle-aged Germans, some of them very fat, all reddening, grimacing, perspiring, and falling over Elke Sommer, I think you ought to skip The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz,” ran the lede of her debut, from January 4. By her third month into the job, though, her disdain for what she was doing was outsize, as made clear by the first line of a March 17 piece: “There is probably no more unedifying and, in many ways, valueless kind of communication than everyone’s always expressing opinions about everything.” She was criticizing criticism, criticizing herself.

The weariness was partly linked to the sheer number of deadlines she had to face down each week. A Year in the Dark comprises approximately 130 reviews that ran in the daily paper and fifty essays—often a dilation of connecting themes found in the films discussed the previous week—written for the Sunday drama section. (A typical docket: Between April 4 and 7, she not only reviewed Kubrick’s 2001, Godard’s La Chinoise, and Pasolini’s Accattone but also wrote a consideration of the drive-in.) In the introduction, Adler notes that she does not write “gladly, naturally,” and that “one of the reasons for trying daily journalism was to see whether [writing] would get any easier.” It didn’t seem to. She was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what she had to cover, “the movies themselves coming over the hills in swarms, so many of them nearly indistinguishable, some of them really fine.” (Also “coming over the hills” were those whom Adler derides more severely than many of the films she disliked: the strata of editors at the paper who were continually “leaning on sentences, cracking rhythms, removing or explaining jokes, questioning or crazily amplifying metaphors and allusions, on pieces that were not that good in the first place.”)

Other factions were on the attack. On March 22, United Artists took out a full-page ad—in the New York Times—rebuking Adler for her spurning of its preposterously titled mod sex comedy Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. She sabotaged herself, admitting to an “awful compulsion” to “put in some really grotesque errors,” a tic she likens to “planting mines for oneself when one is feeling guilty about expressing so many opinions about everything.”

Even if she was trying to blow herself up, Adler could still strafe spectacularly, as she did in her June 20 demolition of John Wayne’s latest orgy of jingoism. Her review begins: “The Green Berets is a film so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, through everything and becomes an invitation to grieve, not for our soldiers or for Vietnam . . . but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country.” (Strom Thurmond denounced her on the floor of the Senate for this excoriation.) Her description of an ill-conceived love scene, in her December 17 pan of Robert Aldrich’s sapphic The Killing of Sister George, occasioned this fabulous simile: “Miss Browne approaches the breast with a kind of scholarly interest, like an ichthyologist finding something ambivalent that has drifted up on the beach.”

Something ambivalent. Adler, of course, didn’t despise everything. Nor does A Year in the Dark consist only of “opinions”: There are a handful of superb reported articles, including one on the shutdown of the Cannes Film Festival in May and another on the Cuban movie industry, the final piece of her Times stint. Among Adler’s top-ten list for ’68 is Richard Lester’s Petulia, a time-toggling marital drama that she characterizes as “nervous, jagged, very dense, as though the plot had broken and shattered through.” Which could also be a description of a woman writing those words—and of the year they were written.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns, where she is also a regular contributor.