Maslin bails, critics rail

After more than 20 years, the New York Times film reviewer is calling it quits. Others across the country feel her pain -- and some would like to feel her paycheck.

Published September 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Back in the early '90s I was working in New York as the film editor at Elle magazine. Though our coverage was limited largely to beautiful actors who, in the parlance of the trade, would "wear clothes," I attended nearly every screening I was invited to. It was my job, I reckoned, and I figured you could never tell when a performance might surprise you, when a film that looked like a dog might contain some hidden charms.

Standing on a subway platform late one evening, headed back downtown after watching a typically pointless Hollywood fiasco called "The Hard Way" (Michael J. Fox and James Woods, together for the first time!) I saw a poster for the self-same film, upon which someone had written in black felt pen: JESUS SEES EVERYTHING. No, He doesn't, I thought to myself. He didn't have to see "The Hard Way."

I thought of this when I heard that Janet Maslin was leaving her post as the New York Times' chief film critic. The official reason, released to the media via fax on Tuesday, was burnout: After more than 20 years at the Times and nearly 30 years in the critic biz (she started at the Boston Phoenix in 1972) she had seen quite enough, thank you.

"The number of movies keeps growing and she never shirked," Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld told me. He said that Maslin had had a rough year that had included the death of her father. "I just turned 50," Maslin told Carl Swanson of the New York Observer. "Ever heard of the phrase 'midlife crisis'?" Perhaps also contributing to her decision was a tidbit reported by the New York Post: She'd inherited $1 million from her father. But in the context of the Times losing another one of its name writers, the move is a fine opportunity for the kind of Kremlin-watching the New York Times inspires.

"Industry sources are buzzing over the question of whether she was pushed out or stepped down," said the Post (a paper that spends more time wondering what's going on at the Times than many Times employees do) and the tea-leaf readers were everywhere. Some pointed to Maslin's favorable review of "Eyes Wide Shut"; "This astonishing last film is a spellbinding addition to the Kubrick canon," she wrote and though she was not alone in her praise, this did not turn out to be the party line a few weeks after the film's release. When Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote a dissenting piece damning the film (she called it a "lugubrious, strangely static work" -- a nice summation of Kakutani's own output, in my opinion), Times-watchers thought it was curtains for Maslin.

"I think Maslin is the prime example of a not-stupid, not-vulgar writer who wasn't comfortable enough with the slot to fully occupy it," said one critic who has worked for weeklies, monthlies and dailies. "It was more like she tried to surround it with acres of reviews that were mostly description. She may have been useful to readers just because of that, actually, but she never established a strong position."

The more common complaint was that she had lost her bite -- and maybe her compass. She was too damned nice, some critics complained, as if she had gotten hold of some critical Prozac. Others are more charitable. "I don't buy that," said Jim Meigs, editor of Premiere. While acknowledging "a charitable strain in her reviews in the last eight to 10 years," he argues that that might have been an indication of a writer striving to be a better critic. "A media star needs a vicious pan to make their name," said Meigs. "Her willingness to give a big, dumb movie a chance shows her maturity as a critic."

But how many chances do big, dumb movies deserve? Reading Maslin's reviews was often like looking through the wrong end of a telescope; a small part or a nice bit of writing was praised up front with a more damning allowance that, OK, the film doesn't quite hold together coming later. That sort of silver-lining treatment was more notable in her reviews of worthy-sounding Hollywood films that didn't fly ("The Muse," for example, or 1993's "A Perfect World") than in her reviews of independent films. "She was sometimes harder on indie movies that didn't quite deliver than bigger movies that don't try to deliver at all," allowed Meigs.

Maslin began at the Times in 1977, working under the artery-hardened Vincent Canby -- a man who once said he'd never been wrong about any film he had reviewed. Next to him Maslin looked like a bomb-throwing radical. In fact, she'd begun as a rock 'n' roll critic. Her bona fides in that department included her essay on singer-songwriters in "The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll" and a brief, disastrous marriage to Jon Landau, the critic who became Bruce Springsteen's manager.

In general, the critics I contacted who would go on record felt sympathy for her decision to call it quits. "In the time I've been doing this at the Wall Street Journal," said Joe Morgenstern, "the summers have become more and more dispiriting. You need the earplugs, the brain transplant ..."

Like Maslin, Morgenstern worked as a critic for Newsweek before moving to the dailies and has suffered with the other lost souls of the screening room, a plight shared by any avid moviegoer. "We all live with that cognitive dissonance," he said. "On TV every week there's another movie that's billed as the second coming and you rub your eyes because it's that same piece of crap you just saw."

But mama (as Springsteen sang), that's where the fun is. "Too many bad films?" Roger Ebert scoffed via e-mail. "(1) The chief critic of the Times can take a pass on them. (2) Sometimes they're fun to review."

Aside from wanting a deadline-free life (the Times reportedly offered her a book-reviewing slot, which she declined) and some time with her family (she and Benjamin Cheever have two sons), Maslin may have felt the waning respect film critics are afforded. "Film criticism is in crisis today," said Meigs, with the best critics leaving the game and not being replaced. "Criticism has become polluted by marketing," he added, a common complaint. With a million quote-whores to say whatever they want about a film ("The funniest, frankest family Holocaust drama of the decade!"), studios don't need real film critics. "When I began, forthright film critics were in the ascendency," says Ebert. "Now there is a Quixotic appeal to the profession."

Most critics I called didn't want to be quoted for good reason: many of them would like her job. "I read a lot of film critics this weekend," said the Times' Lelyveld, though he allowed that other of the paper's critics were also being considered. Both Caryn James (who was a second-string film critic before moving to TV) and regular second-string (in both senses of the word) reviewer Stephen Holden have been mentioned, though the more intriguing scenario involves a sort of musical-chairs approach with Kakutani (who has been writing about pop culture in the Sunday magazine) taking the film job and theater's Ben Brantley moving into books. Dave Kehr, a former reviewer for both the Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, is a wild card as well.

One critic willing to speculate about what the Times should do is the New Yorker's David Denby. "They should fill her position with two people and keep Stephen Holden as a back up," he said. There are so many damn movies and the business is so decentralized -- indie films, digital films, films promoted and downloaded over the internet -- that the paper's coverage should reflect those changes, he said. "The top gun," he said (making, I hope, no allusion to the movie), "could be a Janet, a Frank Rich, a David Ansen -- but it should be someone who reviews fewer movies and thinks about them more." The second person would be all over the indies etc., leaving Stephen Holden to be, well, Stephen Holden.

"What the Times needs to do is formulate strong opinions and allow people to disagree with one another," he says. "The paper could be a great center of film criticism because they have all that space. The arts thrive on controversy," he says, yet "the Times decided it had to speak with one voice on everything, and that's absurd."

Not as absurd as letting Frank Rich be the paper's premier film critic, I think, but I like this idea of sharing the wealth. Maybe next they'll get rid of all the bylines.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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