Friday, August 12, 2011

Francois Truffaut disses Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman trashes Orson Welles, Tim Burton flips off Kevin Smith -- and everybody piles on Jean-Luc Godard

At a dinner party I attended several years ago, it was my great misfortune to be seated near a woman who wanted to know -- no, make that demanded to know -- what was so freakin' great about Citizen Kane. I politely attempted to explain why the movie was such an artistic breakthrough, how it continues to influence other movies and moviemakers, what technical and storytelling elements are so thrillingly impressive... and she didn't buy any of it. It all boiled down to this: She thought that it was a pretentious bore, and that anyone who thought otherwise was a pompous twit. Finally, I had to tell her -- again, politely -- that she had every right to her opinion, and we'd have to agree to disagree.

(It's an occupational hazard for film critics: Random encounters with folks who seem irrationally enraged by the possibility that they don't "get" something that other people do. As I have told several such aggressively opinionated people: "Look, I can't argue you into liking something you obviously don't.")

I was reminded of this unpleasant encounter while reading "The 30 Harshest Filmmaker-on-Filmmaker Insults In History," Jason Bailey's funny and fascinating piece for Flavorwire.com. Bailey catalogs some of the nastiest critiques, putdowns and bitchslaps ever aimed by one auteur at another. And No. 3 on his list is a scathing dismissal of Orson Wells in general and Citizen Kane in particular, offered by no less a luminary than -- are you ready for this? are you sitting down? -- Ingmar Bergman:

“For me he’s just a hoax. It’s empty. It’s not interesting. It’s dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of — is all the critics’ darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it’s a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie’s got is absolutely unbelievable.”

Ouch. Maybe I should have asked the lady at the dinner party if she liked The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries.

Elsewhere in the Flavorwire piece, Bailey quotes Francois Truffaut on Michelangelo Antonioni (described by Truffaut as “the only important director I have nothing good to say about"), Tyler Perry on Spike Lee ("Spike can go straight to hell!"), and Tim Burton on Kevin Smith (who, you will not be at all surprised to discover, responds in kind). And while I should be shamed to admit this -- indeed, it might even get my film reviewing license revoked -- I laughed out loud while noting that Bergman and Welles did agree on at least one thing: The films of Jean-Luc Godard are far short of unalloyed delights.

How many of these barbs were inspired by professional jealousy or private agendas? Who knows? After all, not every filmmaker is as honest as Norman Jewison, who once told me he “didn’t necessarily want to like” The 400 Blows when Francois Truffaut unveiled his first feature in 1959, “because I knew he had been a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, and there were a lot of things that I disagreed with him on. And when he said he was going to make a film, I said, ‘Here you are, you asshole. Now you’ll find out that it’s not so goddamn easy.’"

But then Jewison got a look at Truffaut's handiwork. "And he was brilliant," Jewison said, expressing equal measures of amusement and appreciation. "Totally brilliant.”

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