Round Table: Ronnie Scheib


In 1980, Ronnie Scheib wrote an explicitly polemical auteurist piece on the films of Ida Lupino [1] . In 1996, Scheib visited Melbourne under the auspices of the Melbourne International Film Festival for the presentation of an Ida Lupino retrospective. Taking time out from her duties for the Festival, Metro organized a round table with Scheib – participants included Raffaele Caputo, Rolando Caputo, Anna Dzenis, Adrian Martin, Rebecca Maywald and Rick Thompson, and discussion centred mostly on the films of Lupino, New Hollywood, and the state of film criticism.

Scheib belongs to a generation of American film critics [2] , gathered particularly around the journal Film Comment, who in the1960s and ‘70s drew a clear continuity with the tradition of American film criticism in the 1930s and ‘40s. Essentially, this later generation took the film criticism of Otis Ferguson, James Agee and Manny Farber and extended it, simultaneously making their own critical voice and that of the earlier generation fuller, stronger and more informed. From the mid-1970s and into the ‘80s, for many film critics and scholars Scheib made some of the most vital contributions to film criticism and research – on subjects as diverse as animation, public film collections and facilities, and Hollywood emigrés, on films such as Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and on filmmakers like Wim Wenders’ [3] and A.I. Bezzerides.

Over the past decade, she and her associate Greg Ford have been producing, writing and directing the new wave of Warner Bros. cartoons – an activity she is very proud of. Today her film criticism is less frequently seen because a somewhat conservative publishing climate is unable to accommodate a highly active, fertile writer such as Scheib.

Ida Lupino

Raffaele Caputo: Given your article on Ida Lupino begins partly as a response to feminist film criticism and in view of Dorothy Arzner, as well as to Andrew Sarris’ brief estimation of her [4] , do you have a different assessment of Lupino looking at her films now than the Lupino you wrote about 15 years ago?

Ronnie Scheib: I don’t think I see her any differently. Now I would probably look at the films of Lois Weber and others and look at more of a tradition that I could at the time. Also, having discovered that Dorothy Arzner did all those porn films in the 1960s just makes me feel better about Arzner – apparently she helped Jack Hill with a lot of his porn films of the ‘60s and it seems she really did have an interesting in women-in-lingerie. Unfortunately, she didn’t follow up on it in her films as much as she could have, at least not in the early films.

Ida Lupino Roadhouse (Negulesco, 1948)

Ida Lupino Roadhouse (Negulesco, 1948)

I could see Lupino in more of a context and, of course, I’d like to see more of her television work. But, in answer to the question, basically not really, because I haven’t looked at Lupino much since I wrote that article. To tell you the truth, I thought it was thankfully over, and I say that because I write really long articles. I always end up writing 50 pages or more, so by the time I finish I don’t want to look at anything again because then I have the horrible, painstaking task of reducing it down to article size.

It’s not that I am not interested in looking at Lupino’s films again. What surprises me is that what I wrote in the article holds up, but that may be because I remember having written it. It’s very hard for me to look back at someone’s work as if I am not aware of what I wrote. Sometimes I take another look at something and feel differently, but not particularly in this case, except her television work is more different than what I originally thought.

Anna Dzenis: How would Lupino’s television work change your analysis?

Ronnie: Because of Lupino’s interest in the grotesque and in the complicity of the camera, and because there is a far blacker humour, one that does not exist at all in her other work. I haven’t really traced it far enough because I have only seen a certain amount of her television work and most of that only once.

Only now is some of Lupino’s television work starting to show up again on ‘thriller theatres’ on television, and only now can one slowly begin to look at the aesthetics she worked on in television. Otherwise, it’s difficult to work on something you’ve only seen once, and I am getting to be of that generation where I am not going to write, “I remember vaguely that in this film….” That sort of statement is not going to wash anymore because videotape has wrecked the ability to ‘vaguely remember’. Film criticism used to be full of errors that were personally understandable because nobody could see the prints.

Adrian Martin: In terms of how perception of Lupino’s films may have changed since you first wrote the article, the theme of women’s passivity has become a more interesting and worked-over subject. How would you respond to, say, a comparison of Deep Valley (Jean Negulesco, 1947) with Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) which would suggest Lupino as the precursor of Campion because of the damaged psyche of the women struggling with various disabilities.

Ronnie: I have no problem with that. Although one would have to include male passivity, which is what I find particularly fascinating with The Bigamist (1953) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), and with a lot of her television work. There is all this stuff about male passivity in her work which is really much more frightening and much more emphatic than female passivity.

I have thought about ideas of mutilation and damage in Lupino, but never really thought through from a particularly contemporary perspective, as with The Piano which obviously has the same type of mutilation and vision. Although the fact that The Piano places female desire in the past allows it to be shown in more of a symptomatic mode than I think Lupino would have. The problem with Lupino is that she will always be brought to the fact that her characters are not her. They don’t have her options and therefore a form of ‘stopping’. The more I see her films the more I see the problematic axis as: Why is she able to take certain options that her characters cannot? What does the inability of her characters have us read? And what is her responsibility for that inability? For me this is why Lupino was so much a product of her time. Her career is very much like that of Nicholas Ray to the point where Ray almost got himself crucified just so he could rejoin his characters at some point and get out of a horrible liberal bind.

Rolando Caputo: The issues of Lupino’s films very much have to do with women, but as a director she seems to belong to a strata of male directors like Phil Karlson and Joseph H. Lewis. There is a ‘compression’ of the image only seems to get from American B pictures: a sense of the tightness of the frame around the characters of being trapped – she didn’t use a lot of master shots or wide shots.

Ronnie: That’s right, except in Never Fear (1950) because it is very much about stasis, about being located in static, symbolic places where one will suddenly have establishing or wide shots that last for a long time. They are peculiar to that film.

Rolando: Although Arzner primarily worked in pre-World War 11 Hollywood, keeping in mind the attempts to theorize Arzner’s work around the idea of the feminine eye in which the camera’s gaze is gendered, and though Lupino deals with issues that affect women, the gaze of the camera does not in any way seem to be gendered in Lupino’s films.

Ronnie: I sort of agree with you in that Lupino was more of a product of her time rather than a product of her sex. But her attempt to diffuse or de-fetish the male gaze in the second part of The Outrage (1950), for instance, is of such extraordinary work even though it is not visually exciting. She does so much work attempting to find a male figure for diffusing the male regard. All the point-of-view shifts from the women to the main in The Outrage are tied up with home one is going to create a visual style and a way of looking at women that is not fetishising, not voyeuristic. I don’t know if a male director would have bothered. And when I look at the films of Lois Weber I really begin to wonder because there is a certain type of intensity and stillness to the camera which I only associate with Weber and Lupino, and so I could say this has something to do with the fact of being a woman. But, certainly for me, the overwhelming fact is not Lupino’s sex, it is that she comes to directing in the post-war period. She looks more like post-war American directors than anything else, and her subjects are never different from Ray’s. That is, at least from the time of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) when he was seen to be a ‘social problem’ movie director.

Lupino was working in a different time from Dorothy Arzner – definitely, because Arzner started working in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. For Arzner, the feminine eye when I see it is a rather lascivious one of looking at women’s bodies, and it’s great! But, yes, I have a lot of problems in seeing Lupino belong to such a small and chronologically dispersing move that only has to do with women directors. Lupino is so obviously a post-war director.

Rolando: Did Lupino learn a fair bit from her films with Raoul Walsh in that Walsh is not really voyeuristic or fetishising of women unless the story demands it? For example, The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1941) is about woman as commodity of exchange, but in High Sierra (1941) he doesn’t treat Lupino with a lingering, male voyeurist-type camera that supersedes narrative purpose.

Ronnie: One reason I always think of Walsh and Lupino as a special idea is because The Hitch-Hiker looks like High Sierra, as though each story is dealing with a twice-told geography.

But on the point of Walsh, there is certainly a lingering good/bad girl-type stuff, which is less interestingly played out in films other than in High Sierra because Lupino’s character is basically innocent and stupid. But some of his other films skirt with certain traditional Hollywood good girl/bad girl types, as with, for example, Anne Francis and Barbara Hale with James Cagney in A Lion in the Streets (1953) – it’s sort of the opposite of what is happening in High Sierra.

There is a certain vision of woman Walsh is apt to fall into when he is not really looking at something problematic; when it just comes along in the narrative he is perfectly capable of being as reductive as the next. But when he dealing with it, when he is questioning it, or when he has a really strong actress, definitely I not single him out.

I’m a big Walsh fan and I think one of the problems with talking about Walsh is that you have to talk about the cinema. It’s much easier to talk about a director like Howard Hawks and about the variations in his films, but when you start talking about Walsh you have to start talking about initial, elemental sort of cinemas; you suddenly have to talk about what is cinema in a way that you don’t seem to with other directors.

Rolando: The screenplay of Private Hell 36(Don Seigel, 1954)is extraordinary in terms of hard-boiled writing.

Ronnie: Yes, it’s extremely strange. I’ve always wanted to get into that film because of the way it takes what is basically a three person set-up, which is the man between two women, and turns it into a four person set-up in ways that so incredibly displace all the usual tensions. Somehow the Steve Cochran character seems to be taking everybody else’s personality, leeching it out of all of them. It’s a very weird film. And what the Dorothy Malone character is doing in that set-up in the first place is strange: she’s in it, she isn’t in it – very unusual.

Rolando: Perhaps that’s because of what is inherited from the screenplay by Lupino and Collier Young on the one hand, and what will emerge as real Don Siegel thematics. What Seigel wants is two men together in a pressure situation, as with The Killers(1964) or The Line-up(1958). For instance, the ending of Private Hell should be about the resolution of Ida Lupino’s character; instead it seems Siegel is interested in working out the male dynamic, but the script has opened up other parts – the wives, girlfriends – which he doesn’t pursue.

Ronnie: You’re right, but I think it is already there in the early scenes with the Dorothy Malone character: the way in which she isn’t in the frame, the way in which she is almost superfluous right from the beginning even though the Howard Duff character is supposedly staying with her.

Rolando: Another remarkable aspect is the dialogue because it’s exquisite noir dialogue but different to the extent that you cannot quote it. One can remember and quote lines from, say,Double Indemnity(Billy Wilder, 1944), but in this film the lines register immediately and yet when you come out of the film you have no record of them to use in your own private performance, as people often do.

Ronnie: That ‘quotability’ with a Double Indemnity has to do with James M. Cain, as well as others who are very quotable writers, though I know what you are saying in this regard to Private Hell. I keep trying to quote a line of Lupino’s which goes something like, “I’ve always dreamt of big, fat slobs…” and it just doesn’t work as well. You can quote it, but it’s not snappy enough and falls dead.

The dialogue cannot be ripped out of Private Hell, but in context it is beautifully symbolic and also impressive is that Lupino and Collier Young wrote it. They had a kind of shared language sense that doesn’t translate outside of the context. There is a ‘you-had-to-be-there’ type of feeling to the dialogue. And there’s an establishment of intimacy to the dialogue: a lot of what is happening to the characters is encapsulated in a sentence or tow as the lines are exchanged.

Rebecca Maywald: Do you have a favourite Lupino film?

Ronnie: I tend to think Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) is probably her most perfect film, but I don’t know if I would say it’s my favourite. It is certainly the one in which all the elements are really in balance and she was completely in control of what she was doing.

There is a discernible confidence with the camera, especially in her coverage of the tennis matches and with the angles she chose, which is extraordinary particularly when you realise there was no such thing as televised tennis. Where did she learn it from? Well, she invented it. And also really impressive is her confidence in directing someone like Claire Trevor.

The beginning of The Outrage is dynamite, but the end is like, “Oh, boy!” I’m very fond of Not Wanted (1949) every time I see it, but my mind certainly tells me Hard, Fast and Beautiful is the best. The Hitch-Hiker has always been her one piece that everybody mentions because it is the one respectable-looking with regard to being a director’s movie. The Hitch-Hiker holds up but it doesn’t have any loose ends that resonate. The Bigamist, on the other hand, resonates.

Anna: I’m interested in the idea of a developed history of television through, say, taking Lupino, but, rather than just expanding on what you have already said, you go in another direction having to do with the aesthetics of television?

Ronnie: This is definitely an area that needs to be looked at, but it’s very difficult. UCLA archives are very good, but very sort of scary because a lot of their television material is in 16mm rather than 35mm. And places like the Museum of Broadcasting don’t have any interest in drama or comedy as such. So it’s an area of ‘where’ can any television stuff really become available. Getting Universal to let you into their archives would certainly be worthwhile because there are a lot of major American directors who went into television and made some very interesting stuff. I’ve always wanted to see again the series of Jesse James from the early ‘60s, which has episodes directed by really interesting people – Don Siegel, for example. But who knows where it is or if anybody has it? Cable has only brought back certain things. And one of the things driving me crazy in the States at the moment is that nobody is interested in video and the aesthetics of video tape, and I’m not talking about experimental video.

Certainly American soap operas are fascinating for what one can do with video. A place like the American Film Institute will give you the first film that someone made at the AFI: The AFI’s method is to hand someone a video camera, tell them to make a movie, but make no attempt to explain that there’s a different feel, that there are certain things you can do in video that you can’t do in film, and certain things that you can do in film that look different in video. So, in some cases, because there is not sense that what one is doing is any different, television in general, the whole aesthetics, needs exploring. Moreover, there were all these directors that worked mainly in television – Joseph Sargent, David Greene, Paul Wendkos – who definitely deserve to be looked at more closely. But, despite the video revolution, all of this stuff is extremely hard to get your hands on. You would think that the star quality would be reason enough to unearth all this television material. I’ve always dreamt that maybe I could get a job going through somebody’s library by proposing, “What would you like to see if there is any early John Travolta material?” But people are really not that interested.

What I always love about television is how all the villains in movies become heroes in television. It happened to Raymond Burr, William Conrad, to Neville Brand and Hugh O’Brien – they all became heroes on television.

New Hollywood

Rick Thompson: What do you perceive to be the major change brought by contemporary Hollywood cinema?

Ronnie: For me it all started with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975). Watching that film was the moment when I realized Hollywood was going backwards, because here you had a movie constructed around a shot of Jack Nicholson of all people – an icon of ’70s open-ended movies – and that shot tells you what to think about each and every moment of the film. Suddenly in the centre of the film you have someone whose only function is to read the film for you and tell you how you are supposed to feel, and it was the moment when all the ambiguities and open-endedness of ’70s filmmaking just went out the window. I’ve always thought of Cuckoo’s Nest as the point where American film took a quantitative leap backwards and never recovered.

I’ve been trying to write an article on Monte Hellman for a long time and when I started writing it seemed so impossible that the ‘60s happened at all when I look at American film today. Nothing is left, not even acting style, there’s no room. There is an image that has absolutely nothing. Visually, the worst is Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg to me is the reason Hollywood is Hollywood. George Lucas is at least tragic. He could make American Graffiti (1973), turn around and give up filmmaking. There is something in Lucas, a deliberate turning away from the pain, whereas in Spielberg there is pain, no gain, no anything. There is nothing on either side of the image in a Spielberg movie and it is so distressing. Look at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), there couldn’t be anything left anywhere, that is the image and that is the world. The whole concept of Hollywood today is not to have one thing interfere with the perfect frame.

Raffaele: One could argue that Lucas is implicated in that ‘perfect frame’ insofar as he turned to the technological side and, while Spielberg remained with the creative-filmmaking side, dominates Hollywood through the perfecting of technology.

Ronnie: But for Lucas it was out of the pain of having to deal with people. That is what American Graffiti is all about – how painful it is to be a person. Lucas has obviously opted out, but Spielberg is self-congratulatory to the nth degree. It’s epiphany on epiphany, it’s unspeakable: he’s seen as a God, he thinks he’s a God.

Adrian: One major theme in your essays is of how in the ‘40s and ‘50s, particularly in films by Lupino, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray and Robert Aldrich, there is an idea about the subjective consciousness of the hero. For example, you’re tracked how in Shock Corridor there is a very difficult, schizophrenic, contradictory relation between the internal perceptions of the main character and the outside, documentary world, and how the internal perceptions can no longer translate into direct action and direct movement in the world. Do you see that very careful work of a splitting and contradictory meshing of internal and external worlds anywhere now in the cinema?

Ronnie: I think The Rapture(Michael Tolkin, 1991)and Safe(Todd Haynes, 1996)in different ways both play very much on that kind of totally ambivalent feeling as to whether what is experienced is in the world or not. And if it isn’t, then where is it coming from? I think the contemporary axis is: Where is it coming from if it isn’t coming from the subjectivity of the character? It’s more of a paranoid vision, but definitely there are some very strange films coming out now that play on that split. The whole ‘60s axis was of everything being at one in temporal terms, where everything was sort of in a present tense because – certainly in talking about documentary realism – you had in the ‘60s and ‘70s a lot of ‘found reality’.

What we have now is a deliberate reversion to a form of filmmaking in mainstream Hollywood that John Ford was well beyond in the ‘50s. There is now a deliberate reinvention of cinema in the most elementary revisionist terms, a very deliberate one on the part of Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Lucas for that matter, and which I do not believe is a natural progression of anything.

I think the ‘60s were strange because the breakdown between the high-budget and low-budget films ceased to exist and I think certain underground B-genres, like horror films, were definitely dealing with their own versions of the objective/subjective split.

Low-budget filmmaking had its own reality; with horror films in particular you are looking at gut reactions to abortion, at reactions to feminism, looking at a whole genre that happened out of reality, unlike the stuff you get out of mainstream Hollywood which is three people as the world. Look at most Hollywood film today and it’s the most under-peopled thing I’ve seen in my life. It is as dead as a door nail and it’s truly amazing. There’s nothing beyond the frameline, but there’s not even that much inside the frameline. I really cannot believe films can have the kind of budgets they have these days, because it’s like everybody in the film is getting $5 million. Not only can you not afford the main characters, you can’t even afford any of the extras.

I personally haven’t done a lot of work on horror films because I’m squeamish, but I can tell they are very vital. If I was going to deal with a form of filmmaking now that is a real progression of the filmmaking I liked 10 or 15 years ago, then it would definitely be the horror film. For example, I think the whole experience of Vietnam is in all of the films of George Romero.

Adrian: How do you see Brian De Palma as a figure who started in a very unusual way in the ‘60s and here he is now with Mission: Impossible(1996)? Are you a De Palma fan at all?

Ronnie: No, I’m not. Actually,Raising Cain(1992)is the only De Palma film I like. I have my own relationship to Hitchcock and when I go to a De Palma film I often hear myself say, “No, not another remake of a Hitchcock!”

Raffaele: Do you see De Palma as part of that re-invention of Hollywood?

Ronnie: Not really. I see him as part of what I talk about in the Wim Wenders article, what I call “the anxiety of influence to the ‘nth degree”. It’s something a little different to the Spielberg thing and I think it’s a very personal thing.

One of the reasons De Palma was able to continue making films probably had something to do with what has been going on in big-budget movies, but I don’t think De Palma approaches a film in the same way as Spielberg. Unfortunately, some of his films are a little bit under-populated, some of them feel like they are not intersecting with any social reality.

Anna: How are you using the term under-populated, because I can think of Lupino’s films as being under-populated in a certain B-movie kind of way?

Ronnie: Absolutely, but there is something wrong with the characters in Lupino’s films and that is why they are all alone.

There’s nothing wrong with Robert Redford when he is all alone in the frame, but it’s another matter if he’s all alone in the frame because no one else deserves to be up there with him. I remember watchingLegal Eagles(Ivan Reitman, 1986) and realising there are three people in this movie for no reason: people go into offices and there is never any life, never any contacts. But if you think of a Walsh film, or when you see a Walsh film on the big screen, you realize everybody in the image is there, everybody in the frame is really in that frame for a reason. You are missing a lot if you see a Walsh film on television, whereas with Legal Eagles it makes absolutely no difference whether it’s on the big screen or small screen because the figures are just furniture.

Rebecca: What were your views of De Palma when making films like Hi Mom!(1970)in a kind of art/film school style? Do you like his early films?

Ronnie: No, I don’t think I ever liked his stuff. As I said, Raising Cain was the only time when I at least had the feeling of somebody having fun. But something like Obsession (1976), yuck! Or the film with Angie Dickinson, Dressed To Kill(1980), in which there are moments I almost like, but there are moments where I think it just becomes too self-conscious. That I find De Palma too self-conscious and too Hitchcockian is my problem with De Palma, and my definition of why I don’t like his films.

Rebecca: Have you seenCarlito’s Way(1993),because it isn’t Hitchcockian at all and so I’m not making the connection with what you are saying. It is also a film that’s populated.
Adrian: Be warned this is the Carlito’s Wayfan club sitting at this table right now.

Ronnie: As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen Carlito’s Way. But it’s not far from the time of Raising Cain, so who knows? I’ve never really felt particularly negative towards De Palma other than not liking many of his films, but nor would I make any grand claims on Raising Cain except that I think it is really funny.

I don’t know what I’d do among a bunch of Spielberg fans. I have a theory about Spielberg movies, that all his films are in three movements. The first movement is: “Gee, this isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.” The second movement is: “God, this is just as bad as I thought it would be.” And the third movement is: “OH, MY GOD!” They’re all really structured like that.

Rolando: Would that be the case if Spielberg had not had such phenomenal success at a young age? Duel(1971) is a truly wonderful film and Sugarland Express (1974)is also a really intelligent road movie with social issues, you can feel there is something beyond the frame. Jaws(1975), however, was so phenomenally successful it could not be seen in its own right, but it’s actually a very competent film. Given its success, from that point on Spielberg was in essence given a free hand to create the cinema in his own image. But if the years of struggle had kept up, the years where his projects were shaped by forces other than himself, then his films may have taken slightly different directions.

Ronnie: You have a point as regards Spielberg, but I’ve always felt one of the reasons filmmakers are so interesting and make their best films early in their careers is because they don’t have the control they get later on, and that reality or fate is allowed to intrude. When they get control, and it doesn’t have to be literally the kind of control Spielberg has, it can be a small amount but enough to wreck them completely as filmmakers. I tend to think that even Duel is over-controlled already.

Rolando: From a craft or technical point of view, absolutely, because Duel is a truck and a car and so it’s the mechanics of suspense. Spielberg actually works well when he has a mechanical object at the centre of his narratives. Even in Jaws, because that shark isn’t believable as a shark but as an object. But when he humanizes the world, when he pits human against human, he is really quite weak because the sentimentality inherent within Spielberg has nothing to blanket it, whereas a machine does not have any sentiment. I have a soft spot for the early Spielbergs, but from a certain point on – either as a critic or teacher of film – you are aware of Spielberg but don’t spend too much of your life thinking about him.

Ronnie: The problem in the States is that you are very aware of him, and he literally is to blame for a hell of a lot.

Rebecca: Is that ‘awareness’ Spielberg’s way of attempting to justify his position.

Ronnie: He is constantly pontificating, which doesn’t help. He has been saying recently that we have to reinvent the word – because he is God he has put too much emphasis on the image. Give me a break! And also, he has ruined a lot of young directors by throwing a lot of money at them. Joe Dante was a genius but he didn’t deserve what he got from Spielberg. And Tobe Hooper is another perfect example, not only thrown money at, but he got gobbled up, and I think Poltergeist (1982)is a pretty good movie, it really has a lot of good elements.

Talk about getting gobbled up, it’s a terrible time to come to the States. People who are very good with machinery, people who are very good with creating big machine movies are fine; but if a little humanist filmmaker comes to Hollywood, it’s rough.

Film Criticism and Film Academia

Rolando: With people like Manny Farber having gone into painting, Greg Ford, yourself, and others from that ‘70s generation having stopped writing, from our perspective we cannot get a fix on the generation of American film writers that followed. Film Comment in the ‘70s seemed to have a house style.

Ronnie: Richard Corliss, strange as this may sound for someone who basically worked in absentia, nevertheless had a sense of style, of writing that he cared about. But after he started working for Time he took less and less interest in what was happening at Film Comment.

Basically, I stopped writing because the publications would accept my writing and then they wouldn’t publish it. This happened to me with the Wim Wenders article, which was originally accepted by American Film and then never published. Then it happened with an article I wrote called “Whatever Happened to the Present Tense”.

When Richard Jameson came in as editor of Film Comment he took my Wenders article because he liked it, and asked if I had anything else. And I said, “Well, I have this article about ‘80s cinema, but I haven’t been writing film criticism because people say yes and then later say no.” But Jameson said to send it to him, so I sent it, he loved it and said he was going to publish it in Film Comment. But he never did. It’s two months later and then he says no. I find that really depressing. With this background, why do it again? It would have been extremely easy to say no the first time.

Rick: Let’s get a fix on this because it is a really important question for all of us. If we are talking about whatever conditions existed in the ‘70s that prompted or nurtured a certain kind of writing, what are you saying are the changes in those conditions that no longer encourage it?

Ronnie: For Film Comment, specifically, because it was going to be closed down. Now Jameson was given a brief to put Film Comment back in the black – it was very deeply in the red, very much in debt – and he was given a year to do it. I assume he did so because he is still there and so is Film Comment. Also, I did an article for American Film at a time when Peter Biskind had pretensions of some form of intelligent life, which was sort of going against the whole concept of American Film anyway. That didn’t last very long. These incidents are symptomatic of what’s happened in America. It’s very simple: film criticism has gone on the one hand to an extremely fragmented academia, and on the other hand to Premiere magazine-style which is now big business again. The weird thing that happened with the re-invention of Hollywood is the Hollywoodisation of film publishing. The fan/movie magazines have been re-invented and have suddenly become big business again.

Rick: Except now the fan magazines are not just about stars, they are also about writers and producers and so on.

Ronnie: Exactly. When I was in Hollywood all that people talked about was the latest Hollywood lawyer with exactly the same kind of enthusiasm they would talk about Richard Gere or an affair he was having with someone. The insider suddenly became of interest to everybody and the whole movie industry again became as it was in the ‘30s, with all these big fan magazines. And, yes, the fan magazines are about the whole industry, not just the stars.

Raffaele: Is your having stopped writing a disillusionment with American filmmaking now?

Ronnie: Not at all. But one of the difficult things about filmmaking in America today is that everything has to be done from scratch. Even when we are making cartoons, you cannot convince anybody that we have something going, that we keep having steady production, and that this is great because you get into a room and you have people working together and you do not have to start everything from scratch each time. Starting from scratch is very wary. Somebody like Abel Ferrara, who is able to put together a bunch of people, a lot of them out of New York as a matter of fact, is in a much better situation than other people in Hollywood who are starting from zero every single time they go into production.

But what I find in people of my generation is often they go to see A movies and then say, “Oh, my God! This movie is terrible, they used to be great.” But they are not looking back at A movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. If you think back to Madame Curie (1943), then Independence Day (1996) is no better or worse than Madame Curie. It is too much work to find today’s low-budget equivalent of a ‘40s or ’50s B-grade movie – the films we now revere. Where are you going to find today’s equivalent of Naked Kiss (1965), for example? You are not going to go see it at your local cinema and you have to look at films that normally you wouldn’t want to see.

Naked Kiss (Fuller, 1964)

Naked Kiss (Fuller, 1964)

Rolando: Is auteurism based on the idea of discovery – that there are still directors to be saved from the Hollywood studio era – well and truly exhausted?

Ronnie: I don’t think so. There is still plenty of material from back there. You could look at the films of John Farrow and create Farrow as a perfectly viable auteur. He is certainly a fascinating figure.

Rolando: Do you think there are people still interested in tracking down prints and spending time looking through material of the studio period?

Ronnie: It should be so much easier these days because of video. I see fascinating films all the time, films I didn’t know about, amazing little films that wouldn’t have shown up before and now thanks to video they can be seen.

First, it wouldn’t be such a terrible idea if auteurism died, or at least leave some room for writers and cameramen for re-evaluation. But there are still plenty of filmmakers you can go back to and suddenly decide it’s not the good films that are the fluke, it’s the bad films that are the fluke. I am speaking of Farrow here. There are a lot of good Farrow movies and there are some really bad Farrow movies, but your estimation will depend on which way you want to look at Farrow: if you concentrate on John Paul Jones (1959) you are not going to discover John Farrow. And I don’t think people have looked into André De Toth sufficiently. One could do a whole book on De Toth’s backgrounds, the plasticity of space, and his camerawork is insane.

I’ve always wanted to do a book on ‘60s directors because there are a lot that haven’t really been discovered. People haven’t really gotten into Monte Hellman or Sergio Leone very much. I’d like to do something on David Greene, who did a lot of television as well as feature work; and Blake Edwards is certainly another director, in both television and feature work; and Blake Edwards is certainly another director, in both television and feature film, to go back to.

Rick: One way of trying to read what you are saying about the change in the kind of film writing that gets done nowadays is that maybe at certain periods in the ‘70s there were editors interested in particular styles of writing. So, regardless of what the people out there wanted to read, because there were editors interested, then that kind of writing got published.

Ronnie: I don’t think that is completely right because at some stage in the ‘70s the marginal was interesting to everybody. There was not this great A and B mentality of what movie-making is, the marginal was more in the centre, and therefore one could write about Paul Morrissey and he would be as interesting as George Lucas to whoever was buying the magazines. Now there is a Hollywood culture and there are consumers of that Hollywood culture and this has taken off in an enormous way.

Rick: There is no viable margin?

Ronnie: The margin would then be academia, but that whole middle ground at a time when the marginal was interesting has gone.

Rick: But an academia which over the last 20 years has redefined itself away from the writing of the middle ground.

Ronnie: What has happened is that Hollywood has become such big business: it sells itself to such an extent that it controls radio and television. No one can give Disney a bad write-up because Disney owns everything. Film promotion has become an enormous market, including the fact that one can go out and be charged for one of those “Making of…” pseudo-documentaries. There is so much interest in Hollywood as a subject that there is so much money involved in this kind of promotion that goes something like, “Gee, the family will like it.” This is big business. Siskel and Ebert, believe it or not, are about the most intellectual film critics you’ll get anywhere on television in America. It’s hard to believe, but when you get people like Michael Medved or Jeffrey Lyon doing film criticism, you know you’re in trouble. You can see them struggling when the newest Disney film comes out because they are not allowed not to like it.

What I’m saying is that these organs, these magazines, have suddenly become big business in a way that they weren’t since the fan magazines of the 1930s. And this is big business at such a scale that it influences what gets into any magazine, and it influences where magazines like Film Comment or Metro are going to position themselves in relation to it.

Rolando: Is it true to say that the middle ground has in a strange way been taken over by cine-literate directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, who are getting more and more of a voice?

Ronnie: I wouldn’t call Scorsese middle ground, I would call him almost academic. I would say Tarantino is definitely the middle ground. Tarantino is the hottest product in Hollywood and he sells himself as a product, but Scorsese actually is doing something. Unlike Spielberg who gets all the publicity for re-inventing the world, it seems Scorsese only comes out publicly when he feels it’s good for the films he’s been quietly restoring for years.

Anna: What prompted the article “Whatever Happened to the Present Tense”?

Ronnie: “Whatever Happened to the Present Tense” is an article I had actually written out of the bile of having watched a whole lot of movies, all of them awful, throughout the ‘80s. I don’t generally think of film criticism as an exercise in negativity, but all the Star Wars, all the Star Treks, and a whole bundle of American films of the ‘80s, I loathed. I was very negative and I didn’t have the room to talk about them positively. I suppose one reason is because I had empty folders of all these other films that I actually liked and wanted to talk about, but the space to talk about them had shrunk.

Anna: How do you perceive possibilities for critical publications in the American context?

Ronnie: The fact that Hollywood has become an enormous industry, as well as anything written about people in Hollywood is such a multi-million dollar industry, has polarized film criticism. Criticism is either completely marginal and academic, or skirts much too close to the money-making venture. There is an insatiable appetite for any kind of material on directors, actors, producers, lawyers, anybody. This is so even if it’s somewhat scholarly, even if it’s somewhat analytical: if you can prove Kevin Costner is a great director somebody will want to read that. Nobody wants exactly to read that Kevin Costner is a great director. So, it doesn’t matter where you position yourself, to a great extent you still run into the commercialization of any kind of film criticism; whereas before, if you argued Costner to be a lousy director, nobody gave a shit.

Raffaele: What do you think film criticism should be?

Ronnie: My prejudice is really towards writing. I like film criticism that has a voice as writing. It preferably should be as multiple as possible and to give as many layered a point of view as possible. I am not saying this is a necessary prerequisite for criticism, other than it be writing first and foremost.

The film criticism I don’t read is the type written for some sort of external necessity, and which doesn’t have a voice. It may sound stupid, but generally I don’t read film criticism for very personal reasons. It either tends to get me very furious and I start writing negative responses, which I’m not very interested in doing, or I love it and feel like quoting all over the place. Sometimes I wind up paraphrasing huge sections of someone’s article because I want to take it as a point of departure.

What I generally do is that after I’ve found my voice and after I’ve written the main body of an article, then I’ll read some other stuff and this may give me a hook or context for my own writing. Hopefully then I will not have to quote three pages of it, or rant and rave for three pages on how unspeakable and awful it was.

I remember when I read that Edinburgh publication on The Revolt of Mamie Stover [5] , never had I been so angry in my life. I was just furious and I couldn’t write anything for weeks because I just wanted to get the feelings off my chest – “How terrible! How could they do this?” It’s a bad place to come in from.

Lately I’ve been getting Film Comment because I belong to the Walter Reade Theatre and I just wish there was more good writing. Film Comment used to have stuff by Manny Farber and Raymond Durgnat, Greg Ford and Rick (Thompson) and so many others – there was a real engagement with writing and a sense of multiple voices.

Adrian: I generally like a good amount of material in Film Comment, but even some of the good younger writers seem to have developed what I call a pugilistic style. It’s a very terse and assertive style where one punches out the filmmaker and gets the film down in three paragraphs. It branches over to a kind of hip fluency about the cinema being dead but that there is one hope. That hope is of course a particular director, and it’s writing that is either all apocalypse or all redemption of the cinema. But it’s not very serious, you can’t believe these people are really feeling that the cinema is dying and being re-born in front of their eyes. At one level it can be read as a rhetoric of promotion.

Ronnie: As I mentioned before, it also comes from what I’ve noticed among people of my generation. They’ve all seen obscure films from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and then they go see the first run Hollywood movie now and they start hailing the death of cinema. But if they had seen, for example, the Kathryn Grayson musicals – Louis B. Mayer’s pride and joy – they would have thought it was the death of cinema too. They are not going to see the same level budget movie now that they saw in the past and so they are saying the latest Hollywood project doesn’t look like Sam Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959). They are not looking at whatever relates to The Crimson Kimono, they are not looking at low-budget horror movies, slasher films or puberty comedies; instead, they are looking at the major Hollywood product and comparing it to B-movies of the past.

Adrian: There are a lot of people interested in modern B genres, slasher and teen movies, but all of it has been colonised by certain ‘nerd film critics’, as I like to call them, who do film guides. But their style of film criticism is of the most conventional sort which goes something like, “George Romero is the master and he made Night of the Living Dead (1968), there are 300 other movies like it, but you shouldn’t even bother to see them.” It’s the Kim Newman-type stuff and I can’t read it because it actually doesn’t say to you, “Go watch 100 or 200 slasher movies.”

Rolando: It’s the same concept of connoisseurship as the A level shifted across to an area in which connoisseurship is not supposed to be relevant. The low-budget level cinema is one that says, “we are a cinema of genre, mass-produced products, and you should see it all, don’t be discriminating.” There is no separation intended there between an A and B level product.

Ronnie: You have just put your finger on exactly what happens: you have people who deal with A product and they are not the same people who are watching the slasher movies, but they are people who are dealing with what is known, for better or worse, as camp.

Rolando: The problem is that the Kim Newman types are actually the bridge between the low-brow and the high-brow areas in criticism. They are the critics who actually clean up the messiness of the B level genres and present that to the high-brow critic. But if you let go of the Kim Newman-type critics and go to the people they are using, those people are fantastic because they don’t discriminate and the genres remain messy at their level. The Newman types are in the middle, the ones who bring the water up from the deep well to the people who drink it, but don’t get wet going into the well. But there are the people in the well, splashing around among all these messy movies, half of them inarticulate or semi-literate, there’s just passion on the page. But the thing to do is avoid the Newman types, that’s a detour you don’t want to take.

Ronnie: Absolutely, because you are also destroying the whole notion of genre. If you don’t get into the well you don’t know where the stuff is coming from. Without a sense of genre you are missing a lot of what is most alive in the movies. That is definitely a problem and it’s so naïve. I really have met people who talk about how all the movies they have been seeing are terrible, and you ask them what movies they’re seeing and never in a million years will they see the equivalent movies of the ‘40s or’50s. And even if it’s junk, they wouldn’t know it’s junk.

Rebecca: Are you talking about writers of an earlier generation, or is this type of criticism really coming from writers of a younger generation who would not have a strong grounding in film history?

Ronnie: Not necessarily. It’s coming out of people who are bemoaning the death of cinema with no consciousness of looking for the cinema where they found it before, or where others found it before them.

You would think that since some things are available on video this matter would be easy, but it’s really quite difficult. Some of the films are obviously made for the wide screen, but the only place the films show up is on video and, while to a great extent it’s laziness, I think it’s very hard to sit through a lot of lousy, cheap films that you can only see on video. The very fact of seeing films on video as opposed to a lovely large screen means that you are not getting the same experience and so you are already turning the films into second class product.

But the nice thing about auteurism was that once you discovered a particular personality you knew what else they had done, whereas if you discover somebody now who the hell knows what else they’ve directed or written – there was a certain neatness about the auteurs in the past.

Rolando: Does a lot of neatness have to do with the studio system?

Ronnie: Yes, and because it’s in the past I can watch and recreate films and careers at another distance. I have a lot more control in terms of going back and looking at certain work than with somebody who, in the vagaries of right now, may or may not be making films. Now I think it takes a lot of dedication to move outside of the context of other people doing similar things. That you guys are doing film criticism together probably helps a lot. You haven’t decided to do it on your own and so you’re created a context. The reason I am not doing film criticism as much as I did is because I have no context. There is a lot of work involved with little recognition – why was Manny Farber alone for so many years?

Adrian: Do you think there ever existed a space between the academy and journalism? When I read American film criticism of a certain period in the ‘70s, there is a feeling of something ‘in between’ what was becoming film theory-influenced writing and journalism – a very fertile space that was neither strictly scholarly nor entirely journalistic. If that space ever existed, in your opinion where do you think it is now?

Ronnie: The space existed because there was a whole cultural re-evaluation happening. I think it was Paul Morrisey who referred to the director as the invention of the monster, and definitely there was this whole sense that auteurism was more or less being invented, and structuralism was definitely being popularised. There was a sense felt among filmmakers as among film critics that what was really going on was happening across the board. The filmmakers themselves were engaged in that writing, and so we were watching and writing about movies that were in fact taking place exactly in that ‘in-between’ space. Jean-Luc Godard was certainly engaged in that writing. The French cinéphiles generally, in and of themselves, created that space. Jacques Rivette sat everybody down and showed Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) before he made Le Pont du Nord (North Bridge, 1982). We were watching movies made in that space and, no, I do not believe there is a space like that now.

Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, 1955)

Raffaele: What may have been suggested earlier about academia having defined itself away from the marginal or middle ground is that film academia occupies a space something like journalism: it too is something like big business.

Ronnie: Careerism, yes. What happened is really economics. On the one hand, the popular became enormous business; on the other, academia became more and more desperate. Those academics who once worked the middle ground are now fighting for their lives, they are hanging on by their finger nails. They are also marginalized within academia because there are now people whose function is to have ideas for books, but these people have absolutely nothing to do with writing the books and have no knowledge of the subject of the books, and I have absolutely no idea what they are doing in an editorial position.

Rolando: Do you think the academic vogue for cultural studies may have had a lot to do with wiping out the middle ground?

Ronnie: I think academia became very desperate because it is often naïve. The academy didn’t know what to take from that amorphous writing on popular culture, or how to introduce it into the curricula, and thus making the curricula more popular as a consequence. This may have sucked a lot of interesting writers into academia and transformed them. Now they are writing academic-type, scholarly books and losing a sense of writing in a different style or diversity of styles.

Rolando: There was in the ‘70s a particular type of individual who could dabble in teaching, in writing for Film Comment,dabble a bit in distribution departments at, say, MGM, or do a couple of years of publicity at a studio. Someone who maintained a lifestyle of diversity, whereas now one has to cling fiercely to a full-time position. Do you think that kind of individual – the dabbler – may have dropped out of the system?

Ronnie: Yes, because nowadays you have to fight so fiercely for one position. When I was teaching, it was ridiculous the rigmarole and competition you had to go through to teach just one course. I have many friends who are all doing full-time jobs, but they are treated as freelance. My conception of freelance is one where you control something, where you have some choice, whether it’s your time or your work-load. But there are people for whom there is no way the job they are doing is freelance, yet they are treated as freelance, with no benefits, no security, nothing. The whole concept of freelance as being something you can pick up and drop is rapidly disappearing, and when you have to kill yourself to get a freelance job, it doesn’t have that dabbling feeling.

When I taught I had to make up resumes that meant every second of my life was academic. If it wasn’t I had to invent something which made it look like it was. I was forced to rewrite my resume seven times just so I could teach one course for one semester. I didn’t want to do it because I had better things to do than rewrite my life. Though I did like some of the things I wrote down – a documentary called Cotton Pickin’ Mamas.

Anna: Another thing one cannot get away from in academia is the choice of subjects. For example, one cannot write on Burt Reynolds or films like Gator(1976) and Sharky’s Machine(1981)because academia does not recognize them as valid subjects.

Ronnie: Which is so terrible because that type of material is going to be the valid scholarship of the future – there are no two ways about it. But it also means one is more likely to write on, say, Woody Allen because Allen is understood and accepted within the current academic context as a filmmaker of consequence. And it’s terrifying because recognition of those ‘non-academic’ subjects is not going to happen naturally, when usually it always happens naturally. Historically, nobody is ever appreciated in their time except by a very few people, and greater appreciation comes later. But the very few people that knows better are not even doing it – that’s scary.

Adrian: One of the striking things I noticed when looking again at your essay on Shock Corridor and comparing it to articles in Film Comment and other magazines at the moment, is that you brought Jacques Lacan into your whole discussion about the subjective/objective states. There’s a certain sort of hip-fluent writing in Film Comment which is mainly just 50 different ways of saying this is a really good film or a really bad film, but Lacan, say, never gets into it any more. In other words, psychoanalysis has been colonised by the high academic end of the market and one would never read these days a racy article like yours that would bring in Lacan, whereas that time was an exciting moment where theory and criticism were in an interesting kind of relationship.

Ronnie: And as I keep saying, it was also what all the films we were seeing were about – we were writing or starting to think about movies at the same time that someone like Godard is making movies. There was this wonderful contemporary sense that the films we were looking at were calling into question what everybody was doing.

What is so depressing about making films now is that it’s as if that whole period never happened, and suddenly we have gone back to some regressive stage of movie-making. What filmmakers did in the ‘80s was that they got nostalgic and rather than leaving something up in the air, they dotted the ‘i’ and crossed the ‘t’ and cleaned everything up. But it was weird being in Hollywood in the late ‘60s because the next big movie people were waiting for, that everybody was on their seats about, was Dennis Hopper’s next movie. All of Hollywood was running around not knowing what it was supposed to do; it didn’t have a clue. That whole period was pretty heady and this period is pretty non-heady.

Rebecca: So an option for you has been to boycott writing because you don’t want to be a part of this period of Hollywood film?

Ronnie: Not really boycott. Somehow there must be a reason why I wound up doing this article on ‘80s films that I now can’t publish. I shouldn’t have written it because it was something I was feeling particularly negative about. It probably would have made good cocktail party repartee but not an article. Yet, it really stopped me from writing because it was such a negative experience and I don’t think you should ever write out of negativity.

Rebecca: But you seem to be very sure about what you have written prior to this article?

Ronnie: I don’t mind what I wrote in the past and this is why I am now writing cartoons. I don’t like to write all by myself any more, which is what I felt when doing “Whatever Happened to the Present Tense”. That loneliness of writing film criticism really made me love writing cartoons because it really is a collective process and you discover a sense of community all over again. It’s really nice not to be in my own head all the time.

It is very difficult to write outside of context. This happens even when I write little reviews for The Chicago Reader. In the last couple of years I get editors that have never seen anything like my writing before. I would get calls from sub-editors asking, “Well did you like it or didn’t you?” I thought I explained it all in the article. There is no comprehension of style at all, and I would get defensive because I got made to feel that my writing was old and passé and some sort of hazy, indecisive, subjective, purple writing. The year that started happening I said to myself, “I can see diminishing returns, I am not going to do it.” But Greg said that I should just think about what they are going to say and do the writing so they wouldn’t cut it. It took me about a year to figure how to write so that an article wouldn’t end up saying completely the opposite of what I intended. I’m not suffering for it any more, but I’ve taken something away from my writing just so I wouldn’t have all the bullshit make me cry. I was getting so frustrated – I was not trying to change the world, I was just trying to review a film that nine people might have seen, and who might tell another nine who might want to see it too.

Ambivalence or mixed feelings are the hardest things to get past newspaper sub-editors. At some point, they always say, ”I couldn’t tell whether you liked it or not?” Finally, that’s all they care about, but that is not film criticism.


[1] Ronnie Scheib, “Ida Lupino: Auteuress”, Film Comment, 16/1, January-February 1980.
[2] This generation of film critics is vast, but a list would definitely have to include Scheib’s associate Greg Ford, round table participant Rick Thompson (La Trobe University), William D. Routt (also La Trobe University), film-makers Tim Hunter and Paul Schrader, film scholar Janey Place, film critic Kathleen Murphy, Richard Jameson (current editor of Film Comment), Richard Corliss (former editor of Film Comment), Movie magazine figures Robin Wood, Ian Cameron and Raymond Durgnat, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (also a visitor to Australia in 1996), and of course Andrew Sarris.
[3] See articles “Charlie’s Uncle”, Film Comment, 12/2, March-April 1976; “Tough Nuts to Crack: Fuller’s Shock Corridor”, Framework, Number 19, 1982; “Images in Exile’, American Film, 10/5, March 1985; and “Angst for the Memories”, Film Comment, 26/4, July-August 1990.
[4] Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, Dutton, New York, 1968. This book was expanded and revised from a special issue of Film Culture by Sarris titled “The American Cinema” (Number 28, Spring 1963).
[5] Scheib is referring to an essay by Pam Cook and Claire Johnston, “The Place of Woman in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh”, in Phil Hardy (ed.), Raoul Walsh (Edinburgh Film Festival, 1974).

Originally published in Metro, no. 109 (1997), pp. 3-12.
Reprinted with the permission of the estate of Ronnie Scheib.

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

Ronnie Scheib (1944-2015) was a film critic who wrote for Film Comment, Framework, American Film, 24 Images, Variety and Chicago Reader. She also wrote dialogue for Warner Bros cartoons.View all posts by Ronnie Scheib →