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Schlock jocks

The Film Snob's Dictionary An Essential Lexicon of Filmological Knowledge David Kamp with Lawrence Levi Broadway Books: 118 pp., $11.95 paper

March 19, 2006|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review and a film critic for Time. His most recent book is "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

So is -- and I say this with more regret -- King Vidor. He was, I think, the greatest of the American silent-picture directors, and he has a nice, if critically inadequate, entry all to himself in "The Film Snob's Dictionary." But if you are going to mention him, don't you have to mention his great contemporaries -- Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, Dziga Vertov? I think so; in for a penny, in for a pound. Or, alternatively, fold your hand and grab a beer.

So it goes. "Detour" (and its director, Edgar G. Ulmer) is not here, though it is an authentic masterpiece rescued from the trash heap by the cine-snobs (they do have their virtues). But Richard Widmark is present because he is alleged to be "snob beloved." Which is fine with me -- I belove him too. But why is he here? Because of that insane giggle when he pushed the little old lady down the stairs in "Kiss of Death"? OK, I'll buy that. But don't you have to show how that moment's madness "influences" the equally divine lunacy of Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi and Dennis Hopper? I think so.

Occasionally, the authors oblige, as in the case of Wallace Beery, a popular star-grotesque of the 1930s and 1940s. Now widely unremembered, he is mentioned prominently in the Coen brothers' snob favorite, "Barton Fink." (So he rates a learned commentary here, which I think is a good thing.) Modern film is rich in such references to the medium's past, so full of "homages." They make the snobs happy when they are the first to chortlingly recognize them. And, frankly, their niggling absurdity tickles me too.

In the end, film snobbery isn't about having even a primitive critical sensibility; it is about possessing arcane information, holding it close and using it to exercise a pathetic sense of superiority over less obsessively informed but possibly more intellectually and emotionally balanced moviegoers. It is also, of course, a way of setting oneself in opposition to the smug bourgeoisie. By defending the indefensible splatter pic through incomprehensible exegesis, you become the Nietzsche of the niche market.

Which brings us to this final joke on everyone: Movies are largely ceasing to be a mass medium and are becoming a collection of cults (of which the snob crowd is but one). The trend is an old one, beginning with the advent of television, which cost movies three-quarters of their audience in the 1950s. But now it is reaching a new crisis. You can see it in this year's best picture Oscar nominees, only one of which ("Munich") even aspired to reassemble the old audience. You can see it in the steady (and I think irreversible) decline in theatrical attendance. This means film snobs are really no different from, say, the "opera queens," once part of a vital mass audience and now a handful of devotees in frenzied pursuit of that bootleg recording of the Lisbon "Traviata." The same is true of all the formerly popular arts and media, even television in the cable age.

But to speak purely of movies, this is not what Kael, or any of us who care about the medium, had in mind. She hoped in her loopy way to broaden the audience for film by proposing that the audience, responding to the sometimes divine, always enigmatic interpenetration of trash and art, would broaden and re-energize itself. That did not happen.

And it will not happen. We are now many audiences in search of the increasingly obscure objects of our disparate desires. Which means that "The Film Snob's Dictionary," nice try though it may be, is not only too much and too little, it is also too late.

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