In 2007, Eric Donald started a blog called Criticide (as in the killing of criticism), dedicated to calling out those film critics, past and present, whose reviews were less than partial, unfair or just plain nasty. I designed the site in eyeball-assaulting primary colors and contributed regularly as the criticassin Popcorn Peter. Here's a post I called:
In what may be the most concise bit of foreshadowing in the long history of storytelling, Kirk Douglas speaks the following opening line in Billy Wilder's Ace In The Hole:
CHARLIE TATUM (to tow truck driver):
Neat! For those of you as yet unfamiliar with this terrific movie, I'll spare you the gory details and leave you to realize for yourself that you will never be nearly so clever if you live three times longer than Mr. Wilder's ninety-six years. This long-lost nitrate nugget stands as one of his greatest achievements, right up there with stepping aside and letting hubris ultimately give Pauline Kael the dressing down she so richly deserved. The man was a class act.
This is why Billy Wilder will be remembered long after every copy of Pauline Kael's short-sighted review of Ace In The Hole has been recycled as paper plates. The broad's undeniable flare for writing notwithstanding, her fatal weakness as a critic was a comprehensive lack of vision and a stubborn resistance to the notion that anyone other than her goes to movies.
Her tongue was as sharp as Dorothy Parker's, yet somehow girthier and mad butch. I'll be honest, it's impossible to put down one of her voluminous indulgences until you've blasted through at least half of it in a single sitting. If only her mama had hipped her to the fact that the cinema doesn't exist just for her, or her generation, or right now or next Thursday afternoon. It exists for all time and for all the humanity contained therein, and the greatest of film artists intuitively understand this. Most film critics, on the other hand, can see no farther than next Memorial Day. Herr Kael was no exception:
Billy Wilder produced and directed this box-office failure right after Sunset Boulevard and just before Stalag 17. Some people have tried to claim some sort of satirical brilliance for it, but it's really just nasty, in a sociologically pushy way.
Let's face it, menopause can be rough. Still, Billy Wilder was hardly responsible for the cobwebs on her ovaries, so who's being nasty here? Sociologically pushy? This from a woman who gave a glowing review to Altman's Nashville months before it was even finished? She'd accused Wilder on more than one occasion of being overly cynical and mean-spirited, but one need look no further than his art collection to know what rubbish that characterization is (full disclosure: I've never seen his art collection). Wilder - who himself began as a newsaperman - only happened to foresee what the future ultimately held for American journalism, that's all. Crack a dictionary, dead lady, that's not cynicism; it's soothsaying.
And anyway, if Billy Wilder was so cynical, why is his work universally embraced by each succeeding generation of filmgoers and shamelessly cribbed by anyone that's ever picked up a camera? Of course, Pauline Baby's confrontational, self-absorbed, nose-thumbingly snotty (but in no way cynical) style has itself brow-beaten its way into the lexicon of contemporary culture, but the timelessness of America's Top Model has yet to be determined.
I got my just-released DVD of Ace In The Hole in the mail a couple days ago and watching it again just as the Crandall Brothers Coal Mine Circus came into town, frankly, made my taint hairs stand on end (as did the predictably beautiful new Criterion Collection print, except in a sexier way). Remember what I said about Mr. Wilder's prescience? Well, let's just say that the rescuers in the film also used the drill-from-the-top approach now being employed by the coal mine rescuers in Utah, with what will unquestionably be identical results.