Monday, August 15, 2005

Greenblatt on Film

The last (for now) in my astoundingly popular (not one comment!) series archiving my past humor pieces that ran in Jest, is a little number I like to call...

Greenblatt On Film

Though nearly forgotten today, Todd Greenblatt was, for years, one of America’s most influential film critics. He labored not in the high-glamour, fast-paced world of the Arts and Entertainment section—no, his contributions were to be found in the TV listings, the newspaper’s bastard child, which appears every weekend to be promptly stuffed in a basket near the television and glanced at when needed. Yet, Greenblatt’s trenchant insight and unfailing good taste were rewarded in 1981 when he became the first television listings critic to be awarded a Pulitzer prize, an honor he received yet again just before his death in 2001. Here is a typical example of his art, from the New York Times, week of October 10-17, 1993:

4 [NBC] 12:00 – 2:00 (Movie) Drop Dead Fred: 1991. Color, 103 min. Phoebe Cates deals with imaginary friend (Rik Mayall). Insipid.

In just one word, Greenblatt captures the essence of Drop Dead Fred, striking to its hollow core with witty insight (and eviscerating it much more effectively than J. Hoberman’s legendary 2184-word review in the Village Voice).
Greenblatt began as an old-fashioned newspaper man, covering city council meetings for the “Notes” column. His minutes from this period reflect some of the terse wisdom he later brought to bear on his film reviews.

“Councilman Ryan raised concerns regarding non-functioning stoplight at 23rd. Called for vote on new light. Passed by a margin of 8-0. Light sure to be appreciated by all.”

It was this extra attention to the needs of the community that caught the eye of his editor, the beloved Henry McManus. McManus had long sought for someone to take over the demanding Movies on Television beat (the previous reviewer, Scott “Old Scotty” Tolan, had collapsed from exhaustion, undone by the crushing schedule required to watch and review every film to appear on televison in a given week).
McManus knew of Greenblatt’s reputation as a film buff, having been subjected to opinions on the oeuvres of various directors while working the newsroom. (Greenblatt on Hitchcock: “Riveting.” Greenblatt on Renoir: “Enchanting.” Greenblatt on Goddard: “Confusing.”) So he tossed the cub reporter a bone—the coveted listings position. Greenblatt was only 23, the youngest reporter ever awarded the job.
While many were convinced young Greenblatt would fail, (Federico Ozols, editor of the Latin Tempo section is famously quoted as saying “I’ll bet Todd just calls every movie ‘diverting’”) he quieted his critics with his very first review:

2 [CBS] 2:00 – 4:00 (Movie) Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: 1978. Color, 113 min. Bee Gees in Beatles musical. Worthless.

Everyone agreed that the Bee Gees’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was indeed worthless. And thus Greenblatt’s reputation was made.
From the beginning, Greenblatt caught the eye of a number of other influential critics, including Andrew Sarris, Francois Truffaut, and most significantly Pauline Kael with whom he had a brief romantic dalliance. (Years later, when asked how Greenblatt was as a lover, the notoriously spiky Kael snorted, “Short. Like his reviews.”) Kael and Greenblatt enjoyed a friendly rivalry, and in 1981, on the 10th anniversary of the publication of Kael’s famous essay “Raising Kane,” this listing appeared in The Times:

4 [NBC] 8:00 – 10:30 (Movie) Citizen Kane: 1941. B&W, 119 min. Orson Welles’ masterpiece. Greatest movie of all time?

The review elegantly sums up the prevailing thought on Kane, acknowledging its stature, while the question mark gently allows for the possibility that it may not be the absolute highest in film art. Years later, in one of her final interviews, Kael acknowledged that, “When all is said and done… [Greenblatt] had the last word on [Citizen] Kane.” The Pulitzer committee agreed.
* * *
At the height of his power, Greenblatt enjoyed not only respect of the highbrow film community and the larger American movie-viewing public. Consider this listing for February 28, 1983:

7 [ABC] 8:00 – 10:00 (Movie) Frogs: 1972. Color, 91 min. Big frogs terrorize Ray Milland. Don’t bother.
America agreed, heeding his warning. Viewers didn’t bother with Frogs, as a nation united, deciding instead to watch the series finale of M*A*S*H.
As the years passed, Greenblatt had to contend with a number of annoyances. One of the most insulting was the brief adoption of a star-based rating system. Grenblatt’s respected editor of many years had passed away, and the new editor, Tina O’Brian, decided that the listings lacked “visual flair” and “instant readability.” Thus, in 1992, the following review appeared:

40 [USA] 11:00 – 1:00 (Movie) Arachnophobia: 1990. Color, 103 min. Poison spiders terrorize Jeff Daniels. **1/2

While everyone agreed that Arachnophobia was the very epitome of a two and a half star film[1], Greenblatt was furious. According to legend, he stormed into O’Brian’s office, screaming, “What does two and a half stars tell people that the word ‘Watchable’ does not?! Fuck your G—damned stars! I’m a writer, not an astronaut!” O’Brian held firm, until Greenblatt threatened to accept a job with Le Monde (his review of Goddard’s work—“Le Oeuvre de Goddard est Confondre”—had caused a splash in France, resulting in lucrative offers). Fearing readers would cancel their subscriptions if he left, O’Brian caved. The star system was quietly phased out within the week.
More frustration came from imitators. In the 90’s, several critics attempted to mimic Greenblatt’s style, including Jonathan Duvoisin of the Boston Globe:

35 [TNN] 2:00 – 4:00 (Film) Every Which Way But Loose: 1978. Color, 110 min. Clint and a chimp. Monkey-tastic.

Failed attempt at humor aside, one wonders what sort of review “monkey-tastic” is supposed to be. Is it positive? Negative? The reader is left unsure whether he or she should watch this monkey-tastic film. Another imitator was Francis Galloway of the Dayton Daily News:

300 [HBO] 10:00 – 12:15 (Movie) Good Will Hunting: 1997. Color, 126 minutes. Matt Damon is a brilliant but troubled guy from Boston, whose therapist is Robin Williams. Basically a good movie. A little predictable, especially coming from Gus Van Sant who did all those art films, plus, who buys Matt Damon as a genius, and did Robin Williams really deserve the Oscar for best supporting actor? I was rooting for Burt Reynolds for Boogie Nights, and Matt and Ben Affleck winning the best original screenplay Oscar? That’s lame even if they actually wrote it (my cousin said it was William Goldman). Could be shorter too.

Physician heal thyself. Galloway’s overlong reviews soon cost the Daily News untold thousands in extra paper. Both he and Duvoisin were quickly fired from their respective posts, and Greenblatt was again the undisputed king of his field.
In his later years, he made the jump to television, contributing to the TV Guide channel’s daily listings, a move that cost him several highbrow critic friends who worried that abandoning print journalism would mean pandering soundbites. He also continued to review for the newspaper, though some feel that he was overextended. They point to his controversial review of June 19, 2000:

5 [Fox] 9:00 – 11:00 (Movie) Mannequin: 1987. Color, 90 min. Andrew McCarthy falls for a mannequin (Kim Catrall). Fun.

Fun? Was it really? Many say no.
However, like the great Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane made his reputation, Greenblatt’s downfall came when he aroused the ire of a media giant. Instead of Welles’ William Randolph Hearst, the man Greenblatt angered was Ted Turner, of the Turner networks. In one evening, Greenblat’s TBS Superstation listings read as follows:

8 [TBS] 6:05 – 8:05 (Movie) For Your Eyes Only: 1981. Color, 127 min. A James Bond movie on TBS. What a surprise!
8 [TBS] 8:05 – 10:35 (Movie) The Blues Brothers: 1980. Color, 133 min. This may be your last chance to watch The Blues Brothers this week.
8 [TBS] 10:35 – 12:35 (Movie) Brewster’s Millions: 1985. Color, 97 min. Oh great. This is never on TV.

And those reviews are just a sample (his listings during TBS’s “13 days of Bond” are too obscene to be reprinted here). Exhausted from Turner’s programming schedule, Greenblatt attacked his stations week after week, until Turner grew tired of the editorializing. A fed up Ted Turner phoned a few key media friends, and at the age of 50, Todd Greenblatt was out of a job.
He died soon thereafter. His reason for living had always been to help the television viewers of this country use their time wisely. When he was no longer allowed to fulfill his purpose, he found that his own time was up. His death went unnoticed by all but the most devoted film lovers, but a careful examination of The New York Times obituary section for July 10, 2001 reveals this notice:

51 [Dead at] 1950 – 2001 (Person) Todd Greenblatt: Reviewer. Caucasian, approx. 26,805,600 min. TV listings critic of note. Delightful.


[1] History has borne him out, as Arachnophobia is the film most often awarded the two and a half star rating in a survey of over 1,000 top movie guides.

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