When Movie Critics Attack

After the Tall Timber

Is it wrong to remember Renata Adler primarily for her bitter, public fights with Pauline Kael?

When Adler’s two brilliant works of semi-fiction—Speedboat at Pitch Dark—were re-released to great acclaim a couple of years ago, she seemed poised to go down in history as a master stylist in her own right. So I’m kind of afraid that the publication of this new collection of Adler’s nonfiction—After the Tall Timber—will set Adler’s legacy back. In all of its 528 pages, Adler’s pugnacious film criticism and her feud with Pauline Kael are clearly the most interesting parts—simply because everything else she reported on feels so… dated?

Adler brought her considerable intellect to bear on the pressing issues of her time, but the pressing issues of her time are pretty snooze-inducing, in retrospect. Robert Bork. Biafra. Jayson Blair. The Kenneth Starr report. There is plenty to say about these issues, and for the most part it has all been said, and we have all moved on. Apparently the 1970s to 1990s, when Adler wrote these pieces, were a great time to be a film critic, and an awfully dull time to extrapolate on American headline news.

So if you want a refresher on Renata Adler’s nonfiction, you can always refer to her massive takedown of Pauline Kael in the New York Review of Books. And if you have access to a New York Times subscription, you can read this little gem about violence in the movies.

I do not think violence on the screen is a particularly interesting question, or that it can profitably be discussed as a single question at all. There are gradations, quite clear to any child who has ever awakened in terror in the night, which become blurred whenever violence is discussed as though it were one growing quantity, of which more or less might be simply better or worse.

As for me, I will be picking up Speedboat and getting re-acquainted Renata Adler the master prose stylist.

– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Founder of Fiction Advocate.

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