As the first-string film critic for The New York Times from 1969 to 1993, Vincent Canby had a hand in making New York a moviegoing town to rival Paris. Canby died of cancer on October 15 at the age of 76.
In the heady days from the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s, when it seemed as if film were the medium through which the world could be reenvisioned and remade, cinephiles were forever invoking either Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael. I found Canby a far more interesting read. He wrote with wit, lucidity, and a remarkable absence of narcissism about great films and miserable films, innovative films and hack films, and—the vast majority—films so undistinguished that none of those categories apply. He found pleasure in both art and mass-culture movies—for example, in Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Spielberg’s E.T. His eclectic taste was part of what made him a great Times critic. Combined with a sense of form both intuitive and sophisticated, it made him a great film critic, period.
Canby was born in the Midwest, served in World War II, and graduated from Dartmouth on the G.I. bill. At Dartmouth, an encounter with Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (“I knew it was something I’d never seen before,” he said) edged him toward a career in film criticism. After writing for Variety for six years, he moved to the Times in 1965, and four years later became the lead critic. He retired from that post in 1993 but remained at the Times on the theater beat.
Taking over the slot where the prudish Bosley Crowther had written for two decades about films as if they were nothing more than moral exercises, Canby brought the Times into the ’60s at the last minute and literally overnight. I remember my jaw dropping over a piece about Cabaret and Warhol’s Women in Revolt in which he quarreled with the fashionable reading of Sally Bowles and Holly Golightly as men in disguise. Rather it was their experience of defeat that made them “particularly recognizable to the drag queens that Warhol and [Paul] Morrissey now present in what is, whether you like their films or not, a unique form of American comedy.” Although no avant-gardist, he had an enthusiasm for camp (it helped draw him to Fassbinder as well as Warhol) and he wrote about the ambiguity and diversity of sexual desire and its representations with a candor and cool that were astonishing, given the venue.
Stopping short of auteurism, he regarded film as a director’s medium. He rose to the challenge of a generation of filmmakers from Godard to Kubrick whose work reflected the radical aspirations of the ’60s. He had an eye for new talent, for the first films of Jane Campion, Spike Lee, Marta Mezaros, Nick Gomez, and dozens more. He also had his blind spots, among them Marguerite Duras.
He enjoyed being unsettled by a film, and he managed to suggest to readers that they might enjoy the same. When I interviewed him just after he retired from the Times position, he explained that some of the task of the daily critic is reporting on what’s out there. The rest is more personal: to approximate one’s experience of watching the film and that includes analytic, perceptual, and emotional responses. His response to the institutional power of the Times was to write not authoritatively but personally—as a particular person with particular responses living at a particular moment in history.
A modest man, Canby resisted anthologizing his work, claiming that daily journalism didn’t hold up under that kind of scrutiny and that there was too much left out of the pieces he’d written. Perhaps, now that he’s gone, someone will ignore his reservations and bring out a collection. Because I’d like more than the 100 or so clips in my file drawer. Among them is a review of A Clockwork Orange:
“It seems to me that by describing horror with such elegance and beauty, Kubrick has created a very disorienting but human comedy, not warm and lovable, but a terrible sum-up of where the world is at. . . . It’s hardly a cheery thought, which is why the sound of Gene Kelly singing ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ as we leave the theater is so disconcerting. It’s really a banana peel for the emotions.”