Sunday, November 28, 2010

Duncan Shepherd found distinctions

It is not altogether settled, among those who care about such things, whether the retirement of Duncan Shepherd from his post as the film critic of the San Diego Reader after 38 years of service is a cause for celebration or lamentation. The detractors of Shepherd, who are legion, contend, with wearying predictability, that he was a misanthrope who never found a movie to his liking, that he dispensed his black dots with reckless abandon, and that, most daringly, he harbored a deep-seated animus against the very art of cinema. I confess that I was drawn to his writings precisely because he was not easily amused by the offerings of Hollywood–at last, someone who dared to castigate the mediocrity that pervaded the screen–and I find the accusation that he loathed movies altogether to be a symptom of a reader who either skimmed his reviews superficially or failed to grasp his arguments. One of the delights of reading Shepherd was to discover his occasional praise for a movie that would otherwise escape notice despite its modest charm and crafty execution; he had a discerning eye for those filmmakers who could respect the genre they were working in and make it fresh without resorting to grotesque gimmicks. This is what good critics do, make distinctions, find exceptions.

It is hardly astonishing that the movie critics have been unsparing in their dissection of the movie version of Bewitched, given the dismal track record of television shows adapted into cinematic features. The presence of Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Shirley McLaine, and Michael Caine has not mollified the skeptics. It surprises me only marginally more than Shepherd found some merit in it. It is not a matter of someone making fatuous pronouncements for provocation. Shepherd is more fastidious than that; he sticks to specifics and illustrations, and compares the current movie with a host of other recent works by the same participants. It amounts to arguing that the movie is good because it is less bad than its predecessors; it is an inelegant way of making a case for a movie and a nightmare for studio publicists looking for a flattering blurb. But it gives the reader an intriguing glimpse into how one critic thinks popular entertainment should be conceived and executed.

Shepherd is, in my estimation at least, a masterful if idiosyncratic prose stylist, a peerless historian of film art, and a refreshing breeze of honest opinion when he renders judgment on a feature. He has an aesthetic he will not compromise, and the endless tide of grueling gimmickry has not worn him down. I am less exacting in what it takes to entertain me at the movies, and I am usually more charitable than Shepherd tends to be. That may only mean that my standards are more relaxed and that Shepherd’s love of the movie art is such that he deplores seeing the medium squandered on plots that would not satisfy the requirements for a dime novel. Yet I read him all the same, given that he is the sort of critical contrarian who makes a case instead of pontificating about what aesthetic absolutes are being violated. He is not a critic who bemoans the death of the movies; it is one movie at a time, wryly observed, and judgments rendered in witty and incisive fashion. He is the sort of man you dread to see on the opposite side of a debate since it would mean that you would need to shore up your argument to a sounder foundation.

Three decades into his job, and his reviews are as brutal if elegantly phrased as ever. He does catch you surprised, though, and finds sensibly lovely things to say about films other critics have attacked like packs of hungry dogs. He gave Prince’s star-writer-director vehicle Under The Cherry Moon three stars out of his five-star rating system, appreciating the film’s look and measured style and the director’s ability to create a fantastic sense of place without making a mess of the art he’s trying to create. Likewise, he awarded five stars to Walter Hill’s seriously under-estimated Streets of Fire. Among other comments, he cited that virtually every other critic missed or chose not to discuss, that the ostensible rock and roll fable was actually a Western with its narrative conventions set in the mid 20th century America. Shepherd’s discussion of the Hill film is more nuanced than I’ve given here, but let it suffice that he was right about both films.


  1. This comment is 11 years late, but I often wonder if Shepherd shakes his head at the Reader movie reviews since he retired. They hand out stars like they're working a going out of business sale.

    1. Thanks for reading and the comment! I imagine he'd be rolling his eyes and feel some measure of mild disgust. I don't think the current reviewers for the Reader are dishonest in any respect, but I do find their points, even in films they find lacking, to be pedestrian. Good arguments for their point of view about movies, but nothing ever rising above the category of "consumer guide". They are reviewers, not critics as we understood Shepherd to be, someone who went into the more problematic areas of film art and who was immune to the herd mentality of more famous critics who got quoted in the newspaper ads.


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