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Interview with Roger Smith and Allen Carr: Filmmakers From Two Worlds

It's easy enough to tell a filmmaker what you liked about his movie. He nods and agrees and discovers you're quite a perceptive fellow. But when you start talking about what you didn't like...

In the last 10 days, I've interviewed the makers of two current films -- "Goodbye, Columbus" and "The First Time." Both movies have something to do with young people and love. Both are photographed in color. The similarity ends there.

"Goodbye, Columbus" is a fine movie, well-acted and directed, one of the year's bright spots. "The First Time" is a piece of fluff with pretensions; it claims to tell us a great deal about 17-year-olds, but in fact tells us hardly anything except how little the makers understand human nature at any age.

The fact is, though, that I found things wrong with both films and I wanted to discuss them with the makers. The results were worlds apart.

Ten days ago, or so, I found myself trapped in a TV studio with Roger Smith and Allan Carr, the co-producers of "The First Time." In their hands they held my review; I'd given the movie a rating of one star.

"One star!" Carr cried. "One star! All the critics loved this movie. The Saturday Review loved it. The Los Angeles Times loved it. The San Francisco critics. What's more, all three of the other Chicago critics loved it. Everybody loved it, except you. How could they all be wrong and you be right?"

The conversation continued in this vein for five or 10 years, despite the noble attempts of Sheri Blair to maintain order. I think she expected a fight, which could hardly have been more entertaining. That segment was possibly the most undisciplined half-hour in local TV since the monkeys broke out on Bozo's Circus.

But all right then, how could they all be wrong and me be right?

Well (I might have said if I'd gotten a word in), movie criticism is such an inexact business you can hardly expect all the critics to be wrong all the time. Someone will eventually be right, and this time (blushing modestly) it was me. But I wasn't alone, in fact. Rex Reed detested "The First Time" in his Holiday magazine review although, come to think of it, I'm not sure I want Rex on my side.

But the thing is, shouldn't we discuss movies rationally? If possible? I made certain observations on the language in the film. Its complete lack of obscenity, for one thing. Smith accused me of trying to drag the movie into the gutter. Far from it. I wasn't advocating obscenity; just finding it odd that three youths at Niagara Falls in search of a prostitute would call her "neat" when they found her. There were some other things I wanted to bring up, but I didn't get the chance.

Carr accused me of falling over furniture, going to screenings drunk, never having been 17 years old, and a few other things that would have been libelous if I were William Buckley and he Gore Vidal. But I didn't mind. For all I know, I never was 17 years old and never will be. Judging by the 17-year-olds in his movie, it's possible.

The confrontation with the makers of "Goodbye, Columbus" was quite a different matter. Larry Peerce, the director, and Stanley Jaffe, the producer, were both clearly delighted with the success of their movie and willing to discuss it objectively.

The questions I wanted to discuss involved (a) whether the wedding scene in the movie was anti-Semitic and (b) why the people acted like 1954 although the movie was set in 1969. Neither of these questions seriously bothered me while I was watching "Goodbye, Columbus;" like all good movies, it exists in its own universe and silences all questions for the time being. But, on reflection, I wanted to see what Peerce and Jaffe had to say.

"The wedding scene?" Peerce said. "We're both Jewish, and I know we didn't consider it anti-Semitic. Rather, it was about a certain sort of Jewish life style which is by no means typical of all Jews. In fact the wedding turns off Neil, the young boy. That's the moment he realizes what he's in for if he marries Brenda.

"And we had to play the wedding scene long in order to make that point. We could have done it in three minutes on the screen. But then you miss the boredom and the endlessness of the wedding. And you miss its meaning.

"See, what was going on was that the father had only learned the values of life in terms of material possessions. He had started with nothing and built up a business, devoting his life to it, and now he loved to lavish his money on his kids. But not out of vulgarity, out of love.

"When Neil sees that, though, it nails home for him the fact that Brenda essentially accepts her father's view of life. She's in transition now, and willing to listen to him, but in the end she'll return to her father's view. And if Neil doesn't do something, Neil and Brenda will be going through exactly such a wedding in six months or a year.

"So the scene had a dramatic purpose. It wasn't anti-Semitic unless the whole movie was; within the movie, the scene had a reason and it worked."

The other question had to do with the time of the movie's setting. Philip Roth's original story was set around 1954. The movie is set, presumably, at the present moment. Yet fraternity dances are still held, the current social crisis seems hardly to exist, and even Brenda's birth-control theories are a collector's item.

"Well..." said Jaffe. "Well, look at it this way. If we'd set it back in 1954, who knows? Maybe people wouldn't have liked that either, and would have asked why we weren't contemporary. But if you brought it right up to 1969 - the world situation, the urban crisis, the racial tension - you would have had another movie. You wouldn't have had this particular movie about these specific people and their problems. You've got to remember, this movie is basically about two young people. So we centered on them."

"You know, before we cast Ali MacGraw and Richard Benjamin, we interviewed maybe 1,100 or 1,200 people? And we gave screen tests to about 300. All these actors would come in for the role of Neil, and they'd say, this story is about me. I am Neil. And they'd act like wonderful, vulnerable Jewish boys.

"But the character Neil wasn't a wonderful, vulnerable boy. We saw him with an edge. There was something hard and intelligent about his character. And we got that from Benjamin, I think..."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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