Royal Rumble: Academics vs. Film Critics

It's not every Sunday morning I find myself engaged in a Twitter quarrel with Richard J. Evans, today's foremost (though Ian Kershaw may disagree) academic historian of the Third Reich. But Sir Richard—yes, he's been knighted—is also the foremost academic defender of Ben Urwand's controversial new book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler, and I had a bone to pick with him.  I can't say I'm not grateful he answered, although my dream of blowing off Cambridge's Regius Professor of Modern History by tweeting, "Gotta go. Saints game's on!" didn't materialize.  

The nature of my bone—and I suspect I've waited years to commit that phrase to the public's tender mercies, Prospect readers—was fairly simple. I haven't read The Collaboration yet, a disqualifier from passing judgment on it I strongly urge you to keep in mind. Because I'm a movie reviewer and my colleagues are involved, I'd been a fascinated onlooker to the kerfuffle over Urwand's alleged "reckless" misinterpretations and tendentious use of his research materials to make a case that 1930s Hollywood more or less consciously and deliberately did Hitler's bidding for the sake of retaining the German movie market. But short of settling down with the damn thing to decide for myself, that was the extent of my investment in the debate, or so I thought.

The word "reckless," just so you'll know, is a quote from the great film critic David Thomson. When that distinguished but far from calm man calls a book reckless, my eyebrows do go up a bit, I must say. The source of the quote—and a fine guide to the controversy—is sometime Prospect contributor Jon Wiener's excellent September 30 piece for The Nation. And, yes, Wiener is an online friend. That ought to be another reminder that I wasn't following all this from Mars.

 Nonetheless, I was happy to stay on the sidelines—like I had any business elsewhere, right?—until Evans tweeted this: "Hollywood's attack dogs try to discredit Urwand's superb dissection of the studios' collaboration with the 3rd Reich." It was followed by a link to an admittedly partisan (and why on earth shouldn't she be?) post by Alicia Mayer—grandniece of MGM's Louis B. Mayer—that summarized the latest takedowns of The Collaboration's reliability.

That's when I saw red. Though Evans may believe differently, I wouldn't know Alicia Mayer if she were coming on to me on New Year's Eve. But "Hollywood's attack dogs"? I either knew or knew of the work of several of the writers who'd questioned Urwand's take. Whatever the merits of their case against The Collaboration, their good faith and specialized knowledge of the subject weren't in question. Even though New Yorker critic David Denby—the most prominent anti-Urwander  so far, and someone I've had my ups and downs with over the years—may be surprised to hear it, those were my peeps this British a-hole was disrespecting. So I fired back a tweet informing the Regius Professor of History that he didn't know what he was talking about.

I was a mite nonplussed to get a reply. (Face it, folks—if Evans is getting into it with me on Twitter, he's getting into it with everybody.) Unsurprisingly, because it's been his standard line since the kerfuffle began, he was pretty harrumph-y: "Have you read the book? Can you list serious errors in it? Definition of serious error: see my book Lying About Hitler." To which I replied that I was merely objecting to his abusive characterization of Urwand's critics, keeping my delight at the Regius Prof's inability to resist plugging his own work to myself.

We had a few more exchanges after that, not uncivil but not what you'd call a meeting of the minds. "Critics are not scholars," he scolded me at one point, which might win a not-so-gentle demurral from, among others, Thomson—who not only taught cinema at Dartmouth for four years but is the author of the formidably learned, proudly idiosyncratic A Biographical Dictionary of Film, currently in its fifth edition. Yet since I'd made it clear that his insult to my colleagues was my only reason for entering the fray, don't blame me for being surprised to read this later tweet from Evans: "So: the most vehement critics of Urwand are movie critics (Carson, Thomson), & relatives of the moguls he criticises (Mayer), and the like." My protest that this was inaccurate, seeing as how I'd neither reviewed nor read The Collaboration, got no answer.

But why, you may wonder, regurgitate my set-to with Sir Richard at all? Because I think it's revealing, that's why. Quite aside from the merits or demerits of Urwand's book—on which, I repeat, I'm not in a position to pronounce either way, however impressed I may be by the negative reaction from people who know the topic and whose opinions I generally trust—all this says a lot about the ongoing tussle between academics and non-academics for control of the cultural narrative, considering that Evans refuses to acknowledge that Urwand's critics (some of whom are academics, but that doesn't daunt him) are even qualified to dispute The Collaboration's inflammatory thesis. His notion that it's somehow damning for "movie critics"—he won't say "historians," of course—to be the book's leading naysayers when it's their field of expertise is fairly choice. So is linking them to Mayer as similarly defensive, therefore unreliable judges.

It may say even more about the divide—contemptuous on one side, vexed on the other—between intellectuals primarily concerned with politics and those who find film and similar pop-culture subjects worth devoting careers to. To be blunt, I doubt Evans would have been so captious or so vulgarly ready to imagine cabals at work if he'd been refuting people whose place in the egghead cosmos he had any respect for. It seems plain that, at some level, he's stupefied anyone can take film seriously enough to bristle at Urwand's M.O. or conclusions, just as Glenn Greenwald seemed dumbstruck that anyone could fault him for slandering Kathryn Bigelow as a "torture apologist" without seeing Zero Dark Thirty first.

On top of that, Evans likely just isn't used to people questioning his judgment. He's vouched for Urwand and he's Sir Richard Evans, so why doesn't that settle the matter in everyone sensible's eyes? Without implying a direct comparison—the issues involved are very different—his role in the kerfuffle is peculiarly reminiscent of how his eminent forerunner (and fellow Regius Prof, though at Oxford), pioneer Third Reich historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, found his reputation in hot water after authenticating diaries that were purportedly Hitler's and proved (duh) to be forgeries. Then again, Trevor-Roper presumably thought that whether those diaries were genuine mattered a good deal. So far as I can tell, Evans doesn't think that movies or movie history matter at all, and he's wrong.

You may also like