Another 5001 Nights at the Movies

By Benjamin Schwarz

March 2006 ATLANTIC

American Movie Critics:  An Anthology, edited by Philip Lopate (Library of America)

trou3Edmund Wilson and Jason Epstein, those giants of American letters, conceived the Library of America, one of the most ambitious and serious projects in the history of U.S. publishing, to provide authoritative texts, unencumbered by academic paraphernalia, of the canonical works of this country’s literature (drama, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction), bound in handsome, uniform volumes and printed on for-the-ages stock — all at a reasonable price. It’s strayed from its mission, with both happy and, at times, questionable results.

LOA’s notion of what constitutes essential authors has expanded from the likes of Melville and Twain to such a motley crew as William Bartram, H. P. Lovecraft, and Charles W. Chesnutt. This is a more or less welcome development: what we lose in the slackening of canonical standards, we more than gain by having the works of neglected, commercially unviable, important-if-not-great writers easily and cheaply obtainable (though, really, Ambrose Bierce merits an LOA edition before, say, Charles Brockden Brown). On the other hand, some of the “special anthologies” containing writings by various authors — the baseball and “sea writing” compendia, the keepsake-y, prettily illustrated “gift book”American Writers at Home— seem like moneymaking schemes designed to help this nonprofit venture defray the cost of bringing James Weldon Johnson’s poetry and editorials within easy reach of every American book buyer. However remunerative, though, such productions of course threaten to dilute the brand, as they say. So, just months after reviewing LOA’s edition of the works of James Agee — who among other things is the most fancily literary film critic in our history— I greeted this 700-plus-page anthology of the writings of American movie critics (LOA can’t possibly get any deeper into pop culture than that) with some wariness, which hasn’t completely abated.

The editor, Phillip Lopate, opens his lengthy and deeply knowledgeable introduction with the declaration “It is arguable … that in the last fifty years more energy, passion, and analytical juice have gone into film criticism than into … any other writing about the arts.” Arguable? No, certain. (And I say that even though I’m a little unsure of what, exactly, “analytical juice” is.) But the editor’s own criteria for selection can’t always be reconciled with the writings assembled in this volume. To be sure, Lopate could have gone terribly wrong here, and he didn’t. “Film studies” attracts far more than its share of pseudo-intellectual, jargon-clotted nonsense, and he’s included almost none. But whereas previous anthologies of film criticism sought merely to collect compelling or influential writings about the movies, Lopate aims to include only works of the highest artistic value. This book, he says, “celebrates … critical writing that honors the best belletristic tradition of our nonfiction prose” and therefore he has focused on “film criticism as an art in itself — the magnet for strong, elegant, eloquent, enjoyable writing.” That’s setting the bar a little high, or rather setting two different bars: surely most writing that’s strong, elegant, and enjoyable (as rare an achievement as that is) isn’t art. Furthermore, Carl Sandburg’s pleasant if ephemeral and completely unremarkable reviews, Melvin B. Tolson’s crude diatribe against Gone With the Wind’s racism, and bell hooks’s assessment of Pulp Fiction— a work of criticism that Lopate, with uncharacteristic obtuseness, praises as “moving effortlessly between street talk and poststructuralist theory” (the piece is as “enjoyable” as that sounds)— can’t possibly be deemed examples of “the best belletristic tradition of our nonfiction prose.” But, in all fairness, neither can the smoothly crafted reviews of Stanley Kauffmann or John Simon, nor such well-written (if sometimes dated) landmarks in film studies as the semi-scholarly selections included here by Siegfried Kracauer, Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Barbara Deming, Molly Haskell, Stanley Cavell, and James Harvey. I’m sure Lopate knows this, and I think he’s guilty only of sloppily explaining his criteria. He’s in fact arranged an astute collection of the most important American writers on the movies (reviewers, freelance critics, a few academics and quasi-academics). He’s admirably championed critics who have long gone underappreciated. And, most important, he’s highlighted writings of extraordinary literary merit by several movie critics, a few of whom are long forgotten except by the cognoscenti.

With a few glaring exceptions (nearly all of which can be attributed to that lamentable, dogged pursuit of inclusiveness and diversity), Lopate displays highly cultivated taste. Years ago I’d read some of Cecilia Ager’s glamorous, breezy reviews from the 1930s, which combined a refined eye for fashion with a sure, sharp grasp of the feminine mind. I’d come across them in Alistair Cooke’s nearly eighty-year-old classic anthology of movie criticism, Garbo and the Night Watchmen (Cooke considered her the country’s preeminent movie critic). I hadn’t read her work or anything about her since then, but sure enough, Lopate has gathered a nice assortment here. He also fits in Arlene Croce’s sublime encomium to what she called the “delicious entre nous sparkle of fun” at the heart of the Astaire-Rogers partnership, and to the way the pair transformed dancing “into a vehicle of serious emotion between a man and a woman,” which “never happened in the movies again.” (Croce’s slim, elegant 1972 The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book is simply one of the best volumes about film ever published.) He not only includes the work of David Thomson, author of the audacious and addictive A Biographical Dictionary of Film, but he chooses from Thomson’s thousand entries the two finest: his portraits of Cary Grant (“the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema”) and of Howard Hawks (who captured better than any other filmmaker both masculine romanticism and “the dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture” between men and women). His one selection from Richard Corliss’s body of reviews is that critic’s responsibly contrarian evisceration of Robert Altman’s grossly overrated, mean-spirited, and cheaply hip M*A*S*H. He energetically rehabilitates the reputation of the wryly incisive Vincent Canby (who, toward the end of his long perch at The New York Times, was sometimes unfairly regarded by the relentlessly modish as something of a fuddy-duddy), pronouncing him the best daily reviewer this country has ever produced — and in the process treats us to Canby’s spot-on assessment of the trite, smug, and “determinedly inarticulate” Easy Rider (the collection clearly if unintentionally suggests that quite a few of the vaunted “masterpieces” of the late 1960s and 1970s should be taken down a peg or three). With acuity he selects Roger Ebert’s winsome and wise appraisal of Ernst Lubitsch’s oh-so-adult Trouble in Paradise (“the characters have a weight of experience behind them that suggests they know life cannot be played indefinitely for laughs”), an essay that nicely displays the critic’s lightness of touch and enormous erudition — attributes Ebert is unable to convey on TV.

In his sampling of the work of Andrew Sarris, the American critic most strongly associated with the auteur theory, whom some castigate, wrongly, for stagecoach 12overlooking performance in his prevailing concentration on cinematic technique, Lopate insightfully chooses an uncharacteristic essay — a moving appreciation of the greatness of John Wayne’s acting, in which Sarris says of that performer’s relationship with those iconic directors John Ford and Hawks, “They needed him more than he needed them … he had become his own auteur,” and in which Sarris with offhanded Achesonian elegance sums up the mystery at the heart of great film acting: “The worst acting is so often mistaken for the best, particularly on the screen, where being transcends pretending, and just standing there can often be more effective than doing something.” (Alas, Lopate doesn’t bring in Joan Didion’s two greatest pieces on film — her shimmeringly romantic essay on Wayne, certainly among the loveliest pieces ever penned on the movies, and “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind,” her withering assessment of Hollywood’s fatal penchant for message-y films, a penchant that it seems the industry will never overcome.)

Lopate’s most significant contribution, though, is his elevation of Otis Ferguson, whom he rates among the five greatest American film critics. The New Republic’s movie reviewer from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s (he was killed in the Second World War), Ferguson combined a genius for compression with a pulsating, conversational, and exact diction. He deployed these gifts to convey the uniquely beguiling qualities of the best American actors (he was probably the first to properly praise Fred MacMurray’s “open, sustained kind of charm”; his consideration of James Cagney — who “somehow managed to be a lot of what a typical American might be, nobody’s fool and nobody’s clever ape, quick and cocky but not too wise for his own goodness, frankly vulgar in the best sense, with the dignity of the genuine worn as easily as his skin” — is the best appraisal of the actor ever written). More important, Ferguson perfectly explicated the finely wrought, unified style of the Hollywood motion picture. His at once relaxed and surgical formal analysis revealed the colossal complexity and the “tedious and backbreaking work” (from his piece “The Camera Way Is the Hard Way,” sadly missing in this collection) of moviemaking, and he explained more clearly and engagingly than any critic before or since the meticulous way, shot by shot, sequence by sequence, that the Hollywood studios achieved their seamless style.

Although the bulk of the writing collected here doesn’t rise to Lopate’s highfalutin standards, what’s noteworthy is that so much of it does. If movies and jazz are the arts that most fully express this country’s creative character, so writing about movies is something American critics do with peculiar brilliance. The best and most characteristic qualities of American prose — its muscularity, its flexibility, its feistiness, its good-natured, conversational ease— have proved remarkably well suited to describing and dissecting both the movies and the aesthetic and emotional experience of watching them. And there’s also a quality of love and play that’s almost unique to the best American movie criticism. An extraordinary number of American authors who worked primarily in other genres were either at their best or were most themselves when writing about the pictures. When, say, the somewhat pretentious journalist and novelist Agee, or the dour and somewhat self-important social critic Dwight Macdonald, or the dour and somewhat self-important man of letters Wilson were indulging in movie criticism, they were plainly enraptured, plainly having just so much fun, plainly half lost in their childhoods, and plainly at their most unguarded. Lopate perceptively notes the plethora of personal details and idiosyncrasies almost customarily revealed in movie criticism, but while he attributes this to a deliberate essayistic technique, writing about the movies (which for so many critics here clearly amounted to writing about their first love) in fact seems to engender that kind of openness — which helps explain the passionate engagement, the headlong fluency, and the unfussiness that define so much of the greatest movie criticism. Writing about the movies was an occasion for male writers to be, as they say now, vulnerable and, more important perhaps, for women writers to let their hair down.

kael_pauline-19800814.2_png_300x417_q85More important because the cynosure of this anthology is, of course, Pauline Kael, whose criticism, Lopate asserts without fanfare and with complete accuracy, “belongs with the best American nonfiction prose of the modern era.” This anthology is arranged more or less chronologically, and it’s impossible to read any important piece of writing before Kael’s entries without recognizing a stylistic element or an argument that she’ll develop, enhance, react to, or smack down, just as it’s impossible to read any entry after hers without hearing her echo. Rereading here her most celebrated essay, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” you can’t help arguing with her (in my case in notes all over the margins). How can she be so wrongheaded? (On one page she’s provocatively dismissing analysis of the formal and stylistic elements of film; but on another she’s acknowledging that those are the very elements that transform kitsch into art.) And then you’re off like a pinball, bouncing from one of her scintillating insights to another, propelled by that sassy common sense, by the rollicking, slangy precision of her prose, by her dishy swagger. But for all that swagger, what makes Kael superlative is her femininity. More than any of her counterparts Kael, who famously used what she called “sexually tinged titles” for all her collections, and whose relationship with the movies most closely resembled a searing and lasting affair, appreciated the private, even erotic, nature of movie watching (“in the darkness at the movies where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses”). And she perfected that feminine quality common to all the finest movie writing — a chatty intimacy— that is the best instrument to convey that experience. Despite its uneven contents and impossible claims, for most red-blooded American readers few books published this season will prove more absorbing.

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