Rhapsodizing About the Pictures

The Rhapsodes, by David Bordwell (University of Chicago Press)

by Benjamin Schwarz



Thirty-seven years ago, the film scholars David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson, husband and wife, published Film Art, which, through ten editions, has become indisputably the best-selling and most widely read introduction to the study of cinema. Seven years later, the team published, with Janet Steiger, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, which remains the most important single work about the history of American movies ever published. That brick of a book eccentrically, punctiliously, and quite brilliantly married detailed technical and aesthetic analysis with business-, financial-, and technological- history to elucidate in 506 double-columned pages how, from the 1920s through the 1940s, the vertically-integrated Hollywood studio system created and sustained a revolutionary if unobtrusive style of moviemaking.  The staggeringly prolific Bordwell and Thompson have since collaborated on a series of studies of the movies, while each has also published individual works (Thompson, who is also an Egyptologist, has a somewhat broader reach: in addition to books on French cinema and on Ernest Lubitsch, she’s written a critical study of P.G. Wodehouse’s fiction and is finishing co-authoring a major work on Tell al-Amarna’s statuary).

Bordwell’s latest offering is an atypically slim, essayistic assessment of four esteemed American movie critics who wrote in the 1930s and ‘40s, the apogee of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. Although all were creatures of that period, only Ferguson, whose career was cut short when he was killed in the Second World War, and Agee, who died of drink in 1955, are defined by it—Tyler’s critical career extended into the 1970s, and Ferber’s into the 1980s. But in an era in which most intellectuals spurned the pictures as the opiate of the masses, all these writers shared a nuanced and particularly discerning appreciation of Hollywood and its product. And all took an aesthetic approach to criticism (Ferber and Tyler were prominent art critics before turning to the movies, and Ferguson primarily a jazz critic), which perforce meant that their reviews contained a fair amount of detailed if inconspicuous formal and technical analysis (in this way, their natural heir is the great dance critic, Arlene Croce, who wrote the finest book-length piece of movie criticism I know, The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, which effervescently dissects the purest “art” Hollywood has produced). But Bordwell is drawn to these critics less for their aesthetic evaluations than for their contribution to American writing. The four, whom he somewhat clumsily dubs the Rhapsodes, to emphasize the vitality of their vernacular prose, “made American English sing at a fresh pace and pitch. They made writing about film exuberant and important. They raised arts criticism to a level of frenzied acuity it had seldom enjoyed.”

That’s a pretty big claim, but it’s hardly an untenable one. After all, the Library of America—that august collection of the finest and most consequential American literature, founded by those two towering men of letters Edmund Wilson and Jason Epstein in order to form an American canon—has assembled no fewer than five volumes devoted to writing about the movies, all printed on its for-the-ages, acid-free paper, all bound between its uniformly-and snuggly-sized covers, all enveloped in its uniformly glossy black dust jackets (Ferguson is the cynosure of LoA’s anthology, American Movie Critics, Ferber’s and Agee’s criticism each get their own volume, and Pauline Kael—indisputably the most important American film critic ever and nothing less than one of the great masters of American nonfiction prose of the second half of the twentieth century—garners two).

Of the four Rhapsodes, two—Farber and Tyler—don’t exactly fit Bordwell’s template. Although Bordwell issues a characteristically smart assessment of Farber (the Rhapsode whose criticism is most in vogue today), Farber wrote his most influential, polished, and praised criticism, as Bordwell acknowledges, in the 1950s and 1960s, and therefore falls beyond the period covered in this book. The same is true of Tyler, who, moreover, wrote his best criticism in book-length studies, not journalistic essays–studies that, although highly innovative, were really of a semi-academic and often avant-garde nature; Tyler was a good and inventive writer, but hardly a conspicuously brilliant prose stylist.

Moreover, although authors should generally be judged by what they do, rather than what they fail to do, by Bordwell’s own standards, he really should have dropped Tyler and included Cecelia Ager among his Rhapsodes. A socialite beauty and fashion writer for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Ager reviewed movies for Variety and the left-wing New York tabloid, P.M.  Her writing was dishy, stylish, and knowing, and her criticism was groundbreaking.  She acutely scrutinized the way the movies—the largest audience for which were married women—played to, subverted, and reinvented the feminine ideal. And whereas Ferguson and Agee all but dismissed Citizen Kane, Ager was the movie’s early and full-throated champion: “Before ‘Citizen Kane,’ it’s as if the motion picture was a slumbering monster, a mighty force stupidly sleeping, lying there sleek, torpid, complacent — awaiting a fierce young man to come kick it to life, to rouse it, shake it, awaken it to its potentialities, to show it what it’s got.  Seeing it, it’s as if you never really saw a movie before: no movies has ever grabbed you, pummeled you, socked you on the button with the vitality, the accuracy, the impact, the professional aim, that this one does.”  Although Ager is forgotten today, the originality of her approach and the power of what Alastair Cooke nicely characterized as the “beautiful finality” of her prose led Cooke—himself a charming and discerning movie critic, as well as probably the first anthologist of movie criticism—to judge her in the 1930s to be America’s finest film critic.

Regardless of Ager’s absence, Bordwell is particularly insightful in elevating Ferguson, the least well-known, or, more precisely, the most overlooked, of his Rhapsodes. Ferguson’s prose married elegant compression with a kinetic, chatty style and precise, if eccentric, diction. As the movie critic of the New Republic from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, Ferguson arrayed his writerly gifts to anatomize the beguiling qualities of the best American actors. He was probably the first to properly recognize Fred MacMurray’s “open, sustained kind of charm,” and his appraisal of James Cagney’s persona, which “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 assessment of the actor ever written.  But Ferguson’s unique and lasting contribution was to recognize and lay bare the finely wrought, unified style of the Hollywood motion picture. His relaxed but surgical formal analysis revealed the immense complexity, the obscene expense, and the “tedious and backbreaking work” of making movies, (from his article “The Camera Way Is the Hard Way”, which Bordwell analyzes in detail), and he explained more plainly and engagingly than any critic before or since the painstaking way, shot by shot, sequence by sequence, that the Hollywood studios achieved their seamless style.

In contrast to his assessment of Ferguson, the treatment of Agee that Borwell offers is intelligent, but fails to yield much that’s new, largely because Agee’s place in the literary pantheon has been so long established. While the pictures were Agee’s most sustained and serious passion, he won his greatest fame for his deeply uneven masterpieces, his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family, a lyrical evocation of his Knoxville boyhood, published posthumously in 1957, and for his more-praised-than-read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a novelistic documentary portrait of Depression-era white Alabama sharecroppers, which unevenly balanced Walker Evans’s consistently affecting, unvarnished photography with Agee’s occasionally dead-on reportage and more often gaseous, self-consciously poetic meanderings. An indisputably highfalutin literary figure, Agee, as the film reviewer for The Nation and Time from 1941 to 1948, was the first writer to make watching and talking about Hollywood movies a respectable pursuit for American intellectuals, pseudo- and otherwise. (Auden, not much of a picture-goer, nevertheless pronounced Agee’s Nation column “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism”). Agee’s beguiling 1949 Life article reconsidering “Comedy’s Greatest Era” engendered one of the warmest responses that any piece in that magazine’s history enjoyed; it single-handily awakened Americans’ appreciation for their silent-movie history and was the most influential appraisal of the silent era until 1968, when Kevin Brownlow published The Parade’s Gone By. And Until Pauline Kael swaggering, precipitous reviews in the New Yorker (her tenure there started in 1968), it was Agee on Film, a two-volume assemblage, published posthumously, that taught those Americans so inclined how to look at the movies (paperback copies were a campuses fixture for a generation).

Bordwell is certainly alive to Agee’s talents and contributions—Agee had a particularly sophisticated grasp of the technical and visual aspects of the movies, and he conveyed that understanding to his readership of non-cineastes with verve and enthusiasm (his meticulously specific photographic and technical instructions in his movie scripts—he wrote The African Queen with John Huston, in which he even dicated the look of a raindrop on a leaf, and his screenplay for The Night of the Hunter, the only movie Charles Laughton directed—notoriously rendered the director all but superfluous). But, perhaps owing to Agee’s love of and attention to those visual elements (from at least his years as a movie-besotted student at Phillips Exeter, he was enraptured by the motion-picture camera’s “marvelous pliance” as it caught “the beauty of swaying, blending lights and shadows,” as he wrote to his lifelong friend, his fellow Exonian and movie-lover, the social critic Dwight Macdonald), Agee was essentially oblivious of dialogue. For all his incisive grasp of visual comedy, utterly lost on him were the snappy, slangy but sophisticated fast-talking comedies of his era, perhaps the greatest and most quintessentially American achievement in his country’s film history. And, although strikingly astute in discerning theme and character, he was uninterested in, or at least incapable of dissecting, acting and casting: For example, in his legendary, audacious two-part review in the Nation of The Best Years of Our Lives—he mercilessly laid bare the picture’s incontestable flaws in one week’s issue, and then explicated why it was nevertheless a masterpiece in the second (Farber by the way pulled a similar stunt, but a decade separated his contrasting assessments of the movie)—Agee characterized a scene between Walter Baldwin and Harold Russell as “quietly perfect”—but in what way? And he judged Teresa Wright’s acting as “one of the wisest and most beautiful pieces of work I have seen in years,” because she used her “translucent face with delicate and exciting talent”—an assessment so vague and abstract as to be meaningless (for all his talent as a writer, Agee was always fighting an often losing battle with lyrical flatulence). This inattention to performance and to the written word on which it rests is Agee’s major and debilitating deficiency, because film is both a performance and a visual art, as much as a formalist such as Bordwell may wish otherwise.

Bordwell builds a cogent case for what he’d call the rhapsodic quality of a lot of American movie writing, but he leaves unasked and therefore unanswered a central question: What is it about the movies—or American writer’s relationship with them—that has inspired such a distinctive body of writing? For much of the last century, writing about the pictures was something American critics did with peculiar sparkle. This is largely because the best and most distinguishing qualities of American prose — its muscularity; its rollicking flexibility; its feistiness; its genial, conversational ease—have proved uniquely appropriate to capturing the aesthetic and emotional experience of movie watching. A striking number of American authors who worked primarily in other genres were either at their best or were most themselves when writing about the pictures. As Macdonald attested, the “liveliest common interest” that Agee, the poetic novelist, shared with Macdonald, the austere social critic (Macdonald wrote about culture and society for Partisan Review, for politics, which was his own intellectually influential little magazine, and for the New Yorker, but about the movies for Esquire) wasn’t books or writing or ideas, but the pictures, which they fell in love with in their youth. When, they (or even, say, that Augustan man of letters, Edmund Wilson) were indulging in movie criticism, they were obviously enthralled, obviously and purely enjoying themselves, obviously half lost in their childhoods, and obviously at their most unguarded. These Rhapsodes inhabited a movie-saturated culture (three-quarters of the US population went to the pictures every week), and at the movies they simultaneously lost themselves and became themselves. “In the darkness at the movies,” as Kael put it, “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.” Writing about the movies, then–which for so many critics amounted to writing about their first love–engendered an openness and a vulnerability, an individuality and an elan which helps explain the emotional engagement, the fluency, the chatty intimacy, and the unfussiness that has defined the best movie writing.

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