I’m more than a little bit distracted this week, so in lieu of writing anything fresh today, I thought I’d post a piece of mine that you might not have seen when it came out in 2006. It’s a review of American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now, an anthology edited by Phillip Lopate that was published by the Library of America. I hope you like it.
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Film was the master medium of the twentieth century. Within a few years of its invention, it had supplanted live theater and the novel as the main way in which most people experienced the art of storytelling, and it retains its cultural dominance to this day (though only if you count TV as a species of filmmaking, which you should). It follows, then, that film criticism should by definition be worth reading. Right? Er, well, sometimes. Most of it is in fact flaming hogwash, though Phillip Lopate has held the nonsense to a minimum in his new collection of American film criticism. It isn’t perfect–no anthology is–but American Movie Critics will likely become the standard collection of its kind, for the most part rightly so.
The Hippocratic Oath of anthologists starts off as follows: First, don’t be dull. Lopate has steered clear of mere dutifulness, one or two puzzling duds notwithstanding, and he’s struck a nice balance between such obligatory-but-deserving inclusions as Manny Farber’s “Underground Film” and Robert Warshow’s “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” and the out-of-left-field nuggets that lend savor to any anthology worth reading. Who knew that Cecilia Ager, who reviewed movies for Variety and PM in the Thirties and Forties, was so wickedly clever? Or that Vincent Canby’s never-before-collected New York Times reviews would hold up so well? As for his decision to include the entries on Cary Grant and Howard Hawks from David Thomson’s indispensable New Biographical Dictionary of Film, my only regret is that he didn’t throw in Humphrey Bogart while he was at it.
Of course I would have done it all differently, and certain of Lopate’s oversights are real disappointments. I was surprised, for instance, to find nothing by Anthony Lane or Joe Morgenstern, and positively staggered by the absence of Charles Thomas Samuels, whose Mastering the Film remains one of the most penetrating books on film to be produced by an American critic. Nor am I quite satisfied with his selections from the Thirties and Forties, which too often run to the obvious. (Had Lopate spent a couple of hours trolling through the eight DVD-ROMs that make up The Complete New Yorker, for instance, he would have discovered that Harold Ross was publishing smart film criticism long before Pauline Kael.) In addition, American Movie Critics contains no index, nor are the essays it reprints accompanied by their original dates of publication, though many–but not all–can be found in the back-of-the-book permissions section. These vexing omissions greatly diminish the usefulness of American Movie Critics to the general reader.
Be that as it may, this is Phillip Lopate’s book, not mine or anybody else’s, and it’s mostly a fine one. Even where I take issue with his priorities, I have no trouble appreciating them, which is all you can ask of an anthologist (except for an index). John Simon, for instance, surely deserves to have been represented by more than two pieces, but had I been the editor of American Movie Critics, I would have made sure to include, as Lopate does, his reviews of The Last Picture Show and Chinatown:
The final question is whether a mystery film, however concerned with moral climate and psychological overtones, can transcend its genre….These people are much more vulnerable than their genre antecedents, which is what ultimately makes for Chinatown‘s originality and distinction. Still, the hold of the genre is so strong that, even with sensational plot twists kept at a minimum, there simply isn’t room enough for full character development–for the richer humanity required by art.
This acute observation might well serve as an epigraph for American Movie Critics. Likewise this one: “I should like to inquire why we as the nation that produces the movies should never have developed any sound school of movie criticism.” Otis Ferguson, the first working film critic to achieve high distinction, wrote those words sixty-five years ago, and Lopate cites them in his excellent introduction, asserting in reply that “we have developed a sound school of American movie criticism–thanks to Ferguson himself, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and those who have followed in their wake.”
Readable as American Movie Critics is, I’m not so sure I agree. It strikes me as hugely revealing that the early years of American film criticism failed to produce a George Orwell, by which I mean an essayist of the first rank who left behind a significant body of work in which film is considered not in isolation but as part of the larger world of art and culture. Ferguson and Warshow might well have filled the bill had they lived long enough, but both men died too soon to fully prove themselves, and no one like them has come along in subsequent years (except for John Simon, who is far more specifically aesthetic in his wide-ranging interests than the sort of critic I have in mind). At their best, Agee, Farber, and Kael wrote wonderfully about film, but do any of their reviews, or those of the other critics included in American Movie Critics, really stand up to direct comparison with an essay like Orwell’s “Raffles and Miss Blandish” or “Inside the Whale”?
I can’t help but wonder whether the problem might be that film is incapable of inspiring such writing. Not the medium itself: A movie like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game or Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is as worthy of close critical scrutiny as any great novel or play. But how often do film critics get to write about such works of cinematic art? Commercial movies cost too much to be produced by anyone other than businessmen, and the independently made low-budget films of the past decade, fine though the best of them are, have yet to transform the American film industry in the way I (and many other critics) once hoped. I spent the past seven years turning out monthly film reviews, in the course of which I saw and wrote about such superb independent and quasi-independent films as Election, Ghost World, The Last Days of Disco, Lost in Translation, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Next Stop Wonderland, Panic, The Station Agent, and Sunshine State. Yet by the end of my run I was more than ready to quit, and since I did so I’ve seen exactly three new movies, only two of which I liked.
Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect that the ease with which I set aside my professional passion for film is more than just a quirk. I find it no less revealing, for instance, that Lopate cites with seeming approval David Denby’s reference to “that tone of fond exasperation which we recognize as the sound of a movie critic.” Can you imagine any truly serious critic making so chummy, even condescending a remark about opera or painting? It speaks volumes about the inescapable limitations of genre-bound commercial films as works of art and objects of criticism. For once, it seems, Shakespeare was wrong: when it comes to the movies, the fault is not in ourselves, but in our stars.