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Safe Roads and Backwaters

American Movie Critics:
An Anthology from the Silents Until Now

Edited by Phillip Lopate
(The Library of America, 2006, 720 pages)

 


A random dive into Phillip Lopate’s American Movie Critics – an anthology spanning 91 years of film writing – can turn up many individual gems, from Melvin B. Tolson’s 1939 ‘Gone with the Wind Is More Dangerous Than Birth of a Nation’, first published in the African-American newspaper Washington Tribune, to Gilberto Perez’s superb 2004 discussion of John Ford’s Judge Priest (1934), ‘Saying “Ain’t” and Playing “Dixie”’, which appeared in Raritan magazine. The sweep of the project takes us through some standard milestones that have yet to lose their interest and allure – Hugo Münsterberg on ‘The Function of the Photoplay’ (1916), Gilbert Seldes’s An Hour with the Movies and the Talkies (1929), Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947), Manny Farber on ‘Underground Films’ (1957) and ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art’ (1962), Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape (1974), Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire (1993). Speaking personally – as an Australian who reads quite a lot of American film writing – I discovered a few names hitherto unknown to me (such as Lincoln Kirstein and Walter Kerr), and caught up with some delightful pieces that had slipped my grasp, such as Stuart Klawans’s witty demolition from The Nation of Gladiator (2002).

 

But let’s get down to brass tacks. Every cinephile who is as fond of reading about films as seeing them will pick up this large book and instantly do a few quick calculations – probably before reading even a single word of the pieces included or Lopate’s presentation of them. They will note certain proportions and disproportions. Fourteen texts from Otis Ferguson, seven from Andrew Sarris and six from James Agee versus one apiece from Susan Sontag and Jonathan Rosenbaum? Forty pages of Pauline Kael versus twenty-seven from J. Hoberman? Still more testily, they will draw up a mental list of whom, in their fierce opinion, is missing from, and who should never have been included in, such an ‘official’ collection.

 

Here, upfront, is my own calculation. The rollcall of the Grievously Missing – sticking mainly to names of the past thirty years – includes Amy Taubin, Chris Fujiwara, Kathleen Murphy, David Ehrenstein, Greg Ford, Bérénice Reynaud, Dave Kehr, Fred Camper, Ronnie Scheib, Gary Indiana, Howard Hampton, Yvette Bíró, among many others (some of whom I name below). Why not have only one text apiece from everybody, and thus more writers included? Dubious or risible inclusions: Armond White (restricted here to two ‘early’ pieces pro and con Spike Lee, but already full of the unargued bluster that has become his trademark in New York Press); Roger Ebert (represented by a weak piece on Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise [1932] that muses only on the characters and the actors who play them, almost as if he were reviewing a piece of theatre); bell hooks (whose feisty but maddening diatribe on Pulp Fiction [1994] merely asserts that the film is ‘cynically cool’ about twenty times in four pages); John Ashberry (the guy may be a great poet, but his take on The Seventh Victim [1943] is strictly amateur film criticism).

 

Of course, my personal reaction is much like anybody’s personal reaction, in that it reflects a specific set of likes and dislikes – and thus can be taken or left accordingly. However, as one starts getting into American Film Critics, other, more general thoughts are likely to arise, less focused on individual writers (and readers’ tastes or distastes in relation to them). Lopate strangely excludes all filmmakers with the sole exception of Paul Schrader, even those who are winningly funny or eloquent in prose, like John Waters (easily the equal of Paul Rudnick aka Libby Gelman-Waxner, who does make it in), Richard Linklater or Jean-Pierre Gorin. He has made an evident, admirable attempt to include women and African-Americans, but does not do the politically right thing for gays (of course, there are gays in the book, but only fleeting acknowledgement given to queer film criticism, beyond its origin in Parker Tyler). He includes – with a note of dutifulness – the sociological commentaries of Kracauer and Barbara Deming written in the ‘40s and ‘50s, but doesn’t draw upon the ‘Kracauer revival’ that is making itself powerfully felt in books like Ed Dimendberg’s recent Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity … which is maybe a little too ‘academic’ for American Film Critics (more on this below).

 

Of course, every anthology – even one of 700-plus pages like this – has to be selective, and will end up omitting much worthy stuff (Lopate laments the fact that he had to leave himself out). Lopate is candid about the criteria underlying his ‘curatorship’ of the pieces – he has judged them primarily on the quality of their writing, and (he adds) it helps if he agreed with their judgements. And he has certainly done a good job of diversifying the types of films discussed by his chosen critics – from arthouse classics to Hollywood blockbusters and disreputable genre films – as well as setting up some engaging ‘correspondences’ between pieces, such as answering Rudolf Arnheim’s 1935 ‘The Film Critic of Tomorrow’ with J. Hoberman’s 1998 ‘The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today’.

 

But the question nags: what is a book like this for, exactly? To rehearse a somewhat dusty Canon of Critical Greats that, for the most part, can be found cemented in the previous anthologies on this topic? To ever-so-slightly update that Canon? Surely such a book, if it is be really worth something, has to be the occasion for a full-blooded argument about the role and value, the forms and histories, of film criticism. A safety-valve seems to have been clamped on this Library of America project from the outset: under the alibi of pitching itself to what Lopate calls the ‘lay reader’ – and there is nothing wrong with that, since every young or not-so-young cinephile has to start somewhere, with something basic – it takes few risks, and does not set out to redraw the map of what is already said and known about American film criticism. (Alas, even such treading of safe roads has not saved the book from a disgracefully reactionary ‘film criticism is a load of silly rot’ rant by Clive James in The New York Times Book Review).

 

Lopate, a ‘man of letters’ as well as a film critic, turns out to be (in cultural terms) just the person the Library needed for this task of conserving the status quo. The logic of his selection, and the bias of his presentation, is signalled in the very first paragraph of his ‘Introduction’: critical writing is worthy of our attention and praise if it ‘honors the best belletristic traditions of our [i.e., America’s] nonfiction prose’. Belletristic is a strange word to encounter in this context, and Lopate may not be aware that ‘belles lettres’ has sometimes been a term of abuse in the polemical wars of (roughly) the past four decades surrounding film criticism and theory. Lopate’s emphasis is perfectly clear: he values criticism as literature, above anything else that it might be, or aspire to be (like political reportage, cultural commentary or aesthetic history); and the type of literature he values has an unmistakeably highbrow aura (even when it is talking about such lowbrow things as genre movies or even porn) – the kind of aura bestowed by the nation’s literary Establishment.

 

Hence, Lopate’s selection gives a large place – inordinately large, in my opinion – to esteemed fiction writers or poets (Vachel Lindsay Carl Sandburg, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin … ) who have dabbled in film criticism – while giving short shrift to those commentators who enter the field through the door of either pop music commentary (Greil Marcus) or art criticism (Dave Hickey). This may have something to do with Lopate’s somewhat queer assertion that ‘it is arguable, in fact, that in the last fifty years more energy, passion, and analytical juice have gone into film criticism than literary criticism, or probably any other writing about the arts.’ Arguable, indeed. One sign of Lopate’s excessively literary orientation when compiling this volume is his evident fondness for books – and also the various Review of Books journals, whether from London or New York – as markers of published respectability, and indeed as the most dependable signposts of what is historically significant in the film-critical field.

 

But can the history of movie criticism really be compressed onto a shelf or two of a bookcase containing the classics from Lindsay’s The Art of the Moving Picture to Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness and James Harvey’s Movie Love in the Fifties, not forgetting Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema and David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film?

 

To be fair, Lopate certainly does not limit himself to representative excerpts from classics of this ilk. When he is not eulogising books, he tends to wax appreciative about ‘deadlines’, extolling the professionalism and spunk of those who were or are able to turn in workable (even belletristic) prose on a punishing weekly schedule. (Curious point of national comparison: André Bazin and Serge Daney wrote to deadlines too, but no French commentator makes a big deal of it.) And so the balance of the selection here tends to be devoted to dependable (and sometimes underwhelming) ‘troupers’ like Vincent Canby, David Denby, Kenneth Turan and Richard Schickel – although not, strangely enough, Todd McCarthy or Robert Koehler from Variety, a publication which appears to fall in the out-bin that Lopate labels ‘trade journals’.

 

But what is missing between the weighty, eternal book and the ephemeral newspaper release is precisely the realm of the magazine or journal. And any sensible history of film criticism, it seems to me, has to be a history of magazines, rather than only the most remarkable individuals who contributed to them.

 

The culture of film magazines seems to hold little weight for Lopate in his reckoning of the field and its history. He duly mentions some of their titles – Film Culture, Film Comment, Cinema Scope – and includes many selections that originally appeared in magazine format (although preference has been given to those pieces already monumentalised in some previous book collection) – but he offers no sense of what these various magazines stood for, and why, and how they frequently defined themselves in opposition to each other. A great many significant magazines simply disappear from Lopate’s account, be they primarily devoted to cinema (American Film, Movietone News, The Thousand Eyes), or other art forms strongly linked to it (Artforum, Interview, The Believer, Rolling Stone, plus many ‘small’ literary magazines down the decades). Nor does Lopate allow into his purview non-American magazines containing American writers, such as (pre-eminently) Sight and Sound in the UK. Some illustrious US contributors to that magazine (like Rosenbaum and Hoberman), of course, enter Lopate’s radar from elsewhere – but not, for example, Los Angeles-based Bill Krohn, whose highly original and searching essays have appeared in Cahiers du cinéma (under the banner of ‘American correspondent’) for the past quarter-century, or Florida-based Jean-Pierre Coursodon, regular contributor to Positif and co-author of the massive Fifty Years of American Cinema.

 

A highly questionable modus operandi here is Lopate’s exclusion of something he offhandedly and mysteriously calls ‘film theory’ – which, in his essay collection Totally Tenderly Tragically, he has confessed to reading quite a lot of, but rarely retaining in his memory. Such amnesia begs for a psychoanalysis! He rejects ‘film criticism … as a conduit for film theory’ because ‘the lay reader’s pleasure is rarely where it [i.e. theoretically informed writing] places its emphasis’, and refers to ‘the academic article, with its abstruse jargon’. In the context of the book’s introduction, this seems to be a coded way of declaring that no primarily scholarly, university-based journal has been allowed to enter the selection-pool. Now, I can accept Lopate’s setting aside of purely academic writing, and his desire to appease the ‘lay reader’. But in the large world of professional journals that includes Camera Obscura, Cinema Journal, Screen, Framework, Film Quarterly and so many others to which American writers contribute, couldn’t Lopate have dug to find some engaging, innovative, and indeed belletristic texts? Certain prime candidates spring to mind instantly: James Naremore, Tom Gunning, Janet Bergstrom, David Bordwell, P. Adams Sitney, and many others. After all, film theory had, for better and for worse, its own belletristic moment in the era of Roland Barthes’ greatest influence.

 

In decades past, commentators worked themselves into a lather over the spurious distinction between film reviewing (which provides a quick consumer guide) and film criticism (which offers an in-depth view) – spurious, because (as Manohla Dargis’s entries here well show) even the most constrained review space can (and should) aspire to critical insight. Today, this appears to have been displaced by the newer opposition between film criticism and theory. But it is a rigged game: between the lines of Lopate’s brush-off, we can intuit that, for him as for many others these days, criticism is sensitive, human, complex and literary, while theory is over-cerebral, programmatic, and badly written. But Lopate could do with a good dose of theory to lift him beyond dreadfully old-fashioned talk of ‘visual analysis’ – a belles lettres term if there ever was one – which forms a refrain in his sections of the book. Never mind mise en scène, découpage, suture, off-screen space and all the rest; how about an acknowledgement of sound?

 

Undoubtedly the weirdest aspect of American Film Critics is that it behaves as if the Internet has not yet been invented. Naturally, it is the Internet, more than anything else, which has changed the landscape of the film-publishing culture worldwide, tipping the balance even more towards magazines (in their many, new-fangled cyber-forms, including blogs) rather than books. Yet when Lopate surveys, synoptically, the changes that have affected the practice of film criticism, he stops at ‘the greater emphasis on graphic design over copy’ in hard-copy publications! He never mentions the Net – not even when one of his selected authors, 77 year-old Donald Phelps, today writes exclusively for that medium, and others such as Kehr and Fujiwara are building an international readership more through that avenue than through the US newspapers that employ them. And as for any new talents who are coming up through the Internet, you won’t find them here.

 

The occulting of the Internet and its significance points to another odd aspect of this book and its editorial tone: Lopate’s inability to place American film criticism in any meaningful international context. It would be pointless indeed to argue that a book called American Film Critics published by The Library of America is (surprise, surprise) rather fixed on America. But there is still something troubling about this cavalier lack of context. To some extent, this is business as usual: American cultural manifestations frequently display – with a casualness that is truly maddening to non-Americans – the assumption that either the US is a whole wide world unto itself, or that the actual whole wide world is breathlessly in touch with everything the US produces. Where no book about film criticism in Brazil, Greece or Australia would fail to measure itself against the twin cinephile towers of America and France, Lopate’s volume of Americana – despite its occasional vague gestures to the ‘international film press’ or a particular writer’s ‘international reputation’ – has no clear vision of what constitutes global film culture today.

 

Indeed, Lopate’s own belletristic prose begins to go to hell whenever he tries to imagine the coordinates of that globe: his regret that he could not include ‘such wonderful English critics as Graham Greene, Raymond Durgnat and Anthony Lane’ slips sheerly from the UK dateline into a lame justification not being able to devote ‘a set of gargantuan tomes’ to ‘all the glorious film criticism written worldwide’ (he’s going to need more than three token Englishmen for that task). Far more egregiously – in a passage that nervously tries to come to terms with the kind of world cinema, largely non-mainstream in nature, that so many progressive critics are today militating to support – Lopate evokes those who are ‘trolling the backwaters of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the avant-garde for a new pantheon’. Backwaters? It seems that an awful lot of the non-American world is backwater to Lopate.

 

The book reflects a generally mainstream, middle-of-the-road view of cinema. Those international backwaters that some of his finest contributors troll – including, say, the films of Tsai Ming-liang, Abbas Kiarostami and Jia Zhang-ke – don’t get much of a look-in, beyond the acceptably arthouse Wong Kar-wai (in a piece by Kent Jones); and the avant-garde (another mighty large backwater!) makes a cameo appearance due only to the inclusion of Jonas Mekas. This project is more comfortable with a nostalgic regard at the French and German New Waves of simpler days.

 

This mainstreaming effect – which comes down, finally, to a passive acceptance of the kind of film culture that is served up by the commercial interests of the industry, as commentators like Rosenbaum never cease reminding us – chimes along with Lopate’s distaste for polemics. Snippets of such internecine warfare are certainly included in the book – from Sarris exposing the power-base of ‘Bos’ Crowther to Farber slighting the ‘Mekas propaganda wheel’ – but Lopate gives this thread a wishy-washy gloss when he veritably sighs about the ‘fraternal dissing’ he invariably found in the archives of film criticism: ‘I am struck by how many times a film critic has felt the need to launch an assessment of a movie by ridiculing or denouncing the opinions of some colleague.’ He concludes that such a ‘combative strategy is but one of the many tried-and-true ways to insert tension into a film review.’ It is hard to imagine a less political account of film criticism than this – cultural wars reduced to the trivia of personal rivalries and the feints of action-packed writing.

 

© Adrian Martin August 2006


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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