Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — On American Movie Critics |
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On American Movie Critics

American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now,
edited by Phillip Lopate. (The Library of America, 2006.)

Since all of us are deeply learned experts on the movies even when we don’t know much about anything else, people wishing to make their mark as movie critics must either be able to express opinions like ours better than we can, or else they must be in charge of a big idea, preferably one that can be dignified by being called a theory.

In American Movie Critics, a Library of America collection drawn from the work of almost 70 high-profile professional critics active at various times since their preferred medium was invented the day before yesterday, most of the practitioners fall neatly into one category or the other.

It quickly becomes obvious that those without theories write better. You already knew that your friend who’s so funny about the Star Wars tradition of frightful hairstyles for women (in the corrected sequence of sequel and prequel, Natalie Portman must have passed the bad-hair gene down to Carrie Fisher) is much less boring than your other friend who can tell you how science fiction movies mirror the dynamics of American imperialism. This book proves that history is with you: perceptions aren’t just more entertaining than formal schemes of explanation, they’re also more explanatory.

The editor, Phillip Lopate, an essayist and film critic, has a catholic scope, and might not agree that the nontheorists clearly win out. They do, though, and one of the subsidiary functions that this hefty compilation might perform — subsidiary, that is, to its being sheerly entertaining on a high level — is to help settle a nagging question. In our appreciation of the arts, does a theory give us more to think about, or less? To me, the answer looks like less, but it could be that I just don’t like it when a critic’s hulking voice gets in the way of the projector beam and tries to convince me that what I am looking at makes its real sense only as part of a bigger pattern of thought, that pattern being available from the critic’s mind at the price of decoding his prose.

For as long as the sonar-riddled soundtrack of The Hunt for Red October has me mouthing the word “ping” while I keep reaching for the popcorn, I don’t want to hear that what I’m seeing is an example of anything, or a step to anywhere, or a characteristic statement by anyone. What I’m seeing is a whole thing on its own. The real question is why none of it saps my willingness to be involved, not even Sean Connery’s shtrangely shibilant Shcottish ackshent as the commander of a Shoviet shubmarine, not even that spliced-in footage of the same old Grumman F9F Panther that has been crashing into the aircraft carrier’s deck since the Korean War.

On the other hand, no prodigies of acting by Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, climaxed by his partial success in acting himself tall, convinced me for a minute that Stanley Kubrick, when he made his bravely investigative capital work about the human sexual imagination, had the slightest clue what he was doing. In my nonhumble ticket purchaser’s opinion, the great Stanley K., as Terry Southern called him, was, when he made Eyes Wide Shut, finally and irretrievably out to lunch. Does this discrepancy of reaction on my part mean that the frivolous movie was serious, and the serious movie frivolous? Only, you might say, if first impressions are everything.

But in the movies they are. Or, to put it less drastically, in the movies there are no later impressions without a first impression, because you will have stopped watching. Sometimes a critic persuades you to give an unpromising-looking movie a chance, but the movie had better convey the impression pretty quickly that the critic might be right. By and large, it’s the movie itself that tells you it means business. It does that by telling a story. No story, no movie. Robert Bresson only did with increasing slowness what other directors had done in a hurry. But when Bresson, somewhere in the vicinity of Camelot, reached the point where almost nothing happening became nothing happening at all, you were gone. A movie has to glue you to your seat even when it’s pretending not to.

As the chronological arrangement of this volume reveals, there were good American critics who realized this fact very early on. Several of the post-World War I critics will come as revelations to anybody who assumed, as many of us have long been led to assume, that America was slow to discover the fruitfulness of its own cinema. The usual history runs roughly thus: Even in the Hollywood-haunted America of the years between the wars, the best critics concentrated on the work of obviously major artists, most of them foreign. Then, after World War II, generous young French critics armed with the auteur theory discovered that a cluster, or pantheon, of directors within the Hollywood system had always been major artists too: Nicholas Ray was up there with Carl Dreyer, and so on. After that, American film criticism grew up to match European maturity.

It took a theory to work the switch, and the essence of the auteur theory was that the director, the controlling hand, shaped the movie with his artistic personality even if it was made within a commercial system as businesslike as Hollywood’s. This fact having at last been discovered, film criticism in America came of age. It’s a neat progression, but this book, simply by its layout, shows it to be bogus.

Among the early critical big names, some were big names in other fields. Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg were bardic poets, Edmund Wilson was a high-flying man of letters, H. L. Mencken was the perennial star reporter-cum-philologist of the American language. None of them had any real trouble figuring out what the commercial filmmakers were up to. Edmund Wilson didn’t just praise Chaplin at the level due to him, but dispraised Hollywood “gag writers” at the level due to them: he didn’t, that is, dismiss them out of hand, but pointed out, correctly, that their chief concern was necessarily with storytelling structures that worked cinematically, and that there might be limitations involved in doing that. There were and there still are.

“Go! Go! Go!” “Five, four, three, two, one!” “Take care of yourself up there/out there/in there.” It doesn’t matter how formulaic the words sound, because at those moments the movies are essentially still silent. The writing all goes into deciding who falls backward through the window, has his head ripped off by the alien, bares his bottom amusingly to get his shots from the pretty nurse, or pouts tensely when the sonar says “Ping!”

Mencken fancied himself above it all, but he had a penetrating understanding of star power. Sandburg is unreadable today only because of the way he wrote. His prose was bad poetry, like his poetry. (“The craziest, wildest, shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silversheet of a cinema house,” he wrote of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his grammar flapping irrepressibly in the rhetorical wind.) The important consideration here is that everything these superior minds approved of in the foreign art film they also looked for diligently in the American industrial product, and were touchingly glad to find any signs of its flowering.

They were more likely to find those signs, however, if they weren’t functioning as general commentators on the arts or as visiting firemen from ritzier boroughs, but had a regular job reviewing the product as it came out. Hence the first critic in the lineup likely to knock the reader sideways is Otis Ferguson, who started reviewing movies for The New Republic in 1934 and kept it up until the year before his lamentably early death at the age of 36. Had he lived, none of the later pantheon aberration might have got a purchase, because he was perfectly capable of seeing not only that some of the American movies were terrific, but that even the best of them often took a lot more than a director to put together. This last bit was the key perception that the pantheon’s attendant incense burners later managed to obscure with wreaths of perfumed smoke, but before we get to that, let’s be sure of just how good Ferguson was.

As a first qualification, Ferguson could see that there was such a thing as a hierarchy of trash. He enjoyed Lives of a Bengal Lancer even where it was corny, because the corn (“execrable... and I like it”) was being dished out with brio. This basic capacity for delight underlay the vigor of his prose when it came to the hierarchy of quality, which he realized had its starting point in the same basement as the trash. A Fred Astaire movie was made on the same bean-counting system as a North-West Frontier epic in which dacoits and dervishes lurked treacherously on the back lot, and Astaire wasn’t even a star presence compared with a Bengal lancer like Gary Cooper. “As an actor he is too much of a dancer, tending toward pantomime; and as a dancer he is occasionally too ballroomy. But as a man who can create figures, intricate, unpredictable, constantly varied and yet simple, seemingly effortless . . . he brings the strange high quality of genius to one of the baser and more common arts.”

Decades later, Arlene Croce wrote about Astaire at greater length, and possibly in greater technical depth, but when she got the snap of his dancing into a sentence, she was following a line that Ferguson had already laid down. Hear how he rounds it out: “Fred Astaire, whatever he may do in whatever picture he is in, has the beat, the swing, the debonair and damn-your-eyes violence of rhythm, all the gay contradiction and irresponsibility, of the best thing this country can contribute to musical history, which is the best American jazz.” Take out the word “gay” and it could be something written now, although there aren’t many who could write it. Look at the perfect placement of that word “violence,” for example. It’s not enough to have the vocabulary. You have to have the sensory equipment. You have to spot the way Astaire, in the full flight of a light-foot routine, could slap the sole of his shoe into the floor as if he were rubbing out a bunch of dust mites.

Ferguson’s sensitivity to the standard output made him more adventurous, not less, when it came to the indisputable works of art. Sometimes it made him adventurous enough to dispute them. He wasn’t taken in by the original or the re-edit of Eisenstein’s movie about Mexico, which he could see was an incorrigible heap of random footage that would have continued to go nowhere indefinitely if it hadn’t been forcibly removed from the master’s control. “A way to be a film critic for years was to holler about this rape of great art, though it should have taken no more critical equipment than common sense to see that whatever was cut out, its clumping repetitions and lack of film motion could not have been cut in.”

With a good notion of how hard it is to make ordinary film narrative unnoticeably subtle (“story, story, story — or, How can we do it to them so they don’t know beforehand that it’s being done?”), Ferguson was properly suspicious of any claims that Citizen Kane represented an advance in technique. He admired it, but not as a breakthrough: “In the line of the narrative film, as developed in all countries but most highly on the West Coast of America, it holds no great place.” A harsh judgment, but Ferguson had put in the groundwork to back it up, and Welles, after the first flush of his apotheosis, might have reached the same conclusion: The Magnificent Ambersons, even in its unfinished state, is a clear and admirable attempt by the boy genius to get a grip on the technical heritage he had thought to supersede.

One could go on quoting from Ferguson, and expatiating on the quotations, until hell looked like the set of Ice Station Zebra: there is a book buried in every essay. But the same is true of every good critic. The poet Melvin B. Tolson, who wrote about movies for the African-American newspaper The Washington Tribune, saw Gone With the Wind when it came out and reviewed it in terms that could have been expanded into a handbook for the civil rights movement 20 years before the event. One look at the relevant piece will tell you why a critic has to know about the world as well as the movies: Tolson could see that GWTW was well made. But he could also see that the script was a crass and callous rewriting of history, a Klan pamphlet in sugared form, a racial insult.

If, then, the selection from James Agee shines out of these pages a bit less than you might expect, it isn’t because he’s lost his luster; it’s because there’s so much light from those around him. And Agee, as well as possessing the comprehensive intelligence that the critical heritage had already made a requirement, also possessed an extra quality that we later on, and perhaps dangerously, came to expect from everybody: he had the wit. At the time, it was a first when he wrote this punch line to his review of Billy Wilder’s sodden saga about dipsomania, The Lost Weekend: “I undershtand that liquor interesh: innerish: intereshtsh are rather worried about thish film. Thash tough.” Today, you can easily imagine Anthony Lane of The New Yorker doing that. (Lane, being British, isn’t in the book, which is a bit like not letting Tiger Woods play at St Andrew’s.). And Peter Bogdanovich — surely a key figure, and not just as an archivist, in the appreciation of American movies — is another conspicuous absentee. But it’s a sign of a good anthology when you start bitching about Who Isn’t in It — not a bad title for a book by Bogdanovich, come to think of it.

And Stanley Kauffmann isn’t in it enough. A film critic still in action after more than half a century (most of that time spent at The New Republic), he was the one who took Ferguson’s approach, the only approach that really matters, and developed it to its full potential. He knew a lot about every department of the business, but especially acting. He was kind but firm about Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits: “Her hysterical scene near the end will seem virtuoso acting to those who are overwhelmed by the fact that she has been induced to shout.” He could see what was wonderful about Antonioni’s L’Avventura. So could I, at the time; but later, after suffering through Blowup and Zabriskie Point, I started to forget what had once thrilled me. Here is the reminder: “Obviously it is not real time or we would all have to bring along sandwiches and blankets; but a difference of 10 seconds in a scene is a tremendous step toward veristic reproduction rather than theatrical abstraction.” (And, he forgot to add, it gives you 10 more seconds to look at a veristic close-up of Monica Vitti, who did to us in those days what Monica Bellucci is doing to a new generation of horny male intellectuals right now.)

Kauffmann had an acute sensitivity to the story behind the technique. It meant that he didn’t fail to spot real quality, and it also meant that he was rarely fooled by empty virtuosity. His classic review of Max Ophuls’s supposed masterpiece, Lola Montes, a review mercifully included here as the finale to his oddly meager selection, tells you in advance everything that would be wrong about the auteur theory. Kauffmann could see that Lola Montes was indeed the supreme example of Ophuls’s characteristic style of the traveling shot that went on forever. But Kauffmann could also see that even if the title role of the bewitching courtesan had been incarnated by a bewitching actress — and Martine Carol, through no fault of her own, was no more bewitching than a bus driver in Communist Kiev — the movie would still have been ruined by its dumb happy-hooker script. In other words, no story.

In Hollywood, for a true masterpiece like Letter From an Unknown Woman, Ophuls had had the writers, the actors and the right kind of head office breathing down his neck. On Lola Montes he was out on his own. The auteur theory depended on the idea that any pantheon director had an artistic personality so strong that it was bound to express itself whatever the compromising circumstances. But all too often, the compromising circumstances helped to make the movie good. That, however, was a tale too complicated to tell for those commentators who wanted to get into business as deep thinkers.

The likelihood that to think deep meant to think less didn’t strike any of them until their critical mass movement had worn itself out. Some useful work was done — movies by a cigar-chomping, hard-swearing maverick like Samuel Fuller were resurrected long enough for us all to find out why they had been forgotten — but the absurdities were all too obvious. John Ford’s late clunker 7 Women was praised because it was “Fordian.” The adjective they should have been looking for was “unwatchable.” Howard Hawks’s Hatari!, in which the same old Hawks plot about John Wayne and the drunken friend and the no-bull broad and the young hotshot and the cackling old-timer was eked out with footage of rhinos and buffaloes, turned out to be quintessentially “Hawksian.” And so it went, but it couldn’t go on for long, because unless the undiscovered Fordian-Hawksian masterpiece was actually any good, it never got any further than the film societies. As for the articles and the anthologies and the monographs, they never could outweigh the aggregate of ad hoc judgments coming from individual critics. Those judgments might have been right or wrong, but they were seldom crazy, unless the critic had a theory of his or her own.

Some did. Robert Warshow, yet another cultural commentator who died young, wrote a famous long article (which Lopate includes) called “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Citing but not evoking scores of movies to prove that the American gangster is doomed by the pressures of a society that worships success, it says little in a long space, thereby reversing the desirable relationship of form and content, which, as we have seen, had already been established by critics with fewer pretensions to a sociological overview.

The same could be said, and said twice, for Parker Tyler’s equally celebrated long article purporting to show that Double Indemnity was always psychologically much more complex than was ever thought possible by those who made it or us who watched. You might have deduced that the claims adjuster Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) was secretly hot for the insurance salesman Neff (Fred MacMurray), but could you ever have guessed that Neff was driven to crime because he had failed sexually with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck)? And there we all were thinking he’d succeeded. But stay! For Tyler has some wordplay yet to deploy. “Neff, let us assume, wants permanent insurance against Keyes’s subtle inquisition into the ostensible claims of his sexual life.” Oh, come on, let’s not assume it.

But we don’t have to fight for justice very hard, because the fight has already been won by the sanity brigade. The late Vincent Canby could have won it by himself. There might have been even more here from such informed yet readable solo acts — David Denby, Kenneth Turan, David Thomson and A.O. Scott are only a few of the many recent exponents on the bill — if the worthy bores had not been given their democratic chance, but hey, that’s America. Nevertheless, Lopate would have done better to stick to the principle that brevity, up to the point where compression collapses, invariably carries more implication than expansiveness ever can. But he might not have recognized the principle, even while dealing with the best of its consequences. There have been plenty of editors who didn’t get it. The legendary William Shawn of The New Yorker never grasped that he was giving Pauline Kael too much room for her own good.

Although Kael knew comparatively little about how movies got made, she was unbeatable at taking off from what she had seen. But beyond that, she would take off from what she had written, and there was a new theory every two weeks. A lot of her theories had to do with loves and hates. She thought Robert Altman was a genius. He can certainly make a movie, but if it hasn’t got a script, then he makes Prêt-à-Porter. That’s one of the most salutary lessons of this book: what makes the movie isn’t just who directed it, or who’s in it, it’s how it relates to the real world.

That principle really starts to matter when it comes to movies that profess to understand history, and thus to affect the future. Several quite good critics in various parts of the world knew there was something seriously wrong with Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but they didn’t know how to take it down. If they could have put the lessons of this book together, they would have found out how. Munich might have survived being directed by someone who knows about nothing except movies. But it was also written by people who don’t know half enough about politics. That was why the crucial meeting of Golda Meir’s cabinet went for nothing. The movie could have got by with its John Woo-style gunfight face-offs, but without an articulate laying out of the arguments it was a waste of effort.

Similarly, if you know too much about the movies but not enough about the world, you won’t be able to see that Downfall is dangerously sentimental. Realistic in every observable detail, it is nevertheless a fantasy to the roots, because the pretty girl who plays the secretary looks shocked when Hitler inveighs against the Jews. It comes as a surprise to her.

Well, it couldn’t have; but to know why that is so, you have to have read a few books. No matter how many movies you have seen, they won’t give you the truth of the matter, because it can’t be shown as action. To know what can’t be shown by the gag writers, however, you have to know about a world beyond the movies. But the best critics do, as this book proves; because when we say that the nontheorists are the better writers, that’s what we mean. That extra edge that a good writer has is a knowledge of the world, transmuted into a style.

(New York Times Book Review, June 4, 2006)


Like any other movie by Stanley Kubrick, the dire Eyes Wide Shut has its explicators who can tell you why every apparent clumsiness is a piercing insight. But Frederic Raphael, who wrote the screenplay, has since told us the story of how Kubrick encouraged Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to improvise ‘beyond the script’. Beware the director who thinks that his actors will find, out of their own linguistic resources, a naturalism that is not there on the page. To return to the exemplary case of Robert Altman, there is a wealth of unintended hilarity to be obtained from those commentators who can't see that the crucial difference between Gosford Park and Prêt-à-Porter is that whereas Julian Fellowes wrote everything in the first movie, nobody wrote anything in the second. Luckily the best American critics, careful writers themselves, have usually been proof against such wilful deafness.