For a writer like Phillip Lopate, with his deep commitment to the essay as a literary form, any piece of journalism — a film review, a profile of a director or another critic, even a summary-style “film festival roundup” — is a chance to practice the higher calling of his art. And for an essayist as committed to personal disclosure as Lopate is, every gathering of essays into a book is an opportunity to smuggle another chapter of his own autobiography into the hands of readers. In “Totally, Tenderly, Tragically,” we see Lopate occasionally stumble at the task of making art in the form of journalistic assignments, while succeeding spectacularly at making the collection more, much more, than the sum of its parts.
Lopate is right to call his filmgoing a lifelong love affair. He’s a passionate advocate for the films and directors he adores, foreign directors such as Visconti, Mizoguchi, Ozu and Godard in particular. In “Memories,” the first section of the book, he shares with the reader the development of his tastes, evoking the early highs and spectacular disappointments of his dawning infatuation with film. What’s most striking, however, is how tireless and devoted a lover he remains. Lopate in his 50s is still devouring new films with the same intensity he did his earliest discoveries, a fact that struck this younger, more fickle reviewer first as chastening, then inspiring. (On Lopate’s recommendation I’ve already watched three of the contemporary Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s films — they’re wonderful.)
A handful of the pieces here seem time-bound or incidental; a few are made lopsided by Lopate’s friendship with their subjects or by a relative lack of critical rigor. A long defense of a minor Jerry Lewis film, written when Lopate was 23, seems comically disproportionate, if only because no one is arguing much about Lewis anymore. Blandly earnest directors like Sidney Lumet and John Sayles are perhaps treated too generously. And a rant about the “dumbing-down” of American movies descends too much into crotchety generalities. Yet in almost every case Lopate knows these failings full well, as he makes clear in a series of reflective postscripts to the essays — which themselves become a key element in the book. The result is a kind of turning of time’s prism to shed new light, and the filtering of that light through and between the essays collected here has a magical effect. And paradoxically, it’s precisely the fallibility of a few of these essays on their own that makes the book such a tour de force of Lopate’s art. In gathering apparently disparate and occasional writings into a kind of sly autobiographical whole, “Totally, Tenderly, Tragically” is a typically Lopatian success.