Friday Night Seitz

Film criticism 101: The essential library

As two new Pauline Kael books hit shelves, we search ours for other indispensable movie guides

  • For

    For Keeps, by Pauline Kael

    Dutton, 1995

    If you’re reading this slide show, you probably need no introduction to the work of longtime New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael; you may in fact own one, or maybe all, of her various anthologies. (I need to replace a couple of mine; their spines are falling apart.) Otherwise, you might as well start with “For Keeps,” a compilation of individual reviews, excerpts, long think pieces (including her terrific Cary Grant piece “The Man From Dream City”) and even the entire text of her still-controversial (and in some quarters, reviled) book “Raising Kane.” “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs,” Kael wrote in the introduction to this book. “I think I have.”

  • Hitchcock's

    Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, by Robin Wood

    Columbia University Press, 2002

    If you don’t own any books by Robin Wood, one of the most intelligent, innovative and readable film critics, you start pretty much anywhere in his bibliography, but ultimately it all leads back here, to “Hitchcock’s Films Revisited.” I can’t recommend this book highly enough; not only does it reproduce the complete text of Wood’s “Hitchcock’s Films” — very possibly the finest single critical exegesis of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies — it does so from the vantage point of a much older critic, and man, who has lived through a lot, and whose views on both cinema and life have evolved dramatically since he wrote the original book. So what we have here is brilliant volume about Hitchcock’s films nestled at the center of a second, significantly revised volume about Hitchcock that doubles as a running commentary on the psychological development of the author. Wood is ruthlessly honest about his own work, showing you how all criticism is a disguised memoir, and disclosing precisely what he was trying to show, or hide, when he made a certain pronouncement. Wood never actually comes out and says of a particular line, “How young and stupid I was — I can’t believe I wrote that!” but he comes damned close. This is one of the most ruthlessly honest works of criticism — and autobiography — by any major film critic. It’s amazing.

  • The

    The Great Movies, by Roger Ebert

    Three Rivers Press, 2003

    This anthology, my favorite Roger Ebert book, contains some of his sharpest critical analysis, as well as his most heartfelt (though characteristically restrained) attempts to capture the specific emotions of a film — the aesthetic fingerprints that a movie leaves on your imagination. This last part is what Ebert is better at than any living critic — his legacy, probably. He writes in plain language, never in jargon, and never indulges the tedious and faddish alt weekly patois that makes so much post-1980s film writing so excruciating. Few writers are able to capture the emotional relationship between a film and its audience with the clarity, precision and directness of Ebert. His piece on “E.T.” — written in the form of a letter to his grandchildren — is itself reason enough to buy this book.

  • Groucho,

    Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo, by Joe Adamson

    Touchstone, 1974

    This critical history of the Marx Brothers’ career is simply the best all-around book of criticism on a single motion picture performer (in this case performers, plural) that I’ve ever read. Because Joe Adamson’s book succeeds on so many levels, it’s hard to categorize it. Among other things, “Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo” is a biography of four talented people (six if you count Gummo and producer Irving Thalberg, who becomes a major character once the brothers moved from Paramount to MGM) and a sophisticated analysis of filmmaking as an industry circa 1920-1960. But more than anything else, it’s a critical work that situates the Marxes within many different comic traditions (vaudeville, radio, silent film and surrealism, mostly), but manages to do so while being funny as hell. I’ve read a lot of critical books on comedy that sounded as if they were written by Mr. Spock. This one is a hoot — mostly wry, sometimes outlandish and occasionally as dazzlingly inventive as the Marx Brothers’ best film work. (Before the chapter analyzing the mirror sequence in “Duck Soup,” Adamson presents a blank page meant to represent “ghastly, unreal silence.” Out of print, but worth the trouble of tracking down.

  • Toms,

    Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, by Donald Bogle

    Viking Press/Continuum 1973

    This book by Donald Bogle is often misfiled under “film history,” and it’s easy to see why: It takes you through a hundred years of motion pictures and examines the medium’s changing (often appalling, occasionally inspiring) portraits of African-Americans. But it’s ultimately less a historical survey than a work of aesthetic and cultural criticism, a book that shows the complex relationship between an art form and the audience that patronizes it (and are represented by it).

    The seemingly inflammatory title refers to the categories that so many screen characters of color fall into. But Bogle isn’t a boring, humorless, p.c. categorizer; he’s brisk and witty, and offers surprising, impassioned and sometimes stirring defenses of African-American performers who were widely reviled until he put pen to paper. If you’ve noticed a recent revisionist attitude toward Stepin Fetchit, the slave characters in “Gone With the Wind” and the TV version of “Amos and Andy,” you have Bogle to thank for it. He’s tough but fair, and never makes the mistake of expecting a historical period to be more enlightened than it actually was. After reading this book, you’ll find yourself watching movies through Bogle’s eyes.

  • title=''

    From Calgari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, by Sigfried Kracauer Princeton / The Monster Show: Revised Edition, by David J. Skal

    University Press, 1947 / Faber & Faber, 2001

    I put these two books on the same slide because they indulge in similarly bold leaps of critical imagination. Rather than pursue the usual historian’s causal relationship of “A led to B, which in turn led to C,” these authors work more like psychologists, treating entire civilizations as if they were individuals, and looking at how history and culture influence each other, and how in certain cases culture might be able to predict history. Sigfried Kracauer’s book “From Calgari to Hitler” suggests that German Expressionist cinema is a sort of snapshot of the German psyche in the ’20s, prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and that if you study it closely, you can see evidence of longings, fears and nightmare disturbances that Hitler and his followers would tap into, then channel. (Dr. Calgari, the character whose last name appears in the book’s title, was a hypnotist.) Originally published in 1993, David J. Skal’s “The Monster Show” is similarly audacious, suggesting, among other things, that the Universal horror films of the 1930s — which were often set in a geographically nonspecific nightmare Europe filled with magic, superstition, hateful mobs and hideous beasts — were a kind of collective premonition of World War II and the Holocaust.

    Both are intensely readable and still quite provocative; they are written with the belief that art and life are not involved in cause-and-effect relationship, but are in fact inseparable parts of a whole — and that in some ways art (and entertainment) can be viewed as the subconscious well of the world’s subconscious mind, the place where both dark and light thoughts are expressed openly, though often in coded language.

  • The

    The American Cinema, by Andrew Sarris

    E.P. Dutton, 1968

    A lot of modern film criticism comes from this book, as does the widespread practice — not just in film criticism, but all arts writing — of listing, ranking and otherwise cataloging the careers of artists, and declaring them major, minor or something in between. History has relegated some of author Andrew Sarris’ more stinging pronouncements to the status of a cranky minority opinion (he called Alfred Hitchcock “the supreme technician of American cinema” and accused Stanley Kubrick of using brilliant images to cover for “fuzzy thinking”). But this book is still provocative, engaging and essential, though young film readers today may have trouble picturing it. Nobody blinks when a cinephile prizes the likes of Buster Keaton and John Ford over multiple Oscar winners such as William Wyler and John Huston, but when Sarris published this book, few significant American critics were making such assertions; that was considered the province of young French movie buffs who were just trying to make trouble.

  • The

    The Art of the Moving Picture, by Vachel Lindsay

    Kessinger Publishing (1922)

    This 1922 book by poet and sometime cultural critic Vachel Lindsay might have been the first to treat the then-new medium of moving pictures as an art form, one that was potentially as rich, complex, mysterious as far older ones, and whose physical and aesthetic properties were only starting to be understood. The highlight of the book might be “The Motion Picture of Fairy Splendor,” which examines the relationship between film storytelling, magic, myths, legends and bedtime stories. It’s discombobulating, in a good way, to read Lindsay’s attempts to grapple with what, precisely, cinema is. Being supposedly sophisticated 21st century people, we all feel as though we know what cinema is, and don’t need to have the basics explained to us, but this is really just vanity and ignorance talking. Bottom line: You haven’t really, seriously thought about movies — what they are, and what they can and cannot do, and become — until you’ve read this book.

  • From

    From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies, by Molly Haskell

    Reinhart and Winston, 1974

    One of the most original books of film criticism, and easily one of the best-written, Molly Haskell’s “From Reverence to Rape“is a book-length equivalent of that great line about how Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, only she did it backward in high heels. Filling in areas of film history (and criticism) that were often neglected before she published this slim volume, Haskell writes about the image of women — and the screen image and careers of famous female movie stars — from the point of view of a feminist, and a realist. She’s a tough but not unforgiving writer, compassionate and funny, finding sympathetic qualities in screen stars who aren’t often thought to have any, and locating the more sinister aspects of stars (and eras) that are often viewed with affection. Haskell was also the first major film critic to grasp that while films of the 1960s and early 1970s might have been artistically and technically innovative, they often represented huge social and political leaps backward for actresses, female screenwriters and filmmakers, perhaps for women generally. Haskell’s heart seems to belong to the 1930s and ’40s, when dames stalked the earth.

  • Negative

    Negative Space, by Manny Farber

    Praeger, 1971

    If you’ve never read Manny Farber, Negative Space” is a hell of a place to start. Sui generis, the original of originals, and a rare critic whose work is provocative and engaging no matter what he was writing on, Farber was one of the most important of the postwar American critics — a writer who, like Andrew Sarris, insisted that the subject matter, budget or intent of a motion picture had absolutely nothing to do with its quality — that true art could be concealed within films of off-putting technique, low budgets and disreputable subject matter (‘termite art,” he called it) and that the films that were intended to be respectable, to make people feel like good and noble citizens, could in fact be uninteresting, even morally and aesthetically toxic. He also writes perceptively about the compositions, cuts, music and overall feel of a film, which seems like no big deal until you think about how much film reviewing, past and present, reads like book reports. Writing on Laurel and Hardy, Farber says, “Good work usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”

  • A

    A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman, Third Edition, by Robert F. Kolker

    Oxford University Press, 2000

    I’ve read a lot of articles, and whole books, evaluating particular directors, as well as works that try to put films and film artists in the context of their time, but I have yet to read any as insightful and lucid as Robert F. Kolker’s “A Cinema of Loneliness.” It’s a political and social history of postwar America and its film industry, told via lengthy critical exegesis of films by Arthur Penn, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Robert Altman. The third edition is my favorite, though the first edition — which wrote about Francis Coppola rather than Oliver Stone, and did not include Steven Spielberg, who showed up in the second edition — may be of interest to completists.

  • In

    In the Blink of an Eye, Second Edition, by Walter Murch

    Silman-James Pr, 2001

    The best book about film editing — in theory and practice — yet written, this volume by Oscar-winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch (“The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The English Patient”) will change the way you watch movies. Murch is that rarity of rarities, a genius who can speak in plain language; anybody can grasp the concepts he explains here, and apply them to every sort of filmed media. It will be of equal interest to professional film editors, amateur filmmakers and people who just like watching (and thinking about) movies. “The Conversations,” Murch’s book-length talk about film history and style with “The English Patient” author Michael Oondatje, is also highly recommended.)

  • Agee

    Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, by James Agee

    Modern Library, 2000

    Equally known as a film critic for Time and the Nation and as a fiction writer who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Death in the Family” and the screenplay for “Night of the Hunter,” James Agee brings life to that journalism school notion that criticism should be as intimate as conversation. Reading much of Agee’s work — but especially the articles he wrote for the Nation, which gave him room to stretch his legs — you can almost picture the boozy intellectual sitting next to you at a bar, arguing for or against whatever film he just came from seeing, and pausing to order a round for everyone, knowing he can expense it later. There is a moral intelligence and fellow-feeling to Agee’s finest work that puts most modern criticism, with its facade of seen-it-all hipness, to shame. He writes like a man who understands people, not just filmmaking, and who might have been just as comfortable, and beloved, as a daily newspaper columnist, or a war reporter. “He worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against,” Agee wrote of Charlie Chaplin; he could have been writing about himself.