The moviegoers

Film critics let us know what's worth seeing on the big screen, but they've also been fighting our fiercest cultural battles for nearly a century

By Laura Miller
March 28, 2006 5:22PM (UTC)
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Movies are America's great, bestriding cultural form, a popular entertainment that sometimes aspires to -- and occasionally achieves -- the status of art. So you might expect the movies to have given rise to America's best criticism. But to judge from the Library of America's new anthology, "American Movie Critics," edited by Phillip Lopate, film criticism has always been a fraught, tricky enterprise, something that few writers manage to excel at -- and those who do may come to regret it.

The problem, as Lopate remarks in his fine introduction, is that "the job of the American film critic is complicated by the fact that virtually all Americans regard themselves as astute judges of movies." Lopate thinks this is because we've all seen so many films in theaters and on TV, but I suspect it's really because reviewing combines an activity that almost everybody does -- watching movies -- with an activity that almost everybody thinks they can do: writing. The rub here is that almost nobody has to see as many movies of such widely varying quality as film critics do, and that writing well turns out to be a lot harder than it looks.


Film critics are first and foremost writers -- the craft is, as Lopate puts it, "the operation of one art form (literature) on another (the movies)." If you can't write an interesting or amusing essay on pretty much any piece of crap committed to celluloid, you're out of your depth. Although I'm primarily a literary critic, I've done stints as a film reviewer for weekly and daily newspapers and I'm here to tell you that as a job, film criticism has only one advantage over reviewing books: it's a lot less time-consuming. (It takes about two hours to watch most films and much longer to read most books.)

Otherwise: ugh. The daily grind of the movie reviewer consists of trying to drum up something worth saying about films that are stupendously ordinary and supremely forgettable -- tepid romantic comedies with no laughs or style; respectful, well-mounted adaptations of plays and novels no one cares about; incoherent action movies populated by annoying stock figures whose every line of dialogue can be predicted in advance, and so on. A terrible movie gives a critic something to be funny about (that's assuming you can be funny, on command, and honestly -- can we assume that?), and a fine movie gives you something to praise, but the vast majority of new films are utterly mediocre, and that's what wears you down. Anyone can turn being chased by a tiger into a good story, but almost no one can do the same for an afternoon of standing in line at the post office.

Of course, for indiscriminate journalists -- the sorts of writers who have filled the post of movie reviewer at a lot of American newspapers and some American magazines for decades -- the preponderance of dull, average movies isn't a problem. They can't tell much difference between "Wedding Crashers" and "Failure to Launch" to begin with and are happy to be dazzled by the stars. But good reviewers, remember, must also be good writers, and good writers want subjects that fire them up. The kind of person who sees, say, "Ultraviolet," then goes home, looks up a review online, marvels at the critic's vitriol and fires off an e-mail saying, "Chill out, dude, it's just a movie. It was fun," is not someone whose opinions anyone wants to read at length, on a regular basis -- or ever, really. (And, confidentially, if you are the kind of person who sends those e-mails: What gives? If you don't think certain movies should be taken so seriously, why even bother to read the reviews?)


"American Movie Critics" is doomed to be a frustrating book if only because it offers us just a few samples of work -- presumably the crhme de la crhme -- from writers who showed their quality by never, or rarely, being boring. They do this (to invert Zelda Fitzgerald's formula) by never being bored, but the only way we can ever get to know this about a critic is by reading his or her work regularly, over time. Film criticism, even the kind that appears in small-circulation quarterlies and scrutinizes masterpieces of past decades, is a product of now. We don't see "Imitation of Life" (the hugely successful 1959 remake, Douglas Sirk's last film and the subject of a long, engrossing essay by James Harvey in this anthology) the same way audiences saw it when it first came out, or even the way it was seen in the 1970s.

So it is a major, and entirely avoidable, flaw of "American Film Critics" that the selections in it are undated -- even in cases when the selected pieces by a given author were written decades apart. If you want to find out where and when a piece appeared, you'll have to dig through the inconvenient, small-print credit section at the back of book. Did the criticism first appear a daily metropolitan newspaper? In one of the more intellectual weeklies like the Nation or the New Republic, long-standing venues for brainier film critics? In a small-circulation cineaste's journal, a free alternative paper or as a passage in a book?

A reader shouldn't have to stop and root around in an appendix to find this information every time she starts reading a new selection; it's crucial information. Many of the reviews in "American Film Critics" that appear to have been written in the '30s, for example, seem to presume the reader has already seen the movie. Was this because they appeared in magazines days after the film's release, or was it part of a common style -- a familiar, elbow-jogging vernacular reviewer's manner? Or was it a reflection of the day, a time when many people didn't pick and choose films but saw everything and anything playing at the local theater, much as we now aimlessly flip on the TV for something to do?


Since "American Film Critics" is meant to give us a feeling for the breadth and depth of American film writing (academia excluded), this omission of dates and publication venues hobbles it, but you can still glimpse some outlines. One surprising revelation is that every argument that has ever raged among film lovers -- technique vs. content, the purely "cinematic" vs. the "literary," American vs. foreign films, etc. -- has been with us from Day One, which in this case is the 1920s. Of course the biggest, oldest and fiercest battle in all quarters of American culture is highbrow vs. lowbrow, and film criticism has been the place where those hostilities have raged with the highest of dudgeon.

If you have a vague sense of the history of American film criticism, you might think, as I once did, that it was Pauline Kael, in her immensely influential essay "Trash, Art and the Movies" (included in this volume), who first mounted an articulate defense of those movies that aspire to be merely entertainment, rather than art. But as early as 1915, when Vachel Lindsay published "The Art of the Moving Picture," critics wrestled with the differences between movies they respected and movies they enjoyed. The swashbuckling silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, Lindsay thought, was less of an artist than the pioneering director D.W. Griffith, but Fairbanks' "The Thief of Baghdad" was more of a "pure movie," and more thrilling to Lindsay, than Griffith's self-important (and morally risible) epics.


In the early 1930s, you can find Meyer Levin, a war correspondent and novelist as well as film critic for Esquire, extolling the pleasure of a pulpy genre movie like "The Charge of the Light Brigade." This little review is impressively prescient of Kael in its attention to the "trance-factor" appeal of moviegoing, a spell that works apart from the virtues of any particular film. "You are willingly hypnotized," Levin writes, "and each time the trance is deeper, because you have comfortably given up suspicion, you know the litany, you know the ritual will never be betrayed. That's the movie in its most essential form; it's just a punk picture and I like it."

Critics have always engaged with the protest that movies corrupt their audiences by informing them about, or glorifying, the many opportunities for sexual, criminal and violent misbehavior that modern life affords. On this topic and many others, "American Movie Critics" offers a surprising wealth of sharp observations elegantly expressed -- in other words, epigrams -- that apply to more than just the movies. "It is not the dangerous knowledge which must be avoided," wrote Hugo Munsterberg in the 1920s, "but it is the trivializing influence of a steady contact with things which are not worth knowing" -- a statement that has, if anything, become even more true in the age of mass media.

Although movies were only a couple of decades old when Otis Ferguson began writing about them for the New Republic, critics were already familiar enough with the formulaic quality of Hollywood movies to joke about it. Ferguson, the first of the "five greatest American film critics," according to Lopate (the others are James Agee, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris), wrote of the long-forgotten Paramount product "Hands Across the Table," "the plot here is Group A, Subtype 11-C: (A) he falls for her at the start yet remains in a state of falling all through the picture, suspended in midair like the floating-hat trick; (11-C) he is a rich young scion and she is a poor young shoot. Add complications AX2 and BOP." Ferguson doesn't mean this contemptuously: One of the particular challenges of movie criticism is that it compels the critic to explain how a film can be delightful without being original, to a modernist culture in which originality had become the sine qua non of "art."


Some critics, like the brilliant Robert Warshow, dealt with this quandary by writing about entire genres, regarding them as collaborative creations that operate much like the mythos of earlier societies. Creative people ranging from barely competent craftsmen to outright geniuses all play a part in shaping a genre, in a perpetual feedback loop with the audience, which flows toward the works that best embody our dreams and desires. I confess that as much as I might enjoy a genuinely original film like Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and appreciate Pauline Kael's review of it, it's pieces like Warshow's famous essay "The Gangster as a Tragic Hero" (or, for that matter, Richard Slotkin's perceptive considerations of the western, not included in this book) that I find most fascinating as criticism.

Even the signature trait of what Lopate calls "The Golden Age of Movie Criticism" (essentially, the '60s and '70s) -- a blossoming of highly subjective criticism married to an increasingly inventive, daring and freewheeling style -- wasn't entirely unprecedented. Of the several curiosities that Lopate includes in "American Film Critics" (one-off or occasional film pieces by writers specializing in other things) there is one real gem, the modernist poet HD on Carl Dreyer's silent classic "The Passion of Joan of Arc." HD's essay itself is a kind of passion, a thrashing, tortured response to a film she considered a "masterpiece" but that she found almost unendurably heart-rending and somehow incomplete; it left her, she writes, "cut into slices."

Still, Lopate is right, it's in the '60s and '70s section that "American Film Critics" really picks up. (Some of the early sections seem a bit obligatory, and nowhere is the ephemerality of film criticism's big concerns felt more keenly than in the need for every early 20th century century critic to expound on Chaplin.) The first great proponent of the '70s style of criticism was Manny Farber, a writer revered by most serious film reviewers but otherwise largely unknown. Two of Farber's best-known essays, "Underground Film" and "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," are included in "American Film Critics."


Farber was hell-bent on tearing down the prestige attached to big, expensive, earnest Hollywood movies promoted as serious, "quality" fare by studios and the lapdog middlebrow critics who did their bidding. These he describes scornfully as "masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago." Farber contrasted these films (he names a few, but they are, tellingly, virtually unseen today) to what he called "termite art," the unpretentiously inventive work that "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."

Farber's prose is undeniably exciting, but the peril to the subjective style of film criticism is that, like the movie preferences it so ardently espouses, it can be unwittingly revealing. Although Farber's "Underground Films" champions some of my favorite directors (not the experimentalists most people associate with the word "underground," but old-time Hollywood action filmmakers like Howard Hawks and William Wellman), the praise he heaps on them reeks so violently of sexual anxiety and insecurity that it wound up putting me off. The words "hard" and "muscular" appear with a frequency so obsessive it distracts from Farber's point and throws his estimation of these specimens of "impudent American hard rock" into shadow. It's not that Farber's mad crush on Hawks and co. is homoerotic -- it's more like the adoration that a 13-year-old boy lavishes on the local 17-year-old alpha male.

Kael, who took Farber's ball and ran with it, would have been the first to point out that the joys we find in movies are often adolescent, even callow, and that doesn't invalidate them. But what made her a better critic than Farber was that she didn't think the distinction between blinkered adolescent enthusiasm and mature understanding was insignificant. "Trash, Art and the Movies" is one of the greatest essays on American culture because it is able to celebrate the pleasures of trash without collapsing all boundaries between trash and art. Moviegoing and movie loving were for Kael complex, layered experiences that took different forms for different purposes at different times. Hers was an argument not for a criticism without standards, but for a criticism without shame, and a jettisoning of timid, conventional school-marm and church-lady notions of the culturally worthy.

Perhaps "Trash, Art and the Movies" was too good, too persuasive, too influential. Kael is said to have been rueful about it in her later years, feeling that her argument on behalf of trash movies had somehow mutated into support for a cinematic culture in which "trash" is all that anybody wants to make or see. You have to search mighty hard these days to find a critic who reacts with knee-jerk, highbrow contempt to, say, a decent genre film like "Spider-Man" or who insists that only foreign films and art-house pictures are any good.


In fact, as Salon's own Andrew O'Hehir often points out, the art house has nearly vanished from the American scene, and with it an entire subculture of moviegoers willing to take a chance on something new. Lopate writes that, "While brilliant, overpowering, innovative movies continue to be made every year, what does seem to have declined is the support apparatus for the medium: the art-movie houses, the 16mm film university circuit, the number of foreign films distributed, the film buff magazines, the general public's level of interest in film history." The irony is that art-house revivals were instrumental in winning new respect for the two-fisted, old-school entertainment movies and film noir that Farber loved, thereby planting the seeds of their own destruction by fostering a contemporary film culture that feels free to value only wisecracking adventure films.

What people say now is that today's movies aren't very good (compared to the heyday of the 1970s) and so the stature of movie critics has shrunk accordingly. Perhaps that's why some of the standout contributions toward the end of "American Movie Critics" deal with the films of earlier eras. Still, you couldn't find a less promising batch of junk movies than the ones Geoffrey O'Brien celebrates in his ravishing, impressionistic essay, "The Italian System." These are those cheap and cheesy European productions of the late '60s and early '70s, frequently featuring characters from biblical and classical myth played by sexy performers of modest talent and eventually petering out in the horror films of Dario Argento: "All periods of history collapsed into one," O'Brien writes, "enabling Hercules and Ulysses to wash up on the Gaza coast and encounter Samson. It was the final garage sale of Thrace and Carthage and Byzantium."

"The seductive charm of the Italian fantasy epics," he goes on, "as they infiltrated unsuspecting neighborhoods all over the world, was the experience of watching a movie that was not a 'real' movie but rather a movie of a movie, in the same way you might find yourself dreaming that you were dreaming." This wasn't so unlikely at a time when big-budget Hollywood had seemingly run out of ideas and "the latest sophisticated comedy looked like a promotional short for a hotel chain with empty rooms in every major capital." O'Brien writes about this misbegotten cinematic genre -- familiar to anyone stuck at home watching midday TV in the days before cable -- so beautifully that he puts the lie to the idea that you need good movies to write good film criticism.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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