Film Critism Comes of Age
Phillip Lopate ’64 is an editor, essayist, novelist, poet and film critic. Born in Brooklyn, where he resides, Lopate has taught creative writing and literature at Fordham, Cooper Union, the University of Houston, NYU and in the M.F.A. programs at Columbia, the New School University and Bennington. He holds the John Cranford Adams Chair in English at Hofstra University.
In American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, Lopate celebrates film criticism as a branch of American letters. Just as movies have gained acceptance as an art form during the past 100 years, Lopate contends that film criticism has generated more than its share of extraordinary critical writing. In fact, he argues that in the past 50 years, “more energy, passion and analytical juice have gone into film criticism than into literary criticism, or probably any other writing about the arts.”
To support this thesis, Lopate presents this anthology of more than 150 pieces by 79 writers spanning 90 years of film criticism, including works by Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby. Also included are seven essays by Andrew Sarris ’51, professor in the film division of the School of the Arts, two by William S. Pechter ’79 and one by David Denby ’65, 66J.
Following is an excerpt from Lopate’s Introduction to American Movie Critics.
A good place to begin our story is 1915, the year D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation and Vachel Lindsay published what is generally considered the first serious work of American film criticism, The Art of the Moving Picture. Lindsay was a poet who defended the then-controversial proposal that movies could be an art form. Having originated as entertainments for immigrants and laborers, movies were widely dismissed as crude spectacles. While this class bias receded as audiences came to include the middle classes and fleapits gave way to movie palaces, a lingering snobbery persisted: that the medium was a debased fad, somewhat akin to mass hypnosis. Early film reviewers (when not simply acting as plot-summary shills for the studios), embarrassed to be seen wasting their energies on this upstart novelty, adopted a facetious, condescending tone, lest the writer be seen as taking such sentimental hogwash too seriously.
Film was viewed as pushing its way into the pantheon established for centuries-old artistic traditions such as classical music, painting, and the ballet. Lindsay, an enthusiastic movie buff, tried to bridge films and the older arts by making analogies between cinematic techniques and sculpture or painting-in-motion. He had a Whitmanesque belief in movies as a democratic art, alongside a sort of Great Man theory of human progress (his designated film genius was D.W. Griffith). Lindsay envisioned Griffith’s and Douglas Fairbanks’ films as having somewhat the same effect that “Emerson’s 'Address on the American Scholar’ was said to have had on certain people – a great turning point.” Since Emerson’s speech had rallied American writers to declare their independence from Old World models, Lindsay was clearly hoping for a similar result – claiming, in effect, that the speedy, non-elitist art of the motion picture was a quintessentially American expression.
Other intellectual, highbrow critics who came after Lindsay, writing for aesthetic quarterlies and left-wing journals such as Close Up, Hound and Horn, Experimental Cinema, and New Masses, took a dimmer view of American movies and looked to the German, Swedish, and Russian national cinemas for artistic breakthroughs. Harry Alan Potamkin, one of the era’s most important film critics, began his 1929 appreciation of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc by saying: “We are always waiting in the cinema for the eventual film which will be the vindication of the major cinema devices. We are always waiting for the film down to essentials and yet conveying a profound human experience . Where is the motion picture – we are always asking – profound in its exploitation of performance, and profound in its transmission of experience?” This prayerful incantation sums up the restlessness of a generation of film buffs longing to see movies liberated from the Hollywood assembly line in order to become a more personal, mature, and socially progressive art form.
From the silent era onward, a clash arose between seeing movies as a lively universal entertainment – the people’s best friend – and as a dangerously numbing, escapist drug for the masses. Both viewpoints had valid points and articulate spokespersons. For instance, writer Gilbert Seldes boldly defended the popular culture of his day – movies, jazz, comic strips, radio, and so on – in his book The Seven Lively Arts and found in the knockabout silent comedy of Mack Sennett and Keystone Kops his cinematic standard. Seldes’ God of the movies was Charlie Chaplin.
One argumentative thread that ran through early film criticism was the attempt to justify the medium by defining its essence, singling out elements that seemed to make it unique. Gilbert Seldes argued that film must distance itself from what he regarded as the destructive influence of its older sibling, the theater. (The very fact that an early name for a motion picture was “photoplay” suggested how much work the young medium had to do to establish its own identity.) Left-wing critics such as Potamkin and Dwight Macdonald, drawing emphasis on the example of Eisenstein and fellow Soviet directors, placed a larger emphasis on montage, or rapid cutting; this was certainly something, they argued, that could be done only in film. Others looked to the close-up as the heart of the cinematic enterprise, or emphasized the mobile camera. The truism that film was primarily a visual medium, a way of telling a story through pictures, proved somewhat simplistic in retrospect with the introduction of sound and spoken dialogue. Many purists, such as theoretician Rudolf Arnheim, regarded sound film as a catastrophe, nipping silent cinema’s promise in the bud. (Subsequently, each new technological advance – color, cinemascope, 3-D, digital – has been greeted with alarm as an undermining of film’s essence. As it turns out, movies are more varied and multiform: some naturalistic, others theatrically stylized; some employing close-ups or montage; others neither. Today, film might be summarized, in John Simon’s words, as “a totally visual and totally aural medium – in this ambidextrousness lies its glory.”)
The early decades of film criticism drew many moonlighters – playwrights such as Robert E. Sherwood, poets such as Vachel Lindsay and William Troy, filmmakers such as Pare Lorentz – who tried their hand at it for a few years, then moved on to their preferred métier. Critics from other arts weighed in with occasional blasts of opinion. There were also specialized takes: Hugo Münsterberg approached film from a trained psychologist’s perspective in his pioneering 1916 book The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. Cecilia Ager staked out the “woman’s angle” by critiquing films as a branch of fashion; poet Melvin B. Tolson was one of many black newspaper film critics addressing the concerns of an African-American readership.
The first working film critic who put everything together, it seems to me, was Otis Ferguson of The New Republic. What Ferguson “got,” while so many other critics of his day were busy lamenting the low level of American movies, was the genius of the Hollywood system, the almost invisible craft and creativity of the average studio movie. He singled out the eccentric artistry of a Jimmy Cagney [’22], Fred Astaire, Mae West, Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock [and] Humphrey Bogart, as well as the quiet virtues of foreign films. Then unfortunately he died, torpedoed while in the navy in World War II.
James Agee took over during and after the war years, first in The Nation, later for Time, as the most compulsively readable of the 1940s critics. Agee, a marvel¬ously engaging, self-questioning writer, was less in sync with Holly-
wood fantasy than Ferguson, and tried to will a more realistic film into being by articulating his enthusiasms for Italian neo-realism, documentaries, and location shooting. His rich, metaphorical prose nudged film reviewing in a more classical-essay direction. W.H. Auden, the great English-American poet, famously declared that though he did not care much for movies and rarely saw them, he read Agee religiously: “In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.”
Another writer who helped make film criticism more rigorous and respectable in the postwar period was Robert Warshow, who wrote serious, morally probing essays on movies for quarterlies such as Partisan Review and Commentary. Warshow displayed a sure instinct for film aesthetics, though he was often unfairly characterized as a “sociological” critic because he used movies as a springboard for analyzing traits in the national character (see his brilliantly suggestive “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”).
The impetus for reading national character into films had been sparked by Siegfried Kracauer’s 1947 study From Caligari to Hitler. “It is my contention,” wrote Kracauer, “that through an analysis of the German films deep psychological dispositions in Germany from 1918 to 1933 can be exposed – dispositions which influenced the course of events during that time and which will have to be reckoned with in the post-Hitler era.” The United States military even commissioned studies about the ways that mass psychology was reflected in movies, thereby employing film criticism as an intelligence-gathering tool. Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Barbara Deming, Hortense Powdermaker, and others decoded the tensions in American culture by analyzing popular films’ narrative tropes.
Inevitably, this concentration on movies’ plots as sociological treasure troves provoked a formalist backlash. In emphasizing the movie’s script or “literary” values, argued the formalists, something was lost: proper attention to composition, lighting, camera movement, art direction, the actor’s costume and body language – in short, film’s visual allure. The old chicken-and-egg argument regarding form and content had reemerged. While it was of course impossible to separate form strictly from content, the dispute had its periodic uses, since each film critic did tend to allot different proportions of interest to a film’s dialogue or “message” and its cinematic technique.
Vincent Canby proved to be the best daily reviewer this country has ever had.
One film critic who brought a trained painter’s eye to his accounts of what transpired onscreen was Manny Farber, who took over for James Agee at The Nation. Farber was a true maverick, whose quirky, corkscrewing prose style took you into the push-pull of the screen’s rectangle, the director’s characteristic groupings of actors or background/foreground preferences. He was drawn to the Hopperesque atmospheres in American action movies and B pictures, which he called “underground movies” because the cultural Establishment generally ignored them; he was eager to puncture the bloated reputations of “problem pictures” with social messages, perennially nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards, as he was to celebrate the incidental pleasures of a Howard Hawks aviation movie or Raoul Walsh western. Farber was also astute at charting the unconscious mutations in an era’s moviemaking process.
Andrew Sarris [’51], who started out in the mid-1950s, was another important American critic who looked at filmmakers’ visual styles as a clue to their moral meanings. In doing so, he took a leaf from French critic André Bazin, who had favored the flowing, mise-en-scène (deep-focused, often mobile long shots) approach over montage and close-ups, and from the young Cahiers du Cinéma critics (François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette), about to become the French New Wave, who adored Hollywood movies. Sarris, too, championed the Hollywood directors who had managed to retain their individual spark in the face of impersonal studio production practices, and he welcomed the mature, adult viewpoint of European art cinema in his own version of auteurism. As Sarris understood it, the “auteur theory” was an attempt to account for the quality in a film by designating its main author, usually the director, based partly on analysis of past track records. “Hence, the auteur theory is a theory of film history rather than film prophecy,” wrote Sarris. In attempting to bring order to American film history, he ranked directors in categories of achievement, positing a new canon that provoked considerable disagreement.
Film critics, an obstinately intuitive lot who mistrust systems to begin with, were especially dubious about a list that found any merit in commercial potboilers and seemed susceptible to glossing over weaknesses of performance or script in the interests of confirming some signature, personal style. (See Stanley Kauffman’s mixed review of Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes.) One critic taking particular umbrage at the auteur theory was Pauline Kael, who wrote a maliciously funny, if unfair polemic, “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris,” against what she saw as boys’ club favoritism: “When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s nothing else to watch.” Kael’s detractors pointed out that she went on to acquire her own pet directors, such as Sam Peckinpah, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Brian DePalma [’62]. She also developed a huge, loyal following at The New Yorker, during which time she opened readers’ eyes to the new, roller-coaster style of American film in the 1970s. Given permission to write “long,” Kael pushed American film criticism further into a new zone of essayistic headiness.
The 1960s and ’70s, whether because of the remarkable bounty of good films, or the rising interest in film culture, or both, spawned a golden age in American movie criticism. Alongside Garber, Sarris, and Kael, there were the writers who focused more intently on questions of sexuality and gender, such as Parker Tyler, whose book Screening the Sexes paved the way for gay film studies, and Molly Haskell, whose pioneering From Reverence to Rape explored the treatment of women in movies; there were the proponents of experimental, avant-garde film such as Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney. All united in disdaining the New York Times’ powerful but (to their mind) hopelessly square Bosley Crowther, the Colley Cibber of American film criticism. When Crowther was finally forced to retire after lambasting the hippest film of the season, Bonnie and Clyde, the Times replaced him first with Renata Adler and subsequently with Vincent Canby, who proved to be the best daily reviewer this country has ever had.
From the mid-1970s onward, along with daily or weekly responses to the latest releases, an impressive body of more measured, reflective film criticism about older movies began to accumulate: Walter Kerr’s lively analysis of silent comedians, Arlene Croce’s peerless study of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, wise books by Stanley Cavell, James Harvey, and Elizabeth Kendall on the romantic or screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s, among others. Some critics, such as the adventurous Jonathan Rosenbaum and David Thomson, who kept updating his magisterial Biographical Dictionary of Film, went back and forth, responding to new movies while refining their long-range historical perspective. Increasingly, film critics’ judgments about the cinematic past became an important piece of their rhetorical armature and their standards for evaluating new work.
The proliferation of film studies programs in universities, from the 1970s onward, also began to exert an influence on American movie criticism. In a field earlier populated by self-taught amateurs and enthusiasts, a graduate degree suddenly seemed to bestow expertise. With this new crop of film-scholar graduates came sets of theoretical terms and concepts, smuggled into hurried reviewed prose. The last twenty-five years have also been affected by postmodernism, as seen in the eclectic, mockingly decentered criticism of J. Hoberman and Geoffrey O’Brien, or the adoption of false personae (Paul Rudnick aka Libby Gelman-Waxner.) In keeping with trends in cultural studies, issues of gender (Carrie Rickey) or race (Armond White, bell hooks) have also received critical emphasis. The sociological school of film criticism, which had seemed long ago put to rout by the formalists and auteurists, has revived, as young critics again look for clues to the ideological construction of films. In other words, film critics no longer are inclined to choose between form and content: everything is political, everything is in aesthetics.
What can we say about the current status of film criticism? Many complain that the prestige or “clout” of film critics has declined from a high point in the 1960s and ’70s. It is certainly true that, with the shrinking number of general-interest magazines and the greater emphasis on graphic design over copy, fewer venues exist now for thoughtful, sustained film criticism; there seems precious little middle ground between the consumer guide/sidebar squib and the academic article, with its abstruse jargon. Some have argued that film criticism matters less today because movies matter less – are simply not as good as they used to be. Susan Sontag, one of our best off-and-on film critics, even went so far as to mourn “the death of cinema.” 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.
With the diminished prestige of the European art movie (household names such as Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Buñuel, Truffaut, and Fassbinder have yielded few popular successors), contemporary film critics are torn between responding to the latest Hollywood mega-hit and trolling the backwaters of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and avant-garde for a new pantheon. The elegant stylist Stuart Klawans, in The Nation, will alternate between reviewing Gladiator one week and the latest unreleased masterpiece by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien the next. The discerning Gilberto Perez, writing in quarterlies, will do an in-depth consideration of the experimentalist Ernie Gehr one month and the Iranian master Abbas Kiarastromi the next. A new breed of film critics, made understandably impatient with the old-fogy laments for the 1960s and 70s, has set about to advocate work that is firing up younger audiences: delirious, visually gorgeous, sensation-drunk movies by David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Wong Kar-wai, Quentin Tarantino, Baz Luhrmann, Tsai Ming-liang, Sofia Coppola, and others. These open-minded yet oddly claustrophobic, self-referential films often have an inner pulse that resembles rock music more than classic film narrative. In any event, the art of film is changing; and fortunately there are still film critics such as Kent Jones and Manohla Dargis who are alert enough to explain, as Manny Farber did so often in the past, how that ground is shifting.
“I should like to inquire why we as the nation that produces the movies should never have developed any sound school of movie criticism,” wrote Otis Ferguson in “The Case of the Critics.” Since he wrote that sentence in1941, I think it can be safely asserted that we have developed a sound school of American movie criticism – thanks to Ferguson himself, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and those who have followed in their wake. The best of that criticism belongs as much to the canon of American nonfiction prose as it does to the history of film reception.
Pauline Kael claimed that she never saw a movie more than once if she could help it.
Perhaps it is the time to ask: What is the job of a film critic?
First of all, the film critic is a critic. If we look at other fields of criticism we see a great deal of overlap. The literary critic F.O. Matthiessen wrote that the valuable book review “should furnish exposition and description; it should enable you to feel concretely what is being described; and it should give you in the process of evaluation,” or “analytical insights, as you went along,” while placing the work “in relation to what has been previously accomplished in the same field.” According to Eric Bentley, the theater critic is “someone who knows almost everything relevant to theater,” and is “an alert person not overburdened with hostility or with a desire to please or be cute. He is as receptive as possible. . An attempt must be made at fairness, as in a court of law.”
But film criticism has particular demands alongside those addressing other art forms. How, given such a complexly collaborative medium, to disentangle the different aspects that go into moviemaking (acting, direction, screenplay, sound, cinematography, art direction, editing); how also to suggest career patterns and shifts, by considering to what degree the film under review fits this actor’s, director’s, or studio’s previous output; how to situate it in terms of its genre, and consider along those lines its originality and triteness; how to address its implicit social or political meanings, which may need to be teased out of its glossy surface; how to analyze the mass audience’s response, which may differ from your own. All this often within a thousand words or less, sometimes juggling three films per column. Space limitations foster a style of witty compression. The critic learns to come at a film from a distinct angle or setup. Hence, the tendency for film criticism to move in an essayistic direction, as the writer gropes for some opening paragraph that can help generalize about the example(s) under discussion.
A premium is placed on the film critic’s ability to translate visual representation into crisply vivid verbal descriptions. Further professional considerations include: how do you structure a piece of film criticism so that it builds toward a satisfying conclusion? How do you sustain tension – by coming out swinging, or by staging a bout between your ambivalences, or by deferring an overall judgment as long as possible? How do you evolve a stylish prose that is textured, surprising, contemporary without pandering, neither too lightweight nor too solemn? How do you maintain enough resilience not to suffer burnout or get overly crabby, given the vast preponderance of bad movies?
The film critic cannot be solely preoccupied with identifying instances of film art because too many movies are clearly not artistic in any manner. It won’t do to sound piously outraged at each instance of a movie’s failing to rise to the level of art. Working critics have to develop philosophies about “trash” or “bad movies” – see Pauline Kael and J. Hoberman on the subject – and strategies for writing about entertaining junk, either by isolating those gifted cameos or enjoyable moments that rise above the general mediocrity or by employing a variety or ironic, satiric, humorous tones to illuminate the triumph or tripe. Still, how do you find something fresh to say about the unremarkable commercial pictures that accomplish what they modestly set out to do, but frankly elicit no new exciting thoughts? How do you maintain the integrity to speak your mind, resisting coercions from the movie industry, your editor, your peer group, and the public?
The critic should not be expected to predict which films the audience will love; the critic is only supposed to give an intelligent accounting of his or her response. In 1935, Otis Ferguson noted wryly that Variety kept a mid-year box score for “true critics,” a category from which he, writing for The New Republic, was excluded: “Every quarter Variety lines up the leading daily reviewers and gives them their report cards, having kept a careful check on how the critic seemed to like a picture as against whether the picture seemed to make money. By this standard his review is either 'right or wrong’ . So there they all are, Variety, the nine New York critics, and the four Chicago critics, all in black and white, and their relative worth carried out to three decimal places. And all one of them has to do if he wants to find out whether he is a good critic is to look himself up in the list. Incidentally, all he has to do if he wants to be a good critic is keep his ear to the ground for rumors, his eye peeled for double-truck advance ads, and his nose out for the way films are going financially before they break in New York – as reported weekly in Variety. It is absolutely wonderful.”
One reason why small-circulation publications such as The Nation and The New Republic played such a disproportionately large role in nurturing good film critics was that they were immune from industry arm-twisting, since studios did not bother to place ads there. Their wages may have been piddling, but these critics enjoyed independence, a literate readership, and a platform from which to develop a voice.
Critics for large publications enjoy massive readerships and better pay, but can face harsher pressures. When the Los Angeles Times’ film critic Kenneth Turan panned Titanic, which then went on to become the biggest hit in Hollywood history, the movie’s director, James Cameron, demanded that Turan be fired because he seemed obviously out of touch with popular taste. Turan replied calmly: Film critics, general opinion notwithstanding, are not intended to be applause meters. Just as restaurant critics don’t send couples seeking that special anniversary meal to McDonald’s on the “everybody goes there, it must be the best” theory, the overall mandate of critics must be to point out the existence and importance of other criteria for judgment besides popularity.
What are these “other criteria”? They tend to be devised on the run by each critic. Dwight Macdonald said that he had initially come up with five rules for measuring the quality of a film: “1) Are the characters consistent, and in fact are there characters at all? 2) Is it true to life? 3) Is the photography cliché, or is it adapted to the particular film and therefore original? 4) Do the parts go together; do they add up to something; is there a rhythm established so that there is form, shape, climax, building up tension and exploding it? 5) Is there a mind behind it; is there a feeling that a single intelligence has imposed his own view on the material?” Later, he tossed most of these criteria out, deciding that they were arbitrary and limited to only one kind of film. He substituted two others: “(A) Did it change the way you look at things? (B) Did you find more (or less) in the second, third, nth time? (Also, how did it stand up over the years, after one or more 'periods’ of cinematic history?)” Macdonald clearly had grown wary of being suckered by his own transient enthusiasms, and was more interested later on in the long view – which films would survive as classics through multiple viewings.
Pauline Kael, by contrast, claimed that she never saw a movie more than once if she could help it. Her criteria were based more on parsing in tranquility her first-time visceral responses to the viewing experience. (She was aided by a phenomenal memory.) Andrew Sarris, in this way Kael’s polar opposite, never stopped mulling over, re-viewing, and changing his mind about certain movies.
Manny Farber once told an interviewer that as a critic he found the role of evaluation “practically worthless. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” For Farber, it would seem the job of the film critic was not necessarily to render a judgment, but to stage in print a processing of his complicated thoughts about a movie, in the attempt to understand better what he made of it.
All critics seem to agree that the critic is not there to give pointers to the filmmaker so that his work will improve in the next go-round. Most critics profess humility enough to understand that their words may have little effect on shaping the next generation of films. (In spite of this, it can be argued, the aesthetic ambitions of American cinema in the past few decades have been profoundly shaped by the viewpoints of a handful of our film critics.)
The job of the American film critic is complicated by the fact that virtually all Americans regard themselves as astute judges of movies. With good reason: we grow up seeing hundreds of motion pictures in theaters and on television so that by our teenage years we know the current crop of actors, directors, and genres, and even some of the classics. Pressed for time, we cannot help but approach a reviewer as a consumer guide, singling out the best Friday-night date choices and zeroing in on four stars and letter grades. In part, we are looking for a mirror, someone like ourselves who is reasonably tasteful and not too picky.
In his essay “A Critical Credo,” John Simon asks: “What constitutes good criticism? Perhaps it is easiest to begin by defining the commonest kind of bad criticism, which is not criticism at all but reviewing. Reviewing is something that newspaper editors have invented: it stems from the notion that the critic is someone who must see with the eyes of the Average Man or Typical Reader (whoever that is) and predict for his fellows what their reaction will be. To this end, the newspapers carefully screen their reviewers to be representative common men, say, former obituary writers or mailroom clerks, anything but trained specialists.”
In the past, it would seem that not knowing much about movies served as a qualification for a film reviewing post. The public, feeling already informed, resisted the notion of film appreciation as a specialized field of study that might necessitate historians, theorists, mavens. Yet however much satirists may poke fun at the snobbish devotee of “the cinemaah,” writing well about movies does require historical knowledge and formal cultivation. How, then, does a film critic assert authority in the face of the public’s resistance to cinematic expertise? (The answer is: tactfully.)
Though university departments with their courses and degrees have greatly altered the landscape of film studies in the last forty years, becoming a film critic still seems largely a matter of knack, luck, and bluff. You can’t just hang out a shingle and wait for customers. Assuming you have gotten a foot in the door, you must then earn respect as a writer and convert readers to the regular habit of perusing (if not agreeing with) you, largely on the basis on producing entertaining, convincing critical prose. It is a literary performance, in the final analysis: What is involved is the operation of one art form (literature) on another (the movies). Film critics, who must represent the visual in verbal terms, start out for this reason somewhat on the defensive, knowing they can be charged with a primarily writerish, or “literary,” take on a movie. “Exasperated by my unyielding stance toward Titanic, a friend recently informed me that I 'care too much about words.’ To that charge I’m forced to plead guilty,” wrote Kenneth Turan.
Third, the film critic is also a human being, who brings to the job all sorts of autobiographical quirks. Some critics willingly insert personal details in the midst of analyzing a movie, and we come to form an intimate picture of them. Andrew Sarris will remark offhandedly about his childhood and parents in Queens; Vincent Canby tells us he was in the army; we learn from Pauline Kael that her Western rancher-father was a Republican and an adulterer. We also glean the critic’s other interests: that Otis Ferguson loves jazz, Manny Farber is knowledgeable about painting and prizefighting, Stanley Kauffmann has a deep feeling for the theater, Stanley Cavell is devoted to Emerson, James Agee seems interested in everything. Renata Adler, preparing herself to become the New York Times critic, commented: “The best criticism I read was still by writers who simply felt moved by film to say something about it – without reverent or consistent strategies, putting films idiosyncratically alongside things they cared about in other ways.” Paradoxically, the really good film critic has to show an interest in something else besides movies; a well-stocked mind remains the mark of the true essayist.
Reading a favorite film critic regularly, you learn to make adjustments for blind spots and to sense, for whatever obscure biographical reasons, which forbidden desires or deadly sins the writer is most likely to condone or condemn. Being human, film critics also fall in love. Because movies are so sensually seductive, they encourage a falling-in-love response, which may or may not always yield the best critical writing. Sometimes the critic becomes smitten with a particular performer, and may even mischievously draw attention to the infatuation. Critics must be hypersensitive to their subjective responses as a starting-point. In addition, all film critics place mental bets on certain moviemakers to be the future hope, the cutting edge, just as all film critics write off certain attention-getting “comers” as irredeemably overrated. It then becomes the critic’s task to admit at least the possibility that those already mentally dismissed as hacks might conceivably succeed with their next film. Conversely, loving a performer or filmmaker beyond measure may lead to overreactions in the opposite direction, as though the failure to live up to the critic’s expectations were not just a disappointment but a betrayal.
The film critic we trust and read regularly becomes a kind of old friend whose conversation we cherish and to whom we turn eagerly for opinions and advice. Stanley Cavell said it best: “The writing about film which has meant something to me has the power of the missing companion. Agee Robert Warshow and André Bazin manage that mode of conversation all the time; and I have found it in, among others, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris.” In this sense, the best film criticism verges on the personal essay, where the particular topic matters less, in the long run, than the companionable voice.
Just as the personal essay tradition invites practitioners to engage with their illustrious ancestors, so film critics seem to be forever looking over their shoulders at the predecessors and contemporaries. Sometimes the dialogue becomes more contentious than reverential. In reviewing the literature, 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. This fraternal dissing popped up constantly in the 1960s and ’70s, when so much seemed at stake regarding movies that taste differences were rarely accorded a civil disagreement. In retrospect, Sarris, Kael, Farber, Tyler, Macdonald, Kauffmann, Simon, Schickel, Pechter, Haskell, et al., were obviously all fine critics and passionate film-lovers, engaged in a collective effort to shore up the art; but that ardent, monotheistic era inspired the zealous striking down of any potential false gods. The rush to puncture the latest prestige movie was part of the same syndrome, which persists to this day. Some film critics still feel the need to position themselves as maverick outsiders against a putatively smug cultural establishment. This combative strategy is but one of the many tried-and-true ways to insert tension into a film review.
Much ink has been expended on the difference between film reviewing and film criticism. It’s been said that the former is addressed to those who have not yet seen the movie, the latter, to those who have (or as though this were the case). The reviewer is caricatured as a vulgar, thumbs-up consumer guide; the critic, seen as more of an armchair intellectual. In truth, film reviewing at its best is every bit as demanding and rigorous as the most leisurely film criticism. In this collection I take the position that at the highest levels, there is no hard line between the two. Personally, I admire as much the man-about-town, deadline- prose of the Times’ Vincent Canby as I do the measured philosophical reflections by Harvard’s Stanley Cavell about classic Hollywood movies.
Excerpted from American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate, reprinted by permission of the publisher. © 2006 by Literary Classics of the United States. All rights reserved.