click to buy “American Movie Critics” at Amazon.comThe aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

– Susan Sontag (1)

I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated.

– Francis Ford Coppola (2)

At the beginning of Chuck Workman’s mesmerising short feature from 1994, 100 Years at the Movies, this bit of history appears:

On April 14, 1894, in a former shoe store on Broadway, fascinated New Yorkers looked into a narrow slot and watched the first movies ever shown commercially in the United States. This was the birth of the American film. It was a modest beginning to 100 years of magical memories and unforgettable images. (3)

What follows is a dizzying nine minutes of flashes from some 225 American motion pictures. The short feature, first screened at the 1994 Academy Awards ceremony, works its magic from the opening frames, as Annabelle twirls and pirouettes in Serpentine Dance from 1896 (Edison Kinetoscope Film). Memorable snatches from film soundtracks seem designed to slow the feature’s headlong momentum as image after image appears, and we begin to recognise the clips. But they come too fast. We hope it would all slow down, just a bit, this kinetoscopic look at Hollywood’s first 100 years. We want to savour. When it ends, we’re reminded of the child tossed in the air over and over by a doting uncle, dropped and caught at the last second: “Do it again!” the child squeals. Workman’s film seems to close with Liam Neeson’s portrait, from Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993), but it reawakens briefly to Annabelle, this time from Butterfly Dance (Edison Kinetoscope Film, 1897). Workman has given us rapture in staccato, and a lesson in how to hold your breath for nine minutes.

Phillip Lopate creates a similar, if more leisurely, effect with his splendid collection of film criticism, American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now. And unlike Workman’s short feature, Lopate’s collection can be taken at whatever speed you like. There is much to savour. With care and intelligence, Lopate has mined almost a century of film writing and selected 146 reviews, essays and commentaries from 68 writers, all of whom share a passion for the movies; a deftness with the form; provocative, delicious writing, and an insight into the films themselves that rivals the best in literary and other forms of criticism. In his keen, judicious introduction, Lopate once and for all puts an end (at least I hope he does) to the decades-long argument about the relevance of writing about film and the people who write it. His acute and sensitive selection accomplishes what Susan Sontag described in 1963:

Equally valuable would be acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than normal analysis. Some of Manny Farber’s film criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent’s essay “The Dickens World: A View from Todgers’,” Randall Jarrell’s essay on Walt Whitman are among the rare examples of what I mean. These are essays which reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it. (4)

Lopate knew what he was looking for. A writer with an accomplished body of work that includes essays, novels and poems, he teaches writing and literature at Hofstra and New York universities and Bennington College and is on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival. His own book of film writing, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically (5), builds on his roots in the early 1960s, when he wrote about the first New York Film Festival, and films like À bout de souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) breathed their own cinematic life into young writers and filmmakers.

With energy and sincerity, Lopate takes the measure of film criticism in America. We get an immediate feel for his affection for the movies and the American critics who have written – and still write – about them. He plunges in at the deep end:

This book celebrates film criticism as a branch of American letters….It is arguable, in fact, that in the last fifty years, more energy, passion and analytical juice have gone into film criticism than into literary criticism, or probably any other writing about the arts. (p. xiii)

Lopate makes clear that the quality of the writing and insight by America’s film critics has spawned a distinctly American school of film criticism, despite a lament to the contrary by Otis Ferguson, a critic (and tragic figure [6]) Lopate identifies as one of the nation’s five greatest. (The others are Farber, James Agee, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.) What Lopate finds in these critics is “crisply vivid” writing, “stylish prose that is textured, surprising, contemporary without pandering” (p. xx). He regards “entertaining, convincing, critical prose” (p. xxiii) as much a necessity as a knowledge of and passion for the movies. “It is a literary performance, in the final analysis.” (p. xxiii)

Knowing what you’re looking for is a hallmark of American cinema itself, if not of the Hollywood producers and directors who pumped out movies for much of the 20th century. And it is emblematic of the critics. From Vachel Lindsay (the first critic in Lopate’s book) to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times (the last), America’s film writers reflect the swagger of America, an America that today is reviled by some for swaggering too much. The writers Lopate celebrates are a product of the same culture that produced D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, Elia Kazan and Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks and Martin Scorsese, directors who weren’t (and aren’t) afraid to knock over a few gimcracks as they bulled their way through cinema’s china shop. They are likewise unfazed by the reactions to their opinions, thrown at times like so many darts at the board in the local pub. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan’s brave and contrary review of Titanic (1997) so infuriated James Cameron that the director wanted Turan fired (p. 622). Something of the viper also strikes in a review of Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) by Stuart Klawans in The Nation, the house once occupied by Agee and Farber. Klawans describes actress Connie Nielsen’s participation in the film: “It’s a role that’s as thankless as it is forgettable; and Nielsen fades with it so thoroughly that you’d think she’d been born in a vat, from whatever stem cells they use to grow starlets.” (pp. 642-643)

Lopate divides his anthology into four sections: Pioneers: The Silent Era and the Transition to Sound; Masters and Moonlighters: The Late 1930s, World War II, and the Postwar Era; The Golden Age of Movie Criticism: The 1950s through the 70s; and Reconsiderations and Renegade Perspectives: The 1980s to the Present. We get portraits of directors (David Thomson on Howard Hawks, Richard Schickel on Sam Fuller, William S. Pechter on Luis Buñuel, David Denby on Frederick Wiseman and Andrew Sarris on Billy Wilder); examinations of genres (Manny Farber on “Underground Films”, Molly Haskell on “The Woman’s Film”, Susan Sontag on science fiction, Brendan Gill on porn and Paul Schrader on film noir); and under-the-microscope looks at dozens of films, not all of which are by American directors. We learn of the status of film criticism and the moviegoing public (Rudolf Arnheim and J. Hoberman). We hear not only from working film critics but poets (Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, H.D. and John Ashbery), novelists (Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin) and cultural historians (Edmund Wilson, Siegfried Kracauer and Robert Warshow). Everyone, it seems, is a critic.

What, then, is particularly American about this collection, and what do the critics reflect that is unique to the USA – beyond the fact that, as Lopate tells us, all 68 writers in his collection “are American, either born or naturalized” (p. xxvi)? And who besides an American would have the temerity to think anyone would be interested in 720 pages of film criticism from a nation just 230 years old, whose own cinematic history spans a period about half as long?

For help, we need look no further than Michael Wood’s America in the Movies, which only infrequently masquerades as a portrait of America itself. Wood’s thesis on what makes American movies American also reveals what is American about America. “The movies did not describe or explore America,” Wood writes, “they invented it, dreamed up an America all their own, and persuaded us to share the dream.” (7) Born in England, Wood possesses insights into Americans that are frighteningly close to the bone. The America (and Americans) seen in its movies is by turns, Wood writes, “ambitious”, “contradictory”, “ruthless”, simultaneously “generous” and “selfish”, “lonely” and “resentful of the need for others” (8). America is a land where the men demonstrate “mostly mindless adventure” and the women “intelligence and normality”. (9) Americans view society distinctly at odds from Europeans, who see it as a “solid, everlasting, tangible substance”; for Americans, society is only a “shadowy reality”. (10) “The only thing wrong with America,” Wood tells us, “was this pesky temptation to keep asking what’s wrong.” (11) And isn’t this at least one of the roles of a critic, someone who refuses to swallow what the movie studios (or filmmakers) serve up time and again, someone who looks harder at a movie than its creators (not to mention the general public), someone not afraid to let the rest of us know when the emperor is wearing no clothes (or that his robe shimmers as if from a light within)? Wood’s description of Rita Hayworth serves both as a capsule description of America at mid-20th century and as a sideways glance at the American film critic:

Still, as a half-reluctant agent of ruin, a woman poised even in her moments of panic, a vehicle for the vicarious fleshly impulses of a whole decade, she remained strangely aloof from it all. She seemed in the clear, not really compromised by the company she kept or the shows she put on. (12)

Writing about David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), Manohla Dargis invokes another America and its uneasy embrace of violence as a cultural necessity:

A History of Violence might have easily been called A History of America, but it would sell both Mr. Cronenberg’s art and his purpose short to reduce this film to an ideology. While transparently set in small-town America (Ontario passing for Indiana), the sheer unreality of the hamlet initially makes it clear that this story is not taking place in the here and now, but in a copy of the world that looks – and wouldn’t you know it – a lot like a movie. Mr. Cronenberg, a Canadian, is taking aim at this country, to be sure. But he is also taking aim at our violence-addicted cinema, those seductive, self-heroizing self-justifications we sell to the world. Perversely though, the more violent this film becomes – in time, the blood flows all the way to Philadelphia – the more real Tom and his family seem. He kills, therefore they are. (pp. 712-713)

America in the movies (in Canada), bloodsoaked and loving it.

Another critic seems to shout “America” if only by his use of a peculiarly American bit of slang. Underground critic Donald Phelps examines the work of Toronto-born filmmaker Allan Dwan, whose Hollywood career spanned 49 years:

…my favorite Dwans are complicated jobs like Passion [1954] and The Most Dangerous Man Alive [1961] and Tennessee’s Partner [1955]: with their coruscations of plot, their picaresque chains of incident, through which Dwan traces a skein of narrative. The dual effect of these films is an overall winding smoothness of the film’s movement, counterpointed, scene by scene and frame by frame, with angular, jabbing action and crisply diagrammed imagery. Dwan has carried from his silent period the silent filmmakers’ preoccupation with making every shot, every camera set-up do its maximum share, the film taking responsibility for its own world. (p. 391)

The key word here is “job”, which recalls the closing scene of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), when insurance-claims manager Walter Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) calls for an ambulance after his agent, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), collapses while trying to escape a murder rap. Keyes deadpans to the dispatcher: “Yeah, it’s a police job.”

Lopate delivers not just a collection of the best in film writing, but something personal, born of devotion, a gift from a grateful descendent. Unlike the anthologies I recall from my academic years, this one contains writing that you can’t wait to sample. There are no assignments to be read by next Friday, things to be gotten through. One of the delights of the book is that Lopate creates the desire to go beyond his selections, to deepen our experience with these writers and read more by them. This is easily accomplished with one of Lopate’s top five. The Library of America is a handsome collection of more than 140 volumes of the best in American writing, from Henry Adams to Louis Zukofsky, on topics from baseball to civil rights, Vietnam – and film. It has already published the complete film writing of James Agee, so those who hunger for more than the six pieces here can indulge further. In fact, many of the writers in Lopate’s book are represented generously in collections of their own work.

A letter from the poet W.H. Auden to the editor of The Nation, where Agee was film critic from 1942 to 1948, acts as a kind of preface to James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism. Auden writes:

I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre, which more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. (13)

But Auden heaps high praise on Agee, admitting that he reads the column “Agee on Film” before he reads anything else in the magazine:

In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today. What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends its ostensible – to me, rather unimportant – subject, that his articles belong in that very select class – the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know – of newspaper work which has permanent literary value. (14)

The seriousness of film criticism in America (and for that matter, any country) at this stage of film history cannot be doubted. When publications like The New York Review of Books include film writing – there are two examples in the May 31 issue: one on Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) by classics scholar and critic Daniel Mendelsohn and another on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) by historian and political writer Timothy Garton Ash – we are reminded (as if we needed to be) that film criticism is a free-standing genre, oblivious to the insipid debates about its relevance or whether the critic is out of touch with a public that rushes like lemmings to a movie like David Dobkin’s Wedding Crashers (2005), and the arguments over the differences between film reviewing (written for those who haven’t seen a movie) and film criticism (for those who have) and the future of the genre. Writing toward the end of the silent era, the psychologist and aesthetician Rudolf Arnheim was already addressing “The Film Critic of Tomorrow” by lamenting that the “critic of today unfortunately belongs to yesterday.” (p. 95) Impatience, it turns out, is also a virtue.

Uniting his intrepid cinematic tour guides are Lopate’s thoughtful, short but morally generous biographical notes about the critics. One stands out not just for what it says about the critic – Andrew Sarris, one of Lopate’s top five – but for what it says about Lopate himself. “A most appealing aspect of his writing,” Lopate writes, “is his humanity. He is remarkably self-mocking, undefensive and vulnerable, especially for a critic, and seems always on the side of compassion and wisdom.” (p. 296) While this may be out of step with part of Wood’s analysis, it reinforces what the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates has said of good criticism, that it should possess, “a…rare talent for self-effacement” (15).

In 1961, the poet and filmmaker Jonas Mekas cited the words of D.W. Griffith from Ezra Goodman’s book The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood: “The simple things, the human things are important in pictures. There are supposed to be only seven or eight plots. They are relatively unimportant. The most important thing is humanity.” (p. 281) Lopate embraces this notion throughout. Even as we celebrate with him the often incandescent writing, the contributors’ keen grasp of film knowledge, history and mechanics, and their occasional hard glint at the movies, the contributors’ humanity emerges time and again. Even when it’s found lacking, as John Simon shows in his discussion of Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), humanity is one of this book’s most consistent ingredients.

Richard Schickel, the film critic for Time, boldly demonstrates his humanity (and wit) by admitting that he’s … well, human, in his review of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). He has just finished discussing how some films “are indelibly burned into memory”:

It is that way – but much more self-consciously so – with Blue Velvet. Less than six weeks after seeing it I could not recount its story and, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn – something about a psychopathic hood (Dennis Hopper) terrorizing a woman (Isabella Rossellini) who is masochistic putty in his hand, while he and his gang attempt to corrupt a small American city. The logic of the tale, if you analyze it, is full of jump cuts. But its subversive imagery, after the same six weeks in residency, had been granted a lifetime lease inside my head. (p. 560)

Even in commentaries on films made outside the US, Lopate’s American critics embrace a generosity of spirit and wide-open eyes, while occasionally flashing a demeanour that borders on the irreverent. Screenwriter and critic Kent Jones on Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000):

The last few films in particular feel like reconnaissance flights over dangerous interpersonal territory, getting off vivid snapshots of emotional stalemates in play. wkw [Wong Kar-wai] has perfected a giddy technique, which appears simultaneously to delve into and flit past the repetitive avoidance strategies and game playing of lonely individuals or couples (at times, he seems like a healthier, more sensual Egoyan). Not uncommonly for a modern filmmaker, he has less of an aptitude for emotional gradation and development than for rough and ready, lunging portraits of emotion-as-action. His films are made up of moments that seem to have been grabbed out of time, as though he’s almost always just missed it. (p. 667)

At some point as you sample the writing in American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, you may find someone missing. I did. My guess is that Lopate did too, but he had to stop somewhere. An example of Dave Kehr’s writing, which currently appears in The New York Times in the form of features and reviews of current DVDs, would have been worth including. Perhaps his piece on The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915) from The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films (16). But this is a minor point. Heft was always an issue with those English and American literature anthologies anyway.

In her review of Lopate’s own collection of film writing, Diane Jacobs calls him “curious, wise and frequently amusing” (17), words that accurately describe this authoritative and elegant collection. It is a volume whose stock rises with each sampling. I envy students who will be assigned this bravura selection, whether for a course in film studies or a class on how to write an essay. The rest of us must be content to design our own film studies course, with Lopate’s book – absorbing, resonant, richly immersive – as our worthy companion.

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

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  1. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador Press, New York, p. 14.
  2. Francis Ford Coppola, Interview, June 17, 1995, Las Vegas, Nevada, Academy of Achievement.
  3. From 100 Years at the Movies (Chuck Workman, 1994) as cited by Tim Dirks at Filmsite.
  4. Sontag, p. 13.
  5. Phillip Lopate, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies, Anchor Books, New York, 1998.
  6. Ferguson, who wrote for The New Republic, was killed in World War II at the age of 36.
  7. Michael Wood, America in the Movies, Columbia University Press, New York, 1975, p. 23.
  8. Wood, numerous pages.
  9. Wood, p. 67.
  10. Wood, p. 110.
  11. Wood, p. 111.
  12. Wood, p. 57.
  13. Michael Sragow (ed.), James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism, The Library of America, New York, 2005, p. 3.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Joyce Carol Oates, “Brilliance, Silence, Courage”, The New York Review of Books, vol. LIV, no. 4, May 31, 2007, p. 31.
  16. Jay Carr (ed.), The A List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002.
  17. Diane Jacobs, “Waiting for Godard”, The New York Times, November 29, 1998.