Flickhead
Book Review
By Ray Young

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American Movie Critics

An Anthology from the Silents Until Now

Edited by Phillip Lopate. 825 pages. The Library of America, $40.00.

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    There have been cries lately about the supposed irrelevance of film critics and criticism in American newspapers and national magazines, the notion that writers with lofty ideals are out of touch with the general public. It’s far from a new argument (Pauline Kael’s notorious slam of the hugely popular The Sound of Music certainly went against the grain in its day), but now editors and publishers seem willing to hand out pink slips to good writers with critical sensibilities and replace them with mundane scribblers hip on trends and modish rhetoric. “What we’re seeing is not so much the death of criticism,” observed Patrick Goldstein recently in the Los Angeles Times, “as the death of the culture of criticism.”
    With that in mind, a journey through Phillip Lopate’s American Movie Critics reveals just how significant film criticism has been over the course of the last century. Not so much to sell or rate any given picture—though that’s ostensibly its purpose, at least in the eyes of the mainstream—but as a valid genre of writing and as a strong influence on culture and values. (Ms. Kael’s essay made it fashionable to mock The Sound of Music and saccharine sentimentality in general.) “This book celebrates film criticism as a branch of American letters,” Mr. Lopate writes. “Movies may be only a hundred years old, but already they have generated in this country a body of extraordinary critical writing that honors the best belletristic traditions of our nonfiction prose.”
    A frequent contributor to the pages of Film Comment, Film Quarterly, and The New York Times, Mr. Lopate is also a poet, novelist and essayist whose interests extend to architecture, travel and urbanism. Although he authored the distinctly personal collection of movie essays, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, the author gives the impression of being less cloistered than others in the field, and possesses an ability to discuss the art on an emotional level while maintaining a degree of objectivity. As he sees it, “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.”
    While some of the more impassioned followers have fought useless debates over who’s intelligent and who isn’t (the opposing camps for Ms. Kael and Andrew Sarris, for instance), Mr. Lopate values “film criticism as an art in itself—the magnet for strong, elegant, eloquent, enjoyable writing.” His selection of other people’s essays for American Movie Critics—staying within the parameters of the United States simply for the sake of space and manageability—begins with a perceptive piece written in 1914 by the “Prairie Troubadour,” Vachel Lindsay, extending to current columnists such as A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis “who are alert enough to explain…how [the art of film] is shifting.” What falls in between is a vibrant display of change and growth in the cinema, journalism, popular trends, and Mr. Lopate’s admiration for his friends and colleagues, past and present.
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Roger Ebert, all thumbs

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    He recognizes nearly every relevant native film critic, including Brit David Thomson who set up permanent residence in California years ago. As most of them write on weekly deadlines for newspapers and magazines, Mr. Lopate has gone through hundreds of articles for the one or two that may best illustrate a given writer’s style, wit or taste. A huge undertaking, one may assume that this volume has been in the works for a very long time.
    Naturally Ms. Kael is represented, whose work, Mr. Lopate feels, “belongs with the best American nonfiction prose of the modern era.” Two reviews (one of Jean-Luc Goddard’s Bande à part, the other of William Wyler’s Funny Girl) and one essay (“Trash, Art and the Movies”) invoke the fiery passion for cinema that made her columns for The New Yorker a cultural magnet during the 1960s and ‘70s. She recognized film’s uncanny emotional draw, when reality bends to metaphor and the dream-state: “Don’t all our experiences in the arts and popular arts that have more intensity than our ordinary lives tend to merge in another imaginative world? And movies, because they are such an encompassing, eclectic art, are an ideal medium for combining our experiences and fantasies from life, from all the arts, and from our jumbled memories of both.”
    That was written during America’s age of cinematic enlightenment, the central period of this collection. The movement arrived shortly after the groundwork set forth by Otis Ferguson (whose writing, Mr. Lopate believes, “took on an improvised, jazzy quality, the sentences speedy, conversational, the words juggled and kept in motion and never allowed to stagnate”), James Agee (“[his] prose style—syntactically complex, baroque in diction, flamboyant, witty—was a high wire act that delighted his readers”), and Manny Farber (“a film critic’s film critic”). As is evidenced by the reviews included here, each author freely exhibited personal preference and style, instigated theories on the Hollywood product, and introduced readers to the foreign films that began appearing regularly in America after World War II.
    Mr. Lopate arranges them in chronological order along with several of their less-famous contemporaries: Pare Lorentz, who wrote for Scribner’s, McCall’s and Vanity Fair during the 1930s (“he decried censorship, championed the role of the film director as artistic creator, and urged the making of more independent, honestly realistic American movies”); Variety’s style-conscious Cecilia Ager (“she used fashion as her entry into examining the constricting roles women were asked to play, in real life and onscreen”); and André Sennwald (“the first daily reviewer at The New York Times with a deep grasp of film culture”).
    Although their work combined insight with an inviting simplicity, they fell out of favor with the sweeping influence of the French critics in the late 1950s. Scads of articles have been published honoring André Bazin and his coterie at Cahiers du cinéma, but little attention has been given to the polarizing fallout of their efforts. With a handful of rare exceptions (such as The New York Times’s Vincent Canby, who Mr. Lopate believes wrote with “seemingly effortless literary grace, wit and taste”), the field divided into two distinct camps, intellectuals and entertainment reporters. Or, some would argue, critics and reviewers.
    “A new breed of film critics, made understandably impatient with old-fogy laments for the 1960s and 70s, has set about to advocate work that is firing up younger audiences,” opines Mr. Lopate of more recent journalists, “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-ended yet oddly claustrophobic, self-referential films often have an inner pulse that resembles rock music more than classic film narrative.”
    Over the past twenty-five or thirty years, motion pictures have nearly swallowed themselves whole in aping, plagiarizing or ‘homaging’ older (and often superior) films and television programs, leaving today’s critic with the cinema alone as her or his reference point. Real life and its philosophies, myths, psychologies and compassions—the hard copy of existence—no longer hold the sway they once did, having been replaced in many quarters (foreign and domestic) by hollow iconography, enforced negativity, visceral reaction and myopic subjectivity. All of it making the present argument against film critics chillingly justified and conventional critical forms virtually immaterial. An exceptional work and vastly entertaining, American Movie Critics is the history of a progressively dissolving art and perhaps its obituary as well.