Pathfinders, moonlighters, and pros mingle in film crickets’ cavalcade
Welcome to this year’s installment of the Crisis of Criticism, that cyclical scourge often concurring with upheavals of industry and capital. With theatrical exhibitors buckling under digital-conversion demands and audiences dissolving into wireless vapors, small wonder film critics are again being shown to the scapegoat paddock, and even eminent bards like the Baltimore Sun’s Michael Sragow are chided by colleagues at their own venues for scorning populist favorites.
To place matters in historical deep focus, we now have the anthology “American Movie Critics,” compiled by belletrist, educator, and flâneur Phillip Lopate for the Library of America, our august nonprofit arbiter of something like a native literary pantheon. Propping up a century-old critical tradition amid the locust swarms, Lopate’s “Movie Critics” is a thick, glossy dolmen that fits between the publisher’s stately two-volume sets of civil rights testaments and Vietnam War journalism, and their “gifty” digests of baseball trifles or unruly Yanks in Paris.
As Library of America offerings go, “Movie Critics” is turned out in unusually snazzy duds. Authors and topics (e.g., “J. Hoberman on bad movies”) are clustered on the back cover in matchstick lettering, after the typographic convention of film-poster credits. If you remove the dust jacket and angle the hard cover against the light, a design nuance becomes visible—black-on-black numerals, arranged in the outline of a typewriter on the front and a small-gauge projector on the back, echoing the dust jacket photography. For those who trouble to look, an emoticon waits on the typewriter page.
Unfailingly debonair, Lopate charts a huge terrain, divvying his picks into a quartered chronology and prefacing each selection with learned, sprightly notations. First come silent-era “pioneers” like Vachel Lindsay, Gilbert Seldes, and Harry Alan Potamkin, who mature, with the advent of film sound, into “masters and moonlighters” like Robert Warshow and Siegfried Kracauer, succeeded in turn by such vaunted “golden agers” as Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, and Vincent Canby. Not quite branding today’s cohort, Lopate gathers working critics as different as Gilberto Perez, Carrie Rickey, and Manohla Dargis under the rubric of “renegade perspectives.”
As set forth in his introduction, Lopate’s agenda is chiefly to enshrine film criticism as “a branch of American letters” which “belongs as much to the canon of American nonfiction prose as it does to the history of film reception.” So who’s arguing? We might simply note—by way of echt critic Manny Farber’s 1962 essay, which pits highfalutin, status-obsessed “White Elephant Art” against scrappy, subterranean “Termite Art”—that en route to immortality Lopate’s convoy leaves a discernibly pachyderm footprint.
Lopate seeks moreover to restore certain figures, including “pioneer” Cecilia Ager and “master” Otis Ferguson, to what he regards as their proper stature, while rescuing another handful, such as Melvin B. Tolson, William Pechter, and Donald Phelps, from relative neglect. Indeed, one of the book’s keenest pleasures is Phelps’ filigreed rumination on Allan Dwan—his equally astute essay on Anthony Mann is missed—though Lopate’s description of Phelps as a kind of fugitive will-o’-the-wisp is happily offset by three Phelps pieces in the current issue of the online journal Rouge.
Conscious of historical redress, Lopate chooses an honorable sampling of African-American authors. Included are Tolson on “Gone With the Wind,” James Baldwin on “Lady Sings the Blues” (“The private life of a black woman … cannot really be considered at all. To consider this forbidden privacy is to violate white privacy—by destroying the white dream of the blacks.”), bell hooks on “Pulp Fiction,” and Armond White on the films of Spike Lee, plus Ralph Ellison’s haunting disquisition “The Shadow and the Act.”
Nor do queers want for inclusion, between entries by Sontag, Baldwin, Barbara Deming, Lincoln Kirstein, John Ashbery, and perhaps best of all Parker Tyler, whose oracular monographs “Screening the Sexes,” “Underground Film: A Critical History,” and “Sex Psyche Etcetera in the Film” comprise but one branch of an oeuvre extending to poetry, biography, and the novel. Allowing in his introduction that Tyler “paved the way for gay film studies,” Lopate gallantly abstains from actually identifying his lesbian or gay contributors as such.
Notwithstanding the diversified clerisy, Lopate unambiguously decrees his pecking order, beatifying Ferguson, Farber, Kael, James Agee, and Andrew Sarris as the all-time Greatest. But what does it mean that of the five thrones in Lopate’s Valhalla, only one is held by a practicing critic—Andrew Sarris, who at 78 still expounds from his aerie at the New York Observer? The other living titan, 89-year-old Manny Farber, rejoices in Bodhisattva-like demi-retirement near San Diego
This rarefied canonization supports a general impression of a critical “golden age” at eventide, if not altogether past. It’s one thing to withhold a crown from Tyler, who no less than Lopate’s five magi unlocked mansions of cinematic splendor, and more than any of them disinhibited criticism from its all-American sexual shame in exalting an art premised uniquely on eros. But in 2006 can there really be no room at the top for contemporary sages writing in full stride like Jonathan Rosenbaum or J. Hoberman?
A skein of clues laced through the intro and prefatory notes leads us to realize that Lopate’s hierarchy corresponds to a puissant nostalgia for the heroic film-going era of his youth, especially the stretch bookended by late-‘50s European art cinema—Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, et al.—and the maverick New Hollywood ultimately devoured by “Jaws” (1975). Marking our distance from that center of gravity, Lopate observes, without apparent irony, how today’s critics trawl “the backwaters of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the avant-garde” for fresh discoveries.
While it’s diverting to ponder the reaction of readers in Taipei, Mumbai, and Cairo on learning that their homes, not to mention film industries, are “backwaters,” Lopate’s erratic attention to present-day cinema falls short. Too many entries in the final section are hooked on classics—Ashbery on Val Lewton, Perez on John Ford, James Harvey on “Imitation of Life.” And the cyber flair of the design belies a lack of engagement with the transformations wrought at every level of cinematic experience, from image-capture to hermeneutics, by the digital paradigm.
The few bits of filler—you’ll know ’em when you skip them—inevitably call to mind the many omitted writers who’d pack an unplanned companion volume. Creditably, Lopate errs on the side of literary ambition, privileging daytrippers before many stalwart critics in order to enlarge our sense of breadth and maintain a caliber well above what Manohla Dargis, in an interview with Gay City News’ own Steve Erickson, accurately termed the “wearying homogeneity” of so much contemporary film reviewing.
In all, this generous treasury more than earns its place on the cinephile’s shelf beside David Denby’s oft-thumbed, out-of-print “Awake in the Dark” and Greg Taylor’s meta-critical study “Artists in the Audience.” “American Movie Critics” is an appealing keepsake, and may in time prove itself a classic.