Fourth of July weekend, in which our nation gathers on boats and park lawns to watch things explode in celebration of America, is, somewhat ironically, also traditionally the biggest box-office weekend of the year for movie theaters. And in a way, this makes sense. For all its liberal inclinations, there are fewer institutions more certifiably American than Hollywood. For almost a century, America has been a nation of moviegoers, both in love with the form and deeply frustrated by it. Nowhere is this more evident than in its voluminous output of film criticism. For nearly as long as there have been movies in America, there have also been movie critics. Now, in editor Phillip Lopate’s new anthology, American Movie Critics, a hearty sampling of those critical voices can be found together for the first time.
With this hefty collection (it runs past the 700-page mark), Lopate attempts to present a comprehensive chronicle of our country’s critical love affair with the movies. Seen by some as a parasitic endeavor for obsessives and narcissists, Lopate introduces the book with an essay arguing that movie criticism is “a branch of American letters” that, in the last half century, has generated “more energy, passion, and analytical juice” than any other writing about the arts. Lopate’s charming, straightforward essay makes a strong case, and the ensuing collection further bolsters the notion that film criticism is a distinct, vibrant art unto itself.
Organized by author and grouped into four chronological segments, Lopate makes clear that his book is, in fact, American Movie Critics, not American Movie Criticism. The focus here is not on the films under review or the many recurrent motifs in critical writing, but instead on the voices responsible for the words. This occasionally proves frustrating, as related ideas and arguments tend to be scattered throughout the collection. Still, as a guide to the critics themselves, it is indispensable.
Lopate’s four eras of film criticism, which begin with writing on early silent films and move through the postwar, golden age, and recent periods, provide a glimpse into the development of the form. What is surprising, though, is not so much how it evolved, but how familiar are many of the debates and ideas outlined in the earliest essays. The book’s first piece is by poet Vachel Lindsay, who in 1915 described “the Action Film, the simplest, the type most often seen,” where “the story goes at the highest possible speed to be still credible” and “spectacles gratify the incipient or rampant speed-mania in every American.” Lindsay’s florid prose reflects some of the predilections of the time — his talk of “speed-mania” is reminiscent of futurism and his exuberance sometimes resembles the theoretical writings of Antonin Artaud — but his general ideas about action movies might as well have been written last week. Other enduring themes popped up early on as well: debates over the role of women in society, concern over the possibly dangerous influence of immoral films, whether critics should emphasize visuals or storytelling.
But even with its steady repetition of familiar topics, film criticism manages to cover broad swaths of material: There is little in culture, politics, psychology, or personal narrative that is not dissected by one curious critic or another. Reading this anthology is to understand what enormous freedom film critics have to write about anything and everything — a freedom which many critics don’t hesitate to avail themselves of. It is this tendency toward board criticism that uses film as a jumping off point that seems to produce the most consistently intriguing work. A simple review may prove entertaining or instructive during the heyday of the film it covers, but an essay which tackles some larger societal matter will have far more staying power.
Yet for all the desultory topics touched on by the book’s many critics, the most popular by far seems to be the movies themselves. This may seem a tad obvious: Of course they are writing about movies; they are movie critics! But unlike those who opine on books or music, movie critics seem especially prone to sweeping generalizations about their chosen topic. Everyone, it seems has an idea about what the movies are, or should be, and everyone wants to claim credit for having verbalized the most accurate, encompassing definition.
Partly this comes as a result of the generally high level of passion that movie critics display for their subject. For all their orneriness and elitism — and movie critics are, on the whole, an elitist bunch — the majority of critics in the book display an enormous affection for the form. This manifests itself in vivid, enthusiastic prose filled with grand declarations, much of which seems to emanate from the fact that many early critics were also poets.
As one might also expect from a group whose job it is to keep and display an exotic arrangement of carefully pruned opinions, there is much internecine squabbling. Critics come off as a quarrelsome, cantankerous bunch who love to pick fights with each, whether in passing jabs, such as in Armond White’s review of Malcolm X, or in essay-length pummelings, such as Dwight MacDonald’s review of Fellini’s 8½, which spends most of its length directly attacking the film’s detractors. Those will a thirst for the soap opera like ins and outs of movie critic feuds will likely get their fill.
Indeed, the book should satisfy even the most gluttonous devourer of criticism. With its length and scope, it covers everything from the heady and abstract to the jovial and frivolous; at times it almost overwhelming. Reading it through page by page may be the wrong approach all but the most serious film-criticism junkies. No, for many, this anthology may best be taken in fragments, skipping around to essays that look appealing and leaving the rest for later.
In any collection of this size, there are bound to be some essays that fare better than others. And though the quality is, on the whole, quite high, there are certainly some standouts. Among the highlights here are Susan Sontag’s exploration of sci-fi disaster films; Parker Tyler’s examination of boredom in the films of Andry Warhol; Andrew Sarris’ look at the dull, artsy seriousness of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of all the critics, though, it is the recognized queen of American-movie writing, Pauline Kael, who stands out most. With her zesty, visionary prose and keen insight, her four essays here proved that she loved movies as well as she understood them. While reading this book, one quickly discovers that the best critics are those who can make you want to drop everything and see some unknown film right now. If Kael doesn’t make you want to see Band of Outsiders before the day is through, then nothing will.
If, as Kael wrote, “Movies are our cheap and easy expressions,” then what should we make of the practitioners of its cheaper and easier derivative, movie criticism? Some might argue that critics should be ignored, dismissed as aesthetic tyrants, while others would have us celebrate critics for their devotion to an important, popular art. Perhaps, though, they should simply be read, argued with when necessary, and left to their screening rooms and scrawl-filled notebooks. For movies, after all, are one of our most telling, arguably most American, arts, and critics are its weary-eyed keepers.