Sunday, December 03, 2006

FILM CRITICISM BLOGATHON—Phillip Lopate: PFA Readings on Cinema Lecture and Q&A

Back in early April, Phillip Lopate guest-lectured at the Pacific Film Archives on both the films of Mikio Naruse—specifically Wife! Be Like A Rose, which I wrote up for The Evening Class—and his then-recently-published anthology of film criticism. I appreciate the invitation to contribute to Andy Horbal's film criticism blogathon as an opportunity to finally work up Lapote's introduction to and excerpts from American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now.

Lopate first of all thanked Susan Oxtoby for the pleasure of returning to Berkeley and the Pacific Film Archives. Previous to his anthology of American movie critics, Lopate had edited another anthology: The Art of the Personal Essay. "I've been very involved in the field of essay writing," he explained, "and I wanted to put together my two great loves, which were movies and essays. I wanted there to be this book, but it didn't exist. I wanted to teach a course in American movie critics and there had been some anthologies that have long gone out of print [but] nothing really comprehensive and extensive. So I realized I would have to do it myself. I started digging and talking to friends and put together a kind of chronology—it's a kind of story in a way—of how this profession of movie criticism came to be in America.

"It started out with really a bunch of poets like Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg. Vachel Lindsay wrote the first serious book about movies called The Art of the Moving Picture and he insisted that it was an art, or could be an art. Movies were really looked down on by most of the intelligentsia who thought they were one step below burlesque or nickelodeons. Lindsay was somebody who had a great deal of enthusiasm for Griffiths' work, Fairbanks' work. And Carl Sandburg it turns out was a regular film critic for a Chicago daily.

"But you also had people who were wandering into this profession like Robert E. Sherwood, who later became a playwright, and a psychologist named Hugo Münsterberg (a great name!) who wrote a book about the psychology of the motion picture. I wanted to assert that movie criticism could be, deserved to be considered a part of American letters, deserved to be included in the canon of the best American non-fiction. I not only looked at the film critics, but I also looked at people who were great writers who wrote some film criticism, like Edmund Wilson, or H.D., or James Baldwin, or John Ashbery, Paul Goodman. Maybe I was using these obviously great writers to buttress my argument that it has been a bastion of critical energy; probably more interesting writing has been done on film in the last 50 years in America than in any other art form.

"You had people who didn't know anything about movies and they strayed into film criticism on the Army principle that if someone's a painter you put them in the kitchen and if they know how to cook, you put them on painting duty. There was some of that—a guy has been a stringer or somebody who's been working in Cairo and now he wants to come in, so let's have him be our movie critic for a while.

"I think the first person who really put it all together as an American movie critic was Otis Ferguson because a lot of the critics had been deploring American movies, Hollywood movies, saying how shabby they were compared to the Swedish, the German, the Russian, saying to American moviemaking: "Why don't you grow up?" And Ferguson had an appreciation for what you would call the genius of the system. He understood how a well-oiled American movie could be a fragile kind of magic when everything came together. And he championed some of the talents like Jimmy Cagney and Mae West and Humphrey Bogart, people who he felt were very American. This was another debate: Were movies a quintessentially American art form or were they an international art form? Were American movies even good? You had this sort of debate about were they entertainment or were they art? Were they American or were they foreign? Of course the answer is both. America was getting these infusions of directors from abroad, great directors who were working in Hollywood.

"Then you had these other kinds of tensions. During WWII, for instance, there started to be a school of sociological criticism, people who looked at movies as indications of national character and, in fact, the Army employed film critics to do an analyses of the Japanese character, what was the enemy's character like just by watching Japanese movies? What was our character like? All of this came out in the way of Siegfried Kracauer's book From Caligari to Hitler[: A Psychological History of the German Film], which said that you can read a people's character from their movies.

"That sort of opened up a rich, fertile avenue of exploration. But then there was a kind of backlash because some critics felt that this was too literary of an approach, too sociological of an approach, and [that] you couldn't necessarily read a movie just in terms of [the piece], you have to consider the visual impact of a movie, the composition, the lighting, the cutting, everything like that, the mise en scène. So you had critics like Manny Farber, who was a painter, who looked at the screen as a visual dynamic, and that whole kind of formalist orientation was done in a kind of struggle with the sociologist. Of course everybody ends up doing both. All the great film critics have, of course, analyzed form and content. They have, of course, looked at the way a film plays visually and the themes and the characters. But at different times there have been different emphases, people have exaggerated one or the other. It's a question of proportion really.

"Parker Tyler who is very interested in gender and sex in the movies and did beautiful things with them. Andrew Sarris brought to America a kind of an awareness of the film director as an auteur. Who was responsible for it? This was always the question. How does a film critic go about apportioning praise or blame? I've also been fascinated in putting this book together with the issue of writing. How do you write a piece of film criticism? How do you figure out a line of attack? If you start talking about everything in the movie, you have 300 pages, and let's say you only have 300 words? You have to come at it at from some angle. Someone like Pauline Kael who was one of the great American film critics eventually was given a fair amount of space in the New Yorker to look at a film from many different angles and she also is an obvious example of a great essayist who was a film critic.

"So there were the daily reviewers—I think Vincent Canby was one of the best we've ever had—and I don't really make this great distinction between film criticism and film reviewing. I think there are people who can nail a film today in a daily review in 500 words and others who can write larger academic exegesis that still don't get at the heart of it in 40 or 400 pages."

Wanting then to quote a little from some of these critics to give a feeling of how literary styles intersect with a movie, Lopate read William Troy's review of King Kong, the first King Kong, where he wrote in a semi-joshing facetious style that couldn't be taken too seriously. In the book's introduction to Troy's review, Lapote wrote: "[Troy] was also film critic of The Nation from 1933 to 1935. To that post he brought an educated, almost professorial tone, which he used sometimes for comic effect (see his query about interspecies love an anatomy in the King Kong review). Troy also managed to approach each piece of film criticism as the occasion for some larger essayistic rumination. His feeling for the carpentry of the short review piece is superb." (2006:73) "You see," Lopate commented, "how Troy takes this as an occasion for meditating on some larger, genre issues as well as national character issues."

Lopate then compared what Cecilia Ager had to say about King Kong. "Another writer of the 1930s, Cecilia Ager, covered what was considered the woman's angle. She would write movie criticism with a great emphasis on women's fashions, on women's parts. She was really writing about the parts that women were assigned and the ways that they were construed." He quoted Ager: "Despite all her experience with picture beasties, Fay Wray can't seem to condition herself against the horrid old things. She's just as terrified at King Kong, she screams quite as shrilly as if she couldn't remember from her past encounters that she will surely be saved at the end. She won't learn, Miss Wray, she won't learn. All that's come of her former run-ins with monsters is the overnight change of her hair from black to blonde, but it doesn't help. The curious attraction she has for man-beast combos is not to be denied by superficial hair-color transformation. It's made matters even worse for her. Blonde, she looks even more the part of Beauty in the fable, Beauty and the Beast, so what can the beast do but act good and beasty." (2006:79)

Lopate then read Ager's wry critique of Barbara Stanwyck's film, Ladies They Talk About, wherein she considers that movie stars continue the character of themselves from movie to movie even as we're watching them in individual roles. Lopate appreciates Ager's "having some fun with the movie."

Another kind of fun, Lopate offered, is had by Paul Rudnick who took on the masquerade of being Libby Gelman-Waxner, a Jewish suburban housewife. Rudnick, he lectured, "wrote film criticism which in a way attempted to be quite silly but is really quite astute because he/she is really talking about how housewives try to have it both ways, have their cake and eat it too." He read from Rudnick's piece on Dances With Wolves entitled "A Boy Named Sioux": "I have often wondered what would have happened if, instead of having my own room with a canopy bed and a Snoopy phone in Great Neck, I had been kidnapped as a child by Indians and raised as a Sioux. Now, thanks to Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, I have my answer. In this three-hour cinematic epic, Mary McDonnell plays a white woman who was brought up in a tepee after her pioneer family was slaughtered and scalped. As a squaw, Mary behaves just the way I would: she wears stunning suede outfits trimmed with shells and Ralph Lauren-style Santa Fe fringe; she does her hair in a flattering shag look instead of too-severe tribal braids; and after her first husband dies, she holds out until a white movie star shows up. Mary is called Stands With a Fist because she once hit an Indian girl who gave her a hard time. In my high school yearbook, the Great Neck Senior Serenade, I was voted Best Accessories and Most Likely to Marry Within Her Faith, so the comparison is obvious." (2006:606)

Lopate then read from Vincent Canby's review of Easy Rider at the end of the '60s, distinguishable for how Canby worked his way through the film with his initial impressions, then his ambivalences, then his suddenly coming alive when something different happens (namely, the entrance of Jack Nicholson who then proceeds to steal the show). "All of that," Lopate commended, "within a short review."

Having tantalized his audience with these choice readings, Lopate then opened himself up for questions and comments.

Noting that Lapote had opined that he didn't see much division between a critic and a reviewer, one audience member wondered about the issue of writing for people who you assume have seen a film, and who you can go into depth about it, and writing for people who are trying to decide whether they should go see the film and don't want to know certain things about it before they see it. He asked how Lopate envisioned a critic managing those two conflicting courses?

Lopate responded: "That, in fact, has been the traditional distinction: that reviewers write for the audience that's making up its mind whereas critics weigh in after it is assumed that people have seen the film. I think that most times when film critics, for instance, write in literary magazines like The Times Daily Supplement, they're writing about films that people haven't seen for the most part. Because if they're writing about art films, for instance, they're writing about films that haven't gotten that much of an audience. In both cases tact is required and the writer has to finesse it and the reader has to know how to read a piece. When I read a daily reviewer, for instance, and I haven't made up my mind whether to see the movie or not … if I think I'm going to see the movie, I read at the piece, I don't read the piece word for word. If I think it's going to tell me something I don't want to know, I skip that passage, y'know? I want to get the sensibility of the writer. I want to get some sense of judgment, perhaps. What I'm after also is the mind of the critic whether it's in a review or if it's several months after the fact. We do read in a kind of hit-or-miss way when we're reading reviewers or critics. Part of the idea of this book was in some cases you're reading reviewers writing about things that are very fresh and we've already seen the movie, we know we've seen them, so this allows us to read without it spoiling. But you know daily reviewers also try to hold back certain elements of the plot and suspense; they're berated if they tell the ending of a film."

Another person queried if Lopate—after researching film criticism from various time periods and trends—could say anything about how criticism reflects what an audience is interested in or how the audiences for movies have changed over time?

"That's interesting," Lopate mused, "whether film criticism has changed over time. Obviously, one thing that's happened is that we now have a long history, we have a century of films. Film critics are not just writing about the current product but they're also—especially the best ones—always reconsidering that history, that century. So there's much more self-consciousness about it. This was a point that Sarris and Kael [made] in their own ways, which was that if you don't know anything about movies, you think all this is shocking and new (like The Graduate, an older woman and the young man); but, if you've seen movies a long time you know that this is not a new move on the part of movies. This sense of genre, this sense of structures of feeling that are built into movies from decade to decade and how it changes, that historical consciousness is one of the big differences. I think that film studies have really changed film criticism because now many people who are film critics come out of film studies, they get a degree in film studies. In the early decades, film critics were all flying by the seat of their pants, they were all making it up as they were going along, they were making up the categories, the standards, and there was this feeling of both freedom and ignorance, if you will. There were no film studies! Even when I went to college I didn't take any film studies courses. It was a kind of private knowledge. It was something you expected to get on your own in a way. And so now this is much more codified and also there's much more theory and so a lot of people who graduate from film studies classes and then try to become written film critics, they have to negotiate between all the semiotics that they've got in their brain and the audience, their readers, who couldn't care less. Just as Virginia Woolf speaks about the common reader—which is someone who is educated and curious and not a specialist—the reviewer used to be more like the common cultivated person who was responding, not as a specialist. Whereas now there tends to be more of a polarity between, on the one hand, very glib thumbs up thumbs down, slimey kind of criticism or reviewing, and very theoretical, academic criticism with not that much space in the middle, which is where, let's say, the cultivated amateur in the best sense—amateur meaning lover—could come."

Susan Oxtoby then posed a related question, curious from her perspective as a film programmer. Lapote's comments were very much true in Toronto where the daily papers only reviewed films in current release. She likewise observed that the same seems to be the case to a certain degree in the Bay Area. Susan wondered with the demise of the art house, if the general public is being left with only mainstream films being reviewed in the daily papers? She mentioned the trend seen on the Internet where there are all kinds of fabulous websites for bloggers with specialized discussion; but wondered generally what Lapote's thoughts were on criticism in the daily papers?

"I wanted to say something and you just jogged my memory," Lopate thanked Oxtoby. "One of the reasons why I will always revere Vincent Canby is because, at one point Naruse's Late Chrysanthemums opened up in Bleeker Street in some small theater downtown. Obviously it was a revival and Canby went and reviewed it just as though it were the big spectacle. He just reviewed it and wrote very intelligently about it and he just liked the movies, y'know? I see in the Times that Manohla Dargis is often performing a kind of educational function where she'll pick out a revival, this week's revival, or something like that, and there are other critics who do that, and just try to—it sounds so dreary—but to be educational, to educate the audience, y'know? Embedded in your question is the one about film criticism on the Internet and it's one that I feel a little shaky answering because I see that on the one hand you can be fantastically esoteric and geeky, and there are Hou Hsiao-hsien websites and things like that, which is great, but for my money it seems to me like a lot of writing on the Internet is still kind of stream of consciousness and doesn't quite have the elegance or the economy that I associate with the best film criticism, the mediated reflected prose style, maybe because it seems it's something like … almost like electrodes attached to the brain unmediated by the fingers. I do think that there's already some very good film criticism on the Internet and increasingly there will be as people begin to read it. People said the same thing about computers. They said literature would die because it would be too easy to write. Well, somehow, writers have adapted."

One fellow recalled his great fortune at discovering The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Andrew Sarris's opinionated assessment of films of the sound era, organized by director. The book was influential on other critics and helped raise an awareness of the role of the film director among the general public. It certainly became this man's bible with regard to the pantheon of directors. He enquired after Lopate's view of the whole auteur theory and if that is still considered a fairly orthodox construct of how films are put together by the better directors?

Lopate answered: "I can't help but have the same autobiographical response. That book was the Talmud for me. I still have it. I was programming movies for a group called Filmmakers at Columbia and I went through that book and I underlined every possibility, I remember Robert Parish, The Purple Plain, things like that, y'know, I would get so excited I would have to see this movie. Obviously that's something that fed into my adolescent desire both for marching orders and for lists, something like baseball cards or something like that, batting averages. Sarris has made many modest statements about this, it wasn't an attempt to encompass everything. It was an investigation and he certainly has reconsidered. That's one thing I love about Sarris as a critic; he reconsiders. For instance, Billy Wilder. He wrote a kind of snotty dismissal of Billy Wilder and then, years later [he reconsidered]. By the way, I put both pieces in this anthology because I wanted to show how [Sarris] revises his thinking. He also reconsidered about 2001. He has a very amusing passage that I also put in here how he smoked a joint and suddenly he had a much greater respect for 2001. He admitted that his generation got much more of a kick out of a vermouth cassis. But even imagining, if you know Andrew Sarris, smoking a joint…. So yeah, I still love that particular book!"

Lopate was asked if he had any theories why Americans seem to be increasingly reluctant to see foreign films?

"I have some theories about it," he admitted. "I don't know if I could dignify them with theory but certainly, as Susan mentioned, it has to do with the demise of the art house circuit and the whole ancillary activity of film culture. That is, great films are still being made but there aren't as many film magazines. The art house circuit doesn't exist. But I also have this feeling—and correct me if I'm wrong—that when foreign films were European films; that is, when white people made them, y'know, there was much more of an easiness for Americans to identify and when great films started being made by Iranian and Taiwanese filmmakers suddenly Americans acted like, I can't remember that name, Kiarostami, it's too hard, Hou Hsiao-hsien, y'know, so it just seemed it was an extra leap of identification whereas it seemed like when they were French, Italian, German, it seemed that it was easier to promote directors as demigods. That's part of the reason. But obviously it all comes down to dollars and cents. You mustn't think that audiences were so sophisticated in the early 60s that they ate up these films. I reprinted a piece by Pauline Kael about Bande à Part, which was an appreciation of Godard's Bande à Part. Bande à Part opened and closed in a week, y'know.

"But I think what changed was it wasn't quite as costly to open a film in those days and now—because of the cost of ads, both print ads and t.v.—films routinely tend to have $10,000,000 budgets. How do you promote a film when you don't have that kind of money to spend? That's part of it. But I also have to say that in a weird way, everything does come through in America. The films don't always get distribution but they show in places like the Pacific Film Archives. There's still a network—Cleveland Cinemateque, places like the Walter Reade theater in New York, there are still a lot of places around where you can see these films, in Chicago, in Columbus, Ohio and so on, Houston, Texas. It means you just have to be very alert. When a foreign film passes through one of these places, you can't think, well, in about three weeks time I'll really be ready to see it. You've got to leap!"

One fellow commented that, glancing at Lopate's anthology which he had just purchased and which he confirmed was well worth the price, he noticed that Lopate included a number of selections from both Otis Ferguson and Cecilia Ager, moreso than any of the high-profile critics of the period with whom most of the audience would be more familiar by proclivity of age. He asked if Lopate was attempting to engender a revival of interest in Ferguson?

"I was brought to Ferguson by my friend Meridith Brody," Lopate said, "who did her thesis on Ferguson and Farber, two of my absolute favorites. Let me just say in explanation that one of the reasons I put [in] so much Otis Ferguson was because he wrote much shorter. A piece by Pauline Kael is 40 pages long. So it may seem that I'm dissing Miss Kael but she has more pages than Ferguson. Cecilia Ager also wrote short. What I love most about this book—and I can speak about it as though I were not the author because I'm merely the editor—is the historical section seems to be fresh and important and I love looking back from the shadows at people like Otis Ferguson who really is … I had to stop myself from putting in 100 pages of Otis Ferguson. The more I read him over and over again I thought, 'This piece is good. This piece is good.' The editors would say, 'That's enough. No more Otis Ferguson.' People like Harry Alan Potamkin, to bring them back in, to find a place for Jonas Mekas who, afterall, was a writer on film. The cautious part of me wanted to end it at 1980 because I was so sure of the writers I had selected from 1917 to 1980. I felt that essentially—I don't want to say it's unassailable, I really feel I can stand behind it

"But I wanted to say, I didn't want to have this elegiac nostalgic sense that film criticism is no longer good or no longer important. I think there is some terrific film criticism being written now. So I had to bring it to the present. I also knew there were many many practitioners out there who I couldn't include. After I'd gotten through the history, which I felt most connected to and most of a sense of filial obligation to, I knew I wouldn't have enough pages certainly to soothe the feelings of all the good critics out there. Including myself! I was criticized by several reviewers for not putting myself in. But that's the prerogative of an anthologist afterall. What I did instead was to lay a few bets and to say, well, I like these peoples' prose styles and sensibilities. There are many more like them.

"Those who buy the book, on the one hand it is a kind of one-stop shopping. But no one book can replace a whole library of film criticism. So the idea is that if it's somebody you like, then go out and buy a collection of Otis Ferguson, or go to the library or get it at the out of print, because a lot of this is out of print now. So that is moreorless the answer to your question."

Somone quoted Jean Luc Godard as saying that—up until about 1950—if you were very rigorous you could grasp the whole history of film because it was, as Lopate had mentioned, more Eurocentric. Lopate was questioned what he thought of that statement?

Lopate answered: "When I was a teenager I was very involved with movies and jazz. Both of them had histories that I felt I could do, y'know? I tried to see every movie in the index and it was still possible to do that. There was a moment when you could at least think you could kind of touch the milestones. And now it's much more diverse and we know more. But there's so much great African—well, not so much—but there's some very good African film like Idrissa Quedraogo and Ousmane Sembene and people like that. I remember when people thought about Japanese films, 'It's too far from us. We don't really understand their customs.' But the kind of stream of humanism that runs underneath Japanese film, that I believe runs underneath African film, finally makes us understand what is at stake here: dramas with family, dramas with the individual in society, comes down to some very basic material."