Sunday, December 03, 2006

FILM CRITICISM BLOGATHON—Phillip Lopate: Codys Bookstore Reading and Q&A

Oh, why not be excessive?! It's not every day you have the chance to learn from someone as erudite as Phillip Lopate. And it's not every day you get to reciprocate the kind support of a fellow blogger like Andy Horbal, whose No More Marriages! blogathon on film criticism has already proven to be a fount of insight and information to which I will have to return again and again before fully sated.

Around the same time that Lopate had been invited by the Pacific Film Archives to lecture on both Mikio Naruse and his anthology of American film criticism, he was likewise promoting the book at Codys Bookstore when it was still on Telegraph in Berkeley. Initially, he was to dialogue with David Thomson but David, unfortunately, took ill and had to bow out. Ever the trouper, Lopate fashioned up a lecture that somewhat replicated his PFA piece but interestingly ventured into variant material as well.

"There must be some kind of weird identification that we do with movie critics," Lopate began, "and then disenchantment with them, and then reenchantment. I think that we have complicated relationships to movie critics.

"It's fitting that the book was published by Library of America because I wanted to assert that movie criticism has been a terrific fount of energy and insight and good prose, excellent prose. I have edited an anthology of the art of the personal essay, so I was already interested in essayistic prose and really I was looking to movie criticism, not for, y'know, what happened yesterday, but really going back to the roots, and trying to tell the story of this discipline, as it developed. At the beginning, of course, film critics were all amateurs and there was not even that much agreement that it was worth being a film critic because movies were disparaged by lots of people who thought that they were just for the cretin masses. But they always attracted as well certain writers and intellectuals who seemed to like this entertainment and find artistry in it.

"One of the first was Vachel Lindsay, a poet, and another one was the poet Carl Sandburg who was a regular film critic for a Chicago daily newspaper. So, it seems clear that at the beginning poets were attracted to film criticism. There was the silent period and you had this flow of images and poetry was going through its imagistic phase as well. But really there were no standards, there was no sense of how do you judge a film, everybody was flying by the seat of their pants, and standards eventually evolved though no real agreement. What we have now instead of standards, I think, are a series of arguments, a series of tensions and dialectics which different critics deal with in different ways. So for instance, some critics tend to approach a film as a kind of staged play and critique the characters and the plausibility of it. And others tend to look at it more as a series of moving paintings with a kind of visual ravishment or lack of visual ravishment; so the call—you might say—between the formalist and the thematic critics is finally resolved because no critic can afford to ignore either of these sides of the equation.

"There's the question: are movies an artform? I don't know that that's ever been decisively settled. I think the answer is that it can be an art form but is not always an art form. Clearly, many many movies are made without any intention of being works of art. It would be painful to have to judge every movie that came down the pike as though it were a work of art, and a failure if it didn't rise to that level of artistry. But of course there are films which are the equal of the greatest art in the 20th century and 21st century.

"I have to say that I approached this as a writer. I've written a lot of film criticism myself and I wanted to have within covers the tradition, or a kind of attempt at a canon, of film criticism. All my favorite film critics are in here, plus a lot who I discovered and some who I feel ambivalent about but I think are very good writers and I didn't have to agree with their every opinion. And I think that's what happens with film criticism: a conversation gets going. That's why I think it's a pleasure to read wonderful film critics like Manny Farber, and James Agee, and Otis Ferguson, and Robert Warshow, and Parker Tyler, and Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael, and Stanley Kauffmann, etc., etc., because we don't have to just go to them to see what to see Friday night. When we approach it as writing, we discover that there's a special kind of delight and pleasure in reading about movies of the past and what were decided about them, including movies that some people generally regard as classics now. So for instance, we get Pauline Kael's jaundiced take on The Graduate. We get Otis Ferguson registering his doubts about Citizen Kane. We get hilarious pieces about the original King Kong. These critics were responding—unreverentially, you might say—to whatever was thrown at them and trying to piece it out, and sometimes they changed their minds.

"What I wanted to get at tonight perhaps was the different strategies by which film critics shape a piece. How do they go at it? It's funny, because I did a radio interview today and somebody called in and said, 'Why can't film critics always start out with a description, and then tell who was in the film, and then tell what you thought about it?' This was like, y'know, trying to use a kind of Consumer Reports format and project it onto all film criticism. I shudder to think that I would have to do that with every film piece that I write. When I write a piece of film criticism, part of the mystery is what am I going to do? How am I going to structure it this time? How am I going to get some suspense going, some interest going?"

Lopate then read from his introduction to American Movie Critics: An Anthology From Silents to Now: "[F]ilm criticism has particular demands alongside those addressing other art forms. How, given such a complexly collaborative medium, to disentangle the different aspects that go into moviemaking (acting, direction, screenplay, sound, cinematography, art direction, editing); how also to suggest career patterns and shifts, by considering to what degree the film under review fits this actor's, director's, or studio's previous output; how to situate it in terms of its genre, and consider along those lines its originality or triteness, how to address its implicit social or political meanings, which may need to be teased out of its glossy surface; how to analyze the mass audience's response, which may differ from your own. All this often within a thousand words or less, sometimes juggling three films per column. Space limitations foster a style of witty compression. The critic learns to come at a film from a distinct angle or setup. Hence, the tendency for film criticism to move in an essayistic direction, as the writer gropes for some opening paragraph that can help generalize about the example(s) under discussion.

"A premium is placed on the film critic's ability to translate visual representation into crisply vivid verbal descriptions. Further professional considerations include: how do you structure a piece of film criticism so that it builds toward a satisfying conclusion? How do you sustain tension—by coming out swinging, by staging a bout between your ambivalencies, or by deferring an overall judgment as long as possible? How do you evolve a stylish prose that is textured, surprising, contemporary without pandering, neither too lightweight nor too solemn? How do you maintain enough resilience not to suffer burnout or get overly crabby, given the vast preponderance of bad movies?" (2006:xx)

"So obviously," Lopate quipped, "you do need a strategy to talk about what Pauline Kael called trash."

Lopate then read an excerpt from Carl Sanburg's piece about a Gloria Swanson movie called Manhandled. "What's interesting to me about this," Lopate pointed out, "is that he's not going to treat the whole film, he's just going to treat mainly one scene as a kind of emblem of how the whole film feels." The scene involves how Swanson removes her shoes after a long day's work. "And if I show you what it looks like," Lopate added, referring to the written text as published in his anthology, "you'll see that it's all these short paragraphs which are rather like a Carl Sanburg poem. So he was writing poems in the form of film reviews."

As an example of how to get into a difficult subject, Lopate read the opening paragraphs of Brendan Gill's essay on pornography, "Blue Notes". After his set-up, Gill then proceeded to deconstruct blue movies—which Lopate declined to read—but he wanted to illustrate how a writer had approached movies from the point of view of genre.

In a passage by Gilbert Seldes—who, Lopate claimed, was one of the earliest appreciators of movies and wrote a book about the seven lively arts—Seldes demonstrated that he was a great celebrator of Max Sennett and the Keystone Cops and tried to explain in a paragraph his rationale and what his attraction was to the Keystone Cops. "So here," Lopate instructed, "[Seldes is] trying to give you analytically a whole sense of what this humor was all about."

Offering up Cecilia Ager as "a writer who was very funny herself" and one who "tended to focus on women and women's roles", Lopate read an excerpt from Ager's review of the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races and her profile of Margaret Dumont—"that very large woman who was Groucho's foil": "There ought to be a statue erected, or a Congressional Medal awarded, or a national holiday proclaimed, to honor that great woman, Margaret Dumont, the dame who takes the raps from the Marx Bros. For she is of the stuff of which our pioneer women were made, combining in her highly indignant person Duse, stalwart oak, and Chief Fall Guy—a lady of epic ability to take it, a lady whose mighty love for Groucho is a saga of devotion, a lady who asks but little and gets it.

"Disappointment can't down her, nor pefidy shake her faith. Always she comes back for more though slapsticks have crippled her, custard pies spattered her trusting face. Surrounded by brothers who are surely a little odd, she does not think so. To her, her world of Marx Bros. pictures is rational, comprehensible, secure. Calmy she surveys it, with infinite resource she fights to keep on her feet in it. Equally ready for amorous dalliance or hair-pulling, for Groucho's sudden tender moods, or base betrayal, all her magnificent qualities are on display in A Day At the Races, where once again her fortitude is nothing human. It's godlike." (2006:84)

Assessing the stylistic strategies of various film critics, Lopate opined: "Some of them looked at directorial styles, some of them looked at actors. For instance, Otis Ferguson—who I mentioned is one of my favorite film critics—has a beautiful passage about James Cagney in which he really tries to argue what was so great about Cagney. Ferguson loved American movies, and there's always been this kind of snobbism toward American movies, for instance Laurence Olivier was a great actor but James Cagney or Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne are only playing themselves and this is, in my opinion, nonsense. Because if you look at early John Wayne movies, for instance, he's a sweet young man, but he's hardly the John Wayne that has that odd walk, and he's hardly got that way of pausing in the middle of his sentences. Cagney too constructed this persona of Jimmy Cagney, bit by bit, very consciously, the way a great actor goes about it.

"Looking at a performer and realizing that some actors build a character from film to film, it's not just the person they're acting in this particular film, but they're shadowed by all their previous performances and it produces a kind of depth. So for instance when you get a James Stewart in Vertigo and you get him doing slightly mean things to Kim Novak, you can't help but remember all the movies when he didn't do any mean things to anybody and it has a kind of depth to it. This is something that film critics are aware of and it's something that passes lineally as well as looking at the individual film.

"One of the way that film critics work is that they stage ambivalences and talk about how they experienced a movie as they were watching it. This is something that I often think of: Well, I liked the first part, it started to lose me here, and so on."

Lopate then opened it up for questions and comments.

One fan of James Agee—whose review of The Song of Bernadette Lopate likewise excerpted for his Codys audience—recounted that the poet W.H. Auden made wonderful remarks about Agee. They both kept very different hours in their daily lives and nightly lives, but this fellow asked Lopate if they weren't both living on Cornelia Street in the Village? And did they know each other?

Lopate responded that Auden was known to have said that he rarely went to the cinema but that he read James Agee's pieces with the greatest interest, his being the most interesting regular performance. "It's interesting," Lopate culled out, "that he saw it as a performance, I think that's important. Auden was, in fact, a generous critic who himself said that he didn't really see any point in writing negative criticisms; he usually wrote about things he loved, and he loved Agee's criticism. And I'm fairly certain that they knew each other because … at that point, the literary world [of New York] was much smaller than it is now, so I would absolutely be certain that he knew him. Though he obviously was not a film buff."

Lopate was asked if there were any contemporary critics that he particularly admired? He responded, "I like Manohla Dargis very much. She's a breath of fresh air. She's very passionate and she comes at a movie hard! She's very knowledgeable about movies. To use a critic who most people like who I like but didn't put in the book because he's English—but I don't like him as much as Manohla Dargis—Anthony Lane. Anthony Lane always is acting like the tired businessman who's saying I'm just like you folks, he's witty, but he refuses to enter the ranks of the specialist, you might say. In doing so he always manages to be superior to film culture. Manohla Dargis is a proselytizer for film culture. She wants people to know about obscure Taiwanese directors, she wants them to know about avant garde filmmakers, and she's defended a lot of work that doesn't have $10,000,000 advertising budgets behind it. I'm very pleased with it. I also think A.O. Scott is very good. Very different from her. Much more benign, thoughtful, bemused, very hard to get A.O. Scott outraged."