Meant to celebrate American movie criticism, Phillip Lopate's collection elegizes it instead. The anthology traces the devolution of film criticism from the early days -- when top writers like Carl Sandburg and Robert E. Sherwood debated the cultural merits of the latest photoplays -- to today's pallid practitioners, who far too often vie with bloggers for irrelevancy and blurb supremacy.

Meant to celebrate American movie criticism, Phillip Lopate’s collection elegizes it instead. The anthology traces the devolution of film criticism from the early days — when top writers like Carl Sandburg and Robert E. Sherwood debated the cultural merits of the latest photoplays — to today’s pallid practitioners, who far too often vie with bloggers for irrelevancy and blurb supremacy. Sad to say, but even the so-called best presented here frequently fail to measure up to the insight — or verve — of the earliest practitioners.

Lopate, a well-known essayist in his own right, opens his collection with a chapter on the bard of Springfield, Ill., Vachel Lindsay, who explains cinematic structure in essays with stilted titles like “the photoplay of action” and “the artistic position of Douglas Fairbanks.” Tome soon moves on to an embarrassment of riches from Sandburg, Sherwood, H.L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson.

Sandburg, a film critic for the Chicago Daily News in the 1920s, enthuses that “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” is “the craziest, wildest, shivery movie that has come wriggling across the silversheet of a cinema house,” while Sherwood laments Erich Von Stroheim’s extravagant shooting style.

“Von Stroheim is a genius — ‘Genius’ establishes that beyond all doubt — but he is badly in need of a stopwatch,” the noted playwright concludes.

And Mencken rants about the “maddening chaos” resulting from editing techniques — way back in 1927. “If I were in a constructive mood, I’d probably propose reforms, but that mood, I regret to say, is not on me,” he writes in signature curmudgeon fashion.

Even less-famous scribes such as Cecilia Ager, Variety‘s first femme critic, display a lively wit. Ager, who first wrote about fashion in film, is mischievous, but no less insightful for being tongue in cheek.

The jaw-dropping names continue to pop up in the post-World War II selection — James Agee and Ralph Ellison jump off the page — then all but disappear in favor of specialists as the anthology moves to the Golden Age of Movie Criticism. According to Lopate, that’s the period from 1950 through the ’70s; Stanley Kauffmann, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Molly Haskell and novelist James Baldwin are among the many scribes repped here.

So who are the current critics deemed worthy of inclusion? David Denby, David Thomson and A.O. Scott are among the usual suspects, along with Premiere’s Libby Gelman-Waxner (Paul Rudnick), and John Ashbury. Kenneth Turan’s infamous “Titanic” review, which launched a feud with helmer James Cameron, rubs salt in those wounds; Manohla Dargis’ overly precious ode to “Cat in the Hat” also gets another airing here.

After the intoxicating early finds, these later entries can’t help but underwhelm. Doubts form: Is critical deficiency, even more than reader disconnect, the reason so many movies are critic proof?

Yet it hardly seems fair to blame critics for that. Moviegoers choose what they want to see, and studios certainly have no obligation to create movies to please critics. Their increasing willingness to forego critic screenings on high-profile films underscores how important studios ultimately believe them to be.

So maybe critics are not as relevant as they once were, but at least this tome reminds all that film criticism can be: funny, thought provoking and incisive.

American Movie Critics: An Anthology From The Silents Until Now

Library Of America; 714 Pgs.; $40
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