Phillip Lopate (ed.) | American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now

Lopate has again succeeded in weeding through an insurmountable amount of work to put together a collection certain to become the yardstick by which future anthologies are measured.


Critical Condition

book_lopateLibrary of America; 747 pgs; $40

As far as any mainstream influence for serious film criticism goes, it is forever being abandoned to that peculiar and increasingly small niche market: people who still read literary works. For the average moviegoer, studied insight just isn't in the cards anymore—maybe it never was—so scanning aggregates like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, then making decisions based on the grades and percentages cobbled together by their weighted systems and interpretations of reviews has become the way to ingest the critical response of a film.

Why should anyone read David Denby's almost 1,600-word review in The New Yorker of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center when you can go to Rotten Tomatoes to get a conveniently calculated score and read a short snippet from more than 150 different writers? The answer, as it has always been, is because great criticism is just as rare as great art, and when it comes around, indulging it with a little more time and a few more synapses is just common courtesy.

Now, we have reason to brush up on good manners, because the Library of America has given us a scholarly buffet of film writing to sink our teeth into with its anthology, American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now. Giftedly edited by Phillip Lopate, the volume covers 90 years of cinematic writing by American scribes, and does so with almost incomparable reach. Lopate is no stranger to putting collections together, having edited Art of the Personal Essay and, for the Library of America, Writing New York: A Literary Anthology, both extraordinary compilations of the written word. In American Movie Critics, Lopate has again succeeded in weeding through an insurmountable amount of work to put together a collection—much like Denby's 1977 film criticism collection Awake in the Dark—certain to become the yardstick by which future anthologies are measured.

At the beginning of his spirited introduction, Lopate writes: "This anthology attempts to uncover the narrative trajectory by which the field groped its way from the province of hobbyists and amateurs to become a legitimate profession." While reading the book from beginning to end does provide a loosely structured look into the progression of film criticism, the chronological sequence is only in a general sense. The book's main arrangement is by film critic, which is the best way to read it; plunging in and sampling the work of someone like Pauline Kael, who, although she spanned a few different decades, has her four pieces grouped together, including the outstanding "Trash, Art, and the Movies." It's an ideal setup for an anthology fated to have more than a few worn pages as it is read time and again.

There are almost 70 writers represented in American Movie Critics, each briefly introduced by Lopate, who looks at their place in the critical pantheon. The selected come from all avenues of American letters, including literary heavyweights like James Baldwin, Edmund Wilson, John Ashbery, and Ralph Ellison, who takes on race and Hollywood in his essay, "The Shadow and the Act." The revered Susan Sontag, in "The Imagination of Disaster," looks at the sci-fi genre, finally concluding: "This nightmare—the one reflected, in various registers, in the science fiction films—is too close to our reality." Quentin Tarantino is in the spotlight of public intellectual bell hooks, who in "Cool Cynicism: Pulp Fiction," looks at the director's "postmodern flavor" and its deconstructive path.

The multifaceted James Agee, whose "Annual Wrap-Up of 1994" makes for an interesting read, is probably the only writer to have accomplished being simultaneously heralded as a major American literary figure and influential film critic. Other giants of film writing are also given their proper due, like Otis Ferguson, who has more than a dozen works covering everything from Stand Up and Cheer to High Sierra. Vincent Canby gets an equally wide overview with his reviews of Midnight Cowboy, Z, Zabriskie Point, and others. Husband and wife tandem Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell respectively take on the likes of Billy Wilder and the representation of women in film.

One of the more interesting pieces is from Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for the Martin Scorsese masterpieces Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, and directed a handful of movies, including American Gigolo and Auto Focus. Scrader's inclusion is an extremely rare chance to read somebody who began their career as a critic and went on to become an adept part of the movie industry. In "Notes on Film Noir," Schrader frames the film noir style as a time-bound construct, and not as a genre with indefinite reach.

Contemporary working critics are heavily represented, although Lopate seems to have sidestepped the digital revolution for now, limiting his choices to traditional print writers like The Nation's Suart Klawans, who playfully mocks the transgressions of the critically acclaimed and Academy Award-winning Ridley Scott film Gladiator. A.O. Scott is represented by the easily interpreted essay "The Most Overrated Film of the Year (Sideways)," and with his take on the controversial The Passion of the Christ. Elder statesmen Stanley Kauffmann, who even though he is now 90 and as sharp as ever in his work for The New Republic—where he has worked almost continuously since 1958—is limited to work that is almost four decades old. Although, Kauffmann's finely tuned sensibility for flaws in films is captivating no matter what millennium we're the piece is from.

For his part, Lopate has selected work which forgoes the intense scrutiny of film theory, instead concentrating on works that showcase the art of film criticism. The results are an enjoyable overview of an at times greatly maligned and underappreciated vocation, a challenge Lopate even addresses for the critic in his introduction, writing:

"The job of the American film critic is complicated by the fact that virtually all Americans regard themselves as astute judges as movies. With good reason: we grow up seeing hundreds of motion pictures in theaters and on television, so that by our teenage tears we know the current crop of actors, directors, and genres, and even some of the classics. Pressed for time, we cannot help but approach a reviewer as a consumer guide, singling out the best Friday-night date choices and zeroing in on four stars and letter grades."

Whatever one thinks of criticism—and let's face it, every passing day takes a little luster from the brass ring of critique—Lopate has amassed a lifetime worth of reasons why you might want to surf away from the incomprehensible babble of modern tastemakers like Ain't It Cool News and sail right into the intellectual embrace of a critic capable of formulating a complex reaction or concept, even if it is the latest Adam Sandler film you want to read about.

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