Editor’s Choice March 2006

Another 5001 Nights at the Movies

What to read this month

Edmund Wilson and Jason Epstein, those giants of American letters, conceived the Library of America, one of the most ambitious and serious projects in the history of U.S. publishing, to provide authoritative texts, unencumbered by academic paraphernalia, of the canonical works of this country’s literature (drama, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction), bound in handsome, uniform volumes and printed on for-the-ages stock — all at a reasonable price. It’s strayed from its mission, with both happy and, at times, questionable results.

LOA’s notion of what constitutes essential authors has expanded from the likes of Melville and Twain to such a motley crew as William Bartram, H. P. Lovecraft, and Charles W. Chesnutt. This is a more or less welcome development: what we lose in the slackening of canonical standards, we more than gain by having the works of neglected, commercially unviable, important-if-not-great writers easily and cheaply obtainable (though, really, Ambrose Bierce merits an LOA edition before, say, Charles Brockden Brown). On the other hand, some of the “special anthologies” containing writings by various authors the baseball and “sea writing” compendia, the keepsake-y, prettily illustrated “gift book” American Writers at Homeseem like moneymaking schemes designed to help this nonprofit venture defray the cost of bringing James Weldon Johnson’s poetry and editorials within easy reach of every American book buyer. However remunerative, though, such productions of course threaten to dilute the brand, as they say. So, just months after reviewing LOA’s edition of the works of James Agee who among other things is the most fancily literary film critic in our historyI greeted this 700-plus-page anthology of the writings of American movie critics (LOA can’t possibly get any deeper into pop culture than that) with some wariness, which hasn’t completely abated.

The editor, Phillip Lopate, opens his lengthy and deeply knowledgeable introduction with the declaration “It is arguable … that in

the last fifty years more energy, passion, and analytical juice have gone into film criticism than into … any other writing about the arts.” Arguable? No, certain. (And I say that even though I’m a little unsure of what, exactly, “analytical juice” is.) But the editor’s own criteria for selection can’t always be reconciled with the writings assembled in this volume. To be sure, Lopate could have gone terribly wrong here, and he didn’t. “Film studies” attracts far more than its share of pseudo-intellectual, jargon-clotted nonsense, and he’s included almost none. But whereas previous anthologies of film criticism sought merely to collect compelling or influential writings about the movies, Lopate aims to include only works of the highest artistic value. This book, he says, “celebrates … critical writing that honors the best belletristic tradition of our nonfiction prose” and therefore he has focused on “film criticism as an art in itself the magnet for strong, elegant, eloquent, enjoyable writing.” That’s setting the bar a little high, or rather setting two different bars: surely most writing that’s strong, elegant, and enjoyable (as rare an achievement as that is) isn’t art. Furthermore, Carl Sandburg’s pleasant if ephemeral and completely unremarkable reviews, Melvin B. Tolson’s crude diatribe against Gone With the Wind’s racism, and bell hooks’s assessment of Pulp Fictiona work of criticism that Lopate, with uncharacteristic obtuseness, praises as “moving effortlessly between street talk and poststructuralist theory” (the piece is as “enjoyable” as that sounds)can’t possibly be deemed examples of “the best belletristic tradition of our nonfiction prose.” But, in all fairness, neither can the smoothly crafted reviews of Stanley Kauffmann or John Simon, nor such well-written (if sometimes dated) landmarks in film studies as the semi-scholarly selections included here by Siegfried Kracauer, Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Barbara Deming, Molly Haskell, Stanley Cavell, and James Harvey. I’m sure Lopate knows this, and I think he’s guilty only of sloppily explaining his criteria. He’s in fact arranged an astute collection of the most important American writers on the movies (reviewers, freelance critics, a few academics and quasi-academics). He’s admirably championed critics who have long gone underappreciated. And, most important, he’s highlighted writings of extraordinary literary merit by several movie critics, a few of whom are long forgotten except by the cognoscenti.

With a few glaring exceptions (nearly all of which can be attributed to that lamentable, dogged pursuit of inclusiveness and diversity), Lopate displays highly cultivated taste. Years ago I’d read some of Cecilia Ager’s glamorous, breezy reviews from the 1930s, which combined a refined eye for fashion with a sure, sharp grasp of the feminine mind. I’d come across them in Alistair Cooke’s nearly eighty-year-old classic anthology of movie criticism, Garbo and the Night Watchmen (Cooke considered her the country’s preeminent movie critic). I hadn’t read her work or anything about her since then, but sure enough, Lopate has gathered a nice assortment here. He also fits in Arlene Croce’s sublime encomium to what she called the “delicious entre nous sparkle of fun” at the heart of the Astaire-Rogers partnership, and to the way the pair transformed dancing “into a vehicle of serious emotion between a man and a woman,” which “never happened in the movies again.” (Croce’s slim, elegant 1972 The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book is simply one of the best volumes about film ever published.) He not only includes the work of David Thomson, author of the audacious and addictive A Biographical Dictionary of Film, but he chooses from Thomson’s thousand entries the two finest: his portraits of Cary Grant (“the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema”) and of Howard Hawks (who captured better than any other filmmaker both masculine romanticism and “the dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture” between men and women). His one selection from Richard Corliss’s body of reviews is that critic’s responsibly contrarian evisceration of Robert Altman’s grossly overrated, mean-spirited, and cheaply hip M*A*S*H. He energetically rehabilitates the reputation of the wryly incisive Vincent Canby (who, toward the end of his long perch at The New York Times, was sometimes unfairly regarded by the relentlessly modish as something of a fuddy-duddy), pronouncing him the best daily reviewer this country has ever produced and in the process treats us to Canby’s spot-on assessment of the trite, smug, and “determinedly inarticulate” Easy Rider (the collection clearly if unintentionally suggests that quite a few of the vaunted “masterpieces” of the late 1960s and 1970s should be taken down a peg or three). With acuity he selects Roger Ebert’s winsome and wise appraisal of Ernst Lubitsch’s oh-so-adult Trouble in Paradise (“the characters have a weight of experience behind them that suggests they know life cannot be played indefinitely for laughs”), an essay that nicely displays the critic’s lightness of touch and enormous erudition attributes Ebert is unable to convey on TV.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.

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