Editor’s Choice March 2006

Another 5001 Nights at the Movies

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In his sampling of the work of Andrew Sarris, the American critic most strongly associated with the auteur theory, whom some castigate, wrongly, for overlooking performance in his prevailing concentration on cinematic technique, Lopate insightfully chooses an uncharacteristic essay a moving appreciation of the greatness of John Wayne’s acting, in which Sarris says of that performer’s relationship with those iconic directors John Ford and Hawks, “They needed him more than he needed them … he had become his own auteur,” and in which Sarris with offhanded Achesonian elegance sums up the mystery at the heart of great film acting: “The worst acting is so often mistaken for the best, particularly on the screen, where being transcends pretending, and just standing there can often be more effective than doing something.” (Alas, Lopate doesn’t bring in Joan Didion’s two greatest pieces on film her shimmeringly romantic essay on Wayne, certainly among the loveliest pieces ever penned on the movies, and “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind,” her withering assessment of Hollywood’s fatal penchant for message-y films, a penchant that it seems the industry will never overcome.)

Lopate’s most significant contribution, though, is his elevation of Otis Ferguson, whom he rates among the five greatest American film critics. The New Republic’s movie reviewer from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s (he was killed in the Second World War), Ferguson combined a genius for compression with a pulsating, conversational, and exact diction. He deployed these gifts to convey the uniquely beguiling qualities of the best American actors (he was probably the first to properly praise Fred MacMurray’s “open, sustained kind of charm”; his consideration of James Cagney who “somehow managed to be a lot of what a typical American might be, nobody’s fool and nobody’s clever ape, quick and cocky but not too wise for his own goodness, frankly vulgar in the best sense, with the dignity of the genuine worn as easily as his skin” is the best appraisal of the actor ever written). More important, Ferguson perfectly explicated the finely wrought, unified style of the Hollywood motion picture. His at once relaxed and surgical formal analysis revealed the colossal complexity and the “tedious and backbreaking work” (from his piece “The Camera Way Is the Hard Way,” sadly missing in this collection) of moviemaking, and he explained more clearly and engagingly than any critic before or since the meticulous way, shot by shot, sequence by sequence, that the Hollywood studios achieved their seamless style.

Although the bulk of the writing collected here doesn’t rise to Lopate’s highfalutin standards, what’s noteworthy is that so much of it does. If movies and jazz are the arts that most fully express this country’s creative character, so writing about movies is something American critics do with peculiar brilliance. The best and most characteristic qualities of American prose its muscularity, its flexibility, its feistiness, its good-natured, conversational easehave proved remarkably well suited to describing and dissecting both the movies and the aesthetic and emotional experience of watching them. And there’s also a quality of love and play that’s almost unique to the best American movie criticism. An extraordinary number of American authors who worked primarily in other genres were either at their best or were most themselves when writing about the pictures. When, say, the somewhat pretentious journalist and novelist Agee, or the dour and somewhat self-important social critic Dwight Macdonald, or the dour and somewhat self-important man of letters Wilson were indulging in movie criticism, they were plainly enraptured, plainly having just so much fun, plainly half lost in their childhoods, and plainly at their most unguarded. Lopate perceptively notes the plethora of personal details and idiosyncrasies almost customarily revealed in movie criticism, but while he attributes this to a deliberate essayistic technique, writing about the movies (which for so many critics here clearly amounted to writing about their first love) in fact seems to engender that kind of openness which helps explain the passionate engagement, the headlong fluency, and the unfussiness that define so much of the greatest movie criticism. Writing about the movies was an occasion for male writers to be, as they say now, vulnerable and, more important perhaps, for women writers to let their hair down.

More important because the cynosure of this anthology is, of course, Pauline Kael, whose criticism, Lopate asserts without fanfare and with complete accuracy, “belongs with the best American nonfiction prose of the modern era.” This anthology is arranged more or less chronologically, and it’s impossible to read any important piece of writing before Kael’s entries without recognizing a stylistic element or an argument that she’ll develop, enhance, react to, or smack down, just as it’s impossible to read any entry after hers without hearing her echo. Rereading here her most celebrated essay, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” you can’t help arguing with her (in my case in notes all over the margins). How can she be so wrongheaded? (On one page she’s provocatively dismissing analysis of the formal and stylistic elements of film; but on another she’s acknowledging that those are the very elements that transform kitsch into art.) And then you’re off like a pinball, bouncing from one of her scintillating insights to another, propelled by that sassy common sense, by the rollicking, slangy precision of her prose, by her dishy swagger. But for all that swagger, what makes Kael superlative is her femininity. More than any of her counterparts Kael, who famously used what she called “sexually tinged titles” for all her collections, and whose relationship with the movies most closely resembled a searing and lasting affair, appreciated the private, even erotic, nature of movie watching (“in the darkness at the movies where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses”). And she perfected that feminine quality common to all the finest movie writing a chatty intimacythat is the best instrument to convey that experience. Despite its uneven contents and impossible claims, for most red-blooded American readers few books published this season will prove more absorbing.

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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