Who's the greatest American movie critic?
A lot of folks probably would say Pauline Kael or David Bordwell or Manny Farber; some might argue for more academic writers like Linda Williams, Stanley Cavell, or Carol Clover. For me, though, it's an easy question. The greatest film critic ever is James Baldwin.
Baldwin is generally celebrated for his novels and (as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently) his personal essays. But he wrote criticism as well. Mostly this was in the form of short reviews. There is, though, a major exception: his book-length essay, The Devil Finds Work, one of the most powerful examples ever of how writing about art can, itself, be art.
Published in 1976, the piece can’t be categorized. It's a memoir of Baldwin's life watching, or influenced by, or next to cinema. It's a critique of the racial politics of American (and European) film. And it's a work of film theory, with Baldwin illuminating issues of gaze and identification in brief, lucid bursts. The dangerous appeal of cinema, he writes, can be to escape—"surrendering to the corroboration of one's fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen" And "no one,” he acidly adds, “makes his escape personality black."
The themes of race, film, and truth circle around one another throughout the essay's hundred pages, as Baldwin attempts to reconcile the cinema he loves, which represents the country he loves, with its duplicity and faithlessness. In one memorable description of the McCarthy era midway through the essay, he marvels at "the slimy depths to which the bulk of white Americans allowed themselves to sink: noisily, gracelessly, flatulent and foul with patriotism." It's clear Baldwin believes that description can often be applied to American cinema as well—whether it's the false self-congratulatory liberal Hollywood pap of The Heat of the Night or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or the travesty made of Billie Holiday's life in Lady Sings the Blues, the script of which, Baldwin says, "Is as empty as a banana peel, and as treacherous."
Yet, for all its pessimism, The Devil Finds Work doesn't feel despairing or bleak. On the contrary, it's one of the most inspirational pieces of writing I've read. In part, that's because of the moments of value or meaning that Baldwin finds amid the dross—an image of Sidney Poitier's face in the Defiant Ones, which in its dignity and beauty shatters the rest of the film, or "Joan Crawford's straight, narrow, and lonely back," in the first film Baldwin remembers, and how he is "fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and the swelling of the sea … and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water."
But more even than such isolated images, what makes the essay sing, and not sadly or in bitterness, is its sheer power of description, and its audacity in treating self, society, and art as a whole, to be argued with and lived with and loved all at once. You can see that perhaps most vividly in the concluding discussion, in which Baldwin talks about the racial subtext of The Exorcist.
For, I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror. It is that moment when no other human being is real for you, nor are you real for yourself. The devil has no need of any dogma—though he can use them all—nor does he need any historical justification, history being so largely his invention. He does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.
The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children— can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.
I like The Exorcist considerably more than Baldwin does, but even so, I think it's indisputable that he transforms the film. A pulp horror shocker becomes a meditation on how evil is displaced and denied—and on how denial of sin, personal and social, is central to evil. Baldwin's scorn doesn't destroy the movie, but turns it into something wiser, more moving, and more beautiful. As the blues that Baldwin loves changes sorrow into art, Baldwin takes American cinema and makes it look in the mirror to see, not the devil, but the face it could have if it were able to acknowledge its own history and violence. It's a face that would be, yes, blacker, but also more honest and more free.
In her first post at her blog at The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg explained that she writes about pop culture because "art and culture are deeply engaged with big, important ideas about the way we live our lives, the conditions we’re willing to let others live in and our most important priorities." I don't disagree with that, and I doubt Baldwin would either. But I think The Devil Finds Work also makes a different case for writing about pop culture. That case is the case that Shakespeare makes for writing drama, or that Jane Austen makes for writing novels, or that Wallace Stevens makes for writing poetry, or Tarkovsky for making films. Baldwin shows that criticism is art, which means that it doesn't need a purpose or a rationale other than truth, or beauty, or keeping faith, or doing whatever it is we think art is trying to do. When I write about pop culture, I'm trying, and failing, to make art as great as The Devil Finds Work. That seems like reason enough.