Historic Film Criticism

Laura Miller’s Salon review of American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, a new collection of film critcism edited by Philip Lopate, raises some interesting questions about the role of the film critic in the American public imagination (and also makes me want to read the collection ASAP).

Most notably, Miller points out that many of the critical debates that seem relatively recent actually have a much longer history, and I think that one of the major benefits of this book, for film scholars and cinephiles alike (not that the categories ar excusive), will be the historical materials Lopate has accumulated. The earliest anthologized criticism, dating from the 1910s and 1920s, can provide a window into the social role of these early films and illuminate the debates about film that persist to this day, including debates about whether film would corrupt its audience (in this sense, the book might prove to be an instructive companion to Gregory Waller’s useful collection, Moviegoing in America) . Miller does point out the objection that the anthologized essays are not clearly dated and that their original sources are not clearly marked, but given that the information is available, this seems like a minor concern.

Like Lopate, Miller seems to celebrate most the free-wheeling, playful, and often highly subjective critcism of the “Golden Age” of film critcism, most associated with critics such as Pauline Kael, but Lopate and Miller show some awareness that even Kael’s subjective style was not unprecedented. For example, Lopate includes modernist poet HD’s review of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which HD reports, left her “cut into slices.” Miller thus values Kael for her unqualified appreciation for cinematic “trash,” not because of an elimination of critical standards, but because of her willingness to enjoy films and her ability to express that enjoyment so convincingly. But Miller also worries that Kael’s influence as a critic may have led to “support for a cinematic culture in which ‘trash’ is all that anybody wants to make or see.” I don’t think that’s a terribly fair argument in that it underplays the economic and institutional factors that have shaped cinema over the last few decades. While I don’t want to deny that critics can shape how movie makers understand their craft, the decline in audiences for art house and foreign films (a decline I’m not sure exists) can hardly be ascribed to the embrace of so-called trash. Even if audiences aren’t seeing these films in art house and repertory theaters in the same numbers as in the past, other audiences are finding many of these films on DVD and on cable TV (via channels such as Turner Classic Movies and AMC).

These comments are not meant to “bury the dead” of the earlier film culture, which thrived on the public screenings and local film cultures identified with rep houses, but to suggest that other film cultures may be forming. I know that I’ve already pointed to some of the film blogs that I enjoy, and that culture continues to flourish as the recent film blog forum on the films of Abel Ferrrara illustrates (Girish has many of the links). Evn with declining box office, I do think that movies continue to matter. The politically-oriented debates about Brokeback Mountain’s Oscar-worthiness only underline the degree to which movies are still understood as functioning as a kind of cultural barometer. And I still believe that the blog format enables film critcism to do different things that writing articles for newpapers or magazines may not permit. Writing in the blog, I have few obligations to review films that don’t excite me, allowing me to promote films that I believe desrve a wider audience. But the blog genre also allows me to constantly track back, to rethink and restate why I like or dislike a certain film or filmmaker. It allows me to think about how my tatses have changed and evolved as I’ve continued to write in the blog.

Again, I’m really curious to read Lopate’s collection, but with the end-of-semester crunch quickly approaching, that may take a while.

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