Bonnie and Clyde

Note: Two weeks ago, Jandy Stone Hardesty picked up a copy of American Movie Critics by Phillip Lopate, and wrote a great post detailing her thoughts on the introduction and the first chapter. Upon reading her post, I realized that this was a book I had to get my mitts on and start reading for myself. Knowing that was in-store for me, I reached out to Jandy and asked if she wanted to start doing a series of posts based on the book, where we both read a chapter or two and discuss the ideas presented. Sorta like a book club, but in parses…and without the biscotti.

Jandy liked the idea, so look for it to become a semi-regular feature both on her space and my own. In order to get going though, I had to play catch-up. So to get this series going, here’s my thoughts on the introduction – along with a few reactions to some things that Jandy has already said. – RM

A confession for starters: Many days I wonder what the fuck it is that I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and if I’m fooling anybody. I’m not a film graduate, not a journalism graduate, not an english graduate. I love cinema and I love to write, but I wonder at times if I have any right to do what I do. Writing with intent takes a great deal of skill, and speaking critically on any art form takes even more so. Considering the deep pool of talent that exists in the circles of film criticism – and the deeper pool that has already come and gone – do I have any right to sneak my way into the party? Should security not be pointed in my direction and escort me out by the collar of my coat?

What makes for a good critic, and do I have anything approaching that in my limited tool set?

In his introduction of American Movie Critics, Phillip Lopate offers a beacon of hope. While taking us on a fifty-cent tour of the history of criticism, he lays out what has made the format successful, what has made some critics unsuccessful, how they added to the conversation, and how they created mere noise. He suggests that the whole racket is a rigged game for starters since “…all Americans regard themselves as astute judges if movies.” [xxiii].

sarris

So how have names like Sarris, Kael, Ebert, Agee, Ellison, and Scott managed to find new ways to tell moviegoers what they seemingly already know?

The trick, it would seem, is to lay down an approach to a movie (or even a part of a movie) that the average moviegoer hasn’t taken.

As Lopate blusters through eighty-some-odd years of criticism, he points us towards academic writing, personal writing, instant reactions, studies based on repeated exposure, scathing evisceration, and glowing reflection. Some of them play within ground-rules, some of it is fly-by-night. All of it – he argues – is worth the readers’ consideration; all of it is valid. How can that be? How can there be so few rules to what makes for “good critique”.

They key, it would seem, comes towards the bottom of the 23rd page, where Lopate encourages

“…earn respect as a writer and convert readers to the regular habit of perusing (if not agreeing with) you, largely on the basis of producing entertain, convincing critical prose” [xxiii]

Think about it – what you read about film often reflects the way you watch film. Sure, once in a while you’ll watch something because you feel like you should…to keep up with a wider discussion, to complete a syllabus, or for some reason akin to eating your vegetables. More often than not though, you watch what you like – titles that speak to you, appeal to you. Content worthy of your limited attention and valuable time. So too with what writing you read. Most of us don’t want to be lectured or preached-to. We want to see something we enjoy from all angles and see it refracted in ways that help us further understand why we love it. Odds are – Lopate suggests – that will best be achieved by finding voices that speak on film in a manner in which we want to listen to.

So for the critic – for the best ones that have established themselves, and for those that still wish to, the trick is to find one’s voice. To speak not just with intellect and insight, but with clarity and personality that will engage the reader and make them feel what the writer felt while experiencing the same experience.

Jandy underlined this in her own post, noting

“Films conjure up thoughts of other films, of music, of literature, of memories, of life. Those things belong in criticism. They’re part of how we experience a film.”

FF

So perhaps if the critic keeps those things in mind – sticks to expressing feeling instead of trying to sway opinion – there can be a greater amount of truth in their writing. Take for instance Vachel Lindsay, the first critic in the book who writes about the nature of the action movie. In the first of Lindsay’s two pieces, he outlines the mechanics of the genre, stating

“These shows work like the express elevators in The Metropolitan Tower. The ideal is the maximum of speed in descending or ascending, not to be jolted into insensibility.”

Further, he adds that success

“is not achieved by weaving in a Sherlock Holmes plot”, and “romance comes when each hurdle is tableau…an art-gallery beauty-up in each one of these swift glances”. [5]

Sounds a lot like your average Fast and Furious movie, right? Lindsay is actually writing about THE SPOILERS, a silent film about the Alaskan Gold Rush. By writing about what watching this film felt like instead of what he thought it meant, Lindsay crafted something transcendent – something still applicable one-hundred years after the release of the film that inspired the thought.

So maybe that’s the trick, and maybe there’s hope.

Perhaps by finding a place in between fan and intellectual, there is room for even someone as ill-equipped as me to join the conversation. I don’t think anyone would ever include my scribblings in a compendium like this, but if the writing is honest, comes from the feelings a film inspires, and is reasonably articulate, then I can stay at the party even if it’s only standing in a quiet corner and keeping out of trouble.