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American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate. Library of America, 2006; $40; 700 pages


American Movie Critics is an anthology of unparalleled scope that charts the rise of movies as art, industry, and mass entertainment. From the start a provocative and dynamic force in American culture, movies have been for generations of American writers an engrossing and challenging subject. How they rose to that challenge, and in the process created an extraordinary body of critical writing -- passionate, contentious, restlessly curious -- makes for a dazzling and constantly entertaining volume. "I have focused," writes editor Phillip Lopate, "on film criticism as an art in itself -- the magnet for strong, elegant, eloquent, enjoyable writing."


Editor, essayist, novelist, teacher, and poet Phillip Lopate was born in New York City in 1943. He received his BA from Columbia University and his Ph.D. from Union Graduate School. On the afternoon that we talked, Mr. Lopate, who grew up in Manhattan in an era when children came and went with little adult supervision, said, "I was an inveterate moviegoer when I was a kid, and we saw everything, once a week, Saturday afternoon. Those were the days when they used to try to entice people by giving away dishes. I never won any contests, but I certainly saw double bills, plus eight cartoons, plus featurettes, plus coming attractions. It's amazing, the capacity to sit through all that. But I think that the way you develop a taste is through immersion in good, bad, and indifferent.""We post-World War II prepubescent moviegoers," I said, "certainly did not suffer from attention deficit disorder."

"No, nothing like that. If there was, it happened in school, but not in the movies. It's funny, because when I was in college, I was movie mad. All my friends who were similarly inclined have dropped away from movies. They've gone on to the opera or ballet or nothing. I still see two or three movies a week. I'm on the New York Film Festival Selection Committee, so there are times when I see 50 movies a week. I go to the Cannes Film Festival, and every day I see at least four movies."

"When you go to movies, for recreation, do you go alone or do you go with your family?"

"Today I went to see Munich, and I went alone. It depends if my family is in town. I tend to have a skewed movie habit. I often see very esoteric foreign films, but since I have an 11-year-old daughter, I also see all the kids' releases. They're problematic...it was easier when she was younger, but now that she's 11, she's at the age where made-for-kids movies are too childish. So we take her to some of the PG-13s, and they're pushing the envelope a bit."

We talked about movies we saw as children. I noted that I seemed to remember, in movie theaters, "tremendous darkness."

"Yes, yes. Movies were darker then. There wasn't this ambient light that they have now. I remember when I was a kid, I liked action in movies, and I couldn't stand the set-ups -- when you got to meet the characters and the atmosphere was established. I just wanted the tomahawk to fly through the air.

"Now, it's the reverse. I often like the first half of a movie because I'm still in the dark and I'm not quite sure; it's still capable of surprises. And, then, often in the last third, it becomes completely clichéd when they realize, 'Oh, my gosh, we have to make something happen.' So they often make something trite and melodramatic happen."

"What, as a child, were your favorite movies and stars?"

"I remember this absurd period of the biblical epics, when I saw Samson and Delilah and Westerns. For some reason, I was very impressed by Veronica Lake."

"Me too. I loved those bangs."

"Yeah, the hair fascinated me. But, anyway, the habit persisted. What can I say?"

"What do you think the effect of our ability to watch films in our home has had on film-viewing?"

"Certainly, it's made a dream come true. When I was a teenager and movie mad, I used to fantasize having my own library of films. I fantasized becoming elected President of the United States just so I could have these command performances of films in the basement of the White House. The idea of having something that you could look at, at any point, and be able to study is wonderful. I've done some film essays for Criterion. Criterion has these beautiful DVDs and sometimes they pay me in product and sometimes they pay me in money. But, in any case, I've amassed a small collection of classics.

"Some only bear one viewing, and some you want to return to again and again. But I love the clarity. DVDs are much clearer than videotapes. I saw a DVD of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, for instance, and it was cleaner than I'd ever seen it since it opened. It really brought me back to that pristine state when it was first showing in theaters. Because what happens is that we see films in such a cracked and scratched state, we're not really getting the better of it.

"In fact, when I was first trying to track down all the movie classics when I was in my teens and then in my 20s, I would often go to these church basements and see 16mm prints. So, it's great to see some of the stuff with the crisp blacks and whites.

"Many times in the DVDs, it's adjusted, digitally, in computers, and scratches are removed; you're seeing an ideal or platonic range of grays, blacks, and whites, if the original print is halfway decent. There's only so much they can do. But, I also love to go to theaters and see the large image and sit amongst other people."

"What do you think the difference is in the aesthetic experience when you see a DVD in the darkness of your bedroom, as I do, and when you view the film in a theater?"

"When you see it in a movie theater, you often have nuisances. I wrote in a piece called 'Confessions of a Shusher' that I always try to police the theater and get people to stop talking. But I like the feeling of the surround and other people's responses, and close up of lips that are ten feet.

"Sometimes you see a film on TV and it doesn't look like much, and then you see it in the theater and it's interesting; especially intimate films do better on a large screen. You'd think it was the opposite, that films full of spectacle need the large screen. But, actually, sometimes films that are intimate are too small and they really need a larger projection of life. So, whenever possible I see them in the theater. Sometimes I review films and the publicist says, 'We don't want to give you a DVD; we don't want to give you a video. We want you to see it on the screen.' And you'll say, 'Well, I can't, so just send me the damn DVD, I will make compensations in my own mind.' I'll give 20 percent compensation, knowing that it would be more spectacular in a theater."

With DVDs, said Mr. Lopate, "now you can see everything -- we're almost at the point where you have access to all the wonderful films of the past. I dream of the day when you can punch in a title and order up something. Now films are in the theater six weeks or six months, but you can't order up the treasures of the library. That would be great."

I never had been much of a moviegoer. When I grew past dating age, married, and had children, I had neither time nor money. I have begun, however, to rent DVDs and see films about which I'd only read. Recently I had seen End of an Affair on DVD. I said to Mr. Lopate that, watching this, I realized I had never seen people have sex in movies.

"Right, well they're certainly having a lot of it now, yes."

"But it doesn't look to me like real sex -- it's stylized and tidy. No one seems hairy and brutish. No one grunts."

"No, it never is like real sex. It really isn't. It's strange how they anatomize sex. They don't really know how to deal with it. To me, a good sex scene is a scene that tells me something about the psychology of the characters. Very often every scene will tell you something about the psychology of the characters until the sex scene, and then it becomes a kind of abstraction. Almost like a musical interlude."

"In End of an Affair, the erotic scenes seemed choreographed. I felt I was watching Swan Lake ."

"Exactly. It's not the way I experience sex."

We changed the subject. I said, "You write about the difference between a 'film critic' and a 'film reviewer.'"

"Well, I tend to be skeptical that there's much difference between a film critic and a film reviewer. This is a snobbish distinction that some people make a lot of. I think there's good film writing and bad film writing. And sometimes a film reviewer, for a newspaper, say, in 600 words, can really do a beautiful job of analyzing the soul of a film. And sometimes somebody can go on for 30 pages and you feel like you haven't come close to it yet.

"This difference used to be partly a matter of periodical venues -- reviewers would weigh in immediately, and then critics could respond to the initial critical take and have the last word. They could write for literary magazines and periodicals and it was a more high-toned affair.

"Nowadays there are fewer venues for serious film criticism. But, of course, there's still room for reviewing. Some reviewing is like a consumer guide, thumbs up, thumbs down, and is pretty shallow. But I don't think that there's anything inherent in film reviewing that precludes depth. And I don't think there's anything inherent in writing for an intellectual quarterly that is necessarily going to produce good film criticism.

"One thing that's changed is that film criticism used to be a field for generalists. So someone like Edmund Wilson would put his two cents in about Chaplin, and Paul Goodman, for instance, would write about D.W. Griffith.

"But now, in a way, what's happened is that, with the growth of film scholarship and film studies programs, writing about film is polarized between a kind of pop vernacular and a kind of academic discourse. There isn't as much room in the middle for educated writing for the common reader or the common moviegoer.

"So many films are being released now because people can make them on digital cameras and then they sometimes release them just for two days and put them into DVD or video. So it drives movie reviewers nuts now because there's too much product out there."

"I like how you speak of film as 'product.'"

"Well, there's always been that tension between film as commerce and film as art, and it's often put the movie critic on the spot. Because should the movie reviewer pretend that every film he sees is a work of art, and therefore, most turn out to be sad works of art, or should a movie reviewer be more practical and say that a particular film, most of the films that are shown, never intended to be works of art? The real thing they were trying to do is get people to pass their time in a fairly pleasant, comatose state."

"More like TV."

"I think there are still good films being made. By the end of each year, I total up films that I've liked. So I don't think that we're living in a bad period for film-going. I think that if there was a golden age, part of what happened was that there was a different kind of apparatus surrounding film. There were more art theaters. There were serious film magazines. Whereas now, you get good films, but there isn't the same kind of reading section, you might say."

"It seems to me the expectations of a film are altered because of what TV feeds to the eyes."

"They have altered in a way in that TV produces a shallower depth of field. And more close-ups so there's often a less interesting use of space that's conditioned by TV. But then, you have directors who go against that trend and who try obstinately to do very cinematic things."

"I often think of TV as 'little movies,' as film on a small scale."

"But it's so much more domestic. You can get up, you can have a beer, you can go to the bathroom. I suppose you can go to the bathroom in a movie theater as well. It's not as magical. You don't surrender quite as much. It's more skeptical in a way. The lights are on."

Almost keening, I said, "I truly want to be enchanted. That's what I want a film to do."

Mr. Lopate laughed, and why not? "There's the question of, 'Do you make love with the lights on or the lights off?'"

I persisted. "But don't you want to be enchanted?"

"I want to be enchanted, absolutely. I still go to the movies with great hopes. It's strange that having seen so many movies that disappoint, how is it possible that one still gets excited. I like to get to a movie theater a few minutes early, so that I can feel the mood in the room. Now, of course, with film reviewers it's a different situation because they see a lot of films at screenings, and that's a very artificial situation."

"And you must take notes."

"Partly because you take notes and partly because there is a kind of competition and also a desire to impress. Some film critics will actually shift in their chair in a certain way to signal those around them whether they think something is preposterous."



"I think that reviewing makes you so hyper-aware in a way that hyper-awareness was not meant to be called upon in a book or film or painting."

"I don't know. I think in a funny way that it's like a two-track system. On one track you're being swept up in the action, as gullible as anyone else. And, on the other track, you're thinking, 'Now why did he put the camera there, why did he cut at that moment, what's that all about, why is it lit in that funny way?' So, I don't actually think that knowing all that about technique and being sensitized to it, necessarily wrecks the illusion or takes you out of it, but it's a second thought or an afterthought."

"Also, you're going to have to go home and write about what you've seen."

"Yeah, and you can't help sometimes but be composing the review of the movie as you're watching it."

"Do you have a good memory?"

"I have a good memory. I don't have the kind of memory that Pauline Kael had. She could remember lines of dialogue. I tend to take notes when I have to review a film. And sometimes I use a little flashlight but I find that that can be irritating to those around me so sometimes I write in the dark, and when I come home I realize that I've been writing over the same line. With luck, I'll be able to read my handwriting, but that's not always possible. Sometimes it takes a while."

"Have you noticed that the faces of 'stars' in movies have changed? They're no longer showing the smooth beauty of a Cary Grant."

"It's certainly true that you have the kind of star who's a common man, like Dustin Hoffman. And ethnic actors like Al Pacino. But don't forget that in the old days you had people like Edward G. Robinson. Wallace Beery. They were no beauties. Particularly Robinson, who was a fascinating actor. He had a strange face. But there was always something weak or vulnerable about him. Even though he was throwing his weight around, you felt he was going to be defeated in the end."

"Perhaps it was his small size."

"I suppose that's true. Cagney was little too."

"They both had the appearance of 'mama's boys.'"

"Yeah, exactly. Cagney certainly acted that role of 'mama's boy.' I don't know. I guess you still have some absolute ravishing beauties and handsome guys."

"Ralph Fiennes," I suggested, "he's very pretty."

"He's very pretty. Did you see The Constant Gardener? It's okay. It kind of falls apart, but he's very watchable. Some people, they just hold the screen. I think a lot of movie critics, whether they admit it or not, they fall in love with certain actors or actresses. There's a whole erotic side to going to movies. It just gets right into your fantasy list."

"What else should I ask you about your book?"

"Well, the book was something that I wanted very much to do because I'd already done two other anthologies -- The Art of the Personal Essay and Writing New York. I love this idea of trying to pull together a kind of personal canon. All my life, I'd been reading movie critics, and they certainly shaped the way I look at movies. I wanted my book to have certain surprises and to push people who weren't as well known, as well as obvious choices like Agee and Farber and Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. It was hard to select, when somebody was a really good writer, because every single piece they wrote might be worthwhile. But I tried to take things that were characteristic. You can't put in everything -- otherwise, it's too large a book."

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