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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?"

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