Spring 2006

American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now
(The Library of America, 713 pages, $40)
Edited by Phillip Lopate

Even the most critic-averse director will find something to savor in this comprehensive anthology of intelligent, thoughtful writing on film. Phillip Lopate, the essayist, novelist, poet and film critic, has compiled a highly personal collection of essays based on the simple criterion of whether he "liked or didn't like the way a piece of criticism was written." Fortunately, Lopate is an editor with exceedingly good taste. Some of the best non-fiction writers of the twentieth century are represented here. Ralph Ellison writes about Hollywood's depiction of race in such films as Birth of a Nation and Pinky. Susan Sontag gives her typically heady take on science fiction films of the 50s and 60s. H.L. Mencken bemoans the rapid-paced editing techniques that he insists are turning movies into a "maddening chaos of discrete fragments." (One can't help but wonder what he would make of today's MTV-style of filmmaking.) The poet Carl Sandburg, sounding surprisingly like a teenage horror fan, rhapsodizes about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as "the craziest, wildest, shivery movie" with the "creepiest murders." Altogether over 65 writers are included, from seminal critics like James Agee and Pauline Kael to filmmaker-critics like Paul Schrader (writing with encyclopedic knowledge about film noir) to current voices like Kenneth Turan (represented by his infamous Titanic pan, which provoked James Cameron to ask for his dismissal). Reading the essays in chronological order, as Lopate has presented them, one gets a strong sense of how much films and the world they reflect have changed and, at the same time, how much the core ideas that great films address remain timeless. Though critics can at times seem like a filmmaker's worst enemy, it is also true, as evidenced by this collection, that they can be the medium's biggest champions and most articulate chroniclers.

Review written by Gloria Norris.


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