Winter 2006

The Knocking-Loving Profession

The longtime critic for the New Republic traces how the history of film criticism parallels the history of the Guild.


In 1964 I met director Carol Reed on the set of The Agony and the Ecstasy in Rome, and toward the end of our chat, he said, “I don’t care if a critic knocks a film as long as one can feel that he loves films.” Nudged by remembrance of your colleague, I suggest that, on the 70th anniversary of the DGA, we take a brief look at the course of those people who certainly knock but basically love films.

Like filmmaking itself, criticism began some 30 years before the DGA. Inevitably, the appearance of film in the mid-1890s immediately produced a flood of press coverage. Reviews percolated constantly, heated by the continuing expansion of film socially, technically, and, of course, economically. But in the first decade of film production, little that appeared in the press could really be called criticism. Gradually, thoughtful writing began to appear, even in such trade journals as The Moving Picture World. (The early reviews and articles are fascinating, sometimes amusing, as critics learned how to deal with this new phenomenon.) What is surprising is the relative speed with which serious writers, most particularly poets, began to take film seriously. From 1920 to 1928 Carl Sandburg was the film critic of the Chicago Daily News. The first American book on film aesthetics was published by Vachel Lindsay in 1915. The imagist poet H.D. began writing film reviews in the 1920s.

Were filmmakers overjoyed by the presence of film criticism? If the theater is any guide - where I have talked to many on the subject - an absence of criticism causes a lost-in-the-Sahara feeling. Response is wanted. At least there is one strong hint about early respect for film-criticism ability. One of the first thoughtful critics was a man named Frank Woods, and D.W. Griffith was so impressed with his judgment that he hired Woods as story editor and scenarist.

All through the years before World War II, most of the criticism that appeared in large circulation media reported honestly what the writer had felt about the film - always a necessity, of course, but hardly the equivalent of critical analysis. But there were exceptions. I remember picking up a copy of The Nation in the mid-1930s - roughly around the time that the DGA was beginning - and reading a film review by William Troy, then a well-known literary figure. I was wonderstruck by the fact that a critic could write about film with the gravity used about any other art. Troy’s reviews certainly could not have had much effect at the box office, but it is hard to believe that the makers of that picture, whatever it was, were displeased by being taken seriously.

Criticism poured along, in the daily press recording joy or dismay, in smaller magazines digging deeper. Then, in 1944, came a significant turning point - at least in the attitudes of intelligent readers. W.H. Auden praised James Agee’s film criticism in a letter to The Nation, saying: “[Mr. Agee’s] column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” Carol Reed would have been irked by Auden’s coolness toward film in general, but the letter contained such phrases as “extraordinary wit and felicity” and compared Agee’s criticism to “the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw.” Everyone I knew revised his expectations of film criticism because of Auden (though I had already been touting Troy and a few others). I didn’t know any members of the DGA at the time, but I have to think that at least some of them were gratified by Auden’s letter.

This seriousness grew in the 1950s when the end of World War II brought us European pictures - Truffaut, Godard, Bergman, Antonioni, etc. - that broadened ideas of film venture and possibility. Soon there exploded in America an almost fierce enthusiasm among young people - I called them the ‘Film Generation’ - some of whom went into film work and have been, perhaps still are, members of the DGA. (Consequently, extensive programs of film studies grew rapidly in universities. This led inevitably to academic criticism, which rarely leaves that precinct.)

Along with those European films came a critical approach that originated in France, the auteur theory. Also around this time, alternative weekly newspapers began in several American cities, preeminently the Village Voice, and those new films and this new theory were particularly welcome in these papers. The auteur theory, reordering values in film judgment by putting the director first as dominant creator of the work, had an intoxicating effect on many of the ‘Film Generation.’ If the original auteur fervor has somewhat subsided today, it inarguably had one lasting beneficial effect: It highlighted the elements that are possible only in film - the purely cinematic.

As a result of all this activity and enthusiasm, beginning in the 1960s, readers developed favorites among the different and differing critics, with support as rabid as that among sports fans for their favorites. This surely was good for the film world. Whatever one’s view of this or that choice of critics, the mere fact of the reader’s choosing was, in the long run, healthy for the critical profession, a warrant of contact and expectation.

Yet precisely to avoid such partisan bickering, I have omitted the names of those critics or of more recent ones. Two large anthologies that are tributes to the knocking-loving profession contain all the names that one could want. In 1997 came Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film. Arranged topically, it is mainly American writing, and it reflects Ebert’s immense knowledge of the field. In 2006 the Library of America gave its authoritative blessing to the field by publishing American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now, which too is arranged topically and is edited by Phillip Lopate. In the first sentence of his introduction, Lopate states his purpose and belief: “This book celebrates film criticism as a branch of American letters.” For this reader - immodestly because I’m included - the book fulfills the editor’s claim. I cannot believe that many DGA readers, even if miffed or even outraged by entries here and there, will be left unmoved by the passion and the (critical) professionalism in these anthologies.

That day in 1964 I think Carol Reed felt he was being generous about critics. A cursory look at the history crowned by these recent anthologies might have tipped him toward the field. Directors are never going to feel entirely happy about criticism. How could they? Judgment by others, even if favorable, has a certain proprietary air. For a critic who has often been criticized, this is easy to understand. But I’m fairly certain that the best of what has happened in American film criticism, partially preserved in these books, will make directors feel somewhat relieved - perhaps even proud - that films elicit this level of discourse.

Stanley Kauffmann has been the film critic of the New Republic almost continuously since 1958.

Critic's Corner

An open letter from prominent critics to Guild members about the craft of directing from their point of view.

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