American Movie Critics
Phillip Lopate
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Buy *American Movie Critics: From Silents Until Now* by Phillip Lopate online

American Movie Critics: From Silents Until Now
Phillip Lopate
Library of America
750 pages
January 2008
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Opinions differ about the role of art critics. Some find them to be parasites who suck the vitality from real art, while other consider them artists in their own right, able to look into a finished item and capture its meaning and essence for the guidance of others. Movie critics have existed, we learn from this book, as long as there have been movies. Men and women of letters have tried their hand at the critic's craft. Film criticism has evolved as movies have evolved, from pure storytelling to expressionist and back.

Early critics were "moonlighters" from other disciplines - not surprising since no one was sure whether the industry would catch on. No one could have predicted that someone might make a living solely on critiquing film. So, in the early days, one sees "real" writers like Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg and Robert Sherwood offering their opinions on such works as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nanook of the North, and The Ten Commandments. Of the latter work, Robert Sherwood wrote, "The day would come, I knew, when I would have to utter praise for a Cecil B. DeMille picture." Journalist James Agee wrote movie reviews, and anthology editor Lopate reports that though English poet W.H. Auden was thoroughly snobbish when it came to American writing, "he read Agee religiously." Agee's rather ponderous (by today's standard's) post-mortem on Lost Weekend, the sad tale of a drunkard's demise, ends on a humorous note: "I understand that liquor interesh: innerish:intereshtsh are rather worried about this film. Thash tough."

As we all do with anthologies - and this one is satisfyingly bulky, with enough authors and movies, surely, to elate even those less fascinated with its subject matter - we start not at Page One but at an essay about our favorite. I found much food for thought in James Harvey's meticulous examination of the 1950's tearjerker Imitation of Life (with references to the earlier version made in the Thirties). Imitation of Life was a box-office winner that came out in 1959, when civil rights were still a dream for most blacks and a nightmare for many whites in America. It tells the story of a beautiful white woman and a poor but honest black woman. Each woman has a daughter, and they meet before the white woman, Lora, rises to success and is able to hire her friend Annie as her maid. This was considered grand largesse or, as Harvey calls it, "creative generosity" in Jim Crow America. Annie's child, Sarah Jane, is very light-skinned, and early on she begins to pass for white, rebelling against her mother's wishes, even as Lora ignores and takes for granted Annie's needs and ignores her private sorrows.

The film beautifully portrays, if with a large brush, the hypocrisy of the era regarding race and traces skillfully and painfully the moral lassitude of Lora, played by Lana Turner, whose stellar success divorces her from the reality of true friendship, and the degradation of Sarah Jane, who becomes a chorus girl in order to protect her perceived whiteness and enjoy false affections, rejecting the only person who ever truly loved her. Annie, played by Juanita Moore, is stalwart and unbowed, a powerful symbol of human dignity. The film is worth watching for Annie's funeral scene alone, with Mahalia Jackson singing while plumed white horses draw a flower-banked coffin. "No mourning - gone to glory," as James Harvey says, and he correctly cites the skewed values highlighted in this period piece (because it could never be done again, I suggest): "the complacency and willed innocence, the denial of death and emptying-out of life, the endemic racism."

Whether you go to movies because of critics' ratings or in spite of them, you will find something here to enjoy. Stand-outs are the review of A Hard Day's Night by Jonas Mekas ("Not everything that is fun is cinema") and Vincent Canby's less than adoring look at Easy Rider, in which he cites the one aspect of the film that brings "joy and humor and sweetness" into an otherwise "flat and foolish" landscape: the cameo role played by unknown actor Jack Nicholson.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2008

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