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Phillip Lopate - American Movie Critics

American Movie Critics Book Cover            We can't compete with buccaneers of the Caribbean--the sword is mightier than the pen--but film reviewers lately have been getting a smidgen of respect, thanks to keen attention paid to American Movie Critics: an Anthology from the Silents Until Now (The Library of America, $40). There have been lengthy, exceedingly respectful reviews in places that count; and Phillip Lopate, the anthology's editor, was offered, for a Spring book tour, the full-plate speaking schedule of a literary star, capped by multiple MPR visits.

It was Lopate, a respected novelist and revered essayist, who was part of the media draw. But somehow the subject of "film criticism" itself struck a bell. I heard two of the MPR broadcasts, and the intense call-ins from across the USA indicated that some moviegoers, at least, want to sink more deeply and thoughtfully into film criticism than catapulting through the Friday reviews.

            What does Lopate promise for those who purchase the book?   700 hand-selected pages of reviews and essays, from critics movie fans already know about (Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael) to earlier, less-read masters (William Troy, Otis Ferguson), to talented scribes even   contemporary critics have never read (the pre-feminist Cecilia Ager, the African-American naysayer on Gone With the Wind, Melvin B. Tolson).

            From poet Vachel Lindsay's amazingly prescient 1915 take on Action Picures ("People are but types, swiftly moved chessmen") to, today, Manohla Dargis's droll, with-apologies-to-Theodor Geisel rhymed attack on The Cat in the Hat ("So all we could do was Sit! /Sit!/Sit!/ Sit!/ And we did not like it/ Not one little bit"), American Movie Critics is packed with snazzy writing. Each piece therein faced Lopate's criterion for worthy film criticism: "It is a literary performance, in the final analysis: What is involved is the operation of one art form (literature) on another (the movies). "

            Emphatically, he makes no distinction between reviewing--typing away in the heat of having just exited a movie-- and something loftier, less time-bound, more contemplative:  "criticism." Many of Lopate's favorites are reviews done on the run, on deadline, including a half-dozen items from the late Vincent Canby. 24 years behind the desk at the New York Times (1969-1993), Canby is regarded by Lopate as the best daily reviewer/critic of them all. His short list of the greatest critics? Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael.

            It's a noble effort, to turn readers on to the glories of film-critic artistry and wordsmanship. Most critics heartily endorse Lopate's postulate, that the opinions offered of a movie's worth, the consumer-oriented paragraphs,   are the least interesting or significant part of our reviews. They're the departure point for opening up the film, and contextualizing it: generically, historically, formally, philosophically, autobiographically.

            Is that what readers thirst for, elegantly crafted and argued essays? I wish, but the average-joe skimmer of film reviews cares little about the aesthetic experience. He wants to know who's in the movie, what's the story about, and should money be spent seeing it? How many stars, and how many thumbs up? Can Lopate's anthology make a dent?

            My kvetch about the book is minor. Lopate is too New York-centric in his choices. Chicago gets Carl Sandburg and Roger Ebert,   LA just two pieces from the LA Times, and Boston strikes out. What of thirty years here at the Phoenix, from Janet Maslin and David Denby to Peter Keough? In fact, for Volume 2, why not this sterling, desirous essay from Mr. Film Culture?

Boston Phoenix, July 2006


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