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Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

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Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

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The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

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Archive for the 'Film history' Category

The Rhapsodes: Afterlives

Ali–Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, 1974). 35mm frame.

A moment comes when everything is exactly right, and you have an occurrence—it may be something exquisite or something unnameably gross; there is in it an ecstasy which sets it apart from everything else.

            Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts, 1924

DB here:

This is the final entry in a series of blogs on major American film critics of the 1940s: Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. The entries are offshoots of a book I’m writing on Hollywood storytelling at the period. Some readers have assumed that these are portions of or trial balloons for the book. Actually, I conceived them as free-standing pieces that I could refer to in the finished book, just to save time. But they have taken on a life of their own, and perhaps I’ll make a e-book out of them some day.

Today’s entry offers three things. First, I summarize the arguments I’ve made in the preceding entries. Then I trace the afterlife of Agee’s work and the subsequent writing of Farber and Tyler. Finally, I offer a few general reflections on their legacy.

 

The case so far

This blog series was probably even more forbidding than the one called Pandora’s Digital Box because it wasn’t on a topic of current interest, and it was more academic-historical than reportorial. The entries were conceptually denser than what I usually offer, and they were certainly long. So probably a summary would be helpful, even for those brave souls who read the originals. If you haven’t yet read them, maybe this will guide you.

The prologue to the series was my late 2013 entry on Otis Ferguson (left). Ferguson, a critic for The New Republic between 1934 and 1942, laid out some terms for appreciating Hollywood sound cinema. The well-wrought movie would be “smooth, fast-moving, effortless.” It would display an honest, unshowy naturalism about how people behave–particularly how they do their work. It would integrate revealing details and moments of emotional impact into an arc of clean, cogent action, both physical and dramatic. An example is given here, from Fitzgerald’s Love of the Last Tycoon.

What makes all this possible, Ferguson maintained, is a discreet technique.

The very reason you don’t see it is its own justification: you are not conscious of camera or effects, for the little bit flickers past in the final version and you are conscious only that a story is starting as you follow. Only!

Although the mechanics might be invisible to the audience, Ferguson thought that critics should be more curious. They should possess “a constant and humble passion to know everything of what is being done and how everything is being done.” As a jazz critic, he knew the tricks of the trade, and late in his career he visited Hollywood to watch filmmakers like Wyler and Lang at work. This is one way to appreciate honest craft: “The camera way is the hard way.”

Ferguson left film reviewing in 1942 for the Merchant Marine and was killed early in World War II, but three other critics continued on his way—although they did so in their own, idiosyncratic fashion. They were James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler.

Some of what Ferguson had proposed was already commonplace among critics who were movie-friendly. They recognized film as a popular art, considered it primarily a visual medium communicating through movement, and rejected the artiness associated with Russian and avant-garde film. Hollywood’s admirers put story first and—though people like to think Farber originated this—recognized that the liveliest film was often the unpretentious comedy or melodrama. Prestige pictures, especially literary adaptations, were no guarantee of vitality.

My three critics accepted these premises but, like Ferguson, they went further. They wrote criticism that was pungent, slangy, creatively ungrammatical. They accepted the advantages of minor genres but pushed very hard against highbrow tastes. They had an eye for technique as it might work in privileged moments to convey character or the taste of reality. And they freshened up the familiar faults-and-beauties rhetoric of reviewing with paradox (Farber), a drama of decision (Agee), or an inversion of what a reasonable person might expect (Tyler).

In the first series entry I called them the Rhapsodes, by analogy with the ancient reciters of verse who, inspired by the gods, became carried away. My purpose was to emphasize the offbeat, passionate force of their prose. But of course they weren’t really carried away. They were wholly in charge. They were seeking to differentiate themselves as personalities while conveying something of the punch and sway of the movies themselves.

As prose artists, they broke with the urbane, murmuring tastemongers of their day, as well as with the thinkers who populated the highbrow journals. In those journals, partly because of a disenchantment with Stalinism and its antagonism to avant-garde experiment, there emerged a new high culture centered on High Modernism and its heirs.

For the Serious elite, Hollywood films were the most threatening face of Western mass culture. Manufactured in bulk and jammed down the throats of the unwary multitudes, movies were a betrayal of authentic art—a turn away from both the authenticity and spontaneity of folk art and the revolutionary force of the avant-garde. The result was, inevitably, that movies could only be kitsch, either lowbrow, or worse, middlebrow. My second entry in the series suggested that the Rhapsodes detoured around the arguments about mass culture.

At this period, new methods of “close reading” had emerged in literary studies, musicology, and art history. Obviously film critics couldn’t examine their “texts” as minutely as critics of other media could; there was no home video, and no way to study current releases on viewing machines. Still, within the constraints of the time, these critics managed to subject films to scrutiny. And their probing of particular shots and scenes was a powerful counter to the vague denunciations of the Partisan Review crowd.

Focusing on the planning and labor of production—specifically, the shooting of one scene in The Little Foxes—became Ferguson’s preferred path to close reading. His successors found other ways. Agee was since his youth a film fan who, otaku-like, wrote imaginary screenplays flaunting sheer technique. This sensitized him to the what and the how of filmic creation. Farber, trained as a painter, brought a concern with fastidious craft, pictorial design, and emotional expressivity to his thinking about films. Parker Tyler, a Surrealist poet, had an eye for slippery detail that would allow him to expand, associatively, from an image or dramatic conflict or story premise to some quite surprising implications.

Agee (right), I argued in the third entry, possessed a Romantic sensibility. Both outward-looking and introspective, he hoped for radiant revelations from cinema; he also dramatized, in his hesitant probes, the difficulty of finding them. His fiction and nonfiction sought “the illusion of embodiment” and the piercing moment of emotion, both of which cinema could provide. His short reviews in The Nation throughout the 1940s often only hinted at these qualities, but his longer pieces develop these ideas further. He offered a sort of New-Critical interpretation of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux and stylistic commentary on the visual strategies of John Huston.

Agee’s contemporary and sometime rival Manny Farber has become famous as the most pictorially sensitive critic of the time, one who brought his awareness of modernist painting to bear on movies. I argued that this standard view needs nuancing. For one thing, modernism in the approved sense of the period—basically, abstract painting as praised by Clement Greenberg—didn’t get full backing in Farber’s art reviews, which I considered in the fourth entry. He was receptive to all manner of representational art as well as abstraction, and he was in a rather old-fashioned way committed to emotional expression. Farber was also, contra Greenberg, completely open to popular graphic art, including comic strips.

By the time he came to movies, Farber was able to focus more acutely on visual detail than Agee did. Over a few years of reviewing for The New Republic (1942-1946), he moved toward vivid evocations of space in cinema. Yet these, I argued in the fifth entry, didn’t reflect the ideology of modernist painting. Farber agreed with Ferguson that Hollywood was committed to smooth storytelling. He thus believed that film was an appropriate home for the “illusionism” and “illustration” that the Greenberg school condemned in modern art.

It was only later that Farber saw Hollywood as converging with modern painting, and he found that trend objectionable. He wrote in 1950:

Directors, by flattening the screen, discarding framing and centered action, and looming the importance of actors—have made the movie come out and hit the audience with almost personal savagery.

Shadow-boxing with Agee, Farber objected to John Huston’s crowded, self-consciously composed frames. Throughout this period, Farber adhered to Ferguson’s aesthetic of crisp, lean storytelling that didn’t call attention to itself.

Parker Tyler didn’t worry about storytelling, smooth or otherwise. Instead, in the Surrealist tradition of “irrational enlargement” of moments in the films he saw, his books The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947) looked for crevices in the polished surface of Hollywood narration. Chopping plots to bits, he sought mythic and Freudian reverberations in the most mundane pictures. And as a gay man he had no hesitation about twisting and spindling the gender implications of everything he saw.

Serious thinkers called Hollywood a dream factory, but Tyler went farther; he re-dreamed what was on the screen. He celebrated the “baroque energy and protean symbolism” of stars (really charade performers), stories (with their evocative imagery and conventional closure), and special effects (harking back to primitive magic). My previous entry tried to show how, in finding scandalous entertainment value in Hollywood, he was driven to scrutinize the films with a sensitivity parallel to that on display in Agee and Farber. Working at book length, he could develop his claims more fully than a reviewer could, on a scale appropriate to the Hollywood Hallucination itself. At the same time, the dandyish sprezzatura of his critical performance made him no less a conjuror with the English language than were his contemporaries.

 

The making of celebrity criticism

At Land (Deren, 1944).

I wish I knew more about how these three critics, all based in New York, got on with each other. Farber and Agee were friends, but did they go to movies together? Did they meet at MoMA screenings? Both reviewed Maya Deren’s 1946 screenings of her films in Greenwich Village. Very likely Tyler attended those as well, as he performed as an actor in At Land and Ritual in Transfigured Time.

Mostly we have to rely on the published record. Farber at this period never mentioned his counterparts, though in later decades he had plenty to say about Agee. Tyler, similarly, ignored the others until in 1971 he called Agee America’s greatest film fan. In 1946 Farber wrote an insulting review of Deren’s work, which may explain why Tyler ignored him ever after.

Agee was more generous. He mentioned Farber occasionally, and sometimes he carved out a Farberian sentence: “[Stage Door Canteen] is a nice harmless picture for the whole family; and it is a gold mine for those who are willing to go to it in the wrong spirit.” (Paraprosdokian again.) Agee also refers directly to Tyler when speaking of Deren’s film lyrics. In the year that Tyler postulated Hollywood’s starlets as somnambules, Agee seems to have picked up the cue, speaking of his beloved Elizabeth Taylor as having “a natural-born sleepwalking sort of guile.”

In the short run, Agee had the most influence, but it came posthumously. His reviews had a specialist following in the 1940s, but he ceased writing them in 1950, and for the rest of his life he concentrated on screenwriting and a novel. He died from a heart attack in 1955. After A Death in the Family won the Pulitzer Prize, the 1958 publication of Agee on Film prepared the way for a stream of review collections.

During the 1940s two of the major British reviewers, James Agate and C. A. Lejeune, had gathered their movie journalism in book form, and even in the US, critics-at-large like Mark Van Doren and John Mason Brown had bundled their film reviews with their literary essays. But Agee was, as James Naremore has pointed out, the most famous American literary figure to review movies at the period. The anthology of his articles not only enhanced his standing but gave film journalism a new stature. Mass-market periodicals, political magazines, and even literary quarterlies (the Reviews Kenyon, Sewanee, Southern, Hudson, et al.) decided they needed movie coverage, and a new generation of writers came forward.

It took a little while for publishers to sense that a market was there, but in the 1960s anthologies formed a solid genre. Between 1960 and 1973, I count over twenty collections of reviews by Hollis Alpert, John Simon, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Raymond Durgnat, Judith Crist, Renata Adler, Dwight Macdonald, Andrew Sarris, Herman G. Weinberg, Graham Greene, Richard Schickel, William S. Pechter, Rex Reed, and Vernon Young. That doesn’t include the mixed cinema-and-literature bundles by Susan Sontag, Penelope Gilliatt, Wilfred Sheed, and others. Doubtless the output was boosted by Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies (1965), which became something of a best-seller. Drowsing over TCM revivals, some geezers still look back longingly at this era, “when cinema was worth fighting about.”

Tyler and Farber were in a position to benefit from the anthology genre. Both had continued writing about film and other things. After leaving The New Republic, and while still writing art criticism, Farber reviewed films for The Nation (1949-1954), Cavalier (1966) and Artforum (1967-1971). He wrote long-form essays for venues as varied as Commentary, Commonweal, and Film Culture. From these later pieces came nearly everything that he included in Negative Space (1971), the anthology that introduced him to the auteurist generation. “The Gimp,” “Hard-Sell Cinema,” and “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art,” along with other long-form pieces on Hawks, Walsh, and Preston Sturges, came to define the Farberian ethos and aesthetic.

Tyler too wrote on other subjects, notably avant-garde literature and painting. Always the practical free-lancer, he could turn out copy to order. He produced slim but informed monographs on French painters for a series at Doubleday. The picture book Classics of the Foreign Film (1962) was in tune with America’s emerging interest in French, Italian, and Swedish imports, and it inspired many a Baby Boomer cinephile. Yet Tyler could pursue rarefied interests no less copiously: a biography of poet Florine Stettheimer (1963), a study of heroes in literature (Every Artist His Own Scandal, 1964), a monumental, gossipy life of Pavel Tchelitchew (1969).

He was quick off the mark with his own essay collections. Only two years after Agee’s anthology, Tyler put out The Three Faces of the Film (1960). He updated it in 1967 and followed with Sex Psyche Etcetera in the Film (1969). The long out-of-print Hollywood Hallucination and Magic and Myth of the Movies were reissued in 1970. In 1971 Tyler added to the British edition of Magic and Myth a long introduction that staked his claim as the originator of dream-oriented film interpretation.

After writing, with Patricia Patterson, essays on avant-garde cinema and New German Film, Farber ceased writing in 1977 to devote himself wholly to teaching and painting. Some of his paintings bear a close relation to his film criticism. Tyler too continued as a creator, writing surrealistic poetry, but he didn’t let go of cinema. He stirred up avant-garde ire with Underground Film: A Critical History (1969) and proposed a curious account of cinema’s poetic powers in The Shadow of an Airplane Climbs the Empire State Building: A World Theory of Film (1972). At the same time, as sexual mores were changing, he wrote frankly and amusingly about all varieties of eroticism in Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (1973) and followed it up with A Pictorial History of Sex in Films (1974). This last book displays some of the most lubricious photo pairings and captions you’ll ever see.

 

The pad as playpen

Reflections on Black (Brakhage, 1955).

The two men’s later work intertwined in fascinating ways. Tyler’s style became simpler but more loquacious, even pedantic. (“Perhaps in passing a definition of the aesthetic content of the term tact may be given.”) Farber’s writing became more impacted and hermetic, jammed with adjectives and bursting with pinwheel associations that force you to either pause or skip on. Ozu’s “rigidly formalized, quaint homeliness,” he says, is “a blend of Calvin Coolidge, Blondie, and Mies’s neo-plastic esthetic.” I see the Mies, and sort of see the Blondie (but is it the mundane domestic crises, the wisdom of woman, the locked-down camera positions?), but on the Cool Cal reference I give up.

The most intriguing comparisons between Tyler and Farber, though, aren’t stylistic. Each man devoted more attention to European cinema and the avant-garde, and in ways that echo their 1940s concerns.

The renaissance of the foreign film in the US after World War II seized Tyler’s attention, though in a typically contrarian way. In a 1950 essay he objected to the “cheap melodrama” of Open City and the “mere surface naturalism” of Bicycle Thieves. Instead, and long before it became a critics’ darling, he picked out Rules of the Game as a brilliant work, at once social satire and tragicomic morality tale. He also found Cocteau’s Les Parents terribles an ingenious reworking of the Oedipus myth, one that exploited “a poetry of the deposed and vengeful matriarchic spirit.”

In the years that followed, Tyler would construct a European counter-tradition to Hollywood. It’s seen in its most schematic form in Classics of the Foreign Film. The table of contents seems to be cycling through the 1960 film-buff canon, from the MoMA classics (Caligari, Last Laugh, Potemkin, Metropolis, Jeanne d’Arc) to the postwar imports (the Neorealists, Rashomon, Ugetsu, Hiroshima, mon amour, Wild Strawberries, L’Avventura, La Dolce Vita). But Tyler sifts through the Greatest Hits for imaginative and poetic resonances, not realism or, at the other extreme, the “free-form ambiguities” of Last Year at Marienbad and Jules and Jim.

He retrofits official classics to his interpretive tastes. In Throne of Blood he finds primitive magic; Maedchen in Uniform is “a chaste ode to sexuality.” The book revises his 1950 views of the Neorealists, but on his own terms. What’s valuable in Bicycle Thieves is not its realism but its function as “a lucid moral fable”; it even bears the ancient stamp of “an initiation rite.” Even the most naturalistic work may harbor form, artifice, and poetic evocation, and it is these that make something a Tylerian classic.

In the early 1970s, he revisited current European cinema, along with contemporary Hollywood, and found defiantly unchaste odes to sexuality. His books on sex and gender onscreen return to the polymorphically perverse themes that he found in 1940s Hollywood. He continued to read against the grain, so that The Great Escape and Husbands become “homosexual mystery stories” and The Damned becomes a gay charade. Yet now filmmakers, as if they had read Tyler’s first books, were flaunting scandalous desires. With a jaundiced delight he surveyed the vicissitudes of the erotic instinct in Senso, I Am Curious (Yellow), The Last House on the Left, and scores of other films, high, low, and very low. The Pictorial History of Sex in Films suggests an aging connoisseur of erotica proudly opening his filing system and exhuming some prize images while offering outrageous commentary. (“Taped down or strapped down, when your transsexualized doctor has dildo rape in mind, you’re in for it.”) The book, in short, is a scream.

Ironically, the Freudian dimensions Tyler discerned behind the Hollywood charade were being paraded not only in mainstream commercial production but in the Underground. Making a piquant subtext overt was liberating for Hollywood, which was perhaps too repressed for its audience’s good, but it steered the avant-garde toward self-indulgence and frivolity. The 1950 article defending Rules of the Game praised the experimental films screened at Cinema 16, but he issued a warning.

The danger of the experimental cult is formlessness and lack of a wide artistic culture. It needs discipline and more intellectual power.

Tyler thought that 1960s filmmakers ignored his warnings. Underground Film: A Critical History examines the emergence of Warhol, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Michael Snow and others in relation to the “classic” avant-garde. Tyler’s book is not a complete demolition—his list of “the central canon of avant-garde into Underground” includes many 1960s classics, from Harlot to Star-Spangled to Death—but it does plead for artistic standards, sophistication, and “firmness of outline.” Underground films , he argued, achieved their distinctive shapelessness by prolonged, free-form improvisation, usually in some loft. Thus was born the “pad film,” a playground for the infantile exhibitionism of early Warhol and the “boredom unlimited” of Wavelength.

Worse, all the narcissism, erotic symbolism, and camp lurking in the crevices of 1940s studio films took center stage in Underground films. “The slant on which I had first concentrated was now taking hold with people who made films rather than with people who looked at them.” Joe Dallesandro and Jack Smith, Taylor Mead and Paul America, Edie Sedgewick and other purported Superstars were in their druggy haze mocking the gods and goddesses of the classic years. In this negation, Tyler believed, the filmmakers were abandoning their responsibility to their tradition, and to history as a whole.

By the time he died in 1974, aged seventy, he had shaped that history. Many of the motifs he wrote about in Hollywood films became tropes of the American avant-garde. The somnambule, the vacant, succulent man or woman who drifted through Hollywood movies, reappears in so many 1940s films that P. Adams Sitney borrowed Tyler’s formulation to describe an entire genre of “trance films.” Similarly, it may be that Gregory Markopoulos’ exploration of classical myth and Kenneth Anger’s fascination with magic (that is, magick) owe something to Tyler’s Magic and Myth of the Movies. Perhaps Tyler was more of a conduit for ideas circulating in artistic culture than a point of origin himself, but there remain some striking affinities between the 1940s-1950s American avant-garde and Hollywood. Is Brakhage’s Reflections on Black not a sort of film noir?

 

Double spaced

Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, 2004. Photo by Gabe Klinger.

Manny Farber remained largely uncaptivated by the postwar foreign-language influx. He praised a portmanteau release of three Pagnol, Renoir, and Rossellini shorts (Ways of Love, 1950), but he had no sympathy for Miracle in Milan (“moronically oversimplified”) or Rashomon (“slow, complacent, Louvre-conscious, waiting-for-prizes”). Tyler’s favorites, The Rules of the Game and Les Parents Terribles, go unreviewed by Farber, along with releases by Fellini, Visconti, Mizoguchi, Clair, Carné, and many others diligently covered by his contemporaries. The reason is, as usual, taste.

The worst Hollywood B has more cinematic adrenaline than most English or French movies, and no one is more eclectic than the English director Olivier, reactionary than the Frenchman Pagnol, victimized by easy sensibility than the Italians De Sica and Rossellini.

Farber’s distaste continued into his early and mid-1960s pieces. Godard offered “complex boredom,” Fellini treated bit players as “wasteful clutter,” Red Desert was “a silly film.” The 1967 New York Film Festival offered him a bleak buffet of new European entertainment characterized by “the character who is no deeper, no more developed, prepared, explained than the people in fashion advertisements.”

But soon Farber discovered Warhol and Michael Snow. The Underground films that Tyler found shallow and narcissistic seemed to Farber, in 1968, adventurous. Warhol, surprisingly, earned Farber’s prize adjective: his close-ups were “virile.” Thereafter Farber found Wavelength “a pure, tough forty-five minutes” and Joyce Wieland’s films reminded him of Manet and Caravaggio.

Farber’s interest in the avant-garde, coinciding with his new assignment as film critic for Artforum (1967-1972), seems to have led him to reappraise recent Europeans. Soon, with Patricia Patterson, he was writing career appreciations of Godard, Buñuel, and Fassbinder (whom he considered akin to Warhol). Later, the two would champion Herzog, Duras, and Straub as well. He planned, but didn’t complete, a book on the new Munich filmmakers.

What joined the worthwhile Europeans to the American experimentalists was a concern with fresh articulations of space. Farber’s critical calling card became his claim that a self-conscious sense of space, in both literal and metaphorical senses, was a defining feature of contemporary cinema.

By the end of the 1940s, Farber asserted, Hollywood’s concern for intricate visuals had begun to overtake narrative clarity and expressiveness. This was one thrust of his critique of Huston, Stevens, Kazan and other Gimp/White Elephant stylists. Now an image with “more grip per square inch than ever before” was ruling both Hollywood and alternative cinemas. In The Graduate, Persona, Red Desert (below), and other films, “the design play becomes as important as the story theme. As seldom happened in pre-1960s naturalism, the movie is constantly drumming a pattern in which dominant and subordinate are contested.”

Against this trend Farber sets filmmakers who define a particular space for each project. Chabrol finds a “measured flow” for La Femme infidèle, while Touch of Evil presents an allegorical space of disorientation and grotesquerie. Fassbinder uses “flat, boldly simple formats. . . Fassbinder’s intense shadowless image is not like anyone else’s.” Most exemplary is Godard’s career, “a movie-by-movie exploration of one image or another.”

In a curious way, Farber’s concern with framed space crops up at the same time that Tyler criticized the passive Underground camera for ignoring the potential for editing to create new forms of space (and time). But Farber grants that a film’s space includes more than the field of view on the screen. It encompasses the actor’s performance (“psychological space”) and “the area of experience and geography that the film covers.” As for negative space, he redefines that 1940s concept as a sort of synthesis of what the filmmaker supplies and what the spectator adds. I take this as a metaphorical parallel to the solid masses and tacit relationships that the term summoned up for Hans Hofmann and his acolytes.

Another twist: While Tyler was publishing a great deal on post-Impressionist painting, Farber gave up art criticism for art practice, but focused his art-historical sensibility upon films. Scattered through the late essays are dozens of references to painters both classic and modern, something we almost never find in his 1940s film writing. It’s as if Hollywood’s expressive naturalism made it proudly distinct from other visual arts. Now, with filmmakers fretting over the look of each shot, Farber characterizes both weak and strong directors by analogies with Rothko, Johns, Vermeer, and other masters of plastic values.

For Farber, then, the dynamic interplay of painting style and cinematic style had altered since the 1940s. Yet the war and the postwar era remained Farber’s point of departure, even for reviews of recent releases. The Wild Bunch yields “a virile ribbon image”; Kaspar Hauser reminds him of Sturges; one moment in Taxi Driver echoes Odds Against Tomorrow, and another turns Travis into Cary Grant. Like Farber’s references to old comic strips, these create a constant dialogue between Old Hollywood and contemporary cinema.

Farber stayed in touch with the 1940s in another way. Before he ceased writing in 1977, he and Patterson signed tributes to Hawks, Walsh, Siegel, and Fuller that blended his Gimp-and-Termite arguments with the new sense of directors as impresarios of space. In a way, these essays show the writers joining the auteurist debates of the period. At the same time, these pieces tie the directors to artistic traditions outside movies: Walsh and Brueghel, Siegel and Robert Frank.

 

Reckoning

The Human Comedy (Brown, 1943).

The classic avant-garde versus that of the Underground; the postwar foreign imports versus the New Eurocinemas of the late 1960s, These realignments gave Tyler and Farber fresh prominence. By focusing on their beginnings I may have given short shrift to their later, greater fame. But there’s also a value, I think, in seeing that their “mature” positions, as people tend to remember them, have sources in the earlier years.

In those years they helped forge a sense of an aesthetic of the American film. The reach of their imaginations and the sheer dazzle of their prose made a case, against all the skeptics who disdained Hollywood as a factory of mass delusion, that something deeply artful was at the base of studio cinema.

They deplored much of what they saw as routine and shabby. But they also found, where no one else had noticed, poignant expression (Agee), unassuming pictorial intelligence (Farber), and cracks opening onto myth, black magic, and sexual fantasy (Tyler). They raised our awareness of conventions, not in a crudely demystifying way, but by treating them as enabling depth, vigor, and impact. In a tradition that always swung between artifice and realism, Hollywood filmmakers found new methods of artifice and new approaches to realism, and our critics responded in sympathy.

These writers activate so many aspects of the classics, and they draw our attention to striking films now largely forgotten, that I’m surprised that they didn’t flag things that pop out for us. They mostly missed the stylistic revolution of deep focus, the long take, and camera movement. They missed what seem to us obsessive plot patterns—the man on the run, the woman entrapped, the way homicide smashes domesticity, the doubts and guilts that assail the protagonists of war pictures, home-front pictures, even neurotic comedies. They never heard of that academic standby The Crisis of Masculinity, and they didn’t notice the way postwar drama thrusts women back into the kitchen. Tyler is sublimely indifferent to directors altogether (except Welles and avant-gardists), while Agee and Farber largely neglect Preminger, Mann, Siodmak, Sirk, Fuller, Minnelli, and Ophuls.

You can argue that they also missed the soft side of Hollywood. Agee can spare a tremor of sentiment, and Tyler can respect even the saccharine religiosity of Song of Bernadette; but Farber, the director most suited to our tastes today, usually presents himself as the toughest guy in the back room. Before The Human Comedy (1943), a nearly plotless, no-villains slice of small-town life, he is a hanging judge. He doesn’t mention that it’s narrated by a dead man, a trick that arrests our attention in a post-Sunset Boulevard world. He ignores the film’s direct appeal to the home front: the action centers on a telegraph office through which most war news comes, and that news is mostly about boys who won’t be coming back. Farber finds, with some justice, that MGM’s marmalade treatment smothers Saroyan’s fantasy and eccentricity.

Agee seems to have registered the appeals of the thing more acutely. Writing in The Nation, he labels Saroyan a “schmalz-artist,” but that’s a characteristically mixed call, praising his sweet nature while objecting to his mawkishness. Knowing that the intelligentsia will despise The Human Comedy, the contrarian Agee musters some support for it, savoring the soft clink of horseshoes at dusk. Meanwhile, his anonymous Time review goes all the way unchecked: “The Saroyan touch leaves nothing ordinary; the film is electric with the joy of life.” You have to wonder whether the pathos of boys growing up without their father, and the naïvete of boys who can’t read wandering in awe through the town library, got close to Agee’s own memories.

The Hollywood Reporter called The Human Comedy “the best picture this reviewer has ever seen,” and Variety declared, “This is one of the screen’s immortals.” I’m not trying to echo that praise, although the film seems to me reasonably good, even somewhat daring. It’s just that it’s unashamedly sentimental, and sophisticated cinephiles have to make a special effort to enjoy it. Ten minutes into it, you get a lump in your throat, and you may feel like a sucker. It hits us below the belt again and again, and this is part of Hollywood too.

Farber taught us to admire the tough, cynical side of the forties. Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon don’t plead for tears. But we may have learned the lesson too well. If today more people enjoy Hawks than Ford, or Walsh than Clarence Brown, or His Girl Friday than The Shop around the Corner, that’s partly because our tastes favor hard-boiled aggression (look at our current pantheon, from Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson) over modest virtue (Wreck-It Ralph, We Bought a Zoo). Agee and Tyler were better attuned to the tender side of Hollywood movies .

I’ve also considered these three critics as providing worthwhile efforts at cinematic “close reading.” Since I’ve been promoting that angle for many years, I know it looks like special pleading to trace it back to the 1940s. In my defense, I’d add that at the same time, analysis showed up even more vigorously in Paris. André Bazin and his cohort, kept from Hollywood releases for many years, were flooded by the pent-up stock of American movies. Primed by what they’d read, and gifted with exceptional intelligence, they noticed the new Hollywood stylistics of long take, deep space, and narrative complexity.

There is nothing in American film criticism of the time to match the understanding of narrational principles we find in Claude-Edmonde Magny’s Age of the American Novel: The Film Aesthetic of Fiction between the Two Wars (1948), or the stylistic subtlety of Pierre Bailly’s meditation on the values of the lengthy, static shot in Welles and Hitchcock. French critics discovered that what Yanks called melodramas could be considered in the Gallic tradition of film noir. While Tyler was psychoanalyzing Chaplin, and while Agee and Farber were quarreling about Huston, Bazin was writing analyses of Welles and Wyler that were unprecedented in their depth and precision. Christophe Gauthier notes that France’s ciné-clubs held many prints, in both 16mm and 35mm. As a result, Bazin, Rohmer, and their comrades could re-watch the films and study them to a degree that the Americans couldn’t.

A good portion of what we take for granted about Hollywood artistry of the 1940s stems from French cinephiles who considered scrutinizing films to be as natural as explicating literary texts. Perhaps my Americans would, under more favorable conditions, have done the same. After all, Ferguson was keen to watch scenes being shot, and Agee wrote absurdly detailed screenplays. Tyler acted in films and lived for decades with filmmaker Charles Boultenhouse. When Farber began teaching at UC San Diego, he tickled the analytical projector like a needle-dropping DJ.

 

The other risk I’ve run is attributing too much to critics, here or elsewhere. If there hadn’t been films that pushed the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, even the cleverest reviewers couldn’t have written so fruitfully. Without Sturges and Welles, Huston and Wyler, Hitchcock and Wilder, Wellman and Walsh, Lang and Preminger, Mankiewicz and Val Lewton; without perversities like The Portrait of Dorian Gray and Salome Where She Danced and Turnabout; without ambitious pictures like Citizen Kane and The Story of GI Joe alongside dozens of sturdy programmers, the Rhapsodes would have had little to work with. The cascade of overpowering, exuberant, piercing, and crazy films of the 1940s surely pushed them to go all out. Great criticism can flourish, it seems, when there is great cinema.


Thanks, as ever, to Kent Jones and Jim Naremore for information and feedback. I’m grateful to Judith Noble for information about Tyler’s relation to Maya Deren. Thanks as well to Christophe Gauthier for information about screenings at postwar French ciné-clubs, and to Kelley Conway for acting as liaison. Finally, thanks to Gabe Klinger for the photo of Farber and Patterson above.

Apart from Tyler’s books, these collections have been my principal sources for the critics I’ve considered: The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, ed. Robert Wilson (Temple University Press, 1971); James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism, ed. Michael Sragow (Library of America, 2005); and Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, ed. Robert Polito (Library of America, 2009). Agee’s review of The Human Comedy is in Time (22 March 1943), 54.

My characterization of critical commonplaces about Hollywood is drawn from a variety of sources. Some of them may be found in the writings of Gilbert Seldes, whom I’ve discussed elsewhere. Others emerge in writers who became prominent somewhat after my Rhapsodes. See Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (Atheneum, 1962) and Vernon Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (Quadrangle, 1972) and The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, ed. Bert Cardullo (University Press of America, 1990).

No less interesting, but impossible to cover here, are the British reviewers. C. A. Lejeune and the somewhat younger Dilys Powell wrote shrewd, unsnobbish pieces about 1940s cinema that are still worth reading. See Lejeune, Chestnuts in Her Lap, 1936-1946 (London: Phoenix House, 1947) and The C. A. Lejeune Film Reader, ed. Anthony Lejeune (London: Carcanet, 1991); and The Golden Screen: Dilys Powell—Fifty Years at the Films, ed. George Perry (London: Headline, 1990) and The Dilys Powell Film Reader, ed. Christopher Cook (London: Carcanet, 1991).

The breeziness of the English style can be disarming; Powell admits that she was late for the press screening of Citizen Kane and missed the opening line, so the rest of the movie was fairly opaque to her. Their cozy pieces make a sharp contrast with the harder-edged American critics I’ve discussed.

The other major specimen of BritCrit of the period, notable then but largely forgotten, is James Agate. Agate was a bluff theatre critic and memoirist who took pride in knowing nothing about cinema, an admission as charming as it was accurate. Reviewing for the fashion and gossip mag The Tatler, Agate filled column inches with chitchat, smoking-room mockery, and anecdotes radiating self-regard. He liked walking out of films partway through and revealing surprise endings. (He referred to Kane’s boyhood sled frequently.) The reviews collected in Around Cinemas (two series, Home and Van Thal, 1946, 1948) remind me of Nabokov’s line, “Nothing is more exhilarating than Philistine vulgarity.”

There were more specialized and serious film writers at the period in Britain, notably at Sequence (1946-1952), but that journal deserves discussion on its own. Somewhat parallel was French criticism of the period, which is surveyed in Antoine de Baecque’s La Cinéphilie: Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture 1944-1968 (Paris: Fayard, 2003).

Farber’s painting career is covered in two catalogues: Manny Farber (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985) and Manny Farber: About Face (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003). Both include biographical information, and several essays in each volume discuss the relation of Farber’s painting to his film criticism. Cahiers du cinéma published an extensive interview with Farber on the same topics, in special number 334-335 (April 1982), 54-65, 130. See also Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1983 essay “Thinking About (Personal) History Lessons: The Movie Paintings of Manny Farber,” Rouge (2008) and “They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber,” on Jonathan’s site.

Tyler’s early ideas about European imports and the American avant-garde are drawn from “Movie Letter: Lament for the Audience—and a Mild Bravo,” Kenyon Review 12, 4 (Autumn 1950): 689-696. Thanks to the Net, you can listen to a precious recording of a 1953 panel discussion on “Poetry and the Film,” which brought together Tyler, Deren, and others, including a boorish Dylan Thomas, at Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. A transcript is on Paul Cronin’s site The Sticking Place.

Agee reviewed a 1946 program of Maya Deren’s films, and she replied with a letter to The Nation. As I indicated in an earlier installment, Farber reviewed the same program and called the films “lesbianish” and “pansyish.” Deren was, rightly, angered, and asked the editors of The New Republic to publish her reply. After several go-rounds, they agreed and her scathing letter to the editor appeared in the issue of 16 November 1946. See The Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works Vol. I, Part Two, “Chambers: (1942-1947), ed. Catrina Neiman (New York: Anthology Film Archive, 1988), 382-385, 410-417.

Farber took another dig a few years later, when he noted that the bandit’s sword in Rashomon “somehow rises (Maya Deren-fashion) as if it had just had a big meal of sex hormones” (Farber on Film, 377). In 1956, Deren talked back to Farber’s essay, “The Gimp”: “Mr. Farber is not writing a criticism of Citizen Kane. He is having a tantrum.” See Maya Deren, “The Village Voice Pieces,” Film Culture no. 39 (Winter 1965), 46-49.

The Bazin essays I’m alluding to are “La technique du Citizen Kane,” Les temps modernes 2, no. 17 (1947), 943-949; “William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing,” Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties, ed. Bert Cardullo (Routledge, 1997; orig. 1948), 1-22; and Orson Welles: A Critical View, trans. Jonathan Rosenbaum (Harper and Row, 1978; orig. 1950). The Pierre Bailly essay, “Avis aux usagers du plan fixe,” is in Gazette du cinéma no. 4 (October 1950), 7. For more on French stylistic analysis of the period, see the third chapter of my On the History of Film Style.

The vertical illustration of Tyler and the bust comes from Three Film Portraits by Charles Boultenhouse.

From Parker Tyler, A Pictorial History of Sex in Films (1974).

You can go home again, and maybe find an old movie

 

Schine’s Elmwood Theatre, Penn Yan, New York, late 1954-early 1955. Photo courtesy Yates County History Center.

DB here:

Nowadays when a theatre closes or goes digital, it says farewell by screening The Last Picture Show. That hadn’t yet become a tradition when the Elmwood Theatre of Penn Yan, New York presented Bogdanovich’s movie on its final day in November 1972.

Six people showed up.

The Elmwood had been going downhill for years. “I think the theatre building is an eyesore,” declared the chairman of the town’s Urban Renewal Agency. Once part of the powerful Schine circuit, the theatre had been acquired in the mid-1960s by the Rochester-based Panther chain, later renamed Countrywide. That firm seems to have specialized in low-budget genres and X-rated fare. In Penn Yan, the UR officer declared, most of the Elmwood’s programs were rated “restricted,” adding: “Yet it is claimed by some that it is a recreational facility for our children.” Disney films were screened at the Elmwood during those years, but local moviegoer Robert Brainard noted: “They were getting all the junk and nobody was going, not even the kids.”

When the theatre was finally closed, it stood vacant. Vandals broke the windows, and pigeons roosted inside. It had come a long way from the 1940s.

     

In 1974, two businessmen paid $11,000 for the building and turned it into a racquet club. That business operated for some years, but in 2003 the entire structure was demolished and a new village hall was built on the site.

     

By then a small three-screen mall cinema had set up business elsewhere in town. I report on a visit here.

In January, I was back in Penn Yan and naturally I sniffed around. Thanks to John H. Potter and Lisa M. Harper of the Yates County History Center, and my sisters Diane and Darlene, I came away with some precious information about the theatre I attended for the first eighteen years of my life.

I also came away with an extremely rare film.

 

Broadway Melodies and Cherry Blossom Queens

Captain Harry Morse ran steamboat trips on Lake Keuka. He was a legendary figure. Some said that as a boy he had caught a lake trout on his nose. (I know: How could you do that? Supposedly he bent over the side of a boat and a trout leaped up and glommed on.) More prosaically, Morse invested in Penn Yan movie houses, and in 1920 he bought the Shearman House Hotel, a popular stopover for visiting vaudevillians. Morse turned the Shearman House into a theatre.

The Elmwood Theatre opened in 1921. It held at least 700 people. That’s pretty big for a town of 4500 people, but as the county seat and a business center, Penn Yan brought in farm families. Many shows were accompanied by printed programs listing coming attractions and carrying advertisements for local businesses. This one, for Song of Love, is from 1923.

Admission was typically 11 cents for matinees and 17 cents for evenings. “Specials” like Chaplin’s The Kid boosted ticket prices to 17 and 28 cents. In 1936 the Schine chain acquired the house.

The Elmwood benefited from the projection expertise of Nathaniel P. “Nat” Sackett. Nat had begun his film career in 1908 at another local movie house, vocalizing with the song slides shown between reels. He became a projectionist before joining the Elmwood in 1923. He stayed on for several decades. According to Nat, The Broadway Melody was the first sound film the Elmwood played. During World War II, he worried that too many theatres were running triple features. If the fad continued, production couldn’t keep up. For Penn Yan, one feature was good enough—especially if it was something like How Green Was My Valley or Captains of the Clouds.

A small-town movie house often became a community center. Elmwood patrons remember talent shows and holiday parties, with gifts and contests before the screenings. In 1940 a housewife attending I Love You Again could join an hour-long cooking class (with prizes) just before the show. Young women would be named Apple Blossom Queen or Cherry Blossom Queen. Halloween screenings included costume contests and of course sudden blackouts and scary sound effects. During the war, with no television or Internet, people flocked to the theatre for newsreels. Customers were steered in and out by ushers; the Elmwood employed them well into the 1950s.

“Today,” remembered Nancy Gillette, “most people cannot imagine a theatre as large as the Elmwood, which included a large balcony, being full most of the time.” By the 1930s, admission prices had come down a bit for children. Ten cents admitted Nancy to the Saturday marathon matinees: “Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Charlie Chan, the newsreel and one or two cartoons—WOW!” Lines of kids stretched down the block. In the 1950s, Diane and I were among them, watching the same cowboy heroes, along with Tarzan and Martin and Lewis.

Romances and marriages were forged at the Elmwood. In 1933, a young man taking tickets let a young woman slip out to retrieve the keys she left in her car. Over the next few days he began to drive by her house. Her cousin knew the young man and said, “Margaret, I am taking you out when Sam comes along, and I’ll stop his car and introduce you to him.” After two years of dating, Margaret and Sam married and eventually had three children. The Elmwood manager gave Sam’s mother and Margaret free passes.

Local kids like Sam found good work at the theatre. Being an usher got you free movies and a chance to flirt with the concession girls and those who came “solo.” After movies there was pizza at the Den below the theatre. But among the ushers’ tasks was the very onerous one of changing the marquee. Jerry Nissen remembered:

First you had to do layout on paper what the marquee was to say. Then, working from the last letter in the last row, fill a heavy wooden box until you get to the first letter of the first row. The solid metal letters were stored in the basement and you hauled them up to the street. Now imagine, if you will, climbing a rickety old step ladder in the rain or snow and taking down the old message and then letter by letter placing the new message on the two-sided marquee. Brrrr, it used to get very cold. Also on occasion we were the targets of some nice vocal comments and snowballs coming from the T & C Tavern across the street.

 

DIY movies, 1915

Wheat and Tares (Penn Yan Film Corporation, 1915).

Penn Yan had theatres before the Elmwood went up. In the ‘00s and ‘10s Nat Sackett sang at Theatorum and another theatre, both owned by the Wickham brothers. For a time Nat took over ownership of them. Before Captain Morse built the Elmwood, he was showing movies at the old Sampson legitimate theatre, as well as in the Cornwell, located above a department store. The town apparently had four screens in 1911.

With so many films playing within a couple of blocks, it’s perhaps not surprising that a local businessman decided to make one of his own.

Edward R. Ramsey owned a local paper mill and a factory that manufactured electrical cable. The story goes that when Ramsey observed that Hollywood, California was buying a great deal of his cable, he decided to try moviemaking. Ramsey sold his cable plant and started the Penn Yan Film Corporation.

After making some shorts, Ramsey tied his first feature production to a fund-raising effort by Keuka College. The college’s aim was to provide advanced education to rural students who couldn’t to go to a big university. Ramsey’s film would demonstrate the virtues of going to college. All the talent was local, including the cameraman, who was Ramsey’s brother. From outside, Broadway actor  and occasional film director George E. LeSoir was recruited to direct the show.

Shot in the summer of 1915, Wheat and Tares traces the story of two young men. Both Jim Watson and Will Beggs read dime novels, but Jim is encouraged by Alice Corwin, daughter of a Penn Yan businessman, to improve himself. Uplifted by literature, Jim leaves the farm for Keuka College. There he learns enough to become an auto salesman. At the same time, Will (who stuck to pulp fiction) falls in with a gang of layabouts and petty crooks. Their fates converge when Jim discovers oil. A crooked realtor hires Will to put Jim out of action long enough for the site option to expire. But Alice renews the option, and Jim’s family becomes rich. Meanwhile, Will’s life of crime catches up with him, and he is sentenced to a prison road gang. Jim and Alice, now married and with a child, stop when they see Will on the road. Jim vows to help his old friend go straight.

Despite its opening-night success at the Sampson playhouse, Wheat and Tares didn’t have legs. Keuka College closed in fall 1915 and didn’t reopen until 1921. Ed Ramsey died in an auto accident in June 1916. The film may have gotten no distribution outside the region. Stored in the Ramsey home, it was discovered decades later when the house was prepared for demolition. The film was transferred to safety stock and eventually to DVD. That’s the version I have seen.

In the moralizing manner of its day, the full title, Wheat and Tares: A Story of Two Boys who Tackle Life on Diverging Lines, contrasts the life paths of its two protagonists. A tare is a form of weed that infects a field of healthy wheat. Tares in their early stages look very much like wheat, so the metaphor implies that one must wait to see if a young man will turn out well or not. (The Biblical reference is a parable by Jesus, at Matthew 13: 34-35.)

The surviving copy of Wheat and Tares  has lost its opening reel. What remains is a fairly ordinary 1915 film. The parallel stories of Jim and Will aren’t developed in tandem; we lose Will for most of the film. A great deal of the second reel is occupied with rich boys hazing Jim at college, which does teach him the manly art of self-defense, but to no special point: he doesn’t get to use his boxing skills later. Another undeveloped plot line involves a movie company filming in the vicinity.

Theme and plot don’t match very well. If you are trying to convince people that going to college will better them, why show your hero succeeding by stumbling onto an oil gusher? Jim would have been just as likely to find oil if he had stayed a sodbuster. The climax is particularly feeble: While Jim is recovering from the beating given him by Will and another thug, it’s Alice who saves the day. She does this not through extraordinary courage or sacrifice, but simply by having her father write a check that renews the option. The realtor, a very passive villain, does nothing, underhanded or otherwise, to block her maneuver.

Stylistically, you can hardly expect The Birth of a Nation, The Cheat, or Regeneration from this tiny Finger Lakes company. In most respects, the film resembles standard films of the period. Some filmmakers were exploiting the sort of crosscutting popularized by Griffith, but Ramsey and Le Soir take almost no advantage of it. There’s no fast cutting to pick up the pace. Most scenes are played in single shots, with close-ups used only to emphasize details, such as a deck of cards, that can’t be easily seen in the master framing. The closest shots of the principals occur during a phone conversation–again, a convention of the period.

     

Nor does the film exploit the sort of complicated staging we find in tableau cinema. There is one rather well-handled crowd shot, as well as a smooth track-in and-out when Will recruits a one-eyed thug to help him ambush Jim. Simple camera movements like this were by 1915 considered a fairly normal option.

There is an ambitious matte effect when Jim and his college chum Phil visit the movies, but even this fairly common device is somewhat bungled when the boys’ bodies become ghostly by crossing into the matte area.

Although Wheat and Tares exemplifies ordinary cinema of that day, like most films of the first great era of cinema it’s a pleasure to watch. Shooting on location yields spontaneous beauties. At one point Jim rides home on the trolley. In a film utterly lacking in calculated lighting effects, we get a lovely image. Not only do we see the town and wagons pass through  windows, but after Will and his partner jump aboard, accidents of backlighting turn them into sinister shapes.

Trolley shots are among the glories of 1910s cinema; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad one.

Penn Yan must have been gorgeous then, with the main streets lined with elms.

     

The trees were felled by Dutch elm disease and other factors, I’m told.

As with any film shot in surroundings that you know, part of the fun comes in spotting familiar locales. John Creamer’s introduction juxtaposes some town landmarks. Here’s the Sampson Theatre, then and now.

Two locations that my sisters discovered pop up late in the film. For a chase, the camera was set up just around the corner from Ramsey’s house.

     

Ramsey’s house was demolished to add a building and a parking lot to the local hospital, but from that vantage point, we found the source of another shot. The camera was apparently set up in front of Ramsey’s home to frame Jim and Alice and their child in their chauffeur-driven Maxwell. The sidewalk in the foreground is gone, but the background area, including the fire hydrant, has stayed surprisingly constant.

     

And whatever the faults of Wheat and Tares, watching it gives you a glimpse of the entrance to Captain Morse’s Sampson Theatre (below). In the summer of 1915, Charlie Chaplin had sauntered into my home town. The show starts on the sidewalk, as they used to say.


I’m grateful to John and Lisa of the Yates County History Center for all their suggestions, for access to their files, and for the exterior photo up top and the shot of the Elmwood interior. You can read the local newspaper’s announcement of the Wheat and Tares premiere, with a teaser synopsis, here. Thanks also, of course, to Darlene and Diane. The picture of Penn Yan’s town hall was supplied by Darlene, whose photography site is here.

A DVD copy of Wheat and Tares is available for $15 from the Yates County History Center. You can email Lisa M. Harper, ycghs at yatespastdotorg, or call (315) 536-7318. Credit cards accepted.

The indispensable guide to the theatres in this region is Norman O. Keim’s Our Movie Houses: A History of Film and Cinematic Innovation in Central New York (University of Syracuse Press, 2008). You can read about the Schine chain there, or here.

Wheat and Tares is a prime example of an orphan film. Dan Streible of NYU is a moving force behind retrieving and restoring these elusive items, and a new Orphan Film Symposium is coming up in Amsterdam.

Wheat and Tares (1915). The sign on Charlie’s crotch reads” “Meet Me at the Sampson Program.”

Agee & Co.: A Newer Criticism

 Saul Steinberg, “Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Highbrow”; Harper’s Magazine, February 1949.

 

DB here:

This entry follows on from an earlier one about 1940s film criticism. Ideally, that should be read first. Fussbudgets who want deep background should go here and here.

 

The 1940s was a golden age of American arts journalism. Apart from Edmund Wilson, who had been at it since the 1920s, poets Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, and W. H. Auden offered their thoughts on literature to a broad public, and so did the novelist Mary McCarthy. Professional critics included Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Irving Howe, and, near the end of the decade, Leslie Fiedler. Clement Greenberg reviewed art for The Nation and Harold Rosenberg did the same for Art News. Virgil Thomson wrote weekly music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune.

Securely anchored in East Coast publications, these critics put on display scathing wit and sibylline prose. Thomson wrote after a concert: “Both theatrical experience and poor eyesight are probably responsible for the Toscanini style.” Mary McCarthy skewered Cocteau’s play The Eagle has Two Heads:

Grandiloquent and lurid in the old-fashioned royalist mode, this story of a poet and a queen suggests that the attic of Cocteau’s mind was never as smart as the downstairs: a schoolgirl was there all along reading romances and trying on costumes.

This waspish, refined intelligence held the arts to high standards. Apart from Barzun’s open admiration for detective stories (but not those brutish tough-guy ones), almost nobody paid attention to mass culture. Indeed, most intellectuals were agreed that it was dangerous.

This wing of the New York intellectuals–made of gays, Greenwich Village Bohemians, immigrant-family Irish and Jews denied access to Ivy League colleges, left-leaning traitors to the upper class–was firmly on the side of modernism and against everything that made the Old Guard, the WASPS with three names like Van Wyck Brooks and Mark Van Doren, nervous. But they still had enough of the genteel tradition in them to treat great art with a stiff solemnity. The byword of Partisan Review, the principal platform of the artistic left, was Seriousness.

Enter James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. They wrote criticism with a zany gusto that nobody else imagined possible. They didn’t telegraph their punchlines; sometimes you couldn’t be sure that there was a punchline, and sometimes there seemed to be too many. As for popular culture: They seemed, with reservations, to like it a lot. They liked being unSerious, which only lent greater oomph to the moments when gravity was demanded.

 

Neither dead nor red

Stalin at the 18th Party Congress (1939) by Sergei Gerasmov.

In spite of all these defects you feel in the Soviet Union that you are at the moral top of the world where the light really never goes out.

Edmund Wilson, 1935

 In the 1940s, every intellectual was expected to answer two questions. What do you think of Communism? What do you think of popular culture?

The Depression had convinced many writers and artists that only a version of left-wing politics could overcome the crisis induced by capitalism. The rise of Fascist parties around the world intensified the fear of right-wing dictatorships. To many intellectuals the Soviet Union seemed the best alternative, especially since its apologists assured the world that it was a democracy. But Stalin’s sweeping purge of 1934-1938, highlighted by the murderous charade of the Moscow trials, made many lose faith in the USSR. Soon came the 1939 non-aggression treaty between Russia and Germany, a sign that Stalin was ready to compromise with Nazism.

But dimming faith in the USSR didn’t automatically wipe out socialist ambitions. Apart from the Communists, who followed the Moscow line, there was a daunting array of left parties: Social Democrats, Socialists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Labor Party. Fine-grained differences in doctrine led to constant quarreling. Some intellectuals adhered to one line or another, but many hopped around or simply participated casually, agreeing to donate money or attend meetings or write an article without worrying about ideological consistency.

When the US entered World War II in 1941, many intellectuals saw it as a necessary step in destroying Fascism.  Now that Russia was an American ally they often quieted their reservations about Stalin’s regime. At the war’s end, however, politicized intellectuals began to believe that history had proven them largely wrong. Business and labor had cooperated to defeat German and Japanese imperialism. Despite Marx’s predictions, capitalism had lifted the living standards of millions of people. The United States was comfortable as never before. American democracy, while imperfect, was still the best chance for mass participation in governance.

Smaller-scale reforms would always be needed, not least the recognition of equality for African Americans; and some form of democratic socialism might still be achieved. But on the whole, the American way of life seemed the best hope for the future. “The chief cultural phenomenon of the decade,” noted the poet John Berryman, “has probably been the intellectuals’ desertion of Marxism.” By 1952, Partisan Review declared that democracy was “not merely a capitalist myth but a reality which must be defended against Russian totalitarianism.”

Defending American democracy, however, didn’t include defending its popular culture.

 

Mass art as mass delusion

The Homecoming (1945) by Norman Rockwell.

There has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting or degrading qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them.

Marshall McLuhan, 1947

Today, when everybody unselfconsciously finds something to like in the entertainment industry, it’s hard to imagine the climate seventy years ago. Then there was a Serious debate about whether mass media were simply machines of social control. From Communists to anti-Communists, the intelligentsia was largely united in the belief that “mass culture” was at best a bland source of solace and at worst a cruel manipulator of the desires of an unhappy populace. Many very smart people considered Laura, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and Mickey Spillane novels the signs of a society sinking into comfortable degradation.

Already during the 1930s, left intellectuals had worried that mainstream entertainment in the US was corrupt. Not only was the working class victimized by its rulers, but it was fed junk. The most influential articulation of this view was probably Clement Greenberg’s essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. According to Greenberg, the great age of modern art, from the 1910s to the early 1930s, had showed the power of self-conscious formal experiment. Cubist painting, the novels of Joyce and Gide, the poetry of Eliot—all had challenged the audience to expand its horizons. But to this avant-garde there was counterposed a rear guard, a debased and easy art that produces “unreflective enjoyment.” Greenberg didn’t spare the Soviet Union from his complaint: Stalin’s Socialist Realism had created its own version of kitsch, in the cinema no less than in other arts.

Greenberg’s article was followed by many others, notably Dwight Macdonald’s 1943 essay “A Theory of ‘Popular Culture.’” The common complaint was that now high art was more threatened than ever before by the rising tide of kitsch. For many intellectuals, it wasn’t just that popular music, comic books, movies, and pulp romances were bad art. They were bad in a dehumanizing way, turning people into more or less mindless consumers of a collective daydream. Mass culture, as it was usually called, was a huge threat to intellectual diversity and political progress. Conseratives and newly anti-Communist liberals turned their firepower on the products of Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and the magazines and paperbacks filling the corner drugstore. For many, political criticism became cultural criticism, with a strongly moralistic tint.

The all-engulfing flood of mass media required analysis, reflection, and judgment. How best to understand it? Some writers, following Greenberg’s strategy, used arguments about the achievements of the avant-garde to lambaste mass culture. Others drew on psychoanalysis, which was becoming more prominent in American life. Soon writers were claiming that a whole society had a superego and repressed impulses, and the seething roil of a nation’s inner life was reflected in popular culture.

Social scientists began commenting as well. Anthropologists turned their observational technique on American culture, and sociologists sought to use media to understand the group dynamics of wartime and postwar society. Other academics, brandishing the tools of what was emerging as “mass communication research,” tried to sample and measure the collective delusions promoted on the radio or the movie screen. Émigrés associated with the Frankfurt School merged these strategies with large doses of post-Hegelian philosophy. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) seemed to propose that American capitalism had turned audiences into chortling morons.

 

Stuck in the middle with Middlebrow

Harper’s Magazine (August, 1967).

Several of these writers had decided by the mid-1940s that Greenberg’s straightforward opposition avant-garde/ kitsch was too broad. A four-part model seemed more adequate for describing cultural activity.

There was Folk Art, a genuine and spontaneous product of the people. Amish furniture, Appalachian folk songs, and black spirituals would be examples. Some observers included jazz and the blues as well. The Folk artists went about their business unbothered by other trends.

There was Highbrow Art, exemplified by the modernist avant-garde, past  (Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Stravinsky, Picasso, et al.) and present (perhaps best exemplified in Abstract Expressionist painting).

Then there was Lowbrow art, the anonymous products of the culture industry—radio shows, mystery and romance fiction, pop music, and most movies.

And there was something called Middlebrow Art. The term had become fairly common in the 1930s, and 1940s commentators spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what it described.

Certainly, it involved class. If High Art was consumed by the Bohemians—other artists, museum curators and concert performers, young rebels, and above all college professors and students—Middlebrow Art was aimed at the middle classes, the professional people who aspired to join the sophisticated crowd. The Middlebrows put reproductions of Renoir on their walls, Tchiakovsky symphonies on their turntables, and expensive, unread editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets on their coffee tables alongside Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly.

Most critics agreed that the Middlebrow impulse poached on other realms. There was pseudo-folk Middlebrow art like WPA murals, Carmen Jones, and “Rhapsody in Blue.” More annoyingly, Middlebrow artwork swiped ideas and techniques from High Art, then sanded off the spiky edges in order to attract an untrained audience. Dwight Macdonald invoked Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed Brechtian theatrical techniques to tell a jes’-folks tale, and The Old Man and the Sea, a simplification of Hemingway’s faux-naïve style ready-made for the Book of the Month Club. Middlebrow made crude art smooth, hard art easy.

True, the new media had disseminated the great achievements of the past more widely than ever before. Recordings and broadcasts of classical music, films about painting and theatre, radio and magazine discussions of art and literature were now part of everyday life in America. Faulkner and Joyce were available in cheap editions. But this greater accessibility didn’t guarantee understanding. According to legend, after finishing Fantasia, Disney exclaimed, “Gee, this’ll make Beethoven!” The same film turned Stravinsky’s ritual of virgin sacrifice into a battle of dinosaurs.

Nervous about falling out of style, the Middlebrow mind tried to keep up with the contemporary avant-garde. A Lowbrow magazine would simply ignore Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or (if it was Mad) satirize them. By contrast, Life’s famous 1949 profile of the artist anxiously responds to the challenge of Highbrow taste. Pollock is “a shining new phenomenon of American art” and may become “the greatest American painter of the century.” Yet there’s no attempt to explain why his work is significant. The work’s value is appraised in cash terms (one painting is worth $100 a foot) and the results are mocked, timidly. Against the critics’ praise is set the verdict of the common man. “He has also won a following among his own neighbors in the village of Springs, N.Y., who amuse themselves by trying to decide what his paintings are about. His grocer bought one which he identifies for bewildered visiting salesmen as an aerial view of Siberia.” Life has hedged its bets (he might be great) while allowing a reader to say, “Aw, hell, my kid could paint that.”

For such reasons, many intellectuals decided that while Lowbrow culture was a danger, the real foe was Middlebrow culture. The 1952 Partisan Review symposium identified the threat: “Do you think that American middlebrow culture has grown more powerful in this decade? In what relation does this middlebrow tendency stand to serious writing—does it threaten it or bolster it?” If Lowbrow culture ignores High Art, the Middlebrow betrays it.

There were obvious problems with conceiving Mass Culture as a united front of Lowbrow and Middlebrow. What about the great popular arts of earlier eras? Dickens, Poe, Tolstoy, Twain, and many others taken as High Artists today wrote for popular audiences. What in our age prevented a widely beloved play or painting or novel from being good, even great? Then there was the issue of bad faith, as Auden noted: “Whenever the word Masses is used, we must read the words ‘myself in weaker moments.’”

 

Hollywood: The worst of Low and Middle

Rainbow (1944): The Nazi invader threatens to kill Olga’s baby.

At the core of mass culture lay Hollywood movies. T. S. Eliot had already denounced “the encroachment of the cheap and rapid-breeding cinema,” and by the 1940s no American could ignore films.

They were everywhere. Although Hollywood cut back production somewhat during the war years, many shows were double features, and most theatres changed their bills twice a week. Hits were revived and recirculated. In cities energized by war work, some theatres ran twenty-four hours a day. Now that people had more money to spend, attendance hit new levels. In this age before television, 85 to 90 million Americans, about 60 % of the population, went to the movies each week. Today, it’s around 25 million per week, out of a much bigger population.

The mass media carried synergy and recycling to a new level. A novel (published in hardback, reprinted in paperback) could become a movie (promoted in magazines, with product tie-ins), then a radio show. The cult of stars grew, with popular actors constantly visible on billboards and in magazine ads. After Gone with the Wind, a bestseller like The Robe or Forever Amber stirred frantic anticipation of the movie to come. Producers bought books before publication, and studios commissioned books and plays to be written so they could be turned into movies.

What was a poor intellectual to do? Back in the 1920s the critic Gilbert Seldes had championed slapstick comedy as a mixture of Folk Art and quasi-avant-garde challenges to genteel taste. But that was before Hollywood had turned filmmaking into a factory driven by finance capital and pumping out formulaic stories. After Griffith, Chaplin, and von Stroheim—the touchstones for all intellectuals interested in film—there was little to like in the studio product. The foreign film had provided Caligari, other fine German films, and Soviet masterworks, above all Potemkin; but the rise of Nazism and Stalinism had stamped out those creative impulses. At the end of the 1930s, Dwight Macdonald had denounced Stalin’s cinema as a form of kitsch at least as sinister as Hollywood’s.

Western intellectuals had no access to production in the Axis or Axis-dominated countries, and they were hard pressed to find much to admire in current American cinema. Some tried to study the Hollywood film as a reflection of the American character or social anxieties or certain persistent myths of romance and getting rich. But with few exceptions, the product of the studios was unrewarding as art. What wasn’t Lowbrow belonged firmly to the Middle (Wilson, The White Cliffs of Dover, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives).

After the war, André Bazin and other French critics would start to forge an aesthetic of the Hollywood sound cinema, but American writers did not think so abstractly. Agee, Farber, and Tyler worked more pragmatically to search out cinematic creativity in their time. All shared a trust in the Standard Story of the evolution of film art, from Griffith through the silent masters to René Clair in the early sound era. Yet they weren’t hobbled by nostalgia; they reacted with immediacy to the cinema of their moment.

They set themselves apart from the larger debates of their age by shrewd flanking strategies. For a start, they by and large avoided declaring political allegiance. Agee once declared himself a Communist “by sympathy and temperament” but in the next breath attacked the worker-idolatry of Soviet propaganda. Farber had, according to reports, tried to sign up in the Communist Party in the 1930s, but he doesn’t seem to have joined the print polemics on any side. Tyler seems to have been non-aligned as well, although he indulged in occasional caustic asides about Hollywood’s social commitment. He noted of Meet John Doe‘s purported celebration of democracy, “At this point in planetary affairs, American democracy becomes the theoretical right to hold a job and vote every four years for a new president.”

Although Agee and Farber wrote for left-liberal publications, they often went out of their way to support films that would be considered retrograde. In a famous review, at the height of American solidarity with the Soviet defense of the homeland, Farber charged the Russian war film The Rainbow (1944) with naked cruelty. He also declared Birth of a Nation, despite its prejudices, the greatest film yet made.

Likewise, all three detoured almost completely around the Mass Culture controversy. You can find some snobbish asides about Middlebrow culture here and there (later Farber charged that Agee was a middlebrow critic), and Agee and Tyler did flirt with calling some Hollywood films folk art. Basically, though, they didn’t fight on that terrain. Agee spoke out against the “priggishness” of social scientists’ critiques of thrillers like The Big Sleep. Perhaps these movies did “mirror” society, he admitted, but denunciation of American cinema as social symptoms missed the fact that such films were “relatively intelligent, accurate at least to something in the world, and entertaining.”

I realize also that on its most careful level, as practiced by Dr. Siegfried Kracauer or Barbara Deming, this sort of analysis is of interest and value, dubious as I am about a good deal of it. But to me the most sinister thing that happened during the movie year [1947] was just this kind of analysis.

He was worried that these bleak cultural diagnoses were being seized upon by “club women and the nastier kinds of church pressure groups.” On all the evidence I’ve seen, Farber and Tyler would have agreed.

 

Culture in the totally administered society

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

If under present conditions we cannot stop the ruthless expansion of mass-culture, the least we can do is keep apart and refuse its favors.

Philip Rahv, 1952

More generally, all three critics seemed to understand that the best way to show that American cinema had artistic dimensions was to present their case in precise, urgent, sometimes giddy prose. They were connoisseurs, making distinctions and discriminations of fine degree. And they found God, or the Devil, in details. In mounting those lines of defense, they risked condemnation by the most intellectually intimidating critic of the culture industry, Theodor W. Adorno.

Adorno believed that in modern times, true art could only present itself as opposed to easy reception. As a Marxist, he held that economic processes—the division of labor, the obliteration of use value by exchange value, among other factors—made the harmony sought by classic art impossible. For hundreds of years art works participated in a market system, and even the very greatest achievements could bear the traces of social strain. (One Adorno article is titled “Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Alienated Masterpiece.”) Traditionally, an artwork aimed for totality, but today the true artist can express only the inability to achieve harmony. Art’s value lies “in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity.” The formal dissonance of the artwork reveals its refusal to reconcile itself to capitalist demands. Some modernist art, such as Schoenberg’s atonal pieces and Kafka’s novels, achieved this refusal, but even much avant-garde music, painting, and literature fell short of registering the strains of contemporary life.

The culture industry, as characterized in Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, becomes the ultimate expression of capitalist rationality. As companies crank out commodities, Hollywood, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley pump out synthetic art works. Mass art’s smooth surfaces are a grotesque parody of the unity struggled for by the great artists of the past. Form and content are harmonized in an ersatz, conformist way. Neither avant-garde nor classic art, the standardized mass-marketed products offer no resistance to easy pickup. The music “does the listening for the listener.” Virtually by definition, the entertainment industry couldn’t create art of value.

This is too brief an account of the culture-industry thesis, but two points are especially relevant to our film critics. Adorno argues that the popular artwork concentrates not on the whole but the part. Classic artists struggled to find a unity specific to each piece, but mass culture has made overall formats—the three-act play, the formulaic  movie plot, the pop song—so generic that the only strong effects arise from isolated moments. An arresting plot twist or a sudden chord change stands out and has a brief impact. But by slotting itself into the set pattern, the little jolt simply confirms the validity of the prefabricated format.

But surely there are major differences among these products? No two pop songs or movie melodramas are identical, and new styles or formats emerge from time to time. Here comes the second point. Adorno claims that the differences we detect are fake. Each product of mass culture is “pseudo-individualized.”

For one thing, the innovations are still very limited; jazz, Adorno wrote in 1941, is confined by its harmonic and metric schemes. Moreover, even innovation tends to confirm the standardized format. “The constant need to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions.” He suggests that in jazz, a “wrong” note is registered momentarily as a fresh detail but the listener’s ear immediately corrects it. As for film:

Orson Welles is forgiven all his offences against the usages of the craft because, as calculated rudeness, they confirm the validity of the system all the more zealously.

There’s no escape. Just as an automobile or a breakfast cereal uses trivial differences to stand out from the competition, so too do songs and stories. Forms are formulas, novelties are minor and fleeting, and any deviations confirm the norm. Our three critics, by distinguishing subtly between this film and that, often on the basis of scenes or details, have fallen into the mass-culture trap.

It’s easy to call this position humorless (no gags in genuine art) and elitist (“Everyone’s a sucker but me”) and to insist that those who write favorably about mass culture are on the side of right, i.e., the People. But this is just labeling. What if Adorno and Horkheimer’s diagnosis is correct?

In my experience, there’s no arguing with Culture-Industry accounts like this on their own terms. Point to a film that exhibits what you take to be rich form, and the skeptic will say: “Call that complex? It’s just a variant on the same old thing.” Point to a ripe detail in a scene, and you’ll be told it’s just pseudo-differentiation. If Ulysses and Schoenberg’s Erwartung are your prime examples of valid art, His Girl Friday isn’t going to measure up—let alone Rhapsody Rabbit.

It’s more productive, I think, to point out some historical and conceptual difficulties. For example, Adorno and Horkheimer generalize too fast from the model of heavy industry and mass production. It’s true that the culture industry utilizes division of labor and hierarchies of control. But this isn’t specific to modern capitalism, as we know from artists’ ateliers in earlier times. Titian, Brueghel the Younger, Rembrandt, and other painters supervised employees who specialized in rendering certain stretches of a canvas. Those workshops, in a prefiguration of movie facilities, were called “studios.”

Going further, Kristin and Janet Staiger and I tried to show in The Classical Hollywood Cinema that film production can’t be standardized to the degree that high-output manufacture is. It’s an error to consider Hollywood an “assembly-line” system. No two movies are as much alike as two Fords rolling off the line at River Rouge. Hollywood employs an artisanal mode of production, in which each worker adds something distinctive to the result, and the “product” is a complex blend of overlapping and crisscrossing contributions. Marx called this mode of production “serial manufacture.” Instead of rigid standardization, differentiation in various degrees is at the base of the system, and all of those differences aren’t blueprinted via central command.

Another difficulty comes, I think, when we recognize just how stringent are Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s standards for valuable art. The bar is set excruciatingly high. “Telling a story,” Adorno noted in 1954, “means having something special to say, and that is precisely what is prevented by the administered world, by standardization and eternal sameness.” So fresh and authentic stories are impossible? Most of us aren’t prepared to narrow our experience so drastically.

More theoretically, Adorno’s insistence that the true modern artwork must be sui generis, related to tradition only in labyrinthine dialectical ways, seems to me implausible. It puts him close to Croce’s view that each artwork is irreducibly unique. By contrast, I’d argue that art works good or bad, classic or avant-garde, owe a great deal, and quite openly, to norms, styles, genres, and other traditions. It doesn’t take anything away from modernism’s bold innovations to recognize that in many cases artists like Joyce, Picasso, Woolf, Conrad, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg “took the next step” beyond the state of play at the time. Where does radical change shade off into pseudo-differentiation?

It will also come as news to Orson Welles that Hollywood “forgave all his offenses.”

 

Toward a criticism of popular art

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

If you like to keep warm in your neighborhood theatre these days or have to review movies for a living, you can find something good in any film.

Manny Farber, 1946

Did Agee, Farber, or Tyler read Adorno or Horkheimer? Dialectic of Enlightenment wasn’t translated into English until 1972, but the Frankfurt School’s ideas were circulating in their milieu. (Adorno’s 1941 piece on popular music influenced Macdonald’s “Theory of ‘Popular Culture’” essay.) In any case, my three critics outflanked the mass-culture debates through simply diving, quite self-consciously, into popular material—something very few intellectuals were willing to do. Their sensitivity to nuance and detail carried a force that we seldom find in the Frankfurt School writers.

Plunging into the material had a particular importance at this moment. During the 1940s, criticism became technical to a degree never seen before. I haven’t found any piece by Adorno and Horkheimer that troubles to analyze closely a single product of the culture industry. Writing on Mahler or Berg, Adorno gets more concrete, but he never dismantles a simple jitterbug tune. As “social philosophers” rather than critics, he works at a level of generality that exempts him from looking closely. This refusal stands out in contrast to what was happening in the American artworld of the time.

Most apparent was the flourishing of the New Criticism in literary studies. During the 1930s Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and others in America had picked up ideas of “close reading” from England. Those ideas were disseminated to universities across America in Brooks and Warren’s 1938 textbook Understanding Poetry and its successor Understanding Fiction (1943). Literary history, the survey of authors and their times, was being displaced by the scrutiny of a single poem or story as an isolated work. In calling his time “an age of criticism,” Randall Jarrell complained that this craze for technical analysis was sapping the energies of both poets and critics, but it has maintained its hold as a model of how to understand literature.

Something comparable was happening in criticism of the visual arts with vivacious descriptions of painters’ strategies. Earle Loran’s Cezanne’s Composition (1943), for example, revealed large-scale principles of design underlying paintings that sometimes seemed a jumble of colors and planes. In the context of weekly reviewing, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, and others probed details of color and paint handling. Farber, in his guise as art critic, can be positively fussy in anatomizing the layout of a Léger and the candy-box spectrum of a Chagall.

Musicology, long geared to rigorous analysis, was finding new layers of patterning in both classic and modern works. Heinrich Schenker’s formalism of earlier decades provided a basis for this inquiry. The rise of various musical avant-gardes employing complex compositional procedures, as in serialism, demanded ever more sharply focused studies of form. While Adorno and Hanns Eisler were denouncing kitsch music in film soundtracks, musicologists were dissecting Objective Burma!, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Best Years of Our Lives, and other scores.

I’m not arguing that our three critics conducted such microscopic analysis of movies, though Tyler, operating at a book-length stretch, probably comes closest. But they do burrow into the fine grain of American films to an unprecedented degree. For example, Agee, when he started writing his Nation column in 1942, declared that he would “feel no apology for whatever my eyes tell me.” Here he is praising Huston for a moment in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Treasure’s intruder is killed by bandits; the three prospectors come to identify the man they themselves were on the verge of shooting. Bogart, the would-be tough guy, cocks one foot up on a rock and tries to look at the corpse as casually as if it were fresh-killed game. Tim Holt, the essentially decent young man, comes past behind him and, innocent and unaware of it, clasps his hands as he looks down, in the respectful manner of a boy who used to go to church. Walter Huston, the experienced old man, steps quietly behind both, leans to the dead man as professionally as a doctor to a patient and gently rifles him for papers.

Thanks to steady looking, Agee can argue that the film has a novelistic power to delineate character, but without words, just through framing and physical action—in other words, through the “clean, direct” expression that Otis Ferguson had thought characterized American studio cinema. That conciseness finds its echo in Agee’s style, which packs characterizing details into adjectives and homely metaphors; one phrase, “a boy who used to go to church,” sketches a man’s life history.

Just as the New Critics punctured gas-filled generalizations about poetry by exposing the nuances of syntax and metaphor, Agee, Farber, and Tyler provide, in a roundabout way, an answer to the critics of mass culture. Through their precision of observation and the contagious enthusiasm of their rhetoric, they showed that blanket denunciations of entertainment missed areas of vitality and creativity, tendencies toward expressive form and emotional force. Sometimes those accomplishments fit the canons of high art, sometimes not. And at moments these critics trace an aesthetic specific to the Hollywood sound cinema.

 

Not all intellectuals condemned the culture industry utterly. The sociologist David Riesman argued that modern mass culture housed a great many levels, each with its own criteria and artistic ambitions. He dared to claim that there was good art at every level. Moreover, he suggested, the audience was often more aware of the qualities on display than the critics were. In a gesture that anticipates today’s academic study of fandom, Riesman proposed:

The various mass audiences are not so manipulated as often supposed: they fight back, by refusing to “understand,” by selective interpretation, by apathy. Conformity there surely is, but we cannot assume its existence from the standardization of the commodities themselves (in many instances a steadily diminishing standardization) without knowledge of how individuals and groups interpret the commodities and endow them with meanings.

Individuals and groups used media products in a variety of ways, Riesman claimed. The individual’s peer groups might even set up taste structures that could run against the ones offered by media industries. Jazz aficionados, both amateurs and critics, discerned styles and genres not acknowledged by the record companies. In a quiet knock on the High Art standards of literary academics, he suggests that “taste exchange” among fans and critics constitute “the Newer Criticism.” He might almost have been talking about the Internet.

Or, in another way, about my three writers. If we think of Agee, Farber, and Tyler scooping out of mass art something that they could defend, we might consider each a “peer group” of one. They undertook to test their own personal histories and “taste structures” against the churn of commercial cinema. What they devised, suitably sharpened by the pressure of their writing styles, were three idiosyncratic versions of a Newer Criticism.

This series continues here.


In preparing this entry, I’ve benefited from conversations with my colleague Jeff Smith and my long-time friend Noël Carroll, whose Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford University Press, 1998) reviews many of the issues here.

My quotation from Virgil Thomson comes from Music Reviewed 1940-1954 (Vintage, 1967), 75. The Cocteau dig is in Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962 (iUniverse, n.d.; orig. 1956), 109.

A good introduction to the “cultural left” of the 1930s and 1940s is James Burkhart Gilbert, Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Modernism in America (Columbia University Press, 1993).  My Edmund Wilson epigraph comes from page 88. In Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), Paul R. Gorman traces trends of 1930s and 1940s cultural critique back to earlier decades. Macdonald’s 1938-39 attack on Stalinist cinema is reprinted, with strategic alterations, in Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969), 191-249.

I’ve emphasized what we might call the Partisan Review cohort of New York intellectuals, but there were others. Peter Decherney (in Hollywood and the Culture Elite) and Dana Polan (Scenes of Instruction) have documented the emergence of a more academic, largely East Coast, film culture during the 1920s and 1930s.

John Berryman remarks on “the desertion of Marxism” in “The State of American Writing, 1948: Seven Questions,” Partisan Review 15, 7 (July 1948), 857. The same symposium is the source of the question about the threat of middlebrow culture, p. 855. Abundant reflections on the turn away from Communism and toward cultural critique can be found in a later symposium, “Our Country and Our Culture,” Partisan Review 19, 3 (May-June 1952), 282-326; 19, 4 (July-August 1952), 420-450; 19, 5 (September-October 1952), 562-597. My Philip Rahv epigraph comes from the first installment, p. 310, and the quotation from David Riesman is from the same place, 311-312. For more on Riesman’s position, see The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (Yale University Press, 1950), especially 311-367.

Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is available online here, and in printed form in Collected Essays and Criticism vol. I: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5-22. Dwight Macdonald’s essay on mass culture was revised and expanded twice, but the one I refer to is the original, “A Theory of ‘Popular culture,’” Politics 1, 1 (February 1944), 20-23. An earlier and seminal defense of popular culture is Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 book The 7 Lively Arts (Dover, 2001). (I discuss him here.) My quotation of McLuhan comes in “Inside Blake and Hollywood,” Sewanee Review 55, 4 (October-December 1947), 715.

A widely-read satiric account of the Brows is Russell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” Harper’s Magazine 198, 2 (February 1949), 19-28. The Saul Steinberg illustration up top prefaces that essay. Lynes offered a followup in “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow Reconsidered,” Harper’s Monthly 216, 8 (August 1967), 16-20; I’ve taken the other cartoon illustration from that piece. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (Free Press, 1957) remains a useful collection of 1940s pieces. Interestingly, a 1945 article by Theodore Strauss declared both Agee and Farber highbrow critics writing “over-complicated” prose. See “No Jacks, No Giant-Killers,” The Screen Writer I, 1 (June 1945): 7; here.

The quotations from Adorno come from Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Englightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford University Press, 2002), 102, 103; Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 17-48; and Adorno, “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel,” in Notes to Literature vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Sherry Weber Nicholsen (Columbia University Press 1991), 31. See also Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 290-304; Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); and Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (1947).

For one example of the painter acting as “producer” heading a studio of craftsmen, see Peter van den Brink, ed., Brueghel Enterprises (Ludion, 2001). Glancing through the ten variants of Breughel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs that were churned out by his son’s studio (pp. 59-79), the reader might ask how to distinguish this process from the “pseudo-differentiation” Adorno and Horkheimer attribute to the modern culture industry. Remarkably, it seems likely that the son never saw the father’s original work but rather worked from a sketch the father left behind–a shooting script, we might say.

Not all Marxist philosophers of art were as stringent as Adorno. See, for example, Arnold Hauser, “Can Movies Be ‘Profound’?” Partisan Review 15, 1 (January 1948), 69-73. Hauser says yes.

Randall Jarrell’s objections to the technical bent of New Criticism are formulated in his 1952 essay, “The Age of Criticism,” in Poetry and the Age (Vintage, 1953), 63-86.  For an influential example of the sort of analysis that arose from new compositional procedures in music, see René Liebowitz, Schoenberg and His School, trans. Dika Newlin (Philosophical Library, 1949). Analyses of film scores include Lawrence Morton, “The Music of ‘Objective Burma’,” Hollywood Quarterly 1, 4 (July 1946), 378-395; Frederick Sternfeld’s “The Strange Music of Martha Ivers,” Hollywood Quarterly 2, 3 (April 1947), 242-251 and “Music and the Feature Films,” Musical Quarterly 33, 4 (October 1947), 517-532, on The Best Years of Our Lives.

Nearly all material I’ve mentioned by James Agee and Manny Farber comes from their Library of America collections (here and here). Agee’s remark about being sort of a Communist is made in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Ballantine Books, 1960), 225. I’d also recommend Agee’s “Pseudo-Folk,” Partisan Review 11, 2 (Spring 1944), 219-222. Incidentally, the sooner The Nation, The New Leader, The New Republic, and Partisan Review are digitized, the better for understanding American cultural history. My quotation from Tyler about democracy and Meet John Doe is in The Hollywood Hallucination, 185.

The gods of Irony have a good time. Norman Rockwell, the very embodiment of kitsch for the 1940s mass-culture critics, has enjoyed a rehabilitation as a “serious” artist. The most recent sally is Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Christopher Bentley provides an enlightening review.

For an account of the theory of sound cinema developed by Bazin and his peers, see Chapter 3 of my On the History of Film Style.

Life (8 August 1949).

The Rhapsodes: Agee, Farber, Tyler, and us

          

DB here:

Today what a film critic hollered, or murmured, or didn’t say at all, at an awards dinner can get more publicity than the prizes the directors and stars won on the occasion. The very top critics can become media celebrities. They hang out with filmmakers, curate at museums, sit on festival juries, teach at universities, and get interviewed on TV and the Net. When they die, they may get cloudbursts of appreciation; Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert received more elegies and memoirs than most departed filmmakers do. Few film critics probably count as “public intellectuals,” but most have greater visibility outside their sphere of expertise than, say, critics of painting or music do. And filmwise people read critics not to find out about this or that movie, but to enjoy a “personal voice.”

It wasn’t always so.

 

The film critic as superstar

Movie criticism ascended definitively into the world of letters during the 1960s. In earlier decades, writers like Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Graham Greene had tried their hand at film pieces, but their fame was already established in other domains. In the 1960s, though, Kael, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, and a host of others treated film reviewing as not merely a report on current releases but an occasion for a display of the writer’s sensibility. Still others, like Dwight Macdonald, John Simon, and Susan Sontag, wrote about the arts generally, but their fame depended heavily on what they said about movies.

“I read X,” people started to say, “not because I care much about current films but because s/he is such a good writer, such an interesting person.” (Bosley Crowther, eternal Straw Man who wrote for the Times, did not come off as a charismatic dynamo.) A new picture’s release became less the object of judgment than the springboard for critical high dives, weekly or monthly or quarterly performances of verbal bravado and conceptual risk-taking. Film criticism began to host a cult of personality, even a kind of elite branding.

There’s no denying that in all the spite, vanity, teacup tempests, and conceptual confusions of the era there were still some long-lasting critical achievements. I suggest a couple of them here and here. My point is just that these 1960s writers showed that journalistic film criticism could be as idiosyncratic and intimate as the writing of, say, Bernard Shaw on music and theatre. And you could gain fans and fame solely as a critic; you wouldn’t have to write Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

If I had to pick one pivot-point for the beginning of this new age, I’d choose 16 May 1955. On that day James Agee had a fatal heart attack in a New York cab. Two years later A Death in the Family was published. Despite being unfinished, the novel won enormous praise and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Agee’s renewed fame led to the publication of Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments in 1958. The collection revealed that a man of letters who was largely unappreciated by the literary establishment during his lifetime had spent precious creative years, week in and week out, reviewing movies for both a highbrow liberal weekly, The Nation, and, more surprisingly, Time (anonymously).

Suddenly people recognized that a magazine column passing judgment on the week’s releases could conceivably display graceful style and probing thought. The book boasted a 1944 blurb in which W. H. Auden called Agee’s column “newspaper work of permanent literary value” and “the most remarkable regular event in journalism today.” A review of Agee on Film in the New York Times declared that Agee’s fierce love for cinema “gave him a deeper insight into the nature of the movie medium, in esse and in posse, than any other American with the possible exception of Gilbert Seldes.” The Saturday Review reached higher. “He was the best movie critic this country has ever had.”

There’s no knowing how many teenagers and twentysomethings read and reread that fat paperback with its blaring red cover. We wolfed it down without knowing most of the movies Agee discussed. We were held, I think, by the rolling lyricism of the sentences, the pawky humor, and the stylistic finish of certain pieces—the three-part essay on Monsieur Verdoux, the Life piece “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” the John Huston profile “Undirectable Director.” The adolescent fretfulness that put some critics off didn’t give us qualms; after all, we were unashamedly reading Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, and Salinger too. Some of us probably wished that we could some day write this way, and this well.

The timing of the collection was good. The status of film criticism in the 1960s was being boosted by intellectuals’ interest in movies. More people were going to college, and some of them were drawn to foreign imports (Bergman, Antonioni, Kurosawa, Godard et al.) and young American cinema (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, etc.). Such unusual movies demanded commentary, even debate. This was the moment that made the movie review or the longish think-piece into a vehicle of serious writing and thinking. Agee on Film became the model for similar collections by Kael (I Lost It at the Movies, 1965, made her reputation), Sarris, Simon, Macdonald, Kauffmann, and many more writers. Published by trade presses in surprising bulk, these items now sell online for prices of $.01 and somewhat above.

 

The shock of the old

     

That steady stream of cut-and-paste collections swept two other 1940s pioneers back into view. Parker Tyler had been writing voluminously throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and he published a collection in the wake of Agee’s: The Three Faces of the Film (1960). There followed another gathering, Sex Psyche Etcetera in the Film (1969). More important was the 1970 reprinting of Tyler’s first two movie books: The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947).

Like Tyler, Mannny Farber had continued writing about film after the war years, and he gathered several pieces from that later period into Negative Space (1971). Neither Tyler nor Farber would probably have returned to fame without the canonization, in at least two senses, of Agee. Their honored predecessor, Otis Ferguson, had been killed in the war, but the film book boom revived his reputation as well, with his collected reviews appearing in 1971.

These anthologies revealed that these writers had done great things. In 1940 Agee was thirty-one and Farber was twenty-four. Their youth, I think, made them plucky enough to try to think boldly about commercial cinema in America. Tyler, the oldest, was thirty-six, but he had not lost the impertience that made him call himself, during his earliest days in New York, The Beautiful Poet Parker Tyler.

Neither highbrow nor lowbrow (nor middlebrow), neither pure journalists nor Algonquin intellectuals, they created a daredevil criticism that remains audacious and dazzling. We have here three guys who smuggled themselves into the literati without becoming pale versions of Edmund Wilson.

Each of the trio displayed a fine intelligence trained in the high arts, particularly modernist trends. Yet each detoured around the current debates on mass culture and plunged directly into the stuff itself, unashamed. Each man taught his readers to see things in movies that more serious intellectuals missed. Each cultivated a writing style that evoked a sharply etched personality. And each strategically lapsed into rhapsodic, occasionally nutty outbursts unlike anything on offer from their staid contemporaries.

Tyler started earliest, with a 1940 review of Rebecca and Blondie on a Budget for the Surrealist View, and he kept going there and in other magazines and in three books. In late 1941 Agee wrote his first review for Time, and he became a regular contributor in 1942; later that year he began his stint at The Nation. In 1942 as well Farber started covering film for The New Republic. Both continued through the decade. By the time Agee died he had largely given up film criticism, but Farber and Tyler kept publishing into the 1970s.

Agee and Farber were high-end journalists, while Tyler practiced belles lettres in the pages of  art journals and little magazines. Their styles were sharply different, as were their tastes. Agee and Farber had a butch swagger (“virile” and “tough” recur), while Tyler offered what he called later “the straight face of high camp” and wrote “tongue stiff in cheek.” But they had a lot in common too.

For one thing, all were polymaths. Agee was a poet, novelist, screenwriter, and author of one of the landmark books of the 1940s, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Farber, while writing reviews and working as a carpenter, eventually made a career as a painter. Tyler wrote poetry, a scandalous experimental novel about gay life, and essays and books on the arts.

At the same time, all were cinephiles from their earliest years. They knew the Standard Story of film history, recently traced at length in Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film (1939). Their canon was, by today’s standards, very cramped. Always the same Museum of Modern Art touchstones and Manhattan revival fodder: Griffith (for some shorts and Birth of a Nation), the silent clowns (Chaplin above all), Caligari, Potemkin (sometimes Earth), and René Clair’s Italian Straw Hat and his early sound pictures. Yet the critics agreed that however great the classics remained, and however terrible contemporary Hollywood could be, there were extraordinary things to be found in new releases.

 

Beauty, in flashes

     

The Story of G. I. Joe (1945).

What sorts of things? Beautiful things. These critics seem to me aesthetes pursuing modern beauty, though from various angles. Agee was a Romantic, Farber a post-Cezanne modernist, Tyler an avant-garde dandy in the Wilde-Cocteau tradition. Their attitudes had been well-established in the sacred precincts of literature and painting but hadn’t made their way to the criticism of mass art.

Moreover, the three critics understood that movies stretched the standards and premises of high art. Most critics thought that you couldn’t talk about Cary Grant in aesthetic terms; these three understood that you could, if you favored criteria like liveliness, poignancy, force, and arresting details. Most intellectuals couldn’t recognize art in mass-market movies because Hollywood had redefined what artistry was. In some cases it had taken creativity beyond art, into a realm that Tyler called “hallucination.”

The beauty that these three disclosed was often merely glimpsed. All believed that parts sometimes superseded wholes. Most movies lacked the formal unity of expression of classic art. Instead of finding this worrisome, they found it exhilarating. Each one was alert to momentary diversions, odd spots, places where something unpredictable seemed to leak in around the cracks.

The idea that Hollywood movies sometimes yielded fugitive moments of truth wasn’t uncommon in the period. Barbara Deming, looking for symptoms of American malaise, suggested that actors “scuffed in” a tangible reality of behavior and voice that couldn’t be manufactured, and Dwight Macdonald conceded that the system sometimes turned out films with moments of “vitality.”

Vitality was precious to my threesome too, but they probed further. They suggested that a good part of the artistry, or at least the fascination, of popular movies lies exactly in those details or plot turns or performance bits or throwaway compositions. The vagrant items might enrich the action, or detour it. They might, Farber and Agee thought, be willed by the directors and actors, yielding flashes of diversion or glimpses of real life.

These actors produce some light, whimsical effects which are generally minor as far as making the plot any more significant, but they are the most intriguing parts of the film and were generally intended by the director (Farber on The Mask of Dimitrios).

[The film includes] purely “meaningless” bits—such as a shot in which Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) sits by the road while some soldiers straggle past—which have as great meaning as anything could have, being as immediate and as unlimited by thought or prejudice as what the eye might see on the spot, in a casual glance (Agee on The Story of G. I. Joe).

For Tyler, the blooming pleasures could also be inadvertent.

The voice [is] an independent actor, an element that, as with all Hollywood components, refuses to be completely absorbed into the artistic mesh and creates a little theater of its own.

He thought that most films lurched from moment to striking moment, leaving piquant dissonances behind. “Crevices,” he called them.

 

Faults = beauties

     

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).

These critics accordingly recast one of the conventions of film reviewing: the rhetoric of faults and beauties. Everybody knows the trick. This moment is rather nice, but that one falls flat…. The  dullness of the affair is alleviated by a flash of comedy by a young woman we hope to see more of….Brilliant as it is, the film suffers from a certain stiffness… Unless you’re writing a hatchet job, you must dose your praise with some vinegar, and you must dilute your severity with a few compliments.

Our three critics turn faults-and-beauties criticism to fresh purposes. Agee uses it to whip himself into loops of intemperate indecision. Writing up Till the Clouds Roll By he suggests that the story is feeble, but the players are “nice people” and the songs are by Jerome Kern. He can give and take away in a single phrase.

If, as I do, you like a good deal of his graceful, nacreous music, the picture is pleasantly, if rather stupefyingly, worth all the bother. The songs are nearly all sung with care and affection, though not one that I have heard before is done here quite as well as I have heard it elsewhere.

Farber likewise crosscuts his praise and blame. On the “well-played and punchy” Home of the Brave, which Farber declares “a clattering, virile movie with deeply affecting moments,” we also get:

The script is so basically theatrical that it has to be acted almost entirely from seated or reclining positions, but the director works more variations on those two positions than can be found in a Turkish bath. The actors talk as though they were trying to drill the words into one another’s skulls; this savage portentousness not only forces your interest but is alarming in that the soldiers are usually surrounded by Japs and every word can obviously be heard in Tokyo.

If Agee is Hamlet, Farber plays Hotspur. Agee keeps turning his other cheek; Farber turns yours, from side to side, lightly slapping.

Tyler marks out faults and beauties more cleanly. But since the pleasure of thinking about Hollywood movies consists partly in quickening their clichés with jolts of your imagination, the faults become valuable points of interest and, perversely, blossom into virtues. Such is the portrait of Dorian Gray in Albert Lewin’s film. The degenerate image, revealed in a screen-filling shriek, is doubtless vulgar in its execution by Ivan Albright and in its garish Technicolor. Both Agee and Farber complained that they wanted to see the painting deteriorate in stages, but Tyler finds its shock-cut revelation as morbidly appealing as a flowering Nightshade.

It is proof of Hollywood’s commendably alert, albeit limited imagination. . .  . Although art is implicitly offended, one cannot help reacting with a certain thrill. It is the way one usually reacts to zombies and werewolves from the jungles adjacent to Sunset Boulevard. Ivan Le Loraine Albright has given us in his portrait of Dorian the wicked, a compelling version of the American moral jungle from which fundamentally all famous creeps must be said to crepitate.

Even flagrant errors of taste, Tyler suggests, can create provocative crevices for the critic’s imagination.

 

Speaking in tongues

     

The standard images have endured. Agee is the sensitive and sentimental humanist, Farber the poolroom wiseacre who reads The Art News, Tyler the hyperintellectual camp follower who does a couch job on the movies. But this lineup does them a discredit. Basically, all three function as performers.

Writing about movies allows them to do the police in different voices, to spread out American idioms like magicians fanning a fistful of cards. The sheen and pulse of the prose carry us through mixed metaphors, dropped conjunctions, and ricocheting associations. Ferguson had jiggled and snapped a sentence like a lariat, but these boys get really carried away. They become pop-culture rhapsodes, writing in a divine frenzy.

These bards aren’t kissed by the gods, though. They’re carried away by having found a subject–movies–that triggers a controlled ecstasy. The result is usually comic, sometimes dramatic, but often sensuously arousing. An orgy of words, after all, is still an orgy.

Farber, of course, is celebrated for his baroque firepower, fueled by paradox and hyperbole. The sentences seem to veer out of control before ending with a wisecrack that’s sometimes a capper and sometimes just weird but always unpredictable.

The movie, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” is almost too terrible to walk out of. . . . The wife spends her time in what should be a jungle washing the several thousand stunning play suits she wears to wait on tables, going for moonlight swims, dancing stylish rhumbas with the hobo. I think the best bobby-sox touches are the white turban that Cora wears to wash dishes, the love scenes which show Cora in a yum-yum pose and outfit, looking like a frozen popsicle, with Frank ogling her at six paces—and probably the director, in the background, swooning over a hamburger.

Want something more refined but no less gaga? Here is Tyler, in one of my favorite passages of American film criticism, on Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.

I was still transfixed by the conundrum of her voice, almost without inflection, low and lazily paced, with a pleasant burr of the Dietrich sort but not classifiable as to its true sources. . . . That she approached Hollywood with a certain Machiavellianism, I think, is shown by the mild Mephistophelian peaks of her eyebrows. Yet all of us are human; the most sensational military plans, even if the army wins, sometimes go kerflooey. Miss Bacall had evidently intended her voice to give notice that she was a Garbo to the gizzard, hard to get, and not going to let Humphrey triumph at the first shot.

I don’t think Mephistophelianism has ever been juxtaposed with kerflooey so effectively.

Agee, taken by many today as a gentle soul who leaned too much on his lyrical gifts, proves ready to spin us into orbit in reviewing the Warners cartoon Rhapsody Rabbit. Bugs Bunny as a concert pianist gives “a cut but definitive performance” of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody.

The best part of it goes two ways: one, very observant parody of concert-pianistic affectations, elegantly thought out and synchronized; the other, brutality keyed into the spirit of the music to reach greater subtlety than I have ever seen brutality reach before. I could hardly illustrate without musical quotation; but there is a passage in which the music goes up with an arrogant wrenching of slammed chords—Ronk, Ronk, RONK (G-B-E)—then prisses downward on a broken scale—which Bugs takes (a) with all four feet, charging madly, scowling like a rockinghorse late for a date at stud, (b) friskily tiptoe, proudly smirking, like a dog toe-dancing through his own misdemeanor or the return of an I-Was-There journalist, a man above fear or favor who knows precisely which sleeping dogs to lie about. It killed me; and when they had the wonderful brass to repeat it exactly, a few bars later, I knew what killed really meant.

The longer you look at this, the more outrageous it gets. A rockinghorse put out to stud? A dog’s “misdemeanor”–i.e., pissing on the carpet? And can you imagine Fido with a proud smirk? What’s the on-the-spot journalist doing here? And was the travesty of the “sleeping dogs lie” cliché suggested by association with the balletic, emptied-bladder dog? On many occasions Agee, no less than his peers, was touched with benign madness. But of course the craftsman wasn’t sleeping: all the parallel clauses are set into balance by stately semicolons.

 

Such virtuosity hasn’t gone unnoticed. Two entire shelves of my university library are filled with books on Agee. Farber Studies, already teeming with admiring short reviews and memoirs and tributes to his painting, can be expected to swell too. Admittedly, Tyler, no less a dazzler in his way, remains less acknowledged. Even gay critics seem not to have pushed his cause as much as they might. Still, becoming a phantom presiding over Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (published, be it noted, in 1968) grants its own sort of immortality.

I’m captivated by all three. None holds me hostage, though; I write as an enthusiast but not a promoter. What attracts me now, in tandem with the book I’m writing on Hollywood in the 1940s, is what they did in their first decade. Although many readers didn’t notice, these three made writing about American film exuberant and important. They raised it to a level of frenzied acuity that it had never enjoyed before. They helped create, by the delayed action I sketched earlier, the modern institution of movie criticism, with all its virtues and excesses. In the process, they forged some original ways of thinking about American cinema. 

This series of entries continues here.


This series of entries began as a lecture for “Narrative Theory and 1940s Hollywood,” a seminar that I co-taught with Jeff Smith in the fall at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Thanks to Jeff and all the members of the seminar for an enjoyable semester. I also want to thank Kent Jones and Jim Naremore,  considerable critics both, for email discussions of these writers.

For a wide-ranging survey of the US scene, see American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (Library of America, 2006), ed. Phillip Lopate.

I’ve taken my Agee and Farber quotations from the Library of America collections of their work (available here and here). Quotations from Tyler come from The Hollywood Hallucination (Simon and Schuster, 1970; orig. 1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (Simon and Schuster, 1970; orig. 1947).

Barbara Deming writes of “scuffed-in” meanings in her article, “The Library of Congress Film Project: Exposition of a Method,” The Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions 2, 1 (1944), 10. Albert Moran discusses this and other passages in Deming’s piece in “Film and Psychology: Notes on the ‘Psychological’ Film Criticism of the 1940s,” First Australian History & Film Conference Proceedings, ed. Ann Hutton (National Library of Canberra, 1982), 123-124.

The indispensable book on Farber, Tyler, and their milieu is Greg Taylor’s Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1999).

Rhapsody Rabbit is currently available for viewing on Vimeo.

P.S. 27 January: The earliest version of this entry shaved ten years off Parker Tyler’s age! He was born in 1904. The error has been corrected.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

David Bordwell
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