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How Not to Write About Film


The Real World: Atlanta.

The New York Times Book Review wastes nearly four pages on the dumbest, most banal crap about (ostensibly) movies and movie criticism that I have ever come across. It's called "How to Write About Film" and it's an attempted review by Clive James of the Philip Lopate compilation of film criticism that was published a few months ago, called "American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now."

What's really puzzling about this drivel is that James not only doesn't know what the auteur theory is, he doesn't know what movie criticism is -- and he hasn't a clue what movies are, either. I find it difficult to believe he's ever seen one. Or, at least, a whole one. And no matter what projected images may have passed before his eyes, it's mighty obvious he hasn't seen anything at all.

He begins with some cute, and relatively harmless, Philistine pandering about hair-dos and film criticism:

It quickly becomes obvious that those [critics] without theories write better. You already knew that your friend who's so funny about the "Star Wars" tradition of frightful hairstyles for women (in the corrected sequence of sequel and prequel, Natalie Portman must have passed the bad-hair gene down to Carrie Fisher) is much less boring than your other friend who can tell you how science fiction movies mirror the dynamics of American imperialism.

Sounds good. Sounds superficial. And it is ever so cute. So, who's gonna argue with a little anti-intellectual pseudo-populist posing these days? (Although, I have to tell you, I think the subject of hair-dos is actually more boring than how science fiction mirrors the dynamics of American imperialism, but that's just me.)


Of course, James presents this hair-do theory as his own kind of dogma -- apparently as a substitute for his Straw Man version of the auteur theory. (That's "Straw Man" as in "mischaracterization" and "Straw Man" as in empty-headed, "If I Only Had a Brain" logic.) According to James' theory of the auteur theory, the notion of the director's sensibility as, generally speaking, the unifying vision behind a film is the same as saying the director made the movie all alone.

So, given that interpretation, James says no, no to la politiques des auteurs. You see, he explains:

The auteur theory depended on the idea that any pantheon director had an artistic personality so strong that it was bound to express itself whatever the compromising circumstances. But all too often, the compromising circumstances helped to make the movie good. That, however, was a tale too complicated to tell for those commentators who wanted to get into business as deep thinkers.

I'm not sure if James is the pot or the kettle, but this is disingenous rubbish. It's true that, especially in this age of the possessive director's credit, critics are inclined to attribute all aspects of a film (from camera movement to music cues) to the director, as a kind of critical shorthand -- when, in fact, the idea for the particular cinematic
thing the critic is mentioning could have come from just about anybody associated with the film. Or even a friend of somebody working on the film. Not even the hardest-core auteurist would claim that other collaborators and contributors (or what James calls "compromising circumstances") didn't affect how a movie turned out, or that only the director's ideas are good ones and the studios' input was always bad -- or that Andrew Sarris-annointed "pantheon" directors were simply incapable of making a bad or mediocre movie. But, sometimes, looking for the authorial hand in an otherwise muddled movie could definitely make watching it a more interesting and rewarding experience.

(As one of my old film profs always said: "You can often learn more from a bad movie than you can from a good one." And by saying that he wasn't claiming there was no difference between a bad movie and a good one, nor was he saying a bad movie was something to be desired. Only that when things didn't work, you could sometimes see more clearly how they had gone wrong. If cars always ran perfectly, there's be no reason for mechanics -- or you or me or the guys on "Car Talk" -- to understand how they work.)

One of the many things James doesn't grasp from his faraway perch is that the so-called auteur theory was hardly a formal theory at all. It wasn't an absolutist dogma (or didn't have to be), but was more like a general rule of thumb, a working principle. And it never posited that the auteur must always be the director. It could be the producer, the writer, an actor (nobody ever tried to argue that "Gone With the Wind" was A Victor Fleming Film), and it was born out of an appreciation for the personal artistic signatures of Hollywood filmmakers laboring within the studio-factory system, when virtually everyone working on a picture was under contract (from the writers to the directors to the technicians and cast) and was basically assigned to work on one project after another. Only established, big-name studio directors -- like John Ford and Howard Hawks and Frank Capra -- eventually got to choose their own material and collaborators.

And while James is right that that later films by, say, Ford or Hawks were sometimes praised for being "Fordian" or "Hawksian," rare was the auteurist critic who claimed "Hatari!" was a better movie than "Only Angels Have Wings" or "Red River" or "Rio Bravo." To value a director's signature sensibility is not to simply abandon all sense of perspective.

But to James (as stated in his third theory), movies are first and foremost stories, and stories are first and foremost scripts. And that's all there is to it. Which makes him capable of some of the most moronic pronouncements about the movies I've ever read, including this gem:

... in the movies there are no later impressions without a first impression, because you will have stopped watching. Sometimes a critic persuades you to give an unpromising-looking movie a chance, but the movie had better convey the impression pretty quickly that the critic might be right. By and large, it's the movie itself that tells you it means business. It does that by telling a story. No story, no movie. Robert Bresson only did with increasing slowness what other directors had done in a hurry. But when Bresson, somewhere in the vicinity of Camelot, reached the point where almost nothing happening became nothing happening at all, you were gone. A movie has to glue you to your seat even when it's pretending not to.

So, forget about the sensual and aesthetic joys of movies -- the interplay of light and shadow, composition, movement, faces, color, sound, music, language, acting... No, no. Movies are just the story, and if the story doesn't grab you... well, that's the end of the story. And (as is the case with all art) an uneducated "first impression" based on whatever mood you happen to be in at the time is apparently the most reliable guide to whether a movie is "good" or not. Besides, nobody would ever try to watch a movie more than once and have a different response to another viewing.

A full-grown adult wrote this dreck? Look, I know a lot of people never want to think twice about the movies they see, and that they watch them only to pass the time, as a form of entertainment or escapism. That's true, and has always been true. But those, obviously, aren't the people who read (or, for that matter, write) movie criticism. So, if James holds this view, why is he reviewing a survey of movie critics? The mind boggles.

The key to James' smug and ignorant attitude, I think, is in this sentence: "[Anthony] Lane, being British, isn't in the book, which is a bit like not letting Tiger Woods play at St. Andrews."Now, Anthony Lane trades off writing about movies with David Denby at The New Yorker. But no one has ever accused Lane of being a movie critic. Read him. His pieces aren't about movies for the simple reason that he doesn't know anything about movies. He's a comic essayist, a kind of Dave Barry for the Upper East Side, but he doesn't write about movies as movies. He writes about plots and acting and dialog. Because he, like James, thinks that's all movies are. Reading Lane on movies, or James on movie critics, is a bit like reading Tom Cruise on the history of psychology. Not only do they lack knowledge, they're hostile to their own mistaken understanding of their subject.

James' claptrap contains so many howlers that anybody who does know the first thing about movies (and particularly anybody who loves them) is bound to get a few laughs from it -- and a raise in blood pressure wondering why The New York Times would print such an empty, misleading, uninformative (and long) essay. The extent of James' ignorance about directors, movies and how they work is revealed in this passage about Pauline Kael, arch-enemy of the auteur theory (even though she consistently wrote about movies in terms of their directorial vision):

Although Kael knew comparatively little about how movies got made, she was unbeatable at taking off from what she had seen. But beyond that, she would take off from what she had written, and there was a new theory every two weeks. A lot of her theories had to do with loves and hates. She thought Robert Altman was a genius. He can certainly make a movie, but if it hasn't got a script, then he makes "Prêt-à-Porter." That's one of the most salutary lessons of this book: what makes the movie isn't just who directed it, or who's in it, it's how it relates to the real world.

First of all, Kael herself never reviewed "Prêt-à-Porter." which was released three years after she retired. Secondly, "Prêt-à-Porter" is a terrible movie -- a painful, joyless, dispiriting movie -- but to blame it on "the script" shows no understanding at all of how Robert Altman makes movies. But then, only someone who doesn't understand what movies are could make this mistake. (Are Altman's great films, like "Nashville" and "The Long Goodbye" and "California Split" great because of their scripts? Any idea of how Altman shoots and edits? I thought not.)

James (who knows even less about how movies are made than he does about how movies are watched) begins his twaddle with an image of himself watching "The Hunt for Red October":

... mouthing the word "ping" while I keep reaching for the popcorn, I don't want to hear that what I'm seeing is an example of anything, or a step to anywhere, or a characteristic statement by anyone. What I'm seeing is a whole thing on its own.

And yet, he concludes with that observation, cited above, that "what makes the movie isn't just who directed it, or who's in it, but how it relates to the real world":

No matter how many movies you have seen, they won't give you the truth of the matter, because it can't be shown as action. To know what can't be shown by the gag writers, however, you have to know about a world beyond the movies. But the best critics do, as this book proves; because when we say that the nontheorists are the better writers, that's what we mean. That extra edge that a good writer has is a knowledge of the world, transmuted into a style.

So, a movie is a self-contained entity -- not "an example of anything, or a step to anywhere, or a characteristic statement by anyone" -- but one of the most important things about it is "how it relates to the real world." I have no idea what James' conception of the words "relates" or "real world" could possibly mean; I just know that movies are beyond his ken.

I got a particular kick out of this observation, about a critic who was able to relate a movie to the real world:

The poet Melvin B. Tolson, who wrote about movies for the African-American newspaper The Washington Tribune, saw "Gone With the Wind" when it came out and reviewed it in terms that could have been expanded into a handbook for the civil rights movement 20 years before the event. One look at the relevant piece will tell you why a critic has to know about the world as well as the movies: Tolson could see that "GWTW" was well made. But he could also see that the script was a crass and callous rewriting of history, a Klan pamphlet in sugared form, a racial insult.

Yes, of course. It would take an African-American poet in 1939 to see that a star-studded sentimental soap opera spectacular set in the "Old South" in the time of the Civil War -- in garish Technicolor, with that sweeping Max Steiner score, and William Cameron Menzies' eye-popping production design, where even the exteriors are shot on sumptuous sets -- was, perhaps, not a historically accurate depiction of the "real world," at least as far as unromantic, non-magnolia-scented, dry-eyed non-Confederates were concerned. (Poets and Negroes are extra-sensitive and perceptive about those kinds of things, almost like they have a sixth sense.) Oh, and then there's that lush opening legend:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...

What a revelation it must have been to find that "GWTW" was just, gosh, pretty much a Southern fairy tale! I can only assume that, if James has ever tried to watch "Gone With the Wind," this intro didn't provide him with a grabby enough story in the first 60 seconds of the movie, so he walked out. Into the "real world," no doubt.

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