Words & Pictures

In October 1944, the poet W.H. Auden wrote a fan letter to writer James Agee, sent via The Nation magazine where Agee was a regular contributor.

Dear Sirs:

I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them; further, I am suspicious of criticism as the literary genre which, more than any other, recruits epigones, pedants without insight, intellectuals without love. I am all the more surprised, therefore, to find myself not only reading Mr. Agee before I read anyone else in The Nation but also consciously looking forward all week to reading him again.

In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today. What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends its ostensible — to me, rather unimportant — subject that his articles belong to that very select class — the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the other members I know — of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.

One foresees the sad day, indeed, when Agee on Films will be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis.

I thought of Auden's fan letter while I was making my way — slowly, pleasurably — through a sizable new book called American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate and published by The Library of America. I recalled these particular words for several reasons — their concision, the devotion they express to the written word, the deserved praise for Agee, an early writer-hero of mine.

But what the letter recalled for me most was what movies — and passionate writing about movies — meant to me (despite Auden's indifference to the medium), especially when I was a young man and beginning to discover what the written word could do — and just what brilliant images could accomplish as well. (For me, this went hand in hand with discovering what the theater was all about, and how works for the two mediums differed in creating their effects.)

Auden's letter also summoned up what it was like back in the 1960s, when we were mad about films, how we couldn't get enough of them — new ones and classic ones — and how the whole process also meant reading what the critics had to say, and then arguing about the films and those opinions long into the night.

I was lucky with my particular interests to have come of age when I did and to have gone to the colleges I did. Because even out at the University of Iowa there were very sophisticated film clubs that screened all sorts of works you could see nowhere else in town (though Iowa City did have four movie houses, unheard of in a small Midwest town).

But the best time to be had in that wild, mad decade known as the '60s came when I spent my junior year at New York University, which happened to fall during the academic year of 1968-69. The university had a program called "Junior Year in New York" (something like going abroad for those who couldn't afford Europe). I lived and went to school in Greenwich Village (there was, at the time, a much more prestigious NYU campus in the Bronx, which the university closed down long ago and has been reborn as the Bronx Community College; the Village campus was considered a poor relation).

Considering all the other things going on in Manhattan at the time, that fateful year was probably one of greatest times to be living in New York, and especially in the Village, for an arts-mad young person (right up there with the 1920s or the 1950s, I'd guess). The intrepid revival houses — The Thalia, the Bleeker Street Cinema and, on the Upper West Side, The New Yorker — were going strong, showing classics or avant-garde foreign works just making the rounds in America.

All of these memories came rushing back to me during the time I spent with Lopate's challenging anthology. There are lots of wonderful writers gathered here, presented chronologically. There is some falling off in quality near the end — but who could compete with the greats who worked in the years from the 1930s to the '70s. You might also quibble with some of the pieces Lopate has chosen to represent these splendid talents, but you can't argue with his choices of writers.

Agee is here, of course, less prominently than one would imagine; the same can be said of Pauline Kael, who was the second most influential critic in my (early) understanding of how film worked.

Other contributors worth reading include Vachel Lindsay, Gilbert Seldes, Cecelia Ager, Otis Ferguson, Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Arlene Croce, Jonas Mekas, Stanley Kauffmann, Andrew Sarris, Susan Sontag, Dwight MacDonald, Renata Adler, Vincent Canby, Molly Haskell, John Simon, Brendan Gill, Penelope Gilliatt, Walter Kerr, Paul Rudnick, James Harvey, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis.

There are also a number of surprises, people I never imagined wrote about the movies, ever, as well as people I'd never heard of before. In the first category would be Edmund Wilson, Robert Sherwood, H.D., Lincoln Kirstein, Meyer Levin, Paul Goodman, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and John Ashbery. The latter includes Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, a married couple who wrote together, and Barbara Deming.

Lopate, also a passionate movie critic (among other things), was on a mission in putting together this collection, as he notes in his introduction. "This book celebrates film criticism as a branch of American letters. Movies may be only 100 years old, but already they have generated in this country a body of extraordinary critical writing that honors the best belletristic traditions of our nonfiction prose. It is arguable, in fact, that in the last 50 years more energy, passion and analytical juice have gone into film criticism than into literary criticism, or probably any other writing about the arts. This anthology attempts to uncover the narrative trajectory by which the field groped its way from the province of hobbyists and amateurs to become a legitimate profession."

In this passage, Lopate points to one of the regrets I have about what's happened to the arts since that movie madness of the '60s. Who would have thought that the passion for films and rock music would so completely smother the other arts? I, at least, had imagined that they would be two passions among others, with literature, theater, classical music and dance still all part of the mix. How naive of me.

The other point that this anthology makes, completely by indirection is why so many Jews have been attracted to writing about films. A goodly number of women have also been so swayed; and beginning with Ager, who was the first woman to be employed to write about films for Variety, they, too, have mostly been Jewish. It used to be said that until the 1970s, the assignment at a paper that few people wanted was writing about the movies (my, my, how times have changed), and that's why it often fell to a woman. As always, they made the most of the assignment.

But could these assignments have also fallen to the Jews as odd people out? I don't think we'll ever know in either case, but like the women, the Jews made the most of things as well.

I understand the attraction Jews have always had to the new, influential, jazzy medium of film as producers and writers and directors. Perhaps assessment, which is so much a part of the Jewish psyche, got worked in there, too. But one thing's for sure, Jews are well-represented in Lopate's collection. (And by the way, he's Jewish, too.)


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