Film Criticism

I’ve had some disparate thoughts bouncing around my head as regards film and especially film criticism. Maybe this started as I began to re read chunks of The American Cinema, by Andrew Sarris.

Now this is a book from, I believe, 1968. The latter Sarris came a bit unglued—and seemed to have lost all the rigor and uncompromising aesthetic he once displayed. The most fascinating aspect here is to see whom he champions and whom he dismisses. With the Sarris of this era, however, there is always a reason for his choices, and it pays to delve deeper into his aesthetic arguments before rejecting them.

CABIRIA, directed by Giovanni Pastrone, 1914, Italy.

His categories, the famed “pantheon”, followed by “the far side of paradise”, and then “expressive esoterica”, through to “less than meets the eye”, are full of surprises and unexpected insights. That he would stick Kubrick into “strained seriousness” is at first glance, rather absurd—and yet—lets remember this is the early Kubrick (the last film Sarris examines is 2001) and a perspective from this era is most illuminating.

“…it is more likley that he has chosen to exploit the giddiness of middle brow audiences on the satiric level of Mad Magazine.”

Something suggests to me that this more right than I might have thought. Kubrick “is” middle brow, often, and he does probably announce more than he ever has delivered. Later films such as The Shining tend to deliver less and less on each viewing, while supplying iconic pop images and catch phrases (Here’s Johnny,. etc). Sarris is, in the same section, quite hard on Sidney Lumet,too, and as I re-read it I must say I found myself simply disagreeing.  Thirty some years on, films such as The Hill and The Fugitive Kind look far better than they did in ’68. Lumet’s humorlessness (per Sarris) now seems a decided virtue. His leathery lack of emotional release—(humorless again)—serves his films in the 21st century in a way I doubt any critic could have prophesied.

The “pantheon” is filled with directors almost nobody would argue with: Welles, Ford, Hitchcock, and Lubitsch. But he also adds Max Ophuls, a choice I would agree with, and Renoir, a choice I would not. But two I simply think dont belong, are Flaherty and Griffith. That is perhaps a topic for later—but lets give a quick think on Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang. From the view of 2010, how do these directors hold up? I’ve never entirely ‘got’ Hawks, I have to say. Reading the Sarris again, I found myself aware that I had been, maybe (!) myopic in how I looked at Hawks. There is no single film that one can point to, and call a masterpiece. One might suggest Red River, or even Rio Bravo, or Only Angels Have Wings, or His Girl Friday…but none of them quite stands by itself. Hawks comedies, in fact, require an entire chapter all for themselves. From Bringing up Baby to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the very vocabulary of film comedy was formed under Hawks — and reacted to by everyone from Capra to Lubitsch to Tashlin, and maybe most significantly Leo McCarey. Of course, no doubt Hawks reacted to them as well…or at least to Lubitsch. The point being that Hawks for all his great variety, made only one film, and made it over and over and over.  Red River the same as His Girl Friday? Well, yeah, in a way. For Hawks was always thinking “film”, and his clean headed angular way with actors and with shots never varied. Ive always loved his penultimate film, Red Line 7000, an odd race car melodrama with James Caan. Maybe I love the sheer emptiness of the script, but find something reassuring in that emptiness being served to me through a Hawksian mise en scene. The eye level camera that both brings intimacy, but a kind of odd propriety as well—after decades of use, becomes as classic (and oddly subversive) as Ozu and his seat on the tatami. So, does Hawks belong in rarified air of the all time film masters? Ahead of Sirk and Ray, lets say?  I don’t know. I do think Hawks was among the most consistent creators of a film logic as has ever existed. In that sense he is a lot like Hitchcock. Do I think Ray made a couple films that were maybe better than any of Hawks? Yeah, probably. And Sirk, how to talk about Sirk?  Forty years on, to reflect on Sirk is a all by itself a major undertaking. The issue of Cahier that included the famous article “The Blind Man and The Mirror, or The Impossible Cinema of Douglas Sirk” can be looked at now, still, as the quintessential take on Sirk.

KISS ME DEADLY, directed by Robert Aldrich.

So, Fritz Lang, then. Has the Langian ouevre held up?  I would say yes, and then in a hushed tone, as I turn away, I might say, well, and maybe not. But Lang was making films before they had a word for ‘director’. He ‘is’ film, and his direction is so deeply embedded in our unconscious that its a bit like trying to talk about the Tyndale translation of the Bible…was it really any good or not?  Lang is simply beyond this level of critique.

So why go on this way about rating directors? I think (and putting aside for a minute the entire debate about auteur theory at all) that it is because when we compare and contrast the vast amount of film at hand, the potential for digging more deeply into aesthetic theory seems to scream back at one. There is something important, for example, in re-thinking a Kubrick. Why? Because of the undergraduate adulation heaped upon him for usually wrong reasons, and because the politics and economics of film production have served to obscure serious analysis of a kind that Sarris was attempting, and that increasing failure contributes to a general deterioration of consciousness about art. When Sarris says of Kubrick: “His unfortunate tendency to misapply Ophulsian camera movements to trivial diversions…” one must acknowledge the truth of this. Now, the debate can then switch to a deeper level by arguing that perhaps it was Ophuls who pretentiously moved his camera to synthetically establish a shallow sense of “beauty”. The point is that seriousness is exactly the quality that modern (at least US) audiences and ‘reviewers’ lack. It is a culture of ‘fans’ and the lurking tendency for agreement has as its first by-product a vulgarizing of taste.

Sarris often is polemical; and his take on Wilder, for example, is really all about making a point and not (I don’t think) about the actual lasting value of Wilder. There are directors who rank quite high, which now it is hard to even begin to understand (Minnelli for one). And yet, if we sit back and reflect and view again, the Minnelli films that Sarris points to (The Bad and The Beautiful, or Two Weeks in Another Town) one must then extend the reflection to his musicals…and to a Fred Astaire himself. If Mankiewicz made Guys and Dolls into the most negation-privileged musical of all time, he was only extending a template established by Minnelli. Four decades later the subliminal pain in Guys and Dolls renders it among the more watchable of American musicals. So, we return to Minnelli, and try to fathom the forces at work in his crude sense of near hysterical storytelling. In the end I may still think Minnelli a decidedly minor director, but I cant escape his shadow nonetheless.

Or take John Sturgis, a director I perversely defend and who I think, along with Richard Fleisher, is deserving of far more thought. Sarris saying that maybe Sturgis was striving to become (without knowing it) the American Kurosawa, is a spot on observation and clarifies Sturgis’ entire output…though I still rank him rather higher than Sarris. And again, it calls attention to the over-valuation of Kurosawa, who in turn can profitably be seen when juxtaposed to Kubrick or the later Robert Wise, or even William Wyler. In an era where utter garbage like American Beauty or Crash (not the Cronenberg) are held up by supposedly serious critics as important film, it is with some urgency that a lengthy re-think of the likes of Edgar Ulmer or Joseph H. Lewis or Don Siegel seems much needed. A director like Sam Fuller continues to mystify me. I sit back on occasion and think, well, in some respects these films are really just terrible. And yet, if one thinks through his entire body of work, there is somehow no denying Fuller’s importance…its just in what sense does that importance manifest itself.

THE SEARCHERS, directed by John Ford, with John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter.

Its easier to look at the films of Val Lewton now, and see the genius at work, then it is to really confidently evaluate a film such as There Will Be Blood—which for all its exceptional qualities, still nags at one for reasons unclear yet. The British new wave hasn’t held up, but its useful to think why and how. Where to put a Kazin after watching Polonsky’s The Force of Evil? The screen acting of John Wayne when we watch Stagecoach or The Searchers belies the convential wisdom of Wayne as a goofy right wing cartoon. It also begs us to further, again, think about John Ford.

So consider this a first very brief foray into film criticism at Gunfighter Nation. Perhaps a long debate and art war will ensue and an enriching and more precise sense of filmic taste come from it all.

—John Steppling

Well, I think it’s interesting to reconnect to the energy of the 1960s and I agree whole heartedly with all but your assessment of Kubrick and his work. A real analysis of Kubrick would take a good deal of time but the breezy dismissal of him as low-brow or the object of undergraduate adulation only makes me smile. There’s no question Kubrick is a major artist who embraced the economic and cultural realities of his time and place to make a series of intellectually intricate and formally brilliant, multi-million dollar art films. And the ideas in his films are far from sophomoric, unless that adjective applies to the Freud who wrote Civilization and Its Discontents. From The Killing through Eyes Wide Shut each of Kubrick’s films is an exploration of the ideas Freud laid out in this late work. Man is the creature who must self-repress in order to survive. The Eros and Thanatos that would otherwise wreak havoc are sublimated into technology that, despite appearances, leaves us as dissatisfied as ever, our inner lives unchanged. That’s, of course, a sketchy thumbnail of Freud’s thesis… but anyone familiar with the book understands why we might want to distance ourselves from its fairly upsetting conclusions.

The visual motifs Kubrick deploys to explore this fertile set of ideas retain a remarkable consistency—the Classical architecture of the Chateau in Paths of Glory returns in the statuary of Claire Quilty’s home in Lolita…and in the ornate décor of the eerie after-world that closes 2001…again in the theater fight in which Alex and his droogs wage war against Billy’s rival gang in Clockwork Orange…throughout the 17th century European settings of Barry Lyndon…the Colonial buildings of Saigon during the Tet offensive in Full Metal Jacket…and the Boschian mansion where the oddly unerotic Bacchanal takes place in Eyes Wide Shut. The “Ophuls-ian” tracking shots through the maze of trenches in Paths of Glory repeats in the chase through the labyrinth of The Shining, Nicholson’s Jack Torrance limping after his son in an oedipal rage that shows up somewhere in every Kubrick film, chin tucked, eyes gazing up in a rictus of desperate aggression.

Kubrick’s work is devoid of lyricism and I would say he is uninterested in dramatic narrative, ultimately, or character as it’s usually understood. He uses writers—great (Nabokov) or not so great (Stephen King) as the case may be—the way he uses composers. And cinema, as it might be described by someone like Sarris, is not really so interesting to him either. Kubrick is ultimately interested in the formal beauty of his films that achieve the internal integrity of a work of plastic art. They are art films, really, and they achieve the object-ness of a painting or a sculpture while playing with the temporal and performative aspects of cinema, and also connecting with the Freudian critique of technology, art and culture that animate them. I wish they seemed dated to me but they really don’t. I can’t count how many times the ridiculous characters who shuffled through the corridors of power in the regime de Bush reminded me of Kubrick’s primitive Generals Buck Turdgison or Jack D. Ripper, or the smug Joker from Full Metal Jacket, or the hapless yuppie played by Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut or even, in rare cases, nobel but deluded Colonel Dax from Paths of Glory.

If Kubrick is vulnerable it’s that his work is almost autistic in it’s chilly formalism—he’s all shell, no mollusk. But if you want to write him off you must first recognize who he is and who he isn’t. Eyes Wide Shut is not his best film, certainly, but the rejection of it by the critics seemed close to hysterical. Sensitive self-images were being probed remains my feeling. Stanley Pollack, Alan Cummings—there was some interesting work being done in that film. And the film ends with a scene between the two mannequin-like movie stars moving towards each other with a resigned vulnerability that is as close as Kubrick came to lyricism. It felt to me like pretty much the best we can do, at least if the possibility of satori is removed from the table.

As for Sarris, I don’t know. Other than poets who write about other artists—Ted Hughes, Charles Olson, Seamus Heaney, Louise Gluck, et al—the critic of culture is inherently conservative rather than transformational, is my honest view. No matter how much he or she postures as a member of the left he or she writes to cushion the impact of art, and to blunt its radical claims, surrounding the artwork with cultural microphages of discursive thought. The immediate function of the act of critique is to break the body-spell that art forges with its audience and to undermine the intimacy and the direct knowing that art requires in order to generate actual transformation. We get “context” and “preference”…things are compared with other things…and we fall back into the realm of relative values and in that realm nothing really matters.

—Guy Zimmerman

PATHS OF GLORY, Kirk Douglas.

Well, perhaps I need to quote sarris a bit more. Notwithstanding the fact that it made you smile, I think we can’t traffic in ad hominum statements like “there is no question Kubrick is a major artist”, since, well, thats exactly the question (or one of them ) at hand. I think it’s useful to quote Sarris again first; “His metier is projects rather than films…Stanley Kurbrick shares with claude lelouch a naive faith in the power of images to transcend fuzzy feelings and vague ideas.”
I tend to agree with this, and this is not to say I dont think there are valuable aspects to Kubrick’s output…but lets go over a few of this films, Lolita is terrible and I cant believe even admirers of Kubrick think otherwise. Clockwork Orange is unwatchable, mostly. I would tend to see the latter as a weird exercise in nostalgia in a sense; of a London, swinging or otherwise, that Kubrick longs for via the (again) middlebrow puritanism of Anthony Burgess. Barry Lyndon always seemed to me mostly boring.  Strangelove indeed is memorable, but i suspect those Buck Turdgison moments owe more to Terry Southern than Kubrick…and certainly to Peter Sellers. I say this since they never appeared again in Kubricks work.

As for critics being conservative? Im confused. You mean if a poet writes about poets he might not be, but if a “critic” does, he is? I think from Mathew Arnold to Robert Hughes, this hasn’t at all been the case. Maybe Im confused.
So, no, not low brow, but middle brow? yes. IF one examines the early Kubrick…the telltale signs are there. The Killing just isnt as good as a dozen other sunlit noirs of the era. And Paths of Glory has always smacked of a weird reactionary strain that stands astride authoritarian motives seen clandestinely  as virtuous. And both seem lacking in the intensity of pure paranoia one finds in Joseph H. Lewis and Jacques Tourneur.

I want to focus more on the statement that critics are there to break the body-spell of the artwork and audience. Beyond the fact that I don’t actually know what that means, I would argue then that NO criticism should be written. But that clearly isnt what you mean…since you write a good deal yourself. So where does that leave us?  The need for coherence in criticism is great, and i think its pure mystification to wander in realms that suggest what Kubrick wanted to do was make movies that werent really movies. But to be clear, it DOES NOT relapse into relativism to compare things, this is just pure nonsense. Critics like Sarris, who again, has always pissed people off, at least until he went brain dead, serve to illuminate and not mystify. I can find a dozen places where I strongly disagree with Sarris—but not a single place (yet) where I think he is not clear and consistent.  Again, we have a couple straw horses in your defense of Kubrick. Who said anything about Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents? You made that comparison and then blame an avoidance of its themes on Sarris. No, Sarris thinks Kubrick minor. I dont think he is THAT minor, but I dont rate him as major. But the reason I dont is because of films like Full Metal Jacket…a film twenty-something undergrads all seem to like, the same ones you see with Jung’s Dreams and Reflections in their back pocket. Its a lazy and stupid film, notwithstanding Lee Ermery’s wonderful turn as a DI. Well, playing himself playing a DI.  Its interesting to watch Jack Webb’s The DI as a comparison. Sarris desribes Webb as visual shouting combined with verbal whispering. That in the end neither Webb nor Kubrick really had much to say about the sadism of the military only points up the inherent shallowness of both.  But at least Webb had a deeply perverse streak and a sort of proto-hipster fifties white boy flirtation with the dark side…you know…jazz, negros, crime, which he acted out eventually in a tiresome half hour cop show that set the stage for a billion others. Before that however he made two fascinating films, Pete Kelley’s Blues and the original Dragnet film, with himself and Richard Boone.

Sarris will annoy a lot of people, but then so did Cahiers du Cinema. And Sarris cribbed a LOT from that magazine. IF the point of re-thinking the autuer theory as it was found in Sarris, via the French, is to form a better and more precise critique of today’s work, then I think this is worth doing and in fact I think without it we run headfirst into the mush minded new age sort of blather you find at a lot of blogs, or the techi smart boy fan writing, or you just find the reactionary reviewer. Sarris extended the French vision as well as anyone could to the shores of the US. And that insistance on genre and mise en scene, and on the visual style of otherwise neglected directors like Hawks and Sirk and Mann is really of titanic importance.

Im curious to hear what others have to say about Kubrick. In spite of wonderful elements…the bartender in The Shining for example…the total is not the sum of its parts, and in fact I dont think its even close. It’s fascinating to look at the following artists have and how they deal with those followings.  David Hockney, for example made a useful adjustment to de-mythologize himself, and unfortunately it sort of de-energized his work. In film, Coppola never dealt with his success at all, and after the rather amazing mess of Apocalypse Now, his career just melted into lithium dreams. Partly this was from over-exposure in the media. Kubrick was always too precious for me, and not making many films seemed a bit of a pose after a while, especially when he refused to leave England to shoot the second half of Full Metal Jacket and instead imported palm trees to the  emerald isle. Now, 2001 remains a watershed in film history, but maybe for reasons Kubrick had no part in. The lack of CGI and the real integrity Kubrick displayed in making the set painting a priority, still gives the film an aura of authenticity that even its other failed elements dont totally cover up. Whenever I think on Kubrick I am reminded of Lindsay Anderson, another hugely overrated director who didnt come back from the virtues of This Sporting Life, and instead made another sort of post grad pop hit with If…. Anderson had the good fortune to have a young and imposing Richard Harris for Sporting Life. It was the last good fortune he has had.  But he is useful in comparison with british directors of this era; Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz and Jack Clayton. The British New Wave…of which Kubrick was not a part…and to see how badly in general they have held up. It’s worth an entire essay to examine all of them. Yet, even if they dont seem so fresh today, they do exhibit a genuine comittment to place and time and all have, for better or worse, a social conscience. But Reisz made, eventually, Who’ll Stop The Rain, perhaps the best Viet Nam film of all, and Clayton did Pumpkin Eater off a Pinter screenplay. Kubrick did Paths of Glory in ’57, Spartucus in ’60 and Lolita in ’64,.  Tony Richardson did Look Back In Anger in ’59, The Entertainer in ’60, and Lonliness of the Long Distance Runner in ’62.  Reisz did Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in ’61 and Night Must Fall in ’64, Schlesinger did Billy Liar in ’63 and Darling in ’65.  He made Midnight Cowboy a good many years later in the US.  How do all these compare?  I’ll take Long Distance Runner, for all its faults, over Spartacus or Lolita. In fact I will take Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I will even take The Entertainer.
Now, we can debate the comparison idea again, but without analysis based on history…and context…you get what? Mostly you get nothing I would say. Let me conclude the Kubrick debate here with my sense of his work as having been adrift from his time, not of it. Freudian themes, perhaps…certainly Oedipul ones, but to my mind rather vulgarized versions of them. That said, he did do Strangelove and he did 2001, for all its many faults, and he had a certain dystopic gene in him that I admire.  But his work seems bloodless to me and his aesthetic rather TOO formal most of the time. He is the pop Peter Greenway in moments, and that cant be good…because its not good to be even the real Peter Greenway.

I want to add a few more thoughts later on related Sarris ideas. But till then…

—John Steppling


Well, I do simply disagree entirely with your assessment of Kubrick’s work, film by film and as a body of work as well. But there’s no second guessing taste and defending artists one values is a thankless task. Kubrick also is difficult to defend in that I understand what it is that people don’t respond to in what he does and respect it. Poets who write criticism are often writing from within the artistic enterprise rather than standing outside it. Good critics are also, I suppose you could say and maybe that’s true.

BBut what determines value in art moving forward is always entirely young artists making their work. If Kubrick’s approach to filmmaking proves useful to them his impact on the history of world cinema will continue to grow. If his concerns are peripheral to young artists he will slip into obscurity…and maybe later that will shift…or not. What is said about his work in discursive exchanges is pretty irrelevant it seems to me, to the history of art. And that is the claim that criticism makes. That it is about separating the wheat from the chaff. Nonsense. Critical writing contributes its energies to the master discourse. That’s what it’s about and that’s why it serves a conservative agenda.

How can an artist of your caliber question a statement about the “body-spell” of art? Do you really not know what I mean? Read a poem by Wright and what happens is an intimate connection that incorporates the critical mind but is also a deeply embodied experience. Your plays always do this very strongly with audiences. That’s what they exist to do. Communicate directly in a way that’s much deeper than discursive thought. And this direct communication is corrosive to structures of power and it’s transformative. And the role of the critic, again, is to “wake us so we drown.”  Just not sure what’s so unclear about these idea, particularly to you.

I really don’t know how to respond to statements about Kubrick not understanding about sadism and the military. Really? Paths of Glory reactionary? No kidding. Hmmm, what else…I brought up Civ because I find it interesting that a single set of concerns could underscore an entire body of work…can’t stand Lindsey Anderson…can’t stand Greenaway either, really… I like Who’ll Stop the Rain okay but I’d hesitate to call it a major film…


—Guy Zimmerman

I am young as film critique and analysis goes.

But Kubrick was the first director I bothered to know the name of, it was what started my journey from watching film not only as entertainment and he was certainly the director people of my generation loved to tell others they loved. Especially my jazz student friends loved to sit and watch A Clockwork Orange again and again.

I want to say that I love this discussion, I love that one can start talking about directors as belonging to this or that category, how serious were they, as Polanski once said about the polish filmschool: we had fistfights in the hallway about whether Hawks mastershots were better than Fords, I welcome a high tempered discussion about this because it has been lacking, in my 30 years I haven’t been forced to think this way, not at film school(same school as Polanski, although the fistfights has stopped) and not in life.

Now, I would personally put Kubrick in Sarris’ category: “less than meets the eye.” This category is the one standing right above “Strained seriousness”. I would put him there together with David Lynch. Film is hard to talk about, and hard to categorize because it can be everything. But I can’t stop thinking about how other directors I value more would have dealt with Kubrick’s films. Lets take The Shining as an example. If, let’s say, Fritz Lang made this movie, it would’ve been a film about a man going mad, about the society and forces making him mad and not simply a place that makes everything happen.

I always get the feeling that in Kubrick’s films, there is a lot of painting going on, yes. And I feel this has to do with him not “feeling” what he is doing, he is trying to do as “correct” and clever a film as possible. I feel Kubrick is calculating without really feeling the depth of the human psyche.For instance in Eyes Wide Shut. What I miss in that film, or what I think I would’ve wanted, is that the main characters are merely tourists in this landscape they are trotting. And of course, okay, thats the plot, a seemingly happy marriage gets disturbed and they explore their unconscious sex drives that are new to them or whatever. But Kubrick himself is a tourist in this landscape. And it feels generated out of jealousy between the couple. And the scenes for like the scene when Cruise walks into this secret club dressed in a cape, it is strangely very disconnected to what he want or desires uh…I dont know how to talk about this…but its like supposed to be “shocking”. That’s not a journey for the character, its more a hitchhike you know will lead you safely back to the starting point, like a journey that doesn’t change you.

Anyway, I am a film school graduate who never watches television, haven’t owned a TV the last 10 years cause there is nothing to watch, I think we are a lot of young people who are starved for discussions like this, and its not at all pointless to critique film in this way. I think films such as Winters Bone and There Will Be Blood are signs that we are awakening after a long CSI sleep, and dare to be critical of society again. And critique must follow up.

—Gunnhild Steppling

Well, this is very interesting Gunn, and I wish I had more time to respond adequately. But let me just convey my own experience of The Shining, which is a film that has more to it than meets the eye. At first viewing I had the sense that things really weren’t adding up. I didn’t understand what Kubrick was trying to say. I often have this feeling with, yes, David Lynch or any number of other stylists who have value but somehow never enough, if you know what I mean. But with The Shining I felt as if something very specific and interesting was, in fact, being articulated, and so I kept watching the film.

There’s one camera move in particular that seemed to unlock the film for me. It’s about 2/3rds of the way through. Wendy goes looking for Jack and she finds his “work” all typed up beside his typrewriter and as she looks at the one repeated line we cut to a steadycam shot that pulls out from behind a pillar. The camera moves forward subjectively for a few steps and then the figure of Jack detaches itself from the field of view. The subjective shot has suddenly shifted into something quite eerie and odd. We are still in subjective mode…but the subject we thought we were has now appeared in the scene itself. We have become the “Overlook” hotel. And this begins to explain quite a lot. The scene unfolds and Wendy knocks Jack unconscious and drags him into the walk-in freezer. And a while later one of the “ghosts” unlocks the freezer. Again something has shifted. We, in our ghostly form in the film, have become corporeal, able to do things like open freezers so that the “horror story” can continue towards its climax.

What Kubrick is commenting on directly here, and in a very deft and original way too, in my view, is the aggressive bloodlust that drives audiences into theaters to see “horror” films. Our concealed sadism wants to be satisfied and Kubrick wants to draw that out in order to show it to us. To me that’s very cool and with more time I could highlight how this connects with other motifs in Kubrick and to the Freudian ideas I sense always animating his work.

And when I say painterly, what I mean isn’t a visual quality but more like a sculptural quality if the temporal dimension of cinema is taken into account. Or, rather, I want to point out that it’s NOT a dramatic or a narrative quality…and if you can’t swing with cinema being used in that non-narrative, non-dramatic way, Kubrick won’t be your guy.
But there’s a lot in Kubrick I still have the sense I don’t fully understand. I do have the feeling that every last detail is fully considered and fully intended and that I am having the experience Kubrick wanted me to have…and I don’t feel that about Lynch, for example.

In any event, vive le difference…!

—Guy Zimmerman

I agree with you about Stanley Kubrick eeing the great constructor. And he is a very good one. And yes, film has to have certain leads in front of others…is it supposed to be the characters, or the intrigues or the camera, or the ideas. All films contains all parts, but who’s the lead differs. I think it would be an interesting discussion to now talk about what then, makes a film good, what qualities, what content, what arc, what form etc. Cause I think the very best succeeds in all, and one doesn’t have to have it “ones own way” to enjoy the film. I certainly enjoy Kubrick, and I have enjoyed showing him to others, like my little brother. I’ve even seen 2001 and The Shining and Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket several times and I LOVE Dr. Strangelove. But what you describe in those shots you’re mentioning, is for me clever camerawork. It is what you always think of (if you’re any good anyway): in what way, whose angel/pov, what move, what breath is the camera supposed to act to underline the story best? I watch The Shining as one of the best genre movies I know in the horror style. I think to analyse it through Freud, is a little wishful thinking. It might add up, and it is cool you read it that way, I think good films are supposed to lead people to think and ask questions and imagine parts.I don’t know, but I’m over in my “feeling section” now. I often try to get a grasp of the auteur, like who made this, what was the reason. For instance, if we take Paranoid Park by Gus Van Sant, I get the strong feeling the reason the film happened was his obsession with these naive youngsters on their skateboards, thats what he wanted to film, and thats what is given the most weight in the story. When it comes to Kubrick, I get the feeling he has everything carefully mapped out, that he feels pretty good about himself, that he is probably upper middle class, that he likes to travel in others misery and craziness but is way too well-adjusted to be of any interest himself. Now, this might be bullshit, but I think that film noir was a great time in film history because of the crazy paranoid German Jews, and post-Vietnam (with the country in shock), etc. It’s why Norway will never make great films because its just too well-adjusted, its a hobby for the youngish creative. Well, film comes from amusement parks, and most films are not meant to awaken people, its just supposed to amuse. I just left seeing Predators… But the starting point for this argument, was Sarris’ list of film directors. And of course its hard to list something like films, but it is also very interesting. I think it also makes me sad, because who today would be on that list? Ive watched maybe like 400 movies that I think are better than what came after 1980. If we talk about directors living today that I value or people around me value, like The Coen brothers, The Dardennes brothers(fr), Bruno Dumont, Claire Denis, Antoine Fuqua, P T Anderson, Audiard, Haneke, Canet, Scorsese, you name them…None of them would have made it to the pantheon as after Sarris’ criteria? Many of them has a lot less in their body of work… I dunno, I would root for Fuqua, just because of his mad anger…

Just remembered that I’m the only one sitting with the book in my hand…the Pantheon is: Chaplin, Flaherty, Ford, Griffith (disagree), Hawks, Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Ophuls, Renoir (disagree), von Sternberg, Welles.

then the Far Side of Paradise is: Aldrich, Borzage, Capra, Cukor, de Mille, Edwards, Fuller, la Cava, Losey, Mann, McCarey, Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Sirk, George Stevens, von Stroheim, Preston Sturges, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh,

then third: Expressive Esoterica: Boetticher, de Toth, Donen, Donner, Dwan, Garnett, Holt, Phil Karlson, Lewis, Mackendrick, Mulligan, Gerd Oswald, Arthur Penn, Sherman, Siegel, Siodmak, Stahl, Tashlin, Tourneur, Ulmer, Roland West.

fourth: Fringe Benefits: Antonioni, Bunuel (both I think are higher up), Chabrol, Clair, Clement, Eisenstein (should be in the Pantheon), Pabst, Polanski, Rossellini, Truffaut, Visconti.

fifth, Less Than Meets the Eye: Huston, Kazan, David Lean, Mamoulian, Mankiewicz, Milestone, Reed, Wellmann, Wilder, Wyler, Zinnemann.

sixth, Lightly Likeable: Berkeley, Cornelius, Cromwell, Curtiz, d’Arrast, Delmer Daves, Goulding, Haskin, Hathaway, Kanin, Burt Kennedy, Alexander and Zoltan Korda Leisen, le Roy, Schaffner, Sidney, Stone, Walters, Whale…

—Gunnhild Steppling

15 responses to “Film Criticism

  1. John Steppling

    Since this is getting a bit long, I will just add my comments here.

    Sarris simply used those catagories as a means to survey the trajectory of American film from the early silents up through the sixties. I doubt they were meant as more than that, a tool for examining the way certain film-art has lasted, or not, and why.

    I happen to think this is important. I think that aesthetic theory include not just a religious aspect, but a political one as well. I had said at the outset that Sarris would irritate people. When a director one admires is given short shrift — its natural to want to dismiss the author. Thats what many do with Sarris and its a mistake.

    One of the things I worry about with certain directors is their popularity (its a reason i begin to second guess myself regards Winter’s Bone — its had too many great reviews). A Kubrick has long reigned supreme among mainstream(ish) film makers and its a worrying aspect to his entire body of work. Usually it signals an apolitical bent — and thats actually an aspect of Kubrick that I find suspect. In any event, I really wanted to focus on the very idea of criticism. I take great issue with Guy’s idea that critics must be reactionary. By that logic, actually, all artists would be, too. Now this is also a confusion of reviewer and critic. And with film that confusion is close to the surface all the time. But the Kubrick appeal to educated liberals is clear — what is less clear is exactly what he is saying. Notwithstanding a secret de-coding of him, I think he DOES make narrative films, and thats a problem if we are being asked to ignore the narrative and re-imagine the film another way. Now Guy is a very astute critic, and Im not arguing his points per se, only that I think re-evaluating artists is an ongoing and important function of any critical approach. I dont see genuine critics….manny farber to Empson on shakespeare to Bly on poetry, etc….dont see of them as trying to “blunt” the experience of the artwork.

    So in the last forty years how would one rate directors like Mike Hodges, say? From Get Carter….a wonderful british gangster film– and very “northern”…to Croupier? Hodges is something akin to a latter day Phil Karlson. Hodges gift though is, again, a deep sense of place. He is economical and direct and while not as exhilarating as a Fuqua or a Siegal, he is certainly smart and edgy and allows his films the time to establish that aura of the authentic.

    But Hodges might be best understood if one could go back and look at a few earlier british gangster films…Brigthon Rock through to Bellman and True; as well as noir from Siodmak and Karlson and Lang. Only then do we possess enough knowledge to really refine our own reading.

    It would be hugely useful to screen a few directors that Sarris quite likes….but who have totally dropped off the radar: Andre de Toth,Gerd Oswald, or a John Stahl. None found a niche cult the way Ulmer did, or even Siegal. Be fascinating to ask why.

    How does one look at Preminger now? I screened several preminger noirs (really not quite noir, but rather dark melodramas) at the film school in Poland. The reaction was luke warm. The reaction to Siodmak very positive. Criss Cross emerges as a far greater film than Laura or Angel Face. I like both of those latter films, but they now seem a bit lifeless and stuffed full of wal-mart quality emotions. Preminger’s evolution is worth thinking about, though. By the time of Bunny Lake is Missing, Preminger was approaching a reincarnated Sirk, crossed out with DeMille. He was making large budget wide screen films that on the surface seemed well crafted if not a bit fetishized regards a small menu of camera movements and positions.

    So, criticism is something we never catch up with. Without it we are left to sort out billions of images bombarding us without any guide. And we all needs guides/

    Ok…so no obsessing on the lists. Sarris will remain the best intro to new wave French thinking on film. He is also a critic who embraced unpopular positions and defended those positions with great vigor.

    • John Steppling

      from HARVEY PERR:

      The “Less Than Meets The Eye” section is in its way a response to the Cahiers putdown of the bourgeois cinema of the likes of Claude Autant-Lara, Rene Clement, Marc Allegret, a super-aware condemnation of skill over personal cinema. That, of course, has its value. And I agree with Steppling that Sarris’s observations on all the directors are worth noting (as I said, it was my film bible for a long time). But the difference between American Cinema and French (European, Asian) Cinema is this: ours is a cinema based on skill. To our uninformed eyes, everything from France looked better until Sarris and the cahierists told us otherwise. Some of us were already there. We saw most of the movies men like Sarris and Farber and Agee drew our attention to (usually on the bottom half of a double bill) and, if we were discriminating enough, even when we were too young to fully appreciate what we were doing, we remembered thinking more of the second feature than the main attraction. Anyway, we can thank these critics for shedding light on the subject, and for bringing a serious consideration of film as a form of personal expression to its present fruition. Which still doesn’t stop the morons from making their voices heard louder than those who worship at the altar of Art. But what got lost in the process of putting down mere skill (or glossiness or uninspired intelligence or whatever you want to call it) was the value of a movie made for no other reason than providing good polished entertainment for the masses (who may have been as stupid as they are today but were, generally speaking, more articulate and literate than audiences today and much less overwhelmed by sheer consumerism). And, in its heyday, there were all sorts of impersonal films that were nevertheless smart and brisk and kinetic. And, if the screenplay was good, and the cast was hand-picked (and even a studio’s contract players were more interesting than the ad hoc casting we have today), and the cinematographer knew his stuff, you could come up with a pretty good movie. In many ways, these were perfect little movies, despite the fact that they had little to do (consciously or unconsciously) with art, movies like The Maltese Falcon, Dodsworth, Meet Me in St Louis, Laura, The Letter, Hold Back the Dawn, The More the Merrier, The Best Years of Our Lives, A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve, The Marrying Kind, To Have and Have Not, Bringing Up Baby. Just a short list, but I have purposely mixed up films by “personal” and “impersonal” artists, by hacks and good movie-makers, by serious artists and men who blew cigar smoke in the face of art and still made pretty damned good movies.

      I’m just starting. But I’m hot and I’ve been up all night. So.
      To be continued.

  2. John Steppling

    Ok, well, I will respond to Harvey’s comments….which are not here………but i trust they will be at some point, although out of order.

    The Less Than Meets The Eye catagory was always fascinating for while its true this was a reaction of sorts (to the Cashier attack on what it saw as bourgeois cinema….though they made a point of not attacking jacques Becker as I recall)….it was also for Sarris the perfect place to express his position on over literary film (hence his great dislike for Richard Brooks and David Lean). In the case of Brooks, it a bit unfair….but as I said, his points were well taken (Brooks is actually further down in Strained Seriousness). But Less Than Meets the Eye was the place to puncture over inflated reputations — Huston and Lean and Carol Reed, and frankly I cant fault him for any of those positions. If he is tough on Kazan, I think its easy enough to see the reasons (starting with Force of Evil)— it may be that Wild River is the best summation of Kazan’s failings when Brando wasnt around. Even semi misguided projects like Viva Zapata, survive as essential viewing because, mostly, of Brando.

    In any event, Im not sure I really agree with this idea of making movies for no other reason that just entertainment. I say this because all films have meaning — all films, and all art, good bad and mediocre — have resonance and reflect wider meaning than perhaps the film-makers intended or understood. This is the germ of much Frankfurt School critiques.

    All About Eve was a Mankeiwicz, and a good one, and I doubt Mankiewicz only wanted to make entertainment — given his rather inflated sense of filmic destiny. In any event, for Sanders alone (as Addison de Witt) the film deserves to be remembered. But I think the point of much French thinking on American film, was that minor directors of genre — minor at the time — from Ulmer to Siegal to Aldrich to Ray and Sirk and Siodmak — let alone Sam Fuller — were to be thought as expressions of both their personal vision, but also as expressions of something in the collective psyche of America. (Its worth noting that early Caxhier writing about directors like Fuller was done without having had subtitles and many of those guys didnt speak english….so with Fuller it was all about ‘style’. The end of House of Bamboo for example. That shoot out was gobbled up by Godard — and we see it in Breathless. But House of Bamboo is pretty hard to sit through otherwise).

    The anti literary bent was useful. It allowed for Lang’s American period to be better appreciated. But you’re right that it was also a kind of anti bourgeoise take — favoring the directors who werent “sissy” like…..Ford and Hawks, and Huston, too. Nonetheless, the likes of Cukor and Lubitsch were quickly embraced as well. At the heart of Cashier thinking though, was always going to be John Ford. It was never going to be a Cukor. That said, what is most intriguing about Sarris was an appreciation for guys like Blake Edwards and George Stevens and Preston Sturgis and King Vidor. All of whom I would probably argue he liked more than the french did.

    • John Steppling

      from HARVEY PERR:

      I don’t know how to get to the blog. I am still not secure about cutting and pasting. But I’m going to continue my spiel anyway.

      So, when you consider the American Cinema in terms of its emphasis of skill over personal style, you will also notice that Less Than Meets The Eye
      or Strained Seriousness or Lightly Likable have this in common with those on The Far Side of Paradise and even in the Pantheon: Almost every film director has
      in his (her/ but, written when it was, mostly his) filmography any number of clinkers. So Sarris’s great accomplishment is in defining the ways in which
      film makers bring their own vision to projects while others merely make movies as best they are able to, often with spectacular results despite the fact that
      they are always outside the region of art. Therefore, Lang is no less an artist because he made films like American Guerilla in the Philippines and Beyond A Reasonable
      Doubt and Wyler doesn’t become an artist because he made some of the best “Hollywood” movies ever made. Why, though, is Wyler Less Than Meets The Eye while
      George Stevens is on The Far Side of Paradise. What Sarris does do is bring one’s attention to the fact that Stevens was better when he was just making movies than
      when he was making “important” movies but, in the process, he gives too little credit to the post-war middle period of his career: A Place in the Sun and Shane and even Giant (they are remarkable demonstrations, as it were, of impersonal art, because they self-consciously “artistic” but yet guided more by technical skill than real feeling).
      Also, and there are still not enough people who claim to love cinema who have learned the lesson, Sarris educates us to understand that a true artist doesn’t die because
      success eludes him/her, but may, in fact, have grown in many ways. I hate those who think Welles never made a greater film than Citizen Kane. Despite the tacked-on ending which, for reasons I’ll never understand, Robert Wise proudly claims was his work, The Magnificent Ambersons is a far more innovative film. If only Welles had, as he once said he was interested in doing, shot another ending, years later, when Cotten and Baxter were still alive, from the point of view of looking backwards. Alas, we are stuck forever with the Wise ending that RKO insisted on. More importantly, Welles’s Shakespearean films are totally underappreciated. Othello, Macbeth, and Chimes at Midnight may play havoc with the breadth of Shakespeare’s language, as I’m sure academics feel for the most part, but the films are truer to Shakespeare than anything Olivier or Branach or Zeffirelli ever brought to the screen, and, cinematically, they create Shakespeare’s world in visual terms that I’m sure, if he had lived, Shakespeare would have approved of.
      There are those who still think Hitchcock’s best films are The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Sure, they belong on that list of perfect little movies I made the other day, and they are great demonstrations of Hitchcock’s sheer genius, but his greater work was yet to come. Rear Window is the one that thrills me most because each apartment
      Stewart spies on represents another side of his psyche, The film is about what a man goes through to achieve some sort of wholeness and the witty ending seems to ask if, in the end, it is worth it. North by Northwest? Again. A perfect little movie: Great screenplay, great cinematography, ideal casting, but, because a genuine artist is at the helm, much more than just that. My own favorites are Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train. I like that Steppling includes I Confess because it may very well be Hitch’s most personal film. Dial M For Murder may be one of his worst, but, if you’ve seen it in 3-D and see what Hitch does with the spatial relationships between people and objects, you see that, even in a trend like 3-D, Hitch was taking his art seriously and how interesting that it came at just the time that the trend was dying out. One of the reasons a film should be seen exactly as the director intended it to be seen.The criss-crossing between the two Charlies at the beginning of Shadow of a Doubt and the similar criss-crossing between Walker and Granger under the credits of Strangers are extraordinary ways to thrust us into the action before we know anything. I’ve always loved the scene in Shadow when Uncle Charlie confronts Niece Charlie in a dingy Santa Cruz restaurant where Niece Charlie’s former classmate is the tired and bored waitress and we get to see in bas relief how sheltered Niece Charlie is from reality (like working to make a living). And when her mother literally has a nervous breakdown in front of friends and family, it is so subtly and discretely done that one almost doesn’t notice that it is a breakdown. Notorious combines the plasticity of cinema with the kinetics of cinema and creates, between two movie stars – and Grant and Bergman were just that, movie stars – one of the most perverse relationships in film history, which is mirrored by the equally perverse relationship between Claude Rains and his mother. His glossiest film and, ironically, his deepest.

      Renoir is another one who gets the full and fully deserved analytic treatment. He too is often looked at as the man who made Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game and then did nothing of consequence after those two. (A NOTE TO STEPPLING AND GUNNHILD: Why do you think so little of Renoir?) My feeling is that if you don’t see the beauties of French CanCan or The Golden Coach then you don’t really understand Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game. If you’ve never seen his Diary of A Chambermaid, it is even more perverse than Bunuel’s version. And A Day in the Country may be as perfect a film as has ever been made by anybody (it’s just that, like Rossellini’s The Miracle, it is less than hour long and can’t fit into any category that people are comfortable with). I suppose, if one prefers Bach and Beethoven to Mozart, then it does become a
      question of taste. And The Rules of the Game is Mozartean cinema.

  3. John Steppling

    Good notes Harvey, and I will try to answer some of this in some sort of order.

    First……Im still a bit confused about skill over personal. I dont think its at all that easy to seperate those qualities. But that said, let me note the Stevens vs Wyler question you raise. I think Stevens was more personal, for one, and had a much clearer signature — even if Shane and Giant look very stilted and odd today. Wyler was just a sincere hack in the end. And I would say, about as impersonal as one can get….although Fred Zinneman is close.

    I dont exactly love George Stevens, but I do see his ‘style” at work in all of these films…A Place in the Sun is quite stunning, actually, even if bordering on the grotesque. But it cant me mistaken as anyone else’s film.

    As for Welles; geez, I could write about Welles all week and only scratch the surface. I love Lady from Shanghai..and its maybe my favorite welles though I dont think its his best film. Its just that I love his Love for rita hayworth and that one shot on the boat, looking down on her in her white swimsuit in the moonlight is just as perfect and awe inspiring as cinema gets. I also like that it was Tyrone Power’s boat and that he is an extra in that party on the beach. Anyway, it captures something ineffable and wellesian I think. Now, I agree totally his Shakespeare’s are wonderful. Othello is magnificent, and Chimes at Midnight also. But what saved Welles, even in his less perfect work, was intelligence.

    Hitchcock is fun to write about. I think North by Northwest is his best…all things considered, but his own favorite was Shadow of a Doubt, which is also his most perverse I think. Im a fan of some of the later ones, too. Torn Curtain and Frenzy. The Saboteur is a great film as well, and a bit neglected I think. Strangers on a Train has one of the greatest opening sequences of any film ever. Im less in love with Notorius, but I appreciate your observations. Its fascinating to see how scorcese misses the point when he does his homage in Shutter Island. Another great double bill is Shutter Island and North by Northwest or Vertigo.

    But Sarris was always about the personal — in terms of a filmic signature. I don’t know what he actually thought about the technicians of film — though he saw hitchcock as the supreme example. He rightly views a Curtiz with some disdain…..and I think his recognition of neglected directors such as Phil Karlson is to his credit. Karlson had (as sarris notes) bad luck with projects (Elvis in Kid Galahad) but he did a handful of stark and hard edged films throughout the fifties that look better than ever. Phenix City Story is the best (and vastly better than the reactionary Mann noirs that are so celebrated….T Men and the like). Karlson also did Tight Spot, The Brothers Rico, and Gunman’s Walk — all worth a second look at this point. And now that I mention it, lets look at Anthony Mann again. I might argue he has been overrated and for reasons that remain unclear to me. John Alton was DP for a good many, and I maintain the most overrated and self absorbed cinematographer of all time. Great shots, but usually at the expense of the film. Mann’s westerns have some value; especially Man of the West, 1958, with gary Cooper. A sort of faux Lear exercise that is about as dark as this genre allows. The Jimmy Stewart westerns…Naked Spur and Bend in the River (et al) have never seemed as compelling as Budd Boeticher’s versions of the same formula. And later Mann, for all his intelligence and grasp of style, somehow never made films that really hold an existential posture — or question — the way Boetticher’s do. Mann’s late work seems very glossy and indifferent in a way now.

    Alright — well, as for Renoir. I would say Rules of the Game IS mozartian and then remind one that Charles Ives said mozart was too effiminate. I say this half joking, but Renoir made “great” films that have always put me to sleep.

    We could talk a lot about Rosellini too, and about those late histories, which should be shown in order over a month I think. The Louis IX piece is as good as anything in the history of film I think.

    Ok, to sum up here; I think you touched on why Sarris is important, even when we all disagree with him. And that is because he held up a consistent and articulated aesthetic about auteur theory and about how to extract the wheat from the chaff in a medium chock full of chaff….and heavily mediated by finance. A Budd Boetticher is wildly underappreciated and I think its because his sense of violence and male honor is so tinged with Freudian revulsion, as well as filmic adoration. Nothing in hawks even comes close in that respect. Nothing in Peckinpah or Ford. If one were to watch High Noon, a really NOT good film made with total impersonal technique, and then watch Naked Spur, and end with Seven Men From Now, you would see the way in which Boetticher achived something very special and perculiarly american in a genre that always announces itself as mythic. Zinneman is a snooze, Mann talented but without moral weight, and Boetticher both morally committed and technically sound. He had a vision and the others did not.

  4. John Steppling

    errol flynn not ty power by the way 🙂

  5. guy zimmerman

    I’d like to add a plug for The Tall T by Boetticher from a script by Elmore Leonard, his first, I believe. So much subtly in that film and Randolph Scott and Richard Boon work well together. Seven Men from Now is pretty great too, though.

    There’s something to be said here about how personal style is both where an director becomes memorable but is also vulnerable. Peckinpah, for example, is always over-the-top…but in a completely original way. Major Dundee, for example, is awful in parts but also transcendent too, enough so to have inspired Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian. Hitchcock is remarkable for his consistency, where even his lesser works are pretty stunning. Lets not forget Psycho or The Birds, please. I Confess and Shadow of a Doubt are, for me, where he rises highest, but Vertigo is unbelievably haunting. Chris Marker underscored this in Sans Soleil, which is a great film-essay. Bruno Kirby is maybe the most upsetting villain but Farley Granger kind of lessens Strangers on a Train for me.

    Welles. After Kane everything was tragically difficult for Welles, and it’s amazing he never lost his spark. Arkadin is a pretty amazing piece of work. Welles playing Arkadin in this terribly applied stage makeup is itself a genius inspiration. The supporting cast isn’t as good maybe as Shanghai, but Welles is much better. His lousy Irish brogue always damaged that film for me though Everett Sloan and especially Glenn Anders are so astonishingly good and the cinematography too. That shot you mention, John, following the cigarette as Welles’ character lights it and passes it to Hayworth. Also the scene with Grisby on the hills above Rio. Amazing stuff.

    Renoir is like Henry James only with more of a sense of humor. Rules of the Game is about class and wealth and its odd how difficult that can be to depict accurately, and for reasons that are interesting too. There’s a correlate there with Kubrick, who was interested in the issue of social control – power and how it’s wielded…

  6. I think it’s right to be suspicious of popularity except when it becomes a reflex reaction. But if we can admire a film like Winter’s Bone, it may be a sign that we understand better what a good film is. It is still not as popular (or, damned if I know why, not as well received)as Toy Story 3. Only Armand White (NY PRESS)dared to tell it like it is, that it’s a consumer product for a consumer
    audience (Toy Story 3, that is, which I hated as much as Steppling hated Hurt Locker and Avatar).
    But getting back to The American Cinema.
    Hawks. Right again, Steppling. He made the same film over and over again. But isn’t that what artists often do? Work out their obsessions? When you make as many brilliant variations on a single theme as stylishly as Hawks has, he deserves our attention. I don’t think even his greatest admirers would suggest that he wasn’t capable of making shit. But he was working in Hollywood where he was a gun for hire, like so many directors, so how could he not make shit once in a while? But something Hawksian comes through in the bad films as well as the good films and that makes him an auteur.
    I also agree that making movies for entertainment purposes is a virtue, but I mentioned only that some really good movies, made by serious artists,
    were not conscious explorations of style.
    Griffith. Jim Morrison’s favorite film was Hearts of the World. That was what made me think of Griffith as being better than I thought he was. That and seeing Broken Blossoms, the one film that doesn’t make me squirm when others say that you have to understand when Griffith was making films.
    I have no problems with silent cinema. I love Keaton, Murnau, Von Sternberg, Chaplin, Clair,Lubitsch,Lang, Eisenstein, Dovzhenko etc and the best of their films still seem fresh and inventive but Griffith (even putting content aside) bores me more often than not. But there is a terrible Bogdanovich movie – Nickelodeon – about the early days of making movies, which has,at the end, as a set piece, the world premiere of The Klansman (Birth of a Nation), and it includes a scene from the film and, in that context, I wept. Maybe Griffith has to be seen in snippets and not in the full-length films but one can’t dismiss Griffith without acknowledging that he was making some extraordinary contribution to film technique and film style. He has dated more than any of his contemporaries and he was a sentimental racist and it’s hard to tell which was worse. his sentimentality or his racism, but he was always inventing ways to fit into a single frame everything he wanted you to see.
    Some of the film makers in the Expressive Esoterica section deserve a higher place in the book; Boetticher and Karlson and Lewis and Tourneur and Siodmak and Mulligan are every bit as good as some of the directors on the Far Side of Paradise and sometimes better. More consistent than, say, Preminger or Minnelli.
    Minnelli. I will always have a soft spot for him. I love his musicals and I love his melodramas (I hate his comedies). But he started out as a Radio City Music Hall set designer and that side of him comes through in too many of his movies. I have lost interest in him primarily because I think I once liked him too much. But I still prefer The Band Wagon to Singin’in the Rain when I think of the great musicals. And the fair sequence at the climax of Some Came Running is flashy and obvious on one level, subtle and sublime on another. And Meet Me in St Louis is one of the iconographical films of my childhood.
    Why is Michael Curtiz Lightly Likable and Wyler Less Than Meets the Eye? Maybe it’s that Sarris prefers vulgarity over good taste, and I wouldn’t blame him if that was the reason. The reason could also be Casablanca. But is Casablanca really better than The Letter or Best Years of Our Lives?
    Preminger. Let me tell you a story about Preminger. His agent knew my work and suggested that we meet and we did and we talked about my writing a screenplay for a film based on Last Exit to Brooklyn. This was 1964, mind you. And, in the course of our meeting, he kept receiving phone calls on his speaker phone from a cab driver who had pitched an idea to Preminger while taking him home one night and Preminger liked the idea and paid him to develop the idea. So forget the Teutonic image that his performances as a Nazi suggested; he was a truly democratic and very intelligent man, one very open to new ideas. And there is an arc from Laura to Bunny Lake is Missing that is a testament to his underrated talents. At Fox, his noirish films were quite decent but, though Preminger in general holds up better than Dassin, Dassin’s noirish films at Fox looked better then and looked better now than Preminger’s. How can you look at his career and explain away Skidoo or Hurry Sundown? But then he made Advise and Consent and, even better, Anatomy of a Murder. Murder is interesting because, when I first saw it, I distrusted it because of its popularity, but the years have been kinder to it than I would have imagined. I genuinely think of it as a genuine American masterpiece and, like those “perfect little movies” I talked about, it was a great screenplay with a pitch-perfect cast, assured cinematography and a terrific jazz score by Duke Ellington, all clearly an inspiration to Preminger. This film just gets better and better. And talk about wonderfully perverse couples: Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara.
    Mankiewicz. I did not suggest he wasn’t serious. He was very serious. His screenplays for A Letter To Three Wives and All About Eve reach the level of Restoration Comedy and People Will Talk was not far behind, but he was more a writer than a director, he never integrated the two in the ways that Wilder and P. Sturges did, and, if you listen, you can hear that his screenplay for Cleopatra is literate and dry, but the film itself destroyed Mankiewicz as Ben Hur destroyed Wyler. Neither was born to make spectacles.

  7. In the above, I left out a “not” and it should read “making movies for entertainment purposes is “not” a virtue.”

  8. John Steppling

    Ah, I have to add a couple thoughts to these wonderful comments.
    First; all that Harvey says regarding Expressive Esoterica is spot on. Its always been my sort of secret group of favorite directors. Mulligan deserves quite a bit more praise than he gets (Daisy Clover is a minor masterpiece in fact). As for Preminger….I actually hold out a lot of respect for Preminger and I include Bunny Lake and Anatomy of a Murder among his best work. ‘Murder is quite remarkable when seen now, and almost Hitchcockian in its shot selection. The neo noirs, Angel Face and Fallen Angel in particular, are flawed and tend toward an unfortunate melodramtic tone, but both have elegance and taste.

    All one need do regards Griffith’s bizarre status is to watch Caberia…the silent Italian epic, to see how much better it is than Birth of a Nation. Caberia in fact is a singular achievment and well worth trying to see if you havent.

    Glad you mentioned Armand White…..because while he can be amazingly wrong headed, he also is fearless and often quite perceptive (read his excellent review of Slumdog Millionaire….almost the only real frontal attack on that worthless film).

    Dassin always struck me as a fake, in a sense. And something was just ‘wrong’ with his mise en scene. If you watch any of a dozen lesser noirs….Josepth H Lewis’ Gun Crazy, or The Big Combo, or Siodmak’s entire output, or even Ulmer or a personal favorite of mine, Paul Wendkos’ The Burglar (screen play by David Goodis, his only one I believe) you see what I mean about Dassin I think. The Burglar is a weird Welles pastiche and a mess, but with Dan Duyea and Jayne Mansfield, it is quite a fascinating and rather disturbing piece of late noir.

    Film is the most mediated art form….finance affects every aspect of it and the fact that it began (as I think Gunn noted) as a seaside novelty, you have to approach it from a rarified place or risk losing all sense of how to read the best films ever made. Val Lewton is a case in point I think. Ghost Ship, I Walked With a Zombie and 6th Victim (or is it 7th?) are all amazing films…..symbolist poems as Geoffrey O Brien put it.

    And your notes, Harvey, on mankiewicz are inspired and exactly right. I would only add that I still maintain Guys and Dolls is something close to the first post modern musical.

    Guy’s notes are also really good and I think its a worthy topic to re-examine Peckinpah. I think probably The Getaway is actually his best film. And it would serve as a good companion on a double bill to Point Blank. Both are visceral films in the best sense of the word.

    I did a half a year on Westerns at the film school and at the end of it, my favorites were The Searchers, One Eyed Jacks and Man of the West. I didnt however show any Boetticher because I couldnt find any in time. And that reality is one worth pondering.

  9. A few more things. Renoir and Ophuls and Murnau make the pantheon (deserved, I’m not complaining) but Rene Clair (who made as many movies here as any of them) is Fringe Benefits; Polanski would, if Sarris had written the book just a year or two later, be out of Fringe Benefits and into one of the other categories (after all, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are classic Americana). The beauty of Ophuls being in the pantheon was the recognition that his American films were regarded by Sarris as highly as his German and French films were by the rest of the world and that they preceded the great French period. The irony is how few Americans know Letter From An Unknown Woman or Caught or The Reckless Moment – and maybe nobody knows The Exile (another of those films I saw as a child, not knowing Ophuls or, for that matter, the name of any director, and always remembered it, as I did the Lewton films, as something special; it was in Sepia which alone made it unique and, when MOMA screened it about 20 years ago, it was in mint condition, but in black and white which made me wonder if any sepia print still exists, but either way, even TCM hasn’t got its hands on that one).
    Ophuls and Clair, like Lubitsch and Murnau, brought their European sensibility to American cinema, but Renoir seemed to revel in the American style and, though he only made two artistically successful American films (The Southerner and Diary of a Chambermaid), he did go abroad to make two of his most beautiful films (The River and The Golden Coach) in English.
    Question: If Renoir is Mozartean, who is cinema’s Beethoven, its Bach, its Brahms?
    Lubitsch was once as well known (“that Lubitsch touch”) as Hitchcock and the fact that nobody much cares about him today tells us so much about how the world has changed. To me, his films are as fresh as ever and Cluny Brown is the best comedy of manners ever made in this country. And, before Minnelli, he was film musical.
    Von Sternberg. In the early 60s, which is when I discovered him (or, rather when his films became available to revival houses), he was the great stylist. By the 80s, I had lost interest in him in the same way I lost interest eventually in Minnelli (the artificiality kept getting in the way). But, about five years ago, I looked at Devil Is A Woman again and I thought he can’t be written off, but I wish more people knew his pre-Dietrich silent films and I wish someone would strike a new print of Anatahan.
    And I wish more people judged Von Stroheim by Foolish Wives or Blind Husbands or The Merry Widow than by Greed.
    Kazan. More than Brando. The fact that he ratted on friends will always bug me, but his contribution to stage and film acting was revolutionary. Check out A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to see how he gets Fox’s contract players to do their very best work (you can see Kazan’s genius as a director of actors better that way since he is not working with the actors he knew so personally from his theater experience) and A Face in the Crowd stands up very well (again,without Brando). But, of course, Polonsky’s Force of Evil makes any Kazan film look anemic by contrast. Still,just as a thought, it would be interesting to see what Garfield and Gomez would have been like under Kazan’s direction.
    Irving Lerner could use renewed interest. Murder by Contract and City of Fear are pretty riveting and they represent Vince Edwards’s finest hours.
    But,hey, why don’t we start a new blog: Who is in your pantheon? Each of us should submit a list.

  10. John Steppling

    welles is beethoven, and Ophuls is brahms……..and maybe Hawks or Lang is Bach ..

  11. John Steppling

    no, HITCHCOCK is bach !

  12. John Steppling

    ok, the pantheon:
    Lets start with sarris:
    chaplin, check
    (put him in fringe benifits)
    ford, check
    griffith, NO, put him in racists.
    hawks, check
    hitchcock, check
    keaton, check
    lang, check
    lubistch……uh……….NO, put him in far side of paradise.
    Murnau, check
    ophuls, check
    renoir, NO, put him in far side.
    von sternberg…..NO, put him in far side.
    Welles, check.
    I would then add:
    Bresson, without question.
    Dryer, without question.
    Ozu, without question.
    Pasolini…..yes, though its close. He is a complicated case.
    Bunuel, without question.
    Bergman…..with hesitation, but he goes into the pantheon.
    Antonioni….with some hesitation, but he belongs.
    Mizaguchi, for sure.
    Rosellini, for certain.
    Wilder….yes, he makes it, too.
    Fassbinder, absolutely.

    Then it gets harder:
    I think the following would go into far side of paradise….
    Polanski, Rossen, Godard, Boetticher, Val Lewton (as a producer-autuer), Tourneur, Sirk, Renoir, Von Sternberg, McCarey, Cukor,Lubistch, Preston Sturgis, Melville, Abe Polanski,

    and then expressive esoterica: Kazan, Losey, PT Anderson, Karlsen, John Sturgis, Penn, Siodmak, Ulmer, Mankiewicz, Tashlin, Mulligan, Donner, Von Stroheim, Dumont (who may yet go higher), Vidor, Tay Garnett, Joseph H Lewis, Mackendrick, Visconti, Brooks, Mann, Herzog, Von Syberborg, Scholondorf, Dos Santos, Kubrick, Peckinpah, Hellman, Ray, Preminger, Lumet,Coppola, Corman, Browning, Bellochio, Skolomowski,Reisz, Boorman,

    Less than meets the eye:
    Huston, Lean, Curtiz, Stevens, Donen, Siegal, Robson, Stahl, Cohen Bros, Dassin, Furie, Almodavar, Cassavetes, Bertolucci, Jewison, Wyler, Wellman, Hathaway, Zinnemann, Wenders, Boyle, Frears, Tarrentino, Reed, Resnais, Woody Allen, Cameron, Bigelow, Akira Kurosawa.

    and well, there are too many. Im sure Im leaving off a lot I will later want to add. I reserve the right 🙂

    Eisenstein probably should be pantheon, too. Raoul Walsh I cant decide, same for Fuller. Maybe expressive esoterica. Also Gerd Oswald and Blake Edwards. What to do with Nick Roeg? Not sure.Fincher probably already should be expressive esoterica. Richard Fleisher should be expressive eso I think. Gary Oldman for one supurb film? Hard to say, and the same for Brando.

    Byron Haskin another who is hard to place. Or Claire Denis. Kiyoshi Kurowsawa I think is an expressive eso guy, too.

  13. Gunnhild S Steppling

    now, john…did you think of directors up to our dates? Just not many of them passing through?

    I make my list but of course, I have a lot of holes in my education here…


    Far side of paradise:
    Val Lewton

    Expressive esoterica:
    Gary Oldman

    Less than meets the eyes:
    Von Trier(or…we should invent a cathegory for him…megalomaniacs that sometimes can entertain..)
    David Lynch(oh, I am probably too kind to Lynch…he should go in the same invented cathegory as Von Trier)

    Then there is a bunch of them I to be fair have to see more of, like antonioni, ozu, passolini, dryer, haneke, cantet, audiard. I also want to mention single films that I apprecciated much lately: un prohet, let the right one in, there will be blood(allthough didnt like magnolia so awaiting where to put him), winters bone.

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