Posted at 1:14 PM on June 9, 2006
by Euan Kerr
Clive James produced a great theory about film critics last Sunday in the New York Times Review of Books. In his review of Phillip Lopate's "American Movie Critics:An anthology from the silents until now," James divides critics into two camps: those who have theories, and those who don't:
It quickly becomes obvious that those 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. This book proves that history is with you: perceptions aren't just more entertaining than formal schemes of explanation, they're also more explanatory.
He makes a lot of sense.
I have been dipping into the Lopate book for a couple of weeks now, and it's a delight and a challenge. The delight is to read the likes of Mencken, Kael, Haskell, Canby and Baldwin.
The challenge? Movie criticism has changed a great deal over the years. Sometimes a reader has to time-shift a little to catch the cultural references. It's also a challenge sometimes to read about a movie you haven't seen, and are unlikely to see.
I usually resist reading up on a movie I am going to see, preferring to see it for myself and then catch up with reviews and other material later.
The reviews in the anthology are intriguing, but I have a feeling I will be hauling this thing around for years as I gradually check the movies mentioned off my "to see" list.