With his new book, “American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now,” New York essayist Phillip Lopate has compiled nearly a century of groundbreaking and highly entertaining film criticism. Rather than simply bring out the usual suspects (Kael, Canby etc.), Lopate includes a diverse selection of fiction and non-fiction writers (James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion) exploring their cinematic obsessions. Moving from Vachel Lindsay’s first ruminations on DW Griffith to Libby Gelman-Wexler’s withering take on “Dances With Wolves,” “American Movie Critics” hits some fascinating high points. I spoke with Lopate last Friday; he makes two Bay Area appearances this week — Tuesday, at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, and Wednesday, in conversation with David Thomson at Cody’s Books in Berkeley.
SF360: So why this book?
Phillip Lopate: I always wanted this to exist but it didn’t — something that would collect all my favorite pieces of film criticism into a single volume. I also really wanted to approach film criticism as American letters. So I included people who were great writers but who weren’t working film critics such as James Baldwin, Edmund Wilson, Paul Goodman and John Ashbery.
SF360: Who was the towering figure of American film criticism when you were a young film buff in the 1960s?
Lopate: Andrew Sarris. I remember when his issue about American movies in ‘Film Culture’ hit the stands and it suddenly seemed like I had a road map. Sarris was a kind of bridge figure between Europe and America. Because he was so tuned into the French perspective of Andre Bazin and the whole notion of mise-en-scene, he really launched me in a way. Later on, I discovered Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, James Agee, and Otis Ferguson, one of the secret heroes of my anthology.
SF360: But is there still film criticism of the Pauline Kael or James Agee caliber?
Lopate: People are still very passionate about movies and film criticism is still very much alive. Geoffrey O’Brien, Gilberto Perez, James Harvey, Kent Jones and daily writers like Manohla Dargis are doing a wonderful, serious job and bring a lot of insight. There is still a fair amount of stimulating film criticism that’s being written.
SF360: Can you give me a specific example?
Lopate: Okay, for instance, I got in the mail an essay about ‘Mulholland Drive’ by someone named Vernon Shetley. I’d never heard of this p’erson, and it was published in a literary magazine called ‘Raritan. I had written about ‘Mulholland Drive’ and David Lynch but I thought he had understood the movie better than I had. So I think people are still grappling with films that are mysterious and complex.
SF360: Do you think that reviewers still have the same clout that someone like Pauline Kael had?
Lopate: Well, I think to some degree you’re fantasizing how much clout they really had. Audiences are getting used to a ten-million dollar advertising campaigns and something that doesn’t have that kind of money is tuned out. So it becomes up to the reviewer to bring smaller films to attention. I think that film critics at one point occupied a bigger space in public culture but I don’t think that their word took a small film and turned it into a big success. It’s a tough task. Basically, my respect for anyone who can turn out elegant, eloquent prose week after week about movies is substantial.
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