Great, Essential and Never Coming to a Theater Near You

ozu2What are best-movies books really good for?

See if you can guess who wrote this, and when:

“Right now, movie critics have an advantage over critics in most other fields: responsive readers. And it can help you to concentrate your energies if you know that the subject is fresh and that your review may make a difference to some people. I suspect that my reviews gain rather than lose from the speed and urgency of making deadlines and reaching the public before the verdicts are in on a film.”

Would it help to know this passage was written after those urgent deadlines had passed, in order to introduce an anthology of the pieces they’d produced? Or that said anthology went on to win a National Book Award, and was the first book about movies to do so? Of course your guess will partly depend on how many movie critics’ names you know—but the chances are good that any movie critic whose name you know owes a debt to this one.

Give up? It’s from the 1973 introduction to Deeper Into Movies, an influential collection of more than 150 essays written between 1969 and 1972 by famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. Influential not just because Kael’s prose and priorities have affected an entire generation of movie critics, whether they realize it or not, but because since hers were published, movie-review collections have not really been the same.

What did Kael mean, exactly, by “responsive” readers? That by taking her word for things, and supporting or boycotting accordingly, moviegoers could literally become the stewards of American culture? That the New Yorker mailbag was more likely to contain offers of marriage or murder for her than for the magazine’s critics of the other arts? If the latter, this advantage, such as it is, might be one that today’s movie critics still enjoy. Even if you don’t know many movie critics’ names, or take their word for anything, you may read their work fairly regularly. If you deplore them, then you definitely read them, and deploring them is certainly a response. You’ll probably agree that dance critics, say, don’t really get that kind of action.

But by anthologizing at all, movie critics must betray those potential gains Kael derived from her cherished deadline-urgency. In an anthology, the subject is inherently no longer fresh, and the verdict has been in for a while. Some critics prefer retrospection as the means for concentrating their energies. Some have compensated for the unlikelihood of their reviews to make any difference (let’s be honest) by finding ways to toughen their anthologies up. Recent books by Derek Malcolm, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kenneth Turan, and Roger Ebert, some of the most widely-read English-language film critics now working, all organize collections of their reviews around a single, specific kind of advocacy. These critics’ books don’t explicitly criticize the movies they think are bad, but instead wave flags for those they want to be sure you know are very, very good. These are the new wave of best-movies books. Are they good for anything?

Introducing his latest, The Great Movies II, Roger Ebert writes: “I have cited before the British critic Derek Malcolm’s definition of a great movie: any movie he could not bear the thought of never seeing again. During the course of a year I review about 250 films and see perhaps 200 more, and could very easily bear the thought of not seeing many of them again, or even for the first time. What a pleasure it is to step aside from the production line and look closely and with love at films that vindicate the art form.”

The implication that we’re supposed to buy his book just to keep Ebert’s pleasure refreshed, or at least to thank him for seeing so many lousy movies so we don’t have to, may be tempered by an awareness of that inspiration to which he refers: Derek Malcolm’s Personal Best: A Century of Films, by the longtime film critic for England’s Guardian newspaper. And Malcolm, in his introduction, takes an unequivocally hard line: Very quickly he explains his intention “to remind people that the cinema didn’t start with Star Wars,” and that “if you don’t know who Ozu was, it is rather like saying: ‘Who’s Bach?’”

Malcolm’s book describes 100 films, including such unpredictables as Broadway Danny Rose, The Battle of Algiers, and Behind the Green Door. It was published in 2000, two years after the American Film Institute announced its much maligned all-time top 100 list, including such predictables as Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and yes, Star Wars. Since then, critics seem to have fallen over themselves to best each other’s book-length bests-lists. In a few short years we’ve had Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, Los Angeles Times and NPR critic Kenneth Turan’s Never Coming to a Theater Near You: A Celebration of a Certain Kind of Movie, and two books so far in Ebert’s The Great Movies series—or should we call it a franchise? There have been other books by other critics, too, but let us just say these are the best.

Whether or not Tokyo Story is the Well-Tempered Clavier of moviemaking (yes, close scrutiny strains any analogy between film and other arts), Malcolm is right that it and the other films of Yasujiro Ozu are worth knowing—not least, we suspect, because face-time with them and their kind is getting harder to find.

As Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, “Billions of dollars are now spent annually making and promoting a few dozen movies—most of them dogs—that the media obligingly make visible and label important, and everything else is consigned to relative oblivion.” Kenneth Turan writes, “I’ve noticed an increasing disconnect between the films I recommend person-to-person because they’ve meant the most to me and the ones most people have managed to see. The pressures to experience the blockbusters of the moment are too great and the time that smaller films remain on screens is so finite (the good really do die young in this business).” But, as Ebert says, “Sooner or later, if you care for the movies enough, you get to Ozu and Bresson and Renoir and stand among the saints.”

Of the best-movies boosters, it’s safe to call Rosenbaum, Turan and Ebert the big three. For starters, each of their books is literally big–never less than 400 pages, which manifestly ups the ante on Malcolm’s trim 180. With that in mind, it’s striking to discover that they don’t even come close to picking all the same movies. Sure, Rosenbaum agrees with Ebert on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and with Turan on Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, but each has a different angle on his appreciation, and, for the most part, a different list of films to appreciate. That’s probably because it’s easier for critics to agree on what sucks than for them to achieve consensus on greatness. Each in his way humbly disclaims about the ultimate subjectivity of criticism, and even on the potential futility of attempting an ultimate bests list—but none of them seem at all wearied by the endeavor.

The books offer not just these writers’ own lists, but eager and singular affirmations of listmaking—affirmations, actually, of the idea that by now there’s more greatness out there than you probably realized, so much that you’ll need help making room for it all in your culture-cluttered life. As a practical matter, the bests-book has a kind of Cliffs-Notes quality; it is a useful means for sorting through the ever-enlarging morass of DVDs and repertory runs. In more extreme applications it has the aura of a compulsive neurological problem You might call it obsessive canonism disorder. According to Ebert’s figures, he must watch 1.2 movies per day every day all year. How many do you watch?

Taken together, Rosenbaum, Turan, and Ebert’s books unsettle the conventional wisdom that today we face a glut of superfluous movie reviews and a scarcity of lasting movies. Yes, inherently, to read them is to work up a kind of frustration: Oh yeah, I really have to see that…and that…and that…and, oh shit! But none of the authors is trying to make you feel guilty or overwhelmed. They’re only trying to help.

By necessity, each is a lecturer. Ebert often seems to be addressing a survey course full of undergraduates, perhaps evenly divided among those who don’t want to be there and those who figure it for an easy A. His own film literacy (or is it, more accurately, the encyclopedic knowledge of irreversible movie geekdom?) sometimes eclipses or becomes his subject. But he’s perceptive enough to anticipate his students’ wavering attention, and isn’t above making a try for some vernacular voice of their experience. Of Amadeus, he writes, “There is something about Mozart’s apartment, especially toward the end, that reminds you of the pad of a newly rich rock musician: The rent is sky-high, the furnishings are sparse and haphazard, work is scattered everywhere, housekeeping has been neglected, there are empty bottles in the corners, and the bed is the center of life.” You could say he tries too hard, but you would also have to admit he’s right.

By contrast, Rosenbaum, who openly aims to bridge a gap between academic and popular movie interests, comes across like the leader of a graduate-level seminar, where the student-teacher ratio is low by design; everybody’s there on purpose and because they’ve earned it. And in such a setting, the gloves sometimes need to come off. “The Disney-Spielberg-Cameron route into history that dominates Hollywood blockbuster cinema,” he hotly writes, “is to start with the cliched archetypes that a place and time already evoke and then never stray too far from these boilerplate specifics for fear of challenging the audience. If you show viewers what they think they already know, and flatter them for already knowing it, the coast is clear for shuttling them briskly through the plot specifics like the key points in a theme park ride.” It’s a mixed blessing that any moviegoer likely to be insulted by this (piercingly correct) assessment is unlikely to be reading it in the first place.

To belabor the student-professor metaphor, that leaves for Turan’s crowd those folks who may once have taken courses from either of these first two profs but whose academic days are behind them now—still curious, they’ve been busy in the real world and grown a little fuzzy on the material. Turan accommodates his readers’ sensibilities, or helps encode them, with a whiff of enlightened nostalgia. Looking back on the American independent movement, he praises films “made in the belief that being smart, thoughtful, and adult isn’t necessarily a barrier to reaching an audience.” Looking back on looking back, through film retrospectives in particular, he asserts, “not only is this a necessary antidote to the flavor-of-the-moment detritus that is such a large part of today’s entertainment industry, it is also nourishing and sustaining in the way I once thought all of film would be.”

In other words, between these three critics, there is what you might call a hierarchy of brows. Ebert holds firm at low (he’s sort of a populist; he does TV), Turan takes middle (he works from Los Angeles, the capital for better or worse of American moviemaking; he does public radio) and Rosenbaum flies high (he cites Harold Bloom).

Each plane of the hierarchy has its delights. Ebert gives us permission to adore Planes, Trains and Automobiles: “Some movies are obviously great. Others gradually thrust their greatness upon us.” He tells us David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations “does what few movies based on great books can do: create pictures on the screen that do not clash with the images already in our minds.” These remarks are not high points of nonfiction style, nor especially sophisticated analyses of their subjects, but they’re powerfully plainspoken, and not at all wrong.

Turan exudes an appealing humanism, as when he endorses High Fidelity as “further proof of how funny we can be when we’re at our most despondent,” or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red as “the best kind of adult fairy tale, a romance conceived and executed by a pessimist…bound to be both different and convincing.” He tends to talk a lot about how people feel and behave, on screen and off, and seems always to hold movies accountable to the truth of our inner lives.

Rosenbaum is not afraid to examine the fine points of technique, as when he listens so attentively to the overlapping dialogue that is Robert Altman’s signature style. “In all Altman’s best films,” he writes, “the emotional center gravitates around a pronounced feeling of absence—a sense of opportunities lost, connections missed, kindred spirits divided and scattered—and in many respects the independent sound material serves to embody some form of this failed utopia: a ‘commentary’ of lyrical-idealism abstractly bridging discontinuous characters.” Rosenbaum seems most palpably to work in service of high ideas, of cinema as a whole and not just individual films.

You may get the impression that he tends to write a little longer than the others. He does. Rosenbaum is the real stylist of the big three, a reviewer by necessity but an essayist by better definition, encouraged as such by the receptive platform of an alternative weekly newspaper. Ebert and Turan, while both familiar with longer-form work, are both firmly established as metro-daily guys, less expansive and writerly to be sure, but adept at such short-form flourishes as the punchy lead. Take, for instance, this un-improvable opener from Turan: “Bottle Rocket has just what its characters lack: an exact sense of itself.”

As Kael has taught us, the personal dynamics of prose style, and the deadline schedule, does matter in movie writing. It must be so, especially, when writers intend to guide their readers’ recogniton of, and whet their appetites for, ambition and excellence. Implicit in the act of reading dated, anthologized movie reviews, beyond an appreciation of convenience (it’s easier than rummaging through a stack of old magazines), is a certain faith that film commentary can and should be its own literature, with its own rewards. Responsive readers, Kael would surely agree, are those who give their free hours generously to books, even as the books they read will aggressively remind them how much catching up they still need to do at the movies.

To know whether Ozu is the Bach of the cinema, we’ll have to get deeper into movies by at least a few hundred years. But given what they’ve already accomplished in a single century, it’s a fair question for Derek Malcolm to pose so early on, and for other critics to take up again periodically. Movie culture has borne a streak of obsessive canonism for longer than we may realize (Rosenbaum, for one, remembers the Sight and Sound poll of film critics, in 1961, to name the best movies ever), and that’s as it should be. In the long run, tracking the bests may be the critics’ best destiny. It can’t be long now before other critics will be arguing over which of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies books is the best.

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