The Rhapsodes of Cinema

A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism—released in January of this year, to some fanfare—is a handbook for living by a kind of generalized critical “ideal,” one which combines openness to ...

A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism—released in January of this year, to some fanfare—is a handbook for living by a kind of generalized critical “ideal,” one which combines openness to experience, capacity for discrimination, and respect for humane values and artistic standards. This kind of airy critical sensibility is unobjectionable in and of itself. The trouble is that Scott—who has served for years as one of the New York Times’ chief film critics—in his book almost totally neglects anything to do with actually practicing criticism: whether in the guise of journalism, scholarship, or any other type of writing. He professes to believe that criticism is necessarily “a public act, something you’re invited to do when something is submitted for your approval (or disdain).” But despite such fine sentiments, much of Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism could pass as simple self-help for educated professionals. Though disturbed by the havoc wrought on the institutions of arts criticism by the web, Scott displays an admirably stoic attitude toward the legions of bloggers, tweeters, and other digital vernacular critics with whom he now competes. Yet the bulk of the book suggests that Scott is willing to throw the gates open even wider, deputizing the merely curious and sensitive into the ranks of critics—no writing necessary! It’s not for nothing that the book’s subtitle is (emphasis mine) How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.

Scott’s preference for abstraction over practice is notable, but dramatically highlighted when compared with David Bordwell’s The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture. Bordwell, formerly a film professor at the University of Wisconsin but still an active and productive writer, concentrates on just four critics—Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler—focusing on their activity during and immediately after World War II. Employing an approach to the history of criticism very different from Scott’s, Bordwell resists the urge to retreat into the vast critical literature of the Western world to explain the work of the four men. Instead, by searching out more proximate influences on how they judged contemporary films, Bordwell takes us far closer to the truth of actually being a critic, in word and deed.

Bordwell regards these four as “the most significant American film critics of the 1940s.” They were important not only because of their personalities, but because they were privileged by their times; because they worked during “the golden age of Hollywood, that period from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s in which the Hollywood system was, quite simply, The Movies.” During this time, Bordwell observes, the institutions of cultural criticism—in the academy but also in arts journalism—were firmly under the sway of modernism, which valued formal experiment and challenges to the audience above all. Yet very little of the contemporary commercial cinema could hope to fulfill this; indeed, very little “studio” cinema of any sort was even eligible for consideration. Bordwell explains that, from the perspective of contemporary cultural elites, “After D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, and Erich von Stroheim—the touchstones for all intellectuals interested in film—there was little to like in the studio product. Foreign lands had provided fine German films, notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Soviet masterworks, above all Potemkin; but Nazism and Stalinism had stamped out those creative impulses.” With even the foreign sources of high art closed, American critics seemed at a total loss to find worth in the films of their time. These frankly elitist assumptions meant that popular culture in general, and The Movies in particular, was held in suspicion, if not outright contempt by much of the cultural establishment.

It is therefore surprising that each of Bordwell’s “Rhapsodes” found the current cinema to be a source of aesthetic interest, especially given that three of the four were themselves active in the prewar modern art scene to one degree or another (Farber as a painter, Agee and Tyler as writers). Though each had highly individual, even idiosyncratic views on the matter, Bordwell names Otis Ferguson as the intellectual architect for the Rhapsodes’ appreciation for the movies. Bordwell has himself written many wide-ranging and intelligent appreciations of the artistry of classical Hollywood cinema—and its modern-day descendants1—and it is clear that he sees a like mind in Ferguson. Ferguson found much to admire in Hollywood commercial cinema, particularly its conventions (then still in development) of unfussy, efficient, so called “invisible” storytelling. Such conventions were denigrated by contemporary critics as mere “formula,” not suitable for the modernist demand that film serve a formally artistic purpose.

Bordwell contrasts the modernists’ purely ideological rejection of Hollywood style with the Rhapsodes’ willingness to base their criticism on the evidence of their own eyes and ears. “Many in the 1930s,” writes Bordwell, “clung to the idea of editing as the creative essence of cinema. Ferguson’s notion of editing [in contrast] is in accord with Hollywood’s practice. Editing doesn’t create the action, but it gives it a graceful shape. … Ferguson notes, for instance, that in a dialogue it’s clumsy to simply cut from one speaker to another, line by line (as is too often done today). ‘Being a director consists exactly in knowing how to break this up, to keep interest shifting to stress the reaction to a line more sharply than the face saying it. This is what gives a picture life.’” Ferguson’s take on continuity editing is here presented as indicative of his general admiration for the Hollywood aesthetic. Agee and Farber shared these basic assumptions as well (though it wasn’t entirely clear to me from Bordwell’s timeline whether this could be traced to the direct influence of Ferguson or to a happy convergence of sensibilities). In any case, the two men took this basic appreciation for clearly staged, narratively driven realism in slightly different directions.

Bordwell finds a Romantic, almost mystical orientation in Agee. While he especially valued films that conveyed the realism of a given scene (Bordwell identifies “Accuracy, authenticity, vitality” as Agee’s “god-words”), Agee loved most of all films that conveyed the sense of the metaphysical truth behind the images. Bordwell quotes a passage from Agee’s review of The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) that demonstrates this discovery in action. “[The movie] not only makes most of its fiction look like fact—and far more intimate and expressive fact than it is possible to record on the spot; it also, without ever inflating or even disturbing the factual quality … gives fact the constant power and meaning beyond its own which most documentors—and most imaginative artists as well—totally lack feeling for.”

Farber, by contrast, was much more a critic of fleeting details and moments. His reviews frequently settled on images or scenes that struck him as particularly evocative, miniature expressions in which the formal preoccupations of a particular movie might be found. In a clever passage that demonstrates that Bordwell has done his homework, each man’s review of the 1945 combat drama Counter-Attack
is contrasted to bring out the differences in emphasis. Farber, as Bordwell explains, “soaks us in minutiae” about the film’s staging, camerawork, and editing, while also pointing out the moments that make the best use of these elements. It might seem to make superficial sense that Farber, a painter, would have a sharper eye for the mechanics of the medium. But Bordwell is careful to demonstrate that his orientation, in both his art and movie reviews, put him at odds with modernist dogma. With pure abstraction ascendant in the world of painting, Farber nevertheless announced his unorthodox preference for invisible technique, narrative, and active solicitation of an emotional response from the viewer, and was sensitive to the means that the movies used to accomplish these goals.

The amount of potted history that Bordwell fits into The Rhapsodes—of cultural journalism, of trends in Hollywood narrative styles, of American modernism—is impressive; that he’s able to give it direction and relevance even more so. But he’s at his best when he turns to his critics’ prose styles. Readers of his other work will be familiar with the microscopic attention Bordwell brings to his analyses of cinema: parsing the sonic and visual textures of individual films in order to build hypotheses about the creative choices made by a particular director. In this book, he proves himself every bit as receptive to the nuances of critical writing, carefully dissecting his favorite Rhapsode-penned sentences in order to reveal how they work.

Employing an approach to the history of criticism very different from Scott’s, Bordwell takes us far closer to the truth of actually being a critic.

Thus Farber’s considerable affinity for unexpected turns of phrase is noted (Bordwell’s favorite example: “The attempt seems to be to give the sensation of reading the book rather than looking at a movie, and I think it succeeds to a certain extent, anyway sufficiently to paralyze the movie.”). So is Ferguson’s tendency to soothe the reader with rhythmic repetition before surprising with a sudden rhetorical shift, thereby demonstrating his mastery of both “tender lyricism” and “roughneck slang,” sometimes within the same sentence. Tyler’s truly eccentric style approaches the boundaries of performance art. But it’s Agee’s prose that, according to Bordwell, manages to truly embody the process of criticism itself. Agee’s reviews gave the reader not only an impression of the film under consideration, but the picture of “a man who enjoys a movie on the first pass, rethinks that experience, and concentrates his intelligence on both supporting and questioning first impressions. Instead of a settled judgment, we get criticism in process, the tug and shove of a mind considering the contesting appeals of a movie.” The true subject of Agee’s reviews, according to Bordwell, is “the complicated act of judging anything.”

Bordwell’s attention to literary mechanics even extends to the less savory aspects of these critics’ work. He points out that Ferguson and especially Farber strained rather hard for a self-consciously “masculine” bent to their writing. A fan of “virility” in his movies, Farber was given to zingers such as, in Bordwell’s words, “calling Maya Deren’s films ‘lesbianish’ and warning us against their ‘pansyish composing and lighting.’” This obviously hasn’t aged well, and, somewhat ironically, comes across as a kind of pretension that they would have rightly ridiculed in someone else. (It might be interesting to see how later generations of critics who followed in the wake of the Rhapsodes—from Pauline Kael to Judith Crist to Lillian Ross to Molly Haskell—digested these kinds of affectations.)

Bordwell’s book has merit beyond its value as a guide to competing film and prose styles, but it has some deficiencies of its own. Though analyzing the four men at once is often illuminating, the comparison occasionally feels forced. This is particularly true of the chapter on Parker Tyler; which, though a fine precis of the man and his work, seems out of place. Tyler simply doesn’t fit easily with the other three writers, and Bordwell’s case for his inclusion is on the thin side. He admits that the critic “didn’t straightforwardly accept the premises of what I’ve been sketching as the Ferguson tradition,” and that he had no particular concern for narrative or realism in film. What gets him in the door is his strengths as a writer—which were considerable but, again, very different in emphasis from the other three—and his interest in the mythic and psychoanalytic dimensions of cinema. But this is an argument for Tyler’s individuality—one might even say eccentricity—rather than affinity with a group. He resists assimilation and even juxtaposition; he’s simply too weird.

There are a few other segments of the book that are ultimately incidental to the larger argument that Bordwell is making. I come to that conclusion reluctantly, since even these digressions are well-written, and informative in their own right. My personal favorite of these sees Bordwell, a fine pugilist, sneaking in a few pages of debate with Theodor Adorno in order to poke holes in the latter’s famous critique of the culture industry. Though a fun read, this is of questionable relevance. Bordwell admits that it is unlikely that the Rhapsodes ever read Adorno, and thus treats his work as a distillation of the modernist line on popular culture instead of an influential text in and of itself (at least during the period under his review). Sections like these seem to suggest that, for all the academic rigor on display here, we are dealing with a very personal view of the critical tradition: more than once Bordwell refers to the four writers as “my Rhapsodes.” If these detours mildly warp the book’s otherwise sleek design, this approach is at least a model for how to do personal criticism: closely argued, exploring paths tangential to the main argument, all while revealing the general disposition and intelligence that Bordwell brings to his study.

Promotional poster for <i>Counter-Attack</i> (1945), directed by Zoltan Korda

Promotional poster for Counter-Attack (1945), directed by Zoltan Korda

Bordwell devotes the end of the book to summing up his final thoughts on the nature and purpose of criticism. He makes a convincing case that the Rhapsodes anticipated some of future developments in film criticism. But he also calls for an honest reckoning—on the part of would be critics, scholars, and even casual fans—with those parts of their sensibility that 21st-century critics cannot easily assimilate. Obviously, Farber’s macho kitsch would seem to belong here; but, just as crucially, so too should received ideas about the cultural output of an era or style, especially one as widely known and understood as classical Hollywood. “Current nostalgia for the studio years tends to favor the hard, cynical pictures. The cult of noir and of murderous bad girls has little room for the gentleness of Happy Land or The Yearling.” As is so often the case, such notions of the past are simply screens onto which current concerns are projected. “If today more people enjoy Hawks than Ford, or Raoul Walsh than Clarence Brown, or His Girl Friday than The Shop Around the Corner, that’s partly because our tastes favor swaggering aggression (look at our current pantheon, from Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson) over modest virtue …” The Rhapsodes appreciated qualities (and directors, and films) that no longer resonate today as they did in the 1940s, and yet could write clearly and exuberantly about them.

A. O. Scott may well hope for the eventual reunion of art and life. But Bordwell recognizes here that life on its own is usually insufficient preparation for useful engagement with art. Criticism, for him, can be many things—craft, scholarship, writing—but I doubt he sees much potential for criticism as therapy. Scott serves up Rilke’s exhortation—“You must change your life!”—as the ideal encounter between art and spectator. In contrast, the great virtue of The Rhapsodes is its relatively humble ambitions: to demonstrate how a group of men learned to look at and listen to the popular art of their time, and how they explained to the general reader what they found.

I don’t know of any Rhapsodes writing today, and I wonder if any of the four in Bordwell’s book could find work now; it’s not just Tyler anymore, they’re all too weird. Not only their prose but also their concern for form, style, and aesthetics would be woefully out of place in today’s critical marketplace, which seems to favor a kind of performative moralism as the dominant voice. Better living would be swell, but I hope that The Rhapsodes can inspire the curious reader to find, and perhaps to write, better criticism. icon

  1. The curious reader is directed to his mammoth study, coauthored with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (Columbia University Press, 1985); also recommended is a slimmer but equally astute book on Hollywood trends in the post-classic era, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (University of California Press, 2006). Bordwell’s commentary on American cinema from all periods can be sampled at his blog, specifically here.
Featured image: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawkss To Have and Have Not (1944)