Thursday, August 09, 2007

American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, Phillip Lopate, ed.

Vachel Lindsay, "The Photoplay of Action" and "The Artistic Position of Douglas Fairbanks and The Thief of Bagdad Production"
Lindsay seems like the definitively outdated, time-bound poet--those rhythmic incantations high-school students memorize--but his judgments on film are incredibly subtle, broad-minded, and far-seeing. The D. Fairbanks essay is a defense of Entertainment against the demands of Art.

Robert E. Sherwood, "The Ten Commandments" and "Greed"
"The Ten Commandments may not exercise as much influence as they should, but they are certainly good theater."

H. L. Mencken, "Note on Technic"
"What afflicts the movies is not an unpalatable ideational content so much as an idiotic and irritating technic. . . . How can one work up any rational interest in a fable that changes its locale and its characters ten times a minute? Worse, this dizzy jumping about is plainly unnecessary: all it shows is the professional incompetence of the gilded pants-pressers, decayed actors and other such half-wits to whom the making of movies seems to be entrusted. Unable to imagine a sequence of coherent scenes, and unprovided with a sufficiency of performers capable of playing them if they were imagined, these preposterous mountebanks are reduced to the childish device of avoiding action altogether. Instead of it they present what is at bottom nothing but a poorly articulated series of meaningless postures and grimaces. One sees a ham cutting a face, and the one sees his lady co-star squeezing a tear--and so on, endlessly. . . . If, at the first attempt upon a scene, the right attitude is not struck, then all they have to do is keep trying until they strike it. On those terms a chimpanzee could play Hamlet, or even Juliet.
"To most of the so-called actors engaged in movies, I daresay, no other course would be possible. . . . They are engaged, not for their histrionic skill, but simply for their capacity to fill the heads of romantic virgins and neglected wives with the sort of sentiments that the Christian religion tries so hard to put down. . . . The worst of it is that the occasional good actor, venturing into the movies, is brought down to the common level by the devices thus invented to conceal the incompetence of his inferiors. It is quite as impossible to present a plausible impersonation in a series of unrelated (and often meaningless) postures as it would be to make a sensible speech in a series of college yells. So the good actor, appearing in the films, appears to be almost as bad as the natural movie ham. One sees him only as one sees a row of telegraph poles, riding in a train. . . .
"All this is ingenious. More, it is humane, for it prevents the star trying to act, and so saves the spectators pain. But it is manifestly a poor substitute for acting on the occasions when acting is actually demanded by the plot--that is, on the occasions when there must be cumulative action, and not merely a series of postures. . . . In the movies they are dismembered, and so spoiled. Try to imagine the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" in a string of fifty flashes--first Romeo taking his station and spitting on his hands, then Juliet with her head as big as a hay-wagon, then the two locked in a greasy kiss, then the Nurse taking a drink of gin, then Romeo rolling his eyes, and so on. If you can imagine it, then you ought to be in Hollywood, dodging bullets and amassing wealth. . . ."

This is very interesting to read in conjunction with Noel Carroll's A Philosophy of Mass Art, as I'm doing. Clement Greenberg and Adorno and Horkheimer's arguments against mass forms like movies turn on the idea that they make the audience intellectually lazy--Greenberg hilariously insists that the reception of real art should be hard work--where do they come up with these things?--while Adorno and Horkheimer more sensibly fear the cultivation of the habit of passive reception. An essay like Mencken's, coming relatively early in the history of film, clarifies the obvious point that the claim that mass media are easy or passive is bogus. (Carroll is very good at showing that the key terms in most of these arguments are incoherent, biased, or entirely artificial. He's also very good at briefly showing how Kant's ideas about aesthetic judgment are illegitimately extended to art--as if the objects of judgment should display the same characteristics as judgment does. I'm so poorly educated I never realized this before, but my excuse is that the arguments based on this mistake--like Greenberg's--always seemed to me so ridiculous that they were not worth considering in detail.)

Then there is this extraordinary diatribe:
"A successful movie mime is probably the most admired human being ever seen in the world. He is admired more than Napoleon, Lincoln or Beethoven; more, even, than Coolidge. The effects of this adulation, upon the mime himself and especially upon his clients, ought to be given serious study by competent psychiatrists, if any can be found. For there is nothing more corrupting to the human psyche, I believe, than the mean admiration of mean things. It produces a double demoralization, intellectual and spiritual. Its victim becomes not only a jackass, but also a bounder. The movie-parlors, I suspect, are turning out such victims by the million: they will, in the long run, so debauch the American proletariat that it will begin to put Coolidge above Washington, and Peaches Browning above Coolidge. . . ."

American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, Phillip Lopate, ed.

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