[Ryan McNeil of The Matinee and I are reading through the American Movie Critics anthology and discussing each chapter as we go, crossposting on each of our blogs.]
We’re coming to the end of the silent era, and we cap it off with one of the most tantalizing and intriguing essays we’ve come across so far, about a film that both Ryan and I have seen – Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc. Sometimes critics declare films to be masterpieces, and time doesn’t bear them out, or they dismiss films that are later revived as classics. Here we have a fascinating case of a critic (Hilda Doolittle, who was primarily a poet who published under her initials H.D.) who declares Jeanne d’Arc to be a masterpiece, and yet her review is an encapsulation of the emotional turmoil the film put her through, and her simultaneous appreciation of and resistance to the film. Her poetic side comes through in her turns of phrase throughout, but also in her sensibility – she values her troubled subjective experience of the film over a firm judgement of its objective quality. Ryan confessed during our conversation that he read the piece twice; I think I’ve read it four or five times now, partially to refamiliarize myself with it while writing, but also because I find it simply the most amazing thing we’ve read in the anthology so far. I would write criticism like this if I had the talent. As it is, I’m eternally grateful to Phillip Lopate for including it in this anthology so I knew to read it.
When we discussed Carl Sandburg, you mentioned the way enthusiasm shone through in his writing. So today we have another poet, and again we’re met with another burst of enthusiasm. Do you think there’s something to be said about artists commenting and critiquing on other art forms? I don’t imagine it would always be as effusive as what Sandburg wrote before or what Hilda Doolittle writes here…but is there perhaps a creative spark that an artist latches on to that a journalist – or even an appreciator of the medium – wouldn’t?
There’s definitely something more expressionistic about both Sandburg’s and H.D.’s pieces in the anthology. I don’t think this piece on The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc is strictly speaking a review in the same sense of the weekly consumer reviews that Sandburg was writing, but they both have a commitment to the subjective, to the experiential, and to a certain turn of phrase that set them apart from many of their more prosaic contemporaries.
I was also amazed to see her begin her piece by planting such a positive flag in the ground:
The Passion and Death of a Saint is a film that caused me more unrest, more spiritual forebodings, more intellectual rackings, more emotional torment than any I have yet seen. 
Now to be fair, Doolittle was being affected by what remains a benchmark in the medium…so we can hardly question how deeply she was affected. However, what caught me about this opening statement is how boldly it comes out swinging in the affirmative. It’s rare that this happens – why is that?