American Movie Critics: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

[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. [39]

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?

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Criterions for January


January Criterions have been announced! Most exciting one to me is another addition to their collection of Preston Sturges films, with The Palm Beach Story. I can’t rank this one quite as high as Sullivan’s Travels or The Lady Eve, but it’s close on their heels in terms of straight-up zany fun. I’m so glad to see Criterion release a Hollywood classic like this just about every month.

Also releasing: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (an excellent and evocative film I’d love to own in a Criterion edition), Werner Rainer Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénega, which I’ll admit I’ve never heard of. What Criterions are going on your wishlist for January?


The Roundup: October 13


It’s Time to Stop Freaking Out About Movies We Haven’t Seen by Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve


Preach it, sister. The entire hype cycle needs to die down, from over-enthusiasm to pouncing on every bit of non-news to especially what Tasha is talking about here, getting riled up about every little thing about a film that we hear might possibly be going in a direction we think is wrong. I admit I got a little upset over the Into the Woods thing, but guess what? I was wrong, and I knew I was wrong. Just wait it out and judge the film by itself, not our idea of what it might be based on snippets of information that may or may not be true. (Of course, it would help if film sites would stop reporting this BS like it’s news in the first place.)

But more often than not, people who get worked up over pre-release Internet reports about films are quite literally getting excited over nothing: over false “facts” and vague fears. The environment of outrage on the Internet tends to build echo chambers where theories, misinterpretations, and outright hoaxes get repeated, encouraged, and taken as gospel. The excitement of being in on a prolonged, sweaty group attack on a not-yet-existing film can blunt the excitement of actually seeing the films when they come out.

Fritz Lang’s Game-Changing Man Hunt by Wade Sheeler at The Black Maria


I’ve been working my way through Lang’s filmography, but I haven’t gotten to this one yet. Sounds like I need to get on it soon! (A couple of paragraphs of this in the middle seemed spoilery; I just skipped them and went on.)

Lang is without a doubt, one of the great architects of film noir as well as the superspy genre, starting with his Dr. Mabuse trilogy, through the astoundingly exciting Spione! (1928). When he fled Nazi Germany (in an oft told tale, following the offer to head up Germany’s Filmed Propaganda department by Goebbels himself) he came to the US, and had to, basically, start over. He was Germany’s genius, but in the States, he was little known. Throughout the 1930s he struggled to find projects that inspired him, or that he was able to leave his signature, and already oft imitated, style. Man Hunt finally gave him that opportunity.

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American Movie Critics: H.L. Mencken

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.

Thus far on our journey through the American Movie Critics anthology, we’ve read poets and playwrights, psychologists and literary critics, weekly reviewers and moonlighters, but by and large all of the pieces we’ve read have been enthusiastic about the movies. With influential essayist H.L. Mencken, we hit our first outright cynic. Based on my quick Wikipedia skim, it sounds like Mencken was generally a skeptic, with a lively writing style and a quick wit, though he usually took government and religion as his targets rather than cinema. You might think this would have us in for a tough read this week, but nothing could be further from the truth, as Ryan and I found a lot to talk about in this one.

After a bunch of largely enthusiastic pieces, we at last come to a real cinema skeptic in H.L. Mencken. I’ve obviously heard of Mencken in connection with his non-film writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by him before, so I have no preconception of his work at all.

We talked in another one of these posts about humility in criticism, and whether a critic should allow for other viewpoints in reviews – here Mencken clearly isn’t doing that, and while it may make his opinion ultimately less persuasive (since we’re likely to disagree with him from our vantage point), I think it makes the article, as a piece of writing, rather stronger. Agree with him or not, there’s no question what he thinks, and I appreciate that he owns it.

In reading Mencken’s piece, I was immediately envisioning a man who is a curmudgeon. If he were around today, I wager he’d pose that rock & roll died after 1977. The funny thing is that his take on technology sounded so darned familiar. It’s amazing to think that this piece is from the 1920′s because I swear I’ve read pieces that seem to paraphrase these very thoughts, but written this century.

Mencken’s writing style is highly acerbic and confrontational, and I think his conclusions are wrong, but I found this first truly negative piece in the anthology to be very entertaining. He basically argues that editing is ruining movies, as it breaks up scenes into confusing parts and interrupts actors so they have no time to truly act, but merely posture and react. (Keep in mind he’s complaining about shots lasting no longer than six or seven seconds – today’s average shot length in Hollywood is somewhere around 3-4 seconds). Do you think Mencken’s concerns have any ongoing merit, any corrective for American cinema, or is he just wrong-headed here?

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The Roundup: October 7

It’s a short Roundup this week – I wasn’t able to get to a lot of my blog reading this week, so I ended up focusing just on film items. I read some great stuff about film, though!


Freddie Francis on The Innocents by Freddie Francis at the Criterion Current


This is an excerpt from a book by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who shot The Innocents (recently released by Criterion) for Jack Clayton. I’m not a super-technical person, but I found his descriptions of how they achieved the effect they did fascinating, and easy to follow even as a layperson. A great read, and I’m curious to seek out his whole book now.

Although of course it is a CinemaScope picture, the audiences don’t usually realize it was shot in the process. By this I mean that there are no edges to the film; most, if not all, the content of the picture is concentrated in the center with the remaining area going off into sets, foliage, and darkness. The effect was that the action and images usually take place in the center. As far as Fox was concerned, they had a negative that was CinemaScope ratio, and as far as Jack was concerned, he had a film that was framed in normal film proportions. We never had any complaints.

It’s Time to Stop Blaming the Studios and Start Blaming Exhibitors for Hollywood’s Failure to Adapt by Todd Brown at Twitchfilm


There’s a common sense factor to this that’s hard to deny – exhibitors are the ones who have the most to lose by losing the theatrical window. On the other hand, I suspect the finances on this are more complex even than this, given the high percentage of box office take that the studios get, especially in the first few weeks. The suggestion to have the theatrical window only last the first three weeks (when movies make most of their revenue) would, I think, be highly problematic according to current arrangements, since theatres don’t see hardly any money from a film until AFTER that third week. Also, my bigger concern is not that new releases don’t get to VOD fast enough – the window is pretty damn short already (two to three months in most cases) – but that studios are doing a terrible job of making their catalog releases available for digital rental or subscription, and that doesn’t involve theatres at all.

Yes, they know that making people wait months on end for a legal VOD or home video release accomplishes nothing but fueling piracy. They know that you want what you want when you want it and they know that they’ve spent tens – in some cases hundreds – of millions of dollars convincing you to want their products now only to make you wait. And they understand that having a divide between theater and home video release is foolish. But they have no choice. And the legally enforced gap between the people who actually make the movies and the people who control how and when you get to see them is responsible for Hollywood’s glacial pace of change. It’s the exhibitors, bluntly, not the studios.

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