American Movie Critics: Carl Sandburg

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.

Carl Sandburg is best known as a poet, of course, and his particular evocation of Chicago and social realism. He also spent eight years (1921-1928) as a movie critic for the Chicago Daily News, filing weekly film reviews before concentrating on his other writing. He’s the second poet we’ve looked at in American Movie Critic, and the first weekly reviewer. His brief reviews carry some of his poetic sensibility as well as a real concern for how audiences would relate to the films at hand – the critic-as-consumer-guide is not my favorite mode of criticism, but I have to admit that Sandburg does that quite well and very readably. With no further ado, let’s jump into our conversation.

JANDY HARDESTY:
The six Carl Sandburg reviews selected here are all positive, though I’m sure he can’t have liked everything he reviewed over the eight-year period he worked as a critic. As we get into more critics who are writing about specific films (as Müsterberg was not, and Lindsay only was in passing), our reactions to the reviews may be affected by whether or not we’ve seen the films in question, so my first question to you is, have you seen any of the six films Sandburg reviews? And for the ones you have not seen, does Sandburg make you interested in seeing them? What about his writing do you think pulls you over (or not) to his side?

RYAN MCNEIL:
Zip. Zilch. Nil. Nada. I have at least heard of two of them (Nanook of the North and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), but the other pieces were a mystery to me.

We haven’t touched on this yet, so this is as good a point as any to bring it up – I actually decided before digging into the book that I wasn’t going to deliberately watch the films the critics are writing about as we go through the book. Besides the obvious lack of free time, I felt like it shouldn’t be necessary to discuss the writing and what these critics bring to the table. More often than not, critics see films before the audience anyway, so the average reader has no point of comparison anyhow. If one ignores for a moment that these films are all quite old, the rule still stands: I should be able to gain something from the writing. Further, sight unseen I should feel a nudge towards the film, or a tug away.

JANDY
The first thing that struck me with Sandburg, as with Vachel Lindsay, is enthusiasm. Both were primarily poets, and both have a certain breathless, eager quality to their writing about film, though Sandburg is writing as a job (weekly reviewer for the Chicago Daily News), and Lindsay seems to have been doing it on his own time. This sets Sandburg apart as the first real working critic we’ve seen in the book, though he’s better known as a poet.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920

RYAN
In all four cases, Sandburg’s words felt like a wink and a smile towards the titles. Even if his section hadn’t underlined that he was a poet, I would have sensed that in his phrasing…all of which made me swoon (and feel inadequate as a writer – alas!). Likewise it made me want to chase down all four films.

On p 19 when he equates Caligari audiences to passengers on a ship, he captures the visceral reaction to film so amazingly…

“…so bold a work of independent artists going it footloose that one can well understand it might affect audiences just as a sea voyage affects a group of passengers. Some have to leave the top decks, unable to stand sight or smell of the sea. Others take the air and the spray, the salt and the chill, and call the trip an exhilaration.” [19]

He gets that unlike theatre – the natural comparison in this era – film could elicit different gut responses based on scale, scope, and intensity. I’ve never much thought about it, but maybe that’s why some people like to sit towards the back and some like to sit right in front of the screen. Boats…rollercoasters…cinema. Everyone approaches them differently.

I take it you’ve seen at least some of these – did the writing change anything for you?

JANDY
I similarly decided not to let it bother me if I hadn’t seen the films as I read through the book – something which is actually difficult for me, as I usually make it a point not to read reviews until after I’ve seen the movie. As you say, time doesn’t permit that, even if all these films were readily available, and that’s not always the case. I have seen three of the six – Caligari, Nanook, and the Chaplin-directed A Woman of Paris. Generally those first two are considered nearly unassailable classics, as well as icons of their particular styles/genres (German Expressionism and documentary). It’s fascinating to read contemporary reviews that are just as impressed with them as we remain today, and even point forward to the influence they would have – maybe it IS possible to recognize a masterpiece immediately!

A Woman of Paris has a much more mixed reputation – it was the first film Chaplin directed that he wasn’t also in, and it’s not primarily a comedy, but a drama, even melodrama at times. You can see in Sandburg’s review that he was quite positive about it, but he acknowledges the difficulty of its tone.

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled, 1924.

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled, 1924

RYAN
What did you make of his description of what we see in Manhandled? Is it my imagination or does his poetry still come through even though he details things so matter-of-factly?

JANDY
This was the only one of the six films that I hadn’t heard of at all (I don’t know much about The Temptress or What Price Glory?, but I had heard the titles). I have to say, you don’t actually come away from the Manhandled review knowing a whole lot about the film, but my interest was certainly piqued. I was so interested that I researched it a bit more, looking up the original New York Times review to see if it shed any more light. It tells a bit more of the plot (about a shopgirl who learns she’s good at impressions and gets hired to impersonate a Russian countess), but I must say I prefer Sandburg’s fascination with Gloria Swanson’s shoes. I love that he basically ends the review with “from there the developments start.”

RYAN
What I love about that is what I needed to learn in my own film literacy. When I first started actively seeking film reviews, I found myself obsessed with understanding what a critic thought of a film. “Is it any good?” was the question I’d be asking myself. It took me a while to understand that just as important as what a film is about is how it is about it. Further, the writing a film inspires shouldn’t just reflect what a film is, but how it is…and focusing on one detail is a really great way of showing a film’s intricacy. I’d wager I wouldn’t have appreciated that when I first got into this shared passion of ours.

JANDY
As far as it being poetry – I think this is the MOST poetic of these reviews. The essence of a certain type of poetry is the ability to take concrete description of mundane things and elevate it to something magical, and I think that’s precisely what he does here. Through detail, repetition, recursion, and obsession, he makes a moment where a weary shopgirl takes off her shoes into something almost mystical.

RYAN
It’s enough to make me wish more critics were once poets. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but I’m glad we have a few more of them to discuss yet.

Nanook of the North, 1922

Nanook of the North, 1922

JANDY
I like your expression that his writing made you “swoon” – clearly these films have a similar effect on him, and I think his poetic sensibilities help him translate that experience into compelling words. He’s not really making logical arguments for these films, but transmitting an experience, and I’d say he does it quite well. That said, he does have some really great insights into why the films have the effect that they do, as evidenced by his descriptions of scenes in Nanook.

“We have seen him trap a live fox and bring the live fox up out of the snow with his bare hands. We have seen him harpoon a walrus and drag forth a seal from under the ice. We have seen him driving the snarling dogs through a fierce blizzard with his Nyla and the little ones. It was a stroke of dramatic art to show him last of all sleeping with peace and understanding on his face.” [21]

It reminded me of Matt Zoller Seitz’s article a few months ago asking critics to talk about the filmmaking, and basically arguing that sometimes description of what a film is doing on a formal level is just as important as talking about themes, character development, and things like that. I don’t know if you and I have talked about Seitz’ piece before or not – maybe you haven’t even read it. But I find myself quite drawn to the kind of evocative description that Sandburg employs; not description for its own sake, but to better understand how a filmmaker creates impact.

RYAN
I didn’t read Seitz’s piece, but for me he “gets it” (pity there’s none of his writing in this book). He definitely subscribes to the school of discussing not just the “what”, but also the “how”. That piece that you mention about technique is something I think the pieces we’ve read so far employ well – digging deeper into the intention of an artist, and in that creating something artistic in its own right.

JANDY
Interestingly, through most of these reviews, Sandburg has a pretty strong sense of audience, both the audience for the films and the audience reading the reviews. He points out certain dispositions that may or may not like the films, or ways to approach them to have the best experience, or a type of audience member who is enjoying a film more than you’d expect they would (as with the “housewives, grandmothers, orthodox matrons […] who sit thrilling and weeping and shaking with laughter” at What Price Glory, even though they’d “flee from such factors in real life.”)

What do you think of his referring to his readers in these ways? I think critics sometimes do this now, but maybe not to the degree, or with the degree of specificity (or stereotyping, perhaps) that he does.

I think there can be danger in thinking too much about your audience, both in terms of the potential dishonesty of adjusting your opinion based on what you think your audience is likely to say (especially now in the age of instant feedback) and the somewhat problematic idea that it’s possible to predict what other people will think.

The Muppet Movie, 1979

The Muppet Movie, 1979

RYAN
I think it’s all an important piece of the equation, both as a critic and a writer. It involves – and this is hard for some, myself included – putting aside the ego. In the case of the writing, what Sandburg does best is display a want to share an idea. He’s not interested in being right, or coming-off smart. He saw something those afternoons in the nickelodeons and wants to express it in a way befitting the inspiration.

At the same time, he puts it together in a way that considers a wider net than an audience of one. It’s easy to say why you love something, but it still takes a particular make-up to see why others will or won’t see it the same way. That consideration – or rather, the lack thereof – is what I believe holds back a lot of otherwise great criticism. So many great writers get too caught up in proving a point that they neglect to make their reader care about the point.

Maybe it comes down to empathy; maybe that’s a key to being a good critic.

Next time: Robert Sherwood on The Ten Commandments and Greed, and Edmund Wilson on Chaplin