American Movie Critics: Robert E. Sherwood and Edmund Wilson

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.

After a few weeks of interruption (thanks, TIFF!), Ryan and I are back with another installment of our conversations about the American Movie Critics anthology. This time, we’re covering pieces by Robert E. Sherwood and Edmund Wilson from the mid-1920s. One of these days we’re going to get to talking pictures! Sherwood is best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but he spent 1920-1928 writing film reviews for Life. The pair of reviews show him as a prototypical weekly reviewer, neither an enthusiast about the movies nor dismissive of them, but a pretty solid guide for the average moviegoer, honest about what he likes and dislikes with a straightforward and casual tone. Wilson was one of America’s greatest literary critics who also found time to write about virtually every kind of art (film, theatre, dance, art, etc.) for the New Republic. We only have one piece by him, an analytical and appreciative look at Charlie Chaplin in general and The Gold Rush in particular, but the intro blurb in the anthology mentions that he was skeptical of typical Hollywood movies, so I’m not sure this piece is totally representative.

Edmund Wilson, literary critic

Edmund Wilson, literary critic

RYAN McNEIL:
So after two poets and a psychologist, we arrive at a playwright-as-critic. In a way, one would think that we’ve found the “most qualified” critic yet, since Robert Sherwood likely has the best grasp on narrative structure.

JANDY HARDESTY:
I’m not sure I’m willing to grant that a playwright should be better at being a film critic, merely because of a grasp of narrative structure – films may be a narrative medium at their base, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing to be judged, or even the most important one! Taken at stereotyped face value, a playwright might be good, for instance, at analyzing plot structure and dialogue without being skilled at all at analyzing visual motifs or editing, which are not part of plays (or not a major part). But I don’t mean at all to assign those deficiencies to Sherwood. He does focus on the storytelling, I think, but not to the exclusion of other elements of filmmaking, and in fact, calls attention to his dislike (in both reviews!) of the visual technique of tinting certain scenes/elements for greater emphasis.

RYAN:
That sort of begs a question that we might run into again later, but what sort of qualifications do you think make for a good critic?

JANDY:
I don’t think there are necessarily an incontrovertible set of qualifications. Critics have different strengths and weaknesses, some have particular affinity and aptitude for some critical approaches rather than others, and it’s this diversity that makes reading lots of different critics interesting and informative. That said, if I had to outline a few qualities (not qualifications) that make good critics, I would choose open-mindedness, curiosity, close observation of detail, and wide-ranging interests (not only in film, but outside it).

RYAN:
If we’re making lists of what makes a good critic, I’d also add an ability to deconstruct to that list. There are plenty of people in the world who can tell you that they like or dislike something, but far too many of them cannot articulate why. An ability to break the machine’s engine apart right down to the screws is amazingly helpful in understanding how it works, and I think that’s lacking in our 140 character reactionary culture.

JANDY:
I think I would consider your “ability to deconstruct” and my “close attention to detail” as at least similar things, if not exactly the same. It’s basically what I meant – the ability to break elements in a film (scene/shot) down and discuss intelligently what they’re doing and what it means. That is, in fact, a more interesting way to approach film to me than the rush to judgement that 140 characters (and the speed of the internet) encourages.

Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923)

RYAN:
It didn’t take long for Sherwood’s piece on The Ten Commandments to jump out at me, since in just the second paragraph he says:

I have long realized that sooner or later, I should be compelled to change my mind about these subjects upon which my opinion has been firmly fixed: the day would come, I knew, when I should have to utter praise for a DeMille picture. [p 27]

We could probably write a whole post about this one statement, but it leads me to one particular thought;

How important is humility on criticism? Besides the possibility that one could change their minds on a particular work, should a critic shred an artist that may have impressive work in them that is yet to be unleashed?

JANDY:
Humility in criticism cuts both ways. On the one hand, yes, we should always be ready to acknowledge when we’ve been wrong, or changed our minds, and be okay with that. Clinging to outdated or unfounded notions just because we’ve defended them in the past does nobody any good, and also denies the fundamental truth that people change as we grow older, as we have new experiences, and as we learn more things.

At the same time, a certain kind of “humility” at the time of writing can display itself as wishy-washyness or lack of conviction – I don’t think that’s TRUE humility, but I know I’ve certainly been guilty of hedging my bets in reviews so hard that I basically didn’t say anything worth saying. Stand up for what you think, yet be willing to admit when your thoughts change.

As far as your second point, I think it’s fair to take artists to task based on what they’ve made so far (“shredding” might be a bit harsh!) – we obviously can’t judge something we haven’t seen yet. When they DO make something impressive, there’s time enough then to reconsider.

RYAN:
True, and it actually this gets me thinking about something else. There’s a huge amount of ego that comes with criticism. It stems from being the one to stand up and say “This sucks, and here’s why”. So many of us are wired to avoid starting a confrontation that you need to have brass balls to publicly get up and fly in the face of something like that. The “other thing” it gets me thinking about though, is wondering whether such contradiction and criticism shouldn’t come with more respect than we see so often.

The critic risks very little by putting their work out there, while the artist risks a ton. That’s why I wonder about humility. A great review can take days to properly craft and edit, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what an artist puts into their work. Knowing that imbalance, shouldn’t the critic be more respectful and humble in their approach?

JANDY:
Of course. As you know from my recent piece on evaluative criticism (and my earlier one positing a “year of positivity“), I’m not really in favor of standing up and saying “this sucks”, brass balls or no! A lot of the position I’ve come to on evaluative criticism, though, is a reaction against the very kind of ego and reactionary criticism that I think is a plague on the internet. That’s not to say it’s impossible to have a negative take on a film with respect, of course, and that’s what the best critics do.

ZaSu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, and Jean Hersholt in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924).

ZaSu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, and Jean Hersholt in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924)

I haven’t seen either of Sherwood’s reviewed films (the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments or von Stroheim’s Greed), though I’ve read about both. Greed is generally considered a landmark of studio interference, and I think most cinephiles today would put themselves on von Stroheim’s side, arguing against the studio cutting it, just on principle, since no one’s seen the lost original cut.

It has been cut to pieces – so that entire sequences and important characters have been left out. […] This is von Stroheim’s own fault. He must learn to acquire some regard for the limitations of space. […] Von Stroheim is a genius – Greed establishes that beyond all doubt – but he is badly in need of a stopwatch. [p 30]

It’s interesting that Sherwood mentions how choppy the film is because of the studio’s chopping, but lays the blame not with them, but with von Stroheim, for not adhering to running time standards in the first place. It’s interesting to get a contemporary point of view on this. We’re early in the book so far, but have you found any interesting instances of contemporary reviews/perspectives clashing with what we’d think today looking back? Do you find that the passing of time has made us more or less wise, for lack of a better word, about some of these things?

RYAN:
The only instances I can think of where reviews clash with what we think today are those where the critic’s take on the subject itself is dissension against a “classic”. Pauline Kael dismissing E.T. comes to mind, as does Bosley Crowther calling Bonnie & Clyde “a joke”. What I’d be curious to see is if when/if we read pieces that talk about leaps in technology. Were advancements like sound and scope met with as much “gimmickry” cries as we now slap on 3-D and high frame rate?

JANDY:
Absolutely the coming of sound was greeted with just as much (if not more) doomsaying than many treat 3D today. Glancing ahead, it looks like the critics included in our anthology for the shift to sound were positive about it, but there were plenty who weren’t and felt that the coming of sound was the end of artistry in cinema. I’m not sure if color and CinemaScope attracted the same kind of disdain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few critics who just didn’t like them. Just note again how much Sherwood hated the tinting in the two reviews we have.

Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1924)

Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1924)

I really enjoyed Edmund Wilson’s piece on Chaplin, which focuses mostly on The Gold Rush, but also extrapolates an opinion of Chaplin in general in relation to the other comedians of the time. I would assume that Wilson in 1924 knew a lot more comedians than we remember today, and yet he does only namecheck Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, who remain the three best-known silent comedians. I guess their reputations were set in stone even then! I don’t know how familiar you are with the work of these three, but if you are, what did you make of Wilson’s praising of Chaplin’s gag-work in relation to Keaton and Lloyd?

RYAN:
I’m always fascinated to read people hailing one of Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd above the other two, and I swear through the years I’ve heard all three individually hailed as “the true genius”. What they were doing was so different in structure and style that it feels like we’re comparing Mozart to Cole Porter to John Lennon. Just like so many of the others I’ve read, I believe that Wilson just found Chaplin’s the funniest. I made a point earlier about deconstruction, and while any comedic scene can be deconstructed, the ultimate measure of it is how much it made one laugh. I wager if we sat behind Wilson during a Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd, we could sense which one he preferred best just by listening to how often he chuckled.

JANDY:
To be honest, I bristled a bit at Wilson’s apparent need to praise Chaplin by denigrating Keaton and Lloyd, both of whom I think are every bit as capable of “developing [a gag] with steady logic and vivid imagination” as Chaplin (Wilson explicitly says that Lloyd is NOT capable of doing this). In 1924, Lloyd’s most famous film Safety Last would already have been out, but Girl Shy may or may not have come out before this piece was written; The Freshman was still two years off. Meanwhile, Keaton had Sherlock Jr. and a number of shorts under his belt, but not The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr, College, etc. So we may be dealing with an issue where we have more hindsight than Wilson, being able to see the entirety of these careers where he could not.

Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain struggle with a teetering house in The Gold Rush (1924).

Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain struggle with a teetering house in The Gold Rush (1924)

This is probably the most analytical piece we’ve come across so far, with a detailed description of the cabin-teetering scene in The Gold Rush, and a very interesting analysis of Chaplin’s mixture of comedy and pathos contrasted with Keaton and Lloyd’s reliance on speed and mechanics. Yet it, too, has time for poetics – the final half paragraph about Chaplin and the bear in The Gold Rush is one of my favorite bits of any of the pieces we’ve read.

Any ordinary movie comedian, given the opportunity of using a bear, would, of course, have had it chasing him about for as long as he could work up gags for it. But Charlie does not know that the bear is there: he keeps on, twirling his cane. Presently the beast withdraws, and only then does Charlie think he hears something: he turns around, but there is nothing there. And he sets off again, still fearless, toward the dreadful ordeals that await him. [p 34]

RYAN:
I think that balance of analytics and poetics is what makes it work so well. Ever read a piece on film and had trouble staying with it? It seems too dry…to heady…too academic? To me, those remain the hardest types of pieces on film to read. I feel like they aren’t letting me in…and that I have to do some required reading before I can do this bit of reading. Reading Wilson mix the critical with the fandom is an amazing bit of teetering balance in it’s own right. It’s the right blend of “this is wonderful and here’s why.”

Hopefully it’s not the last time we see that in this book.