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?

The modern movie is not such organic whole; it is simply a maddening chaos of discrete fragments. The average scene […] cannot run for more than six or seven seconds. Many are far shorter, and very few are appreciably longer. The result is confusion horribly confounded. [35]

The Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin, a major example of montage theory in practice, with an average shot length of around 3 seconds.
The Odessa Steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin (1925), a major example of montage theory in practice, with an average shot length of around 3 seconds.

What I find most interesting about his piece is that hyperbole aside, he’s actually not far off in most of the things he says about the way editing interrupts theatrical-style acting. It’s just that he privileges theatrical acting, refusing to accept the ways that cinema and editing transform acting. What he describes is a director-led approach to cinema, rather than a writer/actor-led one, and even though there are examples of great cinema that privileges the writer/actor, I think it’s clear that American cinema as a whole has tended to privilege director-mediated writing and acting.

Yes and no. I believe great editing can actually do great things to serve both the actor AND the writing. On-stage, an actor has no chance to take a mulligan. Their part is rehearsed and rehearsed and shaped and re-shaped. Perhaps as the run goes on, they can tweak it…but mid-play, there’s no way to try something different that might play out better or fully convey what the writer was trying to express.

Because in film editing has the power to glue together different ideas and refractions of the same thing, they can find present the very best version of a work that cannot be duplicated in a live setting. There’s an interesting feature on the blu-ray of The Social Network that really demonstrates the power of editing. It shows the scene in the deposition where Eduardo looks across the table and says to Mark, “I was your friend. You had one friend”. The feature shows Andrew Garfield saying that line about half a dozen different ways, and the first five – each just slightly different from the one before all “seem right”. It’s only when we see the final one – the one that ultimately makes the cut – that we realize, “no, THAT’S right.”

Andrew Garfield in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010).
Andrew Garfield in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010).

As much as live theatre can be a powerful experience and can showcase acting and writing in its rawest form, I believe that the art of editing can serve the sources just as much. The trick is that great editing in film should be like great umpiring in baseball: it’s at its best when it’s not noticed.

I absolutely agree with you that great editing and great acting go hand in hand in cinema, but it’s still fundamentally a different sort of acting than theatrical acting.

I wonder if Mencken would be more amenable to post-Brando cinema acting, since what he seems to decry (pulling faces and reactions) is actually kind of a holdover from theatrical acting that hadn’t yet adapted to cinema. We don’t know what movies he saw before writing this piece – there were actors in the silent era who were much more subtle and suited to cinema (Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks, Janet Gaynor, etc.), but the stereotype of silent films being overplayed exists for a reason.

Gustav Frühlich in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), which uses highly stylized acting in keeping with its German Expressionist style.
Gustav Frühlich in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which uses highly stylized acting in keeping with its German Expressionist style.

What Mencken doesn’t seem to grasp is that cinema is different that theatre, and editing is a strength, but needs to be met with a different style of acting. We could get way off-track into a discussion of cinematic acting, since the idea of what is “good” in acting in cinema has changed ​drastically over the years, but that may not be productive at this point.

Focusing back on editing, I think it’s interesting that this piece was published in 1927, which was some time after Kuleshov and Eisenstein and others were putting their theories of montage into practice (Potemkin was 1925; the Kuleshov experiments go back to 1920 or so). I wonder if these films and theories hadn’t made it to the United States yet, or if Mencken was resolutely ignoring/rejecting them. I honestly don’t know – but the timing is intriguing, as Mencken is arguing that editing confuses meaning, at nearly the same historical moment that Eisenstein and Kuleshov were arguing that editing creates meaning.

Such occasions give rise to what the old-time dramatic àtheorists called scènes à faire, which is to say, scenes of action, crucial scenes, necessary scenes. 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. [37-38]

(note: he must’ve rolled over in his grave at Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet!)

Film criticism seems to really wrestle with the advancement of technology, perhaps like no other art form in existence. I’ve never heard music critics complain that digital mixing has been the death of the medium…or photographers say that “it was so much better on film”. Yet somehow, every time a new advancement comes along in movies, it is widely drubbed as a scourge to the medium, “a gimmick”, and short-selling the source material.

Why is that? Why are movie critics so hesitant to embrace technological advancements?

Well, we do have music purists who proclaim the superiority of vinyl, which is probably the closest equivalent in the music world, but it does seem more pronounced in film. I don’t really have a good answer for why that is, though – I’m pretty vocal about my dislike of 3D, and the only thing that keeps me from condemning it as roundly as Mencken condemns editing is my intellectual understanding that technological shifts take time to find their footing, and that, say, early sound films were pretty rough as well. But that intellectual understanding doesn’t change the fact that I hate the experience of watching 3D now.

You hate 3-D? How did I not know about this? I actually get not enjoying it since at the moment it feels more like a gimmick than it does like a style. Mencken is dismissing one of the very elements of what makes film “film”. He might as well squawk about it being projected on a screen so big.

Deep composition in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Master of the House (1925)
Deep composition in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House (1925)

It’s important to also remember that not everyone accepted Eisenstein’s theories of montage – filmmakers like Carl Theodor Dreyer tended to go the opposite direction, emphasizing composition and framing to create meaning rather than editing. And later critics like Andre Bazin in the 1940s and 1950s championed the long-take cinema of Rossellini, Bresson and others, as the brief intro to Mencken points out.

Not everyone accepts the usefulness of vaccines either. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a firm grasp on the timing, but I have to believe that he hadn’t seen them yet. We forget sometimes how truly privileged we are now to get so many international ideas so damned fast. I can’t imagine what it must have been like trying to track down some of these pieces of art in the era we’re discussing. Most importantly though, I wonder about the inverse: I do wonder what Kueshov and Eisenstein would have thought of a piece like this. I can only imagine them reading this dismissal of editing and saying “Oh yeah??”

I just think that if Mencken had been aware of montage theory, he might’ve mentioned it while rejecting it, but without more research into what he had and hadn’t seen/read, I have no way of knowing.

If I’m a betting man, I would wager that Mencken’s brain just wasn’t wired in a way that editing could serve. I can’t blame him – it was likely jarring as hell. However, like any new experience, a few doses usually allow the nerves in the brain to fuse in the ways they need to make sense of this new experience. Where I think he goes wrong is in his stance of “editing is bad”. What I believe he means to say…and what is in the subtext of his piece…is “I think live performance does it better.”

As you say, Mencken makes a leap from “here’s how I experience film editing” to “film editing is bad.” We call that a mistake, and I think it is, but it may also be to some degree a rhetorical device. I don’t know much about Mencken’s other writing so I can’t compare this to anything, but there’s something performative about this piece – not that I think Mencken didn’t dislike editing, but that he’s exaggerating his language to make his point. I think it’s quite effective, even if I disagree with his overall conclusion; I still really enjoyed reading the piece, and somehow found Mencken’s curmudgeonly persona endearing in a weird way. At the very least, he’s doubling down on his opinion.

So what we have here is our first instance in the book with a critic writing as a grump. I’ve actually come to admire the writers who can write well from that position since it seems to tread so darned close towards bitterness. There’s a fine line between criticism and bitching and it seems like a lot of ill-equipped critics stumble over that line quite easily. I’m with you – even though Mencken’s piece seems comedic in how much he “doesn’t get it”, his writing style still kept me reading.

As the introduction to this book says – it’s not so much what you write about as it is how you write about it, and good writing is always good writing.

A final thought from Mencken.
A final thought from Mencken; unrelated to film, but looks like he was generally seen as a skeptic.