American Movie Critics: Harry Alan Potamkin

After something of a long hiatus over the holidays, Ryan McNeil and I are getting back into the swing of our historical criticism series. And truth be told, we very nearly skipped Harry Alan Potamkin, unsure how to respond to his take on American cinema, which is informed by an appreciation for a Soviet cinema neither Ryan nor I are particularly familiar with. But we decided to give it the old college try, and ended up having a pretty good conversation around the edges of Potamkin, discussing regional cinemas and doing thought experiments about directors if they’d had different national backgrounds. Ryan’s version of the post is here.

Featured image: Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, which Potamkin quite admires

I don’t know that I have much to say in response to these two excerpts from Harry Alan Potamkin – he’s a bit esoteric and obsessed with Russian directors that I frankly don’t know enough about to even respond to his points.

Potamkin’s writing is really heady. It’s more a meditation than a reaction, which is good since I don’t think we’ve come across that yet in the writing we’ve seen so far (poetic views, philosophic views, yes – meditative, not so much). Once again, it stands apart from what we see as film criticism in our mind’s eye: “This is good…this is bad…here’s why.”

In the first excerpt we have from him, Potamkin calls out for more visionary artists to make good on the promise of cinema – he suggests that Hollywood is “uninspired competence” at best (the idea that Hollywood is artistically bankrupt has been around for a long time!) and looks to New York for help.

Hollywood is uninspired competence – at its best. Hollywood is empty facility. A critical mind is needed. New York is the concentration center of the critical mind. Even in the use of the instruments (putting aside for the moment philosophy), I look to the director who has not imbibed Hollywood. [48]

This isn’t the first or last time that New York has been seen as an “antidote” to Hollywood – indie pioneers like John Cassavetes from the ’60s have a New York sensibility as well. Why do you think this is? The bulk of Potamkin’s piece looks at Rouben Mamoulian, a stage director at the time though he’d soon make his mark on film; is looking to New York a call for an influx of stage talent, or something else? Can we square this with the other critics we’ve read pointing out the inherent disconnect between stage and screen?

John Cassavetes, directing Husbands in 1970.

John Cassavetes, directing Husbands in 1970.

I’m forever puzzled by how we look at the mindset of geographical regions. I understand thinking about this from an audience perspective – what will fly in a red state versus what will fly in a blue state – but when it comes to the industry, I’ve never understood the position.

There is a lot of great artifice in New York – a glance around Times Square will prove that in a hurry. Everything there is moving at double-speed, with greater viciousness, which requires greater callous than anywhere else in North America. How is this supposed to be a great breeding ground for great ideas? Is it because an idea gets truly stress-tested there before the rest of us get a glimpse at it? Even where its art is concerned, New York might have been the launching pad for everyone from Neil Simon to Public Enemy…but it’s also given birth to The Ziegfeld Follies, and Cats.

To see New York as a respite to Hollywood is to deny great artists from the west like Brian Wilson or Raymond Chandler. Not to mention that I believe one could transplant the entire filmmaking industry to the East Coast, and the mindset would remain the same.

The Ziegfeld Follies, circa 1910s, known for glamour and showiness, not substance.

The Ziegfeld Follies, circa 1910s, known for glamour and showiness, not substance.

It almost seems like Potamkin is already fed-up with “the system” (obviously, he wouldn’t be the last one), and wanted early-on to see different outlets contributing to the artform. Really, what we’re seeing here is one of the first calls for a rise in independent film. Thing is, I wonder what he would make of things today – where there are more films being made than there are screens to show them on. The playing field has been leveled, but has that brought upon the cornucopia of great ideas that Potamkin thought it would? I’m not so sure.

Even when it does, we often see ways that “system” could have given these ideas a bit more polish.

Potamkin’s thesis is basically this:

Of virtuosity we need no more. We need philosophers who seek great themes told with insight and ultimate import. We need artists who build structures. [49]

What do you think of this as a statement about cinema? Is he right? It seems like he’s talking about a singular vision of each film, where script, acting, camera, theme, etc. all work as one to create a film that is harmonious, and not just superficially, but with depth and substance. I think he’s on to something for sure, but especially knowing his tendency towards Marxist thought (mentioned in the intro to his section, and suggested too by the sort of Soviet films he praises), I’m inclined to push back and suggest that the fun and superficial has its place as well.

Vsevelod Pudovkin's The End of St. Petersburg (1927).

Vsevelod Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (1927).

I can see the allure in the idea of needing “artists who build structures”, and I think in a way we got what he wanted. So far we’ve seen various remixes on this same call to action – wanting the medium to evolve into something “more” and truly push the possibilities. What’s wild is that we’re still only back in the twenties. It’s as though they’ve been driving Model T’s for one month and have already decided that they want to go faster and wear seatbelts.

In a lot of ways, I think what Potamkin is doing here is one of the key roles of the critic – to push the art and the artist further. It’s like they say in Whiplash – there are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”. The trick comes in knowing when to push and how to push things, and it seems as though Potamkin has chosen his moment wisely. He sees what Hollywood is cranking out, compares it to what Griffith was doing and what Europe was doing, and says “Why can’t you do this?”

Somewhat sad that he’d be gone before he could see what they would in fact start doing.

At the end of his piece on Griffith, Potamkin wonders about the difference in mindset between Griffith and Pudovkin…alluding that the latter might be what Griffith would be had he been born in Russia.

In Griffith we see what Pudovkin might have been in America 1910-1930. […] In Pudovkin, we see what Griffith might have been in the U.S.S.R., sustained and urged by a challenging criticism and a relentless discipline. Griffith has been, sadly enough, too much his heritage and environment. He has not risen above them. [55]

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).

While it’s nice to daydream about a Griffith who wasn’t quite as regressive in political/social ideals – who hasn’t sighed and wished to enjoy the technical prowess of Birth of a Nation without all the racism – I don’t actually think he would’ve been Pudovkin if he’d been born in Russia. Of course, I’m not as familiar with Russian filmmakers as Potamkin, nor do I have the affinity for them (two facts which are probably related), but as much as I appreciate the advances they brought about in montage theory and practice, they are not enjoyable to watch. Griffith is, despite the negative aspects of his work, a consummate storyteller, and most Soviet silents are basically avant garde and distancing whether they’re trying to be or not. I feel like the kind of discipline Potamkin advocates would’ve beaten out even what was good about Griffith.

So let’s turn that question on its head then; what might have happened if the Russians were working within the studio system. We constantly see international filmmakers have trouble working within the Hollywood machine – might someone like Eisenstein been able to pull it off (and even offer what Potamkin was looking for?), or would he have just jammed up the gears?

Eisenstein absolutely would not have made it Hollywood – he actually tried to make an American film in the early 1930s – Que Viva Mexico, which went so far over budget and schedule that his American financiers canceled it and refused to let him even edit the footage. I don’t know that Pudovkin ever tried, but as I said, the kinds of films that he and Vertov and Dovzhenko and others were making would’ve been considered avant-garde by American studios, and I doubt they would’ve been even remotely interested. Of course, if we’re considering an influx of Russian talent in around 1915, it’s always possible the American film industry would’ve gone a vastly different way, but Americans are so pragmatic and so story-oriented that I can’t see mainstream American film being like Soviet film. Interesting to think about, though.

Sergei Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico (1932), edited by other hands into multiple films, but never released as intended by him

Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico (1932), edited by other hands into multiple films, but never released as intended by him

Do you ever encounter regionalism when you find yourself reacting to film? Seeing something from another country – or another part of your own country and wondered how it might play when told with a different accent (for better and for worse).

This is a really interesting question, and one I’ve thought a lot about on and off, actually. It pops up whenever I think an American film has tonal problems, but give a South Korean film a pass – “oh, Korean films always tone-switch like crazy.” Or whenever I appreciate the meandering qualities of a French film, but deride an American one for not sticking to the point. Different national cinemas, for better or worse, have certain qualities that seem germane to them – mainstream American cinema is known for straightforward narratives, and when it deviates from that, it seems odd in a way that films from other countries may not. For people more familiar with one country’s films, another’s may seem off-puttingly strange (it’s taken me many years and many films and much reading to get into Japanese cinema, for instance, and the process is ongoing). I think recognizing and appreciating the different accents, as you put it, that regional cinema brings is an important part of cinematic maturation.

Do you find it difficult to write about the stories coming from a culture that isn’t your own? What responsibility does the critic have in that respect? There are pockets of film culture that fascinate me (Iran for instance), but that I feel ill-equipped to discuss too deeply because I sometimes feel there’s nuance in the storytelling that I’m missing as an outsider. Should that matter, or should we as critics just take the story at face and jot down our thoughts?

It’s certainly an extra layer to try to peel back, isn’t it? I, too, am fascinated by Iranian cinema and know far too little about Iran’s history and culture to speak with any authority about it. That said, I don’t think we have to come from a place of expert or lived knowledge to interact with a film, but we obviously have to acknowledge the place of ignorance we are coming from and be honest in speaking from that place, and also willing to learn from others who know more. It’s definitely an issue if you’re writing reviews, because it’s difficult and perhaps unwise to pass judgement on something when you don’t understand all the cultural ramifications involved; yet another very good reason why I prefer not to write reviews! But I think meeting a film from a foreign culture on its own terms, investigating what draws you to it, what moves you, and what you find inscrutable is a great way to work through a piece of art, find common ground with another culture, and figure out what areas you may need to study more in order to understand.

Jafar Panahi's The Circle (2000), a landmark of modern Iranian cinema (which I have not seen).

Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (2000), a landmark of modern Iranian cinema (which I have not seen).