American Movie Critics: Gilbert Seldes

[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.]

This essay gave us so much to talk about that we barely knew where to start…or stop! Gilbert Seldes was best known for his 1923 work of cultural criticism The Seven Lively Arts, which was one of the first critical books to celebrate popular art such as the Keystone Kops, the comic Krazy Kat, and jazz (he would later host NBC’s The Subject is Jazz in the 1950s). Here he’s writing at the shift to sound, looking back over the things that made the 1920s great and looking forward to what sound will bring.

Our discussion ranges with him from Chaplin to the role of the critic in guiding film production, with plenty of our usual excursus into vulgar auteurism, the evolution of slapstick, and the ways cinemagoing has changed since the 1920s.

RYAN McNEIL
The ten pages of this book dedicated to Gilbert Seldes might have given me more to think about than anything we’ve come across yet.

JANDY HARDESTY
He’s extraordinarily thought-provoking! In fact, his piece sounds as though it could’ve been written now – a historian/critic looking back over decades and coming up with extremely salient thoughts about silent comedy, the role of escapism in film, and the relationship between critic, producer and audience. Only in the last section does it sort of peek through that he’s not of our time, mostly because the economics and dominance of the movie industry has shifted somewhat. I think his thoughts on Chaplin, for example, are remarkable for someone writing in the midst of Chaplin’s career. Note that even his list of accomplishments of the silent cinema are strikingly similar to what a modern writer would cite:

The Keystone comedies, the work of Charles Chaplin, The Birth of a Nation, certain other technical achievements of D.W. Griffith, Caligari, The Big Parade, the direction of Ernst Lubitsch and the playing of Emil Jannings, a handful of scenes in the work of a few American directors, The Last Laugh, the cinematic technique of the Russians, Nanook and Chang, the contemporary newsreel, recent trick photography, some abstract films. [57]

RYAN
The note I made when Seldes rhymed off all those accomplishments was that film had already done so much in such a short amount of time. It must have been so bloody exciting to see a medium take shape like that and do so many things in such a short window. In a way, I count myself lucky because I realize that our generation got to see that same sort of evolution with the dawn of the internet and how much it changed things in such a short amount of time. Wow, do we ever take being part of such things for granted…

Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North (1922)

Let’s look at his stance as something of a populist. His introduction claims that he argued that the public’s tastes were often preferable to the more bogus and arty works that critics preferred. Now it’s hard to expound on that based on what we read here, since his piece on talkies never actually gets to that point, but let’s linger there for a second.

The role of criticism is to be a counterbalance to fanaticism, but might it be a useful tool for a critic to root around in a popular-yet-critically-disliked movie to figure out what works? Time and again in history we’ve seen films get panned only to be adored at the time commercially, or even go on to be critically lauded later. So while it might lend itself more to one who studies psychology or sociology, is there a value in looking at something loathed-but-popular and asking “why?”

JANDY
It’s always useful for critics to ask why something is popular, or unpopular, with any group of people. It may be, as you say, a sociological question in some ways, but often looking at something from another point of view helps us understand something about that work of art that we might not have otherwise. Indeed, this is the basis of most shifts in critical thought, is it not? We wouldn’t have had the auteur theory or the French New Wave if the Cahiers critics hadn’t appreciated the popular filmmaking of Hitchcock, Ford and others that weren’t considered great by more “arty” critics.

The influential Cahiers du cinema.

The influential Cahiers du cinema.

In more recent times, there’s been an interest in “vulgar auteurism,” meaning the work of people like Michael Bay and Paul W.S. Anderson who have distinctive and popular styles but usually aren’t highly considered by critics. In some cases, perhaps we’re only getting a glimpse into the psychology of people who like those films, but in others, we may learn how to expand the canon, as it were, to admit more varied types of filmmaking.

RYAN
I’ve had a problem with vulgar auteurism in a way that feels counter to what I think Seldes is getting at.

Seldes lobs stones at his fellow critics, so I might as well. Using Bay and Anderson as examples, I feel like Seldes would want to dig into why their films are as popular as they are (sidebar: are Anderson’s “popular”?). I feel as though he would want to dig into both the story and execution and examine what they do to reach wide audiences that films by people like even Scorsese and Fincher do not.

However, that’s not what we’re seeing. We’re seeing critics hail the execution of these fast food films, and that feels a bit counterproductive. If you want to write one thousand words about why you like cheeseburgers, that’s fine…but please don’t try to tell me that “Bay’s Burgers” makes the best ones because they use only quality ingredients.

JANDY
I’m not entirely sure that’s fair to vulgar auteurism, though – I think we do see the phenomenon you’re talking about, where critics praise films maybe they shouldn’t, but I also see people who genuinely dislike Bay’s films still interested in delving into what Bay is doing. Have you seen Tony Zhou’s video on Bayhem, for example? He ultimately comes down on the side that Bay’s filmmaking is not good, but he looks very closely at the distinctive and characteristic things that Bay does, the things that make him an auteur in terms of stylistic consistency even while not necessarily making good films. That’s getting off the point of why people like it a bit, but that’s the kind of thing I was thinking about. (Sidebar – Anderson’s films aren’t in the same financial class as Bay’s, for sure, but I think all of the Resident Evil films have turned a tidy profit because they’re not terribly expensive and they reach a consistent group of people.)

RYAN
Getting into his actual piece “An Hour with the Movies and the Talkies”, I think I might have actually fist-pumped when he led off his piece by pointing out that “the screen isn’t the stage”. So far it feels like most of the critics we’ve read have fallen back on that comparison, and how one seems more or less “real” than the other. Seldes, meanwhile seems to be the first person to see film as more than just a barnstorming play, and instead a living, breathing art form of its own.

He lays his cards on the table pretty boldly when he says:

For many years stage people used stage material for the movies; and not one single essential of the movies has ever been favorably affected by the stage; the stage has contributed nothing lasting to the movies; there isn’t a single item of cinema technique which requires experience of the stage; and every good thing in the movies has been accomplished either in profound indifference to the stage, or against the experience of the stage. [57]

So not to ask a blunt and basic question, but does this hypothesis hold up?

JANDY
I think we’ve seen other critics point out the essential movie-ness of movies, but certainly no one has done it with the vehemence of Seldes. He really drops mic on this whole issue, and I hope it largely stays dropped. It’s understandable that early film critics would want to compare a new medium with one they’re already familiar with, but as Seldes points out, by 1930 the medium is over a quarter-century old and it’s time to learn a more appropriate vocabulary. And I certainly think he’s done that!

As far as his bold statement goes, I think it’s perhaps a bit hyperbolic (I noted in the margin that many of the things he praises Keystone for on page 59 are not wholly different from Shakespeare’s more farcical comedies; I also disagree with him that close-ups are only a “dubious technical trick” of the movies), but at this time in history, it’s necessary to establish the clean break film needed to make with the stage.

The assertion of the Keystones was that the bodies of human beings lent themselves to comic exploitation […] It then asserted […] that the lofty sentiments of humanity were also available fodder for farce and roared with laughter over love, honesty, perseverance, courage, and marital fidelity, never forgetting its first principle, so that the mockery of these noble virtues was always accomplished through laughter at physical effects. [59]

The Keystone Kops

The Keystone Kops

RYAN
That leads me to wonder, ever think that leaning on hyperbole is just a way for a critic to get noticed?

JANDY
OF COURSE leaning on hyperbole is something critics do to get noticed. It’s a rhetorical device like any other – it can be overused, like any other rhetorical device, but I don’t think it’s inherently bad or anything.

Let’s go to Chaplin next. This is the second (I think) extended section we’ve seen on Chaplin, and it’s just as laudatory as the piece we had by Edmund Wilson (I was amused to see Seldes cite Wilson at one point). What Seldes brings to the table is the really intriguing of escapist cinema being an escape to something rather than merely an escape from something, and suggesting that Chaplin accomplished this much more fully than his fellow comedians.

For when we come to Chaplin the answer to Escape to what? is all-important. Everything that was contrivance and ingenuity in the Keystone is with him imagined and created; with him we enter into the only completely realized creation on the screen. […] He is, as we say, in a world apart – the world of his creation. Using more or less the same materials as the others, he is attempting, and achieving, something entirely different. [61]

Charlie Chaplin's famous Tramp character

Charlie Chaplin’s famous Tramp character

Thinking this through, I think he may be on to something. As much as I love Keaton and also Lloyd, in some ways more than the sentimental Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd always still feel like they inhabit our world. Keaton and Lloyd are men of their time, one facing the perils of the modern world with exasperated stoicism, the other with all-American gusto, but Chaplin is otherworldly. His Tramp is of no time, and every time, and his world might resemble ours, but it has a far different feeling than Keaton’s or Lloyd’s. This essay was written before Modern Times, but as much as Modern Times comments on the mechanization of the modern world, does it really feel like it exists in our world? What do you think? I’d never considered this angle of approach to Chaplin, and I’m highly intrigued.

RYAN
I still gravitate to Chaplin more than Keaton and Lloyd (though I adore all three), and I think part of it is actually the reverse of your stance. Chaplin might seem otherworldy, but so much of what would make The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator so incredible was the way they were reactions to our world.

So much changed around him in the early part of the century that Chaplin must have been hustling to keep up with all the inspiration it was giving him. What’s amazing isn’t just that he saw all of these changes in our society, but that he reacted to them so. damned. well. Every one of his films executes on its core idea, which at the time is actually doubly impressive.

For starters, you usually only get one kick at a concept – so if you want to make fun of the North Koreans, you’d better make it really darned clever otherwise the controversy leads us to something that’s all sizzle and no steak. But what’s more impressive is that the technology Chaplin was working with was limited (hell, he didn’t even use recorded dialogue until Dictator). Ordinarily it’s the films that are handcuffed by limited tech that seem the most prone to revisiting…but in each case his technique actually nailed things so well. I really get the sense that’s what Seldes appreciates most about his work.

JANDY
I don’t think we ultimately disagree on Chaplin, though I appreciate that our points of view are bringing out different facets of what makes him such an enduring figure. I do think all of Chaplin’s films COMMENT on our world, and they do so very trenchantly. But taking Seldes’ thoughts into account, I think perhaps they do so by creating a different world from which to make those comments.

RYAN
So if that’s true, perhaps it underlines why Chaplin was so successful at his schtick. His worlds, while not our world, were still so tangible. They weren’t worlds where, as Seldes puts it, people got laughs by throwing cream pies at one another. They were worlds where people had jobs like ours, in factories like ours, with bosses like ours.

Just that in Chaplin’s world, one could also survive a fall into the gears of the machine.

Modern Times (1936)

Modern Times (1936)

JANDY
Of course, every film to some degree or another creates its own reality – even the most realistic films are constructed. What I think I’d say is that the world Chaplin’s films, through the creation of the otherworldly figure of the Tramp, are one step further removed from our reality than Keaton’s or Lloyd’s are. If Keaton went on a flight of fancy the way Chaplin does in the factory in Modern Times, we would accept that Keaton (or especially Lloyd) had gone mad, because his world is more normalized. When Chaplin does it, he’s perceived as mad by others in the factory, but OUR perception is that Chaplin’s reaction is totally justified and it’s the world he’s in that is out of step.

Chaplin’s character determines our reaction to his world (and by extension, ours). I’m not expressing this well, because it sounds like I’m contradicting myself – I don’t think I am. Seldes ties the world in Chaplin’s films closely to his character, and I think the difference is that in Chaplin, we see his world THROUGH his character, which profoundly affects our perception of the world of his films. In Keaton and Lloyd, I think we see our world with Keaton and Lloyd making their way through it as best they can.

RYAN
Where I think Seldes would agree with us is in that same quote about Chaplin and how it would also apply to Lloyd and Keaton: “He is…in a world apart-the world of his creation. Using more or less the same materials as the others, he is attempting, and achieving, something entirely different.” [61] They all find a way to do something different with a mallet, an umbrella, and a dog, and that allows this food chain of comedy to develop.

JANDY
On a related tack, pure slapstick is a genre that died down in popularity after the advent of sound – we see it in the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers to some degree throughout the 1930s, and Looney Tunes up through the 1950s, but it was quickly overshadowed in mainstream feature films by verbal sparring. Perhaps that was inevitable with the rise of sound. Do you think there’s a modern successor to slapstick?

RYAN
YouTube videos of cats falling off sofa armrests?

JANDY
You’re right, cat videos are definitely the slapstick of today! Good call. I was trying to make gross-out comedy or Apatow-style humor fit with slapstick, but cat videos are much much closer in both content and spirit to the Keystone comedy of yore.

RYAN
So how long until we get “Panda Sneezes: The Movie”. We may joke, but remember we have already turned Battleship into a film.

Opening night crowd waiting to see Don Juan (1926).

Opening night crowd waiting to see Don Juan (1926).

One of the things I loved about this piece was about halfway in where Seldes discusses the social occasion of “going to the movies”. After he touches on the fact that consuming this artform rarely brings the viewer great inspiration or clarity (though I’d wager those things would come as the artform evolved), he points out that the actual going to the movies is what offered the escape.

The people who go every Friday night “to the movies” or who have nothing to do for an evening and telephone to a friend to come “to the movies” prove the point; for although they may eventually reject one offered picture and choose another, they will go to any movie rather than go to none. They escape to the movies. […] But if the movie offers them instead creative power, a sustained flight of the imagination, an artistic rectitude, a breath of poetry? [60-61]

It was a chance to get out of their homes and apartments, meet up with people they cared about, and enjoy an hour or two of escape.

We sorta touched on this with Munsterberg and class unification, but I wonder if that’s part of the film-watching experience that we are beginning to miss: the true escape. Sure, it’s incredible to have such variety to us at the touch of a button, and the comfort of our own couches…but if we’re going into these stories with laundry unfolded or emails unreplied in our periphery vision – how much are we truly “escaping”?

We used to gather and let go; now we isolate ourselves and remain reminded.

JANDY
I’m glad you brought up the section about going to the movies. I found that section interesting because for one thing, I don’t think people go to the movies like that anymore. Maybe some people do, but I don’t know very many people who will “go to any movie rather than go to none.” If we go to the theatre at all, we go see a particular movie. Maybe if it’s sold out or something, we’ll pick something different rather than see nothing at all, but do people generally go to a theatre and just see whatever’s playing?

The one-theatre town in The Last Picture Show (1971).

The one-theatre town in The Last Picture Show (1971).

They definitely did back in the studio era – for one thing, in many towns there was only one theatre with one screen so you’d see whatever one thing they had that week if you wanted to see anything. With the explosion of choice both on movie screens and at home, that’s not something we really do anymore. And I totally agree with you about it being more difficult to “escape” at home. I really miss being able to go to the theatre consistently, because I find it incredibly difficult to concentrate at home, no matter how good the movie is.

RYAN
I think this was an activity well into our lifetimes and that it’s only recently fallen by the wayside. Sometimes we forget that we’re not the average moviegoer, and that there are still people who sill sit down on friday afternoon and say “what’s playing up the street?”. Oddly enough, the moment I finally decided “I’m seeing this movie on this night regardless of who wants to come with me” was when I knew I’d become a cinefile.

JANDY
I take your point, but it still feels foreign to me. If that’s the cinephile moment, I reached it as a teenager and I don’t remember it as a watershed moment. I’ve enjoyed going to the theatre alone to see what I wanted to see almost as long I’ve been going to the theatre, and I certainly watched everything at home by myself.

RYAN
But back to the point at-hand, part of me wonders if people feel like going out on a Friday night, what else do they do that’s such a common denominator as going to a film? Gather at a bar? Hang out at a coffee shop? Have we stopped interacting with larger swaths of the general public and retreated into our own kitchens and living rooms?

This came up a lot on the 100th episode of my podcast where I got people to tell stories of their most memorable experiences of going to films, and more than half the time, the “crowd atmosphere” had something to do with it.

I wonder what Seldes would think if he knew the casual add-ons to that atmosphere were gone for good?

The Iron Horse (1924)

The Iron Horse (1924)

While it’s difficult to appreciate a critic who says “you should be listening to us” in the face of filmmakers and producers, Seldes says it in such a well-stated manner that it’s hard to accuse him of pretension. It’s as though he wants to paint critics as the intermediary between the studios and the audience; interpreting what one ways they want to what the other wants to give them. Likewise, he’s pushing – he wants the Chaplins of the medium to use their considerable talent to do something better…and of course he would get it.

The criticism, the demands, the predictions of the theoretical critics have been justified by events – and justified financially. While the producers were over-capitalizing themselves for spectacle and stars, the critics were insisting that the director held the future of the movies in his hand. […] Eventually stars subsided and directors rose and turned in profits. The critics announced that the movies were paying too much attention to their plots; and movies with simpler plots – Chang, Moana, Nanook, and Grass – came and were successful. […] The critics called for a revival of the Western with the newly developed technique and intelligence of the 1920’s – and The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse appeared. [64-65]

I think he phrases all of that quite nicely, no?

JANDY
As a critic, I of course enjoyed reading Seldes’ validation of critics, but I also took it with a bit of a grain of salt. He points out several instances where producers thought something would or wouldn’t sell, critics disagreed with them, and the critics turned out to be right. It looks like in Seldes’ view, critics were vital in the 1920s to making quality pictures that audiences enjoyed. Do you think that’s true today? What do you think is different about the 1920s to today in terms of this producer-critic-audience relationship?

RYAN
I think the biggest difference between then and now is a lot of maturity and a dramatic change in the ecosystem.

Back then we would flock to it because it was so new, so joyous, such a great way to spend a nickel and ninety minutes. What flew then wouldn’t fly as well now, and the studios have gone bankrupt enough times to learn this lesson.

I also think that after all this time the lines have blurred so much. You now have former audience members making the films, former producers becoming critics, critics becoming artists, artists funding their films straight from the pockets of audiences (making them producers)…and round-and-round she goes.

You’d think that tighter weave would lead to a better product, but I doubt either of us would truly say that’s the case.

JANDY
I wrote in the margins of this section “I feel like you could ‘prove’ anything by choosing the examples that fit.” I don’t know if or how much he’s cherry-picking, because all I have to go in is what he’s saying, and I haven’t done the research to know what else was or wasn’t popular. However, saying “we said westerns would do well and here are these TWO westerns that did well” is a bit of a small sample size.

The theorists, in brief, said “use the material most appropriate to your medium and exploit it with all the means in your power”; they were fundamentally right. […] In the following decade, the public did reject two or three unusual pictures; but they accepted, with enthusiasm, half a dozen others which in various ways met the demands of the critics, which in various ways were just what the producers said the public would not stand. [66]

I think this is the relationship critics would LIKE to have with the public and with producers – we tell producers what to make, they make it, and the public likes it. It’s obviously far from that simple, because after all, this is the basis of the “film critics are irrelevant” chestnut that gets trotted out every couple of years – what critics like isn’t always or even usually what audiences like, so audiences and producers both feel free to ignore us, because they think they only need each other.

Marvel's Black Widow

Marvel’s Black Widow

RYAN
This is where I’d ask how long you want this post to be, because I feel like right now it’s the critics who are stoking the fire that female-led comic book films can succeed, and that the studios are the ones pushing back (and screwing things up at every opportunity, thus building a bigger case against).

JANDY
You’re not wrong about things like critics pushing for female superheroes, and possibly getting somewhere. I think that’s a good use of whatever megaphone we still have. On the other hand, how many people said splitting The Hobbit into three movies (or even two!) was a terrible idea, and how many critics rolled their eyes and said “ENOUGH WITH THE TRANSFORMERS ALREADY”, and how many billions of dollars are those studios taking to the bank right now? That’s my point – we can pick which facts or scenarios we want to in this game, and back up a lot of different narratives about this. Of course, your scenario is about pushing the studios to take risks, and mine are about critics being fed up with more of the same – perhaps that suggests that critics’ effort is better put forth advocating for things they want rather than arguing against things they don’t, which is in fact also the scenario Seldes discusses. And I would stand behind that 100%.