American Movie Critics: Pare Lorenz

[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.]

Several of the critics in the American Movie Critics anthology have multiple pieces (or excerpts) included, but I don’t think we’ve come across a critic with one piece we almost totally agreed with, and another we totally disagreed with. Pare Lorentz, a 1920s-1930s critic-turned-documentarian, dismisses Greta Garbo and her first talking film with a cursory hand wave, and then goes on to give an extremely astute assessment of the state of documentary filmmaking. Simply a question of documentary clearly being more his thing, since he focused on documentaries himself as a filmmaker? Merely a personal distaste for Garbo? With only these two pieces, it’s difficult to tell. Whatever the case, these pieces certainly got us talking!

RYAN McNEIL:
The first thing that jumped out at me about the first of these two pieces is that Pare Lorentz’s post on Anna Christie felt like the most mean-spirited thing we’ve read so far. He seems to want to take down an icon and openly wonder about why she’s a draw.

I understand that in a “Why is Dane Cook so popular?” sort of way, but when Lorentz says that his opinion on Greta Garbo matters as much as his opinion on a hat check girl…I wonder if he’s trying to undercut his own authority or deliver a backhanded swipe?

Shouldn’t a critic of Lorentz’s ilk be more concerned with what’s happening on the screen than the popularity of the person in it? And likewise, what’s to be learned by something so obtuse that it merits inclusion in this collection?

JANDY HARDESTY:
This is such a weird piece, for a lot of reasons. From the introduction, it looks like Lorentz was a regular critic for several magazines starting in 1926, and this feels like an assignment review for a film he simply had no interest in. We’ve all had those times, where we’re given a screener or go to a press screening and we’re just not feeling it, but we have to turn something in, so we dash something together and just move on. At one point, he says that “Miss Garbo gave an original and surprising interpretation of the heroine.” That sounds like a GOOD thing, but apparently it’s not? He doesn’t really seem to connect this statement to the rest of the piece – was it original and surprising because it’s bad? Whereas a good performance would’ve been familiar and expected? I don’t even know.

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie (1930).

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie (1930).

In Anna Christie, she produces a deep, monotonous, but humourous voice. And that was surprising. It dispelled forever the “mysterious lady” personality and left her a young lady whowas seriously trying to understand her job, but who was much too easygoing and goodnatured to get up a sweat over it. [68]

RYAN:
It’s strange that Lorentz’s reaction to “original and surprising” reads in stark contrast to Doolittle’s. Now granted, he seemed bored while she was clearly moved, but they both have drastically different results to an “I don’t know” reaction.

JANDY:
I think an “I don’t know” reaction is strongly colored by the emotional response, though, is it not? If I don’t have an emotional response at all, like Lorentz, then I’m far more likely to just dismiss the whole thing. A visceral reaction like Doolittle’s can’t be ignored or dismissed, even if I don’t fully know how to interpret it.

I haven’t seen Anna Christie, but I’ve seen a number of Garbo’s other early roles, and he’s honestly not wrong in some ways – I think she’s compelling, but she’s compelling because she’s very unemotional, allowing the audience to project their emotion onto her. It’s a very different sort of acting than was common in the silent era, which is probably a major reason she was so popular.

At the end of Queen Christina (1933), she’s on the prow of a ship, having sacrificed everything for dury, and it’s a really powerful, iconic shot that feels like it has depths of emotion behind its stillness. The actual direction she was given was to make her face a blank and to think about nothing. The sense of deep emotion we feel looking at her is all provided by us. It sounds like Lorentz saw through that, basically, and didn’t appreciate it as an intentional acting choice, but saw it as a lack of acting.

The final shot of Queen Christina (1933).

The final shot of Queen Christina (1933).

RYAN:
You raise a good point regarding Lorentz not wanting to project where it comes to Garbo’s stoicism. Do you get the feelings sometimes that critics and audiences don’t want their films to be abstract? Not the ones that are designed to be – the ones that show in galleries and festivals and are meant to be meditations, but mainstream films that leave blank spaces (where I write your name! …Sorry, been listening to too much Taylor Swift).

Should we expect mainstream movies to be a bit more lively, or are audiences and critics just afraid to let their minds wander?

JANDY:
This depends entirely on the critic! Remember the whole “cinematic vegetables” conversation a few years ago? I think mainstream audiences in general have a preference for films that are clear in plot and message, that tie off all their threads, and that zip along leaving little time for mind wandering. I think there are critics of that mindset, too, but certainly not all. The Tree of Life is a great example here – I loved that movie, but I’m the first to admit that a lot of what I loved about it was the thoughts of childhood and cosmic significance that it awoke in me. I think that’s very much a movie that depends on what you bring to it, and you can see that in the polarized reactions to it.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011).

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).

RYAN:
I think what’s hardest here is that even if Lorentz wanted to completely shred Garbo and/or Anne Christie, it feels like a half-assed takedown. The funny thing is that I actually believe that critics are too quick to eviscerate a film they didn’t like. Have you noticed that? Time and again we see this film or that film described as “The Worst” or “Abjectly Terrible”? Much like too many things being “awesome”, when so many things are described as brutal, it makes it difficult to believe that any of it is. That said, if a writer is going to commit to a pan, they need to commit to a pan.

Mean as it is, he gets close with the hat check girl comment and the crowd regarding it as a comedy, but I don’t feel like he digs deep enough.

JANDY:
The hat check girl line definitely feels like a swipe as well to me, though I think he’s also acknowledging that whatever he says about Garbo isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion of her. She’s popular and she’s going to remain so, no matter what any critic has to say about it. That’s definitely something we still deal with today, isn’t it? Why bother, as critics, to point out that the Transformers movies suck when they’re going to make a bajillion dollars anyway?

Maybe that’s why the piece is in the book. I mean, I find it interesting in and of itself to see what critics (or one critic, anyway) thought of Garbo at the time – that’s a major reason to read contemporary criticism, since it’s unaffected by the years. Garbo was popular at the time, but would anyone have known that she’d still be considered iconic eighty years later? If Lorentz had know that, would he have written this, or would he have doubled down on his contrarianism (I suspect the latter)?

RYAN:
That’s right – it’s important to think in the immediate as opposed to thinking about how big an artist could become. The funny thing about that is that it creates a bit of a twisted perspective. It’s honest – or presumably so – and less concerned with kissing a legend’s ass than telling things as they are. The twist comes when the stance looks so out-of-step. I’d never suggest that a critic watch their step in the off-chance something might become a touchstone, but you wonder if some of these instances would be avoided if a critic wrote from their brain instead of their temper. Maybe we’d get less “I’ve been wrong about ______” lines in the reviews where an actor turns things around for a critic.

Garbo in a publicity shot with MGM's Leo the Lion.

Garbo in a publicity shot with MGM’s Leo the Lion.

I feel as though Lorentz’s comments are less a dig at popularity than at celebrity, like he’s saying “I don’t get the appeal”. Let’s face it, as much as the movies are an art form where we see stories and ideas unspool, it’s also a business that thrives on patrons paying to look at pretty people for two hours. SOMETIMES these stars become something special, but more often they’re little more than speaking models. In that way I think criticism needs to counterattack fanaticism. It’s become even worse in the age of reality television where people get fans and become famous just because they are on TV. To that end, I think that standing up and saying “why do we keep watching this?”. After all, if nobody asked, could you imagine how much worse it might get?

How-ev-errr….the trick comes in being able to recognize pretty faces from true talent; from being able NOT to be distracted by handsomeness or beauty and recognizing what they are doing. That, again, is where Lorentz fails.

Again, it makes me wonder why it was included in the book.

JANDY:
Well, like I said, I think it’s included because it provides a contemporary, if dissenting, viewpoint on a popular star. It can be valuable and interesting as a historical viewpoint even if we think it’s offbase, no? And in bringing up Garbo’s long-term iconicity, I worded my off-handed comment poorly. I didn’t mean to suggest that Lorentz or any other critic should try to postulate the future and consider that in their reviews. I don’t think that at all. Discretion and humility, and willingness to admit we were wrong should always be involved, but trying to hedge our bets trying to predict the future will only lead to weak criticism. I meant only that we have the benefit of 80 years of hindsight in evaluating Garbo and her career, a benefit that Lorentz did not have, and I think we need to look at his comments in that context.

(As a side note, I found two things hilarious – first that he basically reviews A DIFFERENT FILM in talking about why he dislikes Garbo, not the one he’s actually reviewing, and also that in the second article we have from him, he namechecks Garbo as if making a film with her is the epitome of fiction filmmaking. I wonder if he’d changed his mind by 1940, or if it’s a subtle sign of contempt for fiction films?)

Pinocchio (1940).

Pinocchio (1940).

I cannot believe, then, that even a ten-year-old boy willingly would sit through a bumbling, inept, dry amateur movie in a classroom when he’s already become accustomed to the finesse, the speed, and the excitement, of a PINOCCHIO or a GRAPES OF WRATH. [69]

The second piece we have from him discusses the state of documentary filmmaking in 1940 America. We know from the introduction that he became a documentary filmmaker himself in the mid-1930s. I don’t watch many documentaries myself (a failing I try to correct and somehow never manage as well as I’d like); you watch more, so I’m curious how you took this section. First off, it sounds like all documentarians in the 1930s were Communists! But also that the filmmaking level of documentaries was nowhere near that of fiction films.

Good art is good propaganda. And educators, politicians, and little group-thinkers can’t produce good art, or they wouldn’t be educators, politicians, or little group-thinkers. [70]

Even though docs are much smaller-scale than big Hollywood films even today, the filmmaking seems much more on par with fiction films, and there’s a lot more cross-pollination of filmmaking styles between the two, which I believe started really happening in the 1960s. Do you agree with his statement that “good art is good propaganda,” and do you think documentary filmmakers today are fulfilling that?

RYAN:
The thing is that he’s not wrong. Much like television, documentary filmmaking has been undergoing a boon over the last several years and largely that comes from an increased interest in technique.

Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (2012)

Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012)

What was happening in documentary back in Lorentz’s day was just a sliver above news. Documentarians were less interested in telling stories than they were being able to capture the stories. It was the difference between snapshots and portraits. So Lorentz’s stance that documentaries wouldn’t be able to connect with wider audiences until they could bridge that gap would actually prove rather prophetic. He pretty-much counterbalances his Garbo takedown!

JANDY:
Lorentz’s argument in the documentary section seems to me that documentary filmmakers of the time thought their subjects were so important that they didn’t think they needed to worry about whether the filmmaking was any good. This is an ancillary issue to the one you bring up about documentaries being glorified news, but it’s there as well.

RYAN:
The interesting thing about the “art/propaganda” theory is that it actually stands in contrast to what documentary is supposed to be about. In a perfect world, documentary is supposed to neutral (think National Geographic). The documentarian is supposed to set up sticks and capture what is seen and said. So in a sense, a documentary should be neutral…but of course, they never are. Even though what we’re seeing is real life, it’s sculpted into whatever shape the director wants to give it.

I think that good art can be good propaganda, though the two aren’t necessarily hand-in-glove. The funny thing is that I feel like some of the documentaries that have made the biggest cultural impact this century – Super Size Me, Blackfish, An Inconvenient Truth – are films that didn’t revolutionize anything in the way of artistic achievement, but instead simply crafted a good argument.

Blackfish (2013)

Blackfish (2013)

Do you believe that “good art is good propaganda”?

JANDY:
I think we’re put off by the word “propaganda” in the “good art is good propaganda”, and not necessarily wrongly, but I think what Lorentz is getting at is that a documentary (in this case he’s particularly thinking of political or social docs, I think, given that he comments a few times about documentarians being leftist) isn’t going to be compelling if it isn’t well-made as a film, and I think modern documentary filmmaking has borne this out – it doesn’t matter how true or even important a documentary is, it’s still not compelling to a large audience if it’s not well-made. As I said, I’m not a big documentary watcher, so I haven’t seen Blackfish, An Inconvenient Truth, or Super Size Me, but even if they don’t innovate a lot on a technical level, building a solid and compelling argument and delivering it in a compelling way is still artful, and it sounds like the political documentaries of the 1930s weren’t even reaching that level.

It’s difficult to think about this topic without thinking of the work of Leni Riefenstahl, which is the definition of well-made propaganda, in the very negative sense of the word. Triumph of the Will is incredibly compelling, which makes it incredibly terrifying now that we know the atrocities of the Nazi party. Good art/good propaganda can be very dangerous, but I don’t think Lorentz is necessarily thinking of “propaganda” in a wholly negative light the way we tend to – it seems like he’s largely using it just to mean “information promoting a specific political viewpoint” without judging whether that political viewpoint is right or wrong. Perhaps I’m being too generous with the term.

Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934)

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934)

RYAN:
One thing I find extremely telling in terms of the timing of this article is how he mentions that so many documentaries are state-funded. Isn’t it weird to remember a time before people were so distrustful of the government?

JANDY:
In 1940, things like Triumph of the Will were already out and probably had been see in the US (though I don’t know that for sure), but the US would’ve also been gearing up its own propaganda machine for the war effort. He mentions in the last paragraph that the efforts of documentarians would likely be pressed into military service, and he’s absolutely right about that. Most of the now-remembered documentaries of the early ’40s are war films, military training films, etc, many of them not even from documentarians but from commercial Hollywood filmmakers – from Frank Capra’s Why We Fight to Warner Bros’ Sgt. Snafu. I don’t think documentary really came into its own until the 1960s. This is definitely a topic I could learn to study more.

RYAN:
Billy Wilder has one too that you should watch since you’re working on his canon, but buckle up because it’s pretty bleak. But further to my earlier point, I feel like audiences nowadays would be skeptical of a state-sponsored documentary. I think no matter whether the documentarian’s position is conservative or liberal, the independence of the production is what gives most nonfiction its real weight.

This whole second piece by Lorentz really hits the mark for me. It stands in such contrast to his first entry and in so many ways feels prophetic. In the end, I can’t help but feel that it’s actually sad that Lorentz wouldn’t be around to see what heights the artform of documentary would climb to.

Werner Herzog's The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)