Category Archives: American Movie Critics

American Movie Critics: Andre Sennwald

[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 months’ hiatus while we did…other stuff…we’re back and chomping the bit to talk about Andre Sennwald, a daily reviewer at the New York Times from 1934 to 1936, when he was killed in a gas explosion at his apartment at the age of 28. A shame, since the two pieces we have from him are youthful and brash but insightful, and it would’ve been fascinating to see how he matured as a writer and critic.

We didn’t have a lot to say about his first piece, a defense of Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman, but his second piece is a rumination on the place of Technicolor following its feature debut in Becky Sharp. As in our earlier discussion on Alexander Bakshy’s take on the sound revolution, we find plenty of fodder to jump into thoughts on 3D, technology, and whether cinema should aim for “realism” or not.

RYAN McNEIL
While there’s a point or two in Andre Sennwald’s piece on The Devil is a Woman that caught my attention, it primarily reads as the sort of “Why You’re Wrong About…” piece of contrarianism that dots the current landscape of film writing.

JANDY HARDESTY
At least Sennwald’s contrarianism on The Devil is a Woman is a defense of the film, which I greatly prefer to contrarian takedowns! That said, I also have little patience with the “you just didn’t get it” method of defense that he employs at least once or twice in the piece. On a single viewing of that film, I must admit that I fell into the “you just didn’t get it camp,” though I’m more than willing to return to it with more von Sternberg under my belt.

Marlene Dietrich mocks the patriarchy in Josef von Sternberg's The Devil is a Woman

Marlene Dietrich mocks the patriarchy in Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman

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American Movie Critics: Cecelia Ager

[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.]

Well, after unintentionally taking a couple of months off from this series, Ryan and I are back to the books with one of the most delightful sections of brief reviews we’ve come across so far. I think it’s fair to say that generally the more broad pieces of long-form writing have given us more fodder to talk about than the weekly reviews, but leave it our first working woman critic to turn that on its head.

Cecelia Ager wrote weekly reviews for Variety (the first woman to do so), finding her niche in covering the fashion in films and moving into more general criticism after that, but always with an eye towards the roles and treatment of women in a movie. She’s also incredibly funny, with a dry wit that often comes across as sincere until you carefully read between the lines. We both thoroughly enjoyed this section, and it was a great way to return to the series.

JANDY HARDESTY
We’ve only had one piece by a woman in the book so far, and H.D. was more of a poet than a working film critic. I was a little concerned when I read that Cecelia Ager came into writing film reviews through first writing about fashion on the screen – first of all, that’s a topic I’m not particularly interested in, but also, what a stereotypical background for our first working female critic. One reason I put off getting back to this series was quite frankly that I didn’t know if Ager would have anything interesting to respond to (which was itself a sexist position on my part, and I apologize deeply!).

While Ager isn’t as theoretical as some of the critics we’ve read, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed her entire section – we have eleven very short reviews from her in this section. Did you come into Ager with any unfortunate preconceptions like I did, and if so, were they similarly dispelled?

RYAN McNEIL
Jandy (insert middle name) Stone Hardesty!! Sexism from you in 2015 – how is that helpful? How is a cretin like me supposed to free his mind if I don’t have you as an example?

I kid, but I do understand what you’re getting at. When someone talks about something they’re passionate about and it isn’t your passion, there’s a lot of chance your eyes will glaze over and the sounds they make will soon sound like the grown ups on Charlie Brown.

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American Movie Critics: William Troy

[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.]

Our own era is dominated by special effects blockbusters, and a lot of our ongoing cultural love of oversize entertainment stems from one of the films under discussion today. Critic William Troy wasn’t overly enamored of King Kong as a whole, but expressed in a succinct and thoughtful review, he does get at a lot of why audiences were and remain so. He prefers the somewhat quieter horror of The Invisible Man, a film from Universal’s original horror cycle that tends to be highly regarded and perhaps ironically underseen. Ryan and I greatly enjoyed Troy’s mastery of the short form review, finding ourselves ruminating ourselves on why certain films remain forever popular while others die out of the zeitgeist.

JANDY HARDESTY
In this pair of short reviews, we have a distinguished literary critic and professor reviewing two pioneering special effects films from 1933 – King Kong and The Invisible Man. It’s interesting that he praises both films for their technical ingenuity, but he seems to believe The Invisible Man is much more successful in its story and setting than King Kong, which he thinks failed by trying “to unite two rather widely separated traditions of the popular cinema – that of the ‘thriller’ and that of the sentimental romance” and in so doing “strained our powers of credulity.”

RYAN McNEIL
So first of all, what I loved about the Troy pieces was the way they were – as the introduction tells us – an “occasion for some larger essayistic rumination”. While I’m a believe in the long form, I also understand that there’s a need and a want for shorter “capsule reviews”. But what I love about these posts is that they prove that a short piece can still be a way for a critic to get into an idea a film prompts…and not waste valuable words and space recapping what the movie is about.

And all of this back when there were so fewer places to learn what a film was about!

JANDY
I wondered if you’d latch onto the idea of Troy’s reviews being “larger essayistic ruminations.” No joke, I wrote in the margin “Ryan does this with his reviews, too.” Not to get off track on this, but it’s one of the things I like about your reviews – I always know I’m going to get more than just “here’s what’s in this film and it’s good/bad/mediocre.” Troy does it in a very small space indeed. You’re right, I hadn’t thought of it, but he barely recaps the movie at all – recapping can be done well and intertwined with thoughtful criticism, but Troy makes the best use of the space he has to tie the film to something grander and more thought provoking.

RYAN
Easy there, Hardesty – you’re makin’ me blush.

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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).

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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…

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