Category Archives: American Movie Critics

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?

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American Movie Critics: Alexander Bakshy

[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.]

We made it to the sound era! Barely. Alexander Bakshy was the first film critic for The Nation, and he was known even in his lifetime for his prescience – this piece proves that, as he stands up for the future of sound cinema in 1929, when most critics and film writers were wringing their hands that this gimmick called sound was destroying cinema as they knew it. And well, they weren’t wrong – silent cinema was made obsolete incredibly quickly, but Bakshy is bullish on the evolution, absolutely sure that sound cinema would find its footing and move cinema into a new and better era.

But if naysayers about sound cinema were wrong and Bakshy was right, what can we extrapolate about the way critics treat new technology (say, for example…3D) in our own day? Ryan and I grapple with a lot here under Bakshy’s inspiration.

You mentioned to me on Twitter after reading the Alexander Bakshy piece that it’s a perfect companion to the Mencken piece we read a few weeks ago. At that point, I hadn’t read it yet, but you were absolutely right! Where Mencken was hung up on the “idiotic and irritating technic” of editing, Bakshy welcomes the technical innovation of sound, even though he seems to acknowledge that not much had been done with it yet by 1929 (which was true). Mencken was stuck in the theatrical past, while Bakshy has a prophetic stance toward the possibilities of the future.

Interestingly, just from reading the little intro in the book, I was prepared for Bakshy to be another skeptic – a quote from his final review in 1933 is cited, where he calls the general output of Hollywood an “incessant flow of bilge.” I wish we had that full review anthologized here as well, because in this piece about the Talkies, he seems quite definitely, if cautiously, confident in the future of cinema.

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American Movie Critics: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

[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.]

We’re coming to the end of the silent era, and we cap it off with one of the most tantalizing and intriguing essays we’ve come across so far, about a film that both Ryan and I have seen – Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc. Sometimes critics declare films to be masterpieces, and time doesn’t bear them out, or they dismiss films that are later revived as classics. Here we have a fascinating case of a critic (Hilda Doolittle, who was primarily a poet who published under her initials H.D.) who declares Jeanne d’Arc to be a masterpiece, and yet her review is an encapsulation of the emotional turmoil the film put her through, and her simultaneous appreciation of and resistance to the film. Her poetic side comes through in her turns of phrase throughout, but also in her sensibility – she values her troubled subjective experience of the film over a firm judgement of its objective quality. Ryan confessed during our conversation that he read the piece twice; I think I’ve read it four or five times now, partially to refamiliarize myself with it while writing, but also because I find it simply the most amazing thing we’ve read in the anthology so far. I would write criticism like this if I had the talent. As it is, I’m eternally grateful to Phillip Lopate for including it in this anthology so I knew to read it.

When we discussed Carl Sandburg, you mentioned the way enthusiasm shone through in his writing. So today we have another poet, and again we’re met with another burst of enthusiasm. Do you think there’s something to be said about artists commenting and critiquing on other art forms? I don’t imagine it would always be as effusive as what Sandburg wrote before or what Hilda Doolittle writes here…but is there perhaps a creative spark that an artist latches on to that a journalist – or even an appreciator of the medium – wouldn’t?

There’s definitely something more expressionistic about both Sandburg’s and H.D.’s pieces in the anthology. I don’t think this piece on The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc is strictly speaking a review in the same sense of the weekly consumer reviews that Sandburg was writing, but they both have a commitment to the subjective, to the experiential, and to a certain turn of phrase that set them apart from many of their more prosaic contemporaries.


I was also amazed to see her begin her piece by planting such a positive flag in the ground:

The Passion and Death of a Saint is a film that caused me more unrest, more spiritual forebodings, more intellectual rackings, more emotional torment than any I have yet seen. [39]

Now to be fair, Doolittle was being affected by what remains a benchmark in the medium…so we can hardly question how deeply she was affected. However, what caught me about this opening statement is how boldly it comes out swinging in the affirmative. It’s rare that this happens – why is that?

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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?

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American Movie Critics: Robert E. Sherwood and Edmund Wilson

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 weeks of interruption (thanks, TIFF!), Ryan and I are back with another installment of our conversations about the American Movie Critics anthology. This time, we’re covering pieces by Robert E. Sherwood and Edmund Wilson from the mid-1920s. One of these days we’re going to get to talking pictures! Sherwood is best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, but he spent 1920-1928 writing film reviews for Life. The pair of reviews show him as a prototypical weekly reviewer, neither an enthusiast about the movies nor dismissive of them, but a pretty solid guide for the average moviegoer, honest about what he likes and dislikes with a straightforward and casual tone. Wilson was one of America’s greatest literary critics who also found time to write about virtually every kind of art (film, theatre, dance, art, etc.) for the New Republic. We only have one piece by him, an analytical and appreciative look at Charlie Chaplin in general and The Gold Rush in particular, but the intro blurb in the anthology mentions that he was skeptical of typical Hollywood movies, so I’m not sure this piece is totally representative.

Edmund Wilson, literary critic
Edmund Wilson, literary critic

So after two poets and a psychologist, we arrive at a playwright-as-critic. In a way, one would think that we’ve found the “most qualified” critic yet, since Robert Sherwood likely has the best grasp on narrative structure.

I’m not sure I’m willing to grant that a playwright should be better at being a film critic, merely because of a grasp of narrative structure – films may be a narrative medium at their base, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing to be judged, or even the most important one! Taken at stereotyped face value, a playwright might be good, for instance, at analyzing plot structure and dialogue without being skilled at all at analyzing visual motifs or editing, which are not part of plays (or not a major part). But I don’t mean at all to assign those deficiencies to Sherwood. He does focus on the storytelling, I think, but not to the exclusion of other elements of filmmaking, and in fact, calls attention to his dislike (in both reviews!) of the visual technique of tinting certain scenes/elements for greater emphasis.

That sort of begs a question that we might run into again later, but what sort of qualifications do you think make for a good critic?

I don’t think there are necessarily an incontrovertible set of qualifications. Critics have different strengths and weaknesses, some have particular affinity and aptitude for some critical approaches rather than others, and it’s this diversity that makes reading lots of different critics interesting and informative. That said, if I had to outline a few qualities (not qualifications) that make good critics, I would choose open-mindedness, curiosity, close observation of detail, and wide-ranging interests (not only in film, but outside it).

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