Category Archives: American Movie Critics

American Movie Critics: Carl Sandburg

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.

Carl Sandburg is best known as a poet, of course, and his particular evocation of Chicago and social realism. He also spent eight years (1921-1928) as a movie critic for the Chicago Daily News, filing weekly film reviews before concentrating on his other writing. He’s the second poet we’ve looked at in American Movie Critic, and the first weekly reviewer. His brief reviews carry some of his poetic sensibility as well as a real concern for how audiences would relate to the films at hand – the critic-as-consumer-guide is not my favorite mode of criticism, but I have to admit that Sandburg does that quite well and very readably. With no further ado, let’s jump into our conversation.

The six Carl Sandburg reviews selected here are all positive, though I’m sure he can’t have liked everything he reviewed over the eight-year period he worked as a critic. As we get into more critics who are writing about specific films (as Müsterberg was not, and Lindsay only was in passing), our reactions to the reviews may be affected by whether or not we’ve seen the films in question, so my first question to you is, have you seen any of the six films Sandburg reviews? And for the ones you have not seen, does Sandburg make you interested in seeing them? What about his writing do you think pulls you over (or not) to his side?

Zip. Zilch. Nil. Nada. I have at least heard of two of them (Nanook of the North and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), but the other pieces were a mystery to me.

We haven’t touched on this yet, so this is as good a point as any to bring it up – I actually decided before digging into the book that I wasn’t going to deliberately watch the films the critics are writing about as we go through the book. Besides the obvious lack of free time, I felt like it shouldn’t be necessary to discuss the writing and what these critics bring to the table. More often than not, critics see films before the audience anyway, so the average reader has no point of comparison anyhow. If one ignores for a moment that these films are all quite old, the rule still stands: I should be able to gain something from the writing. Further, sight unseen I should feel a nudge towards the film, or a tug away.

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American Movie Critics: Hugo Munsterberg

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.

Hugo Münsterberg is an interesting case in this anthology – he wasn’t a reviewer or newspaper critic like many of the selections in the book are. Rather, he was a professor of psychology at Harvard. In 1915 he became enamored of films and published The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (from which this piece is excerpted) in 1916, which stands as one of the first theoretical books about film and the way our brains understand what we see projected on film. In the selection editor Phillip Lopate has chosen, Münsterberg talks about how the audience for movies has broadened since its inception, the psychological effect movies have on us, and the potential dangers and virtues cinema has for affecting the morality of those who watch them. These sociological, psychological, and moral questions are ones that remain with us to this day to one degree or another, which is probably why Lopate saw fit to include Münsterberg, even though he isn’t talking about specific films in this piece as most of the other critics in the anthology will. I don’t think he mentions even a single film by name! It’s fascinating to have this rather abstract document of how cinema was perceived in 1916, and see what value it still holds for us today.

Here are the thoughts it conjured up for Ryan and myself:

Müsterberg caught my attention with his paragraph that begins p. 11:

Six years ago a keen sociological observer characterized the patrons of the picture palaces as “the lower middle class and the massive public […]” This would hardly be a correct description today. This “lower middle class” has long been joined by the upper middle class. [11]

While attendance at the movies has certainly slipped in the time since Müsterberg wrote this, film itself still speaks to a massive audience across all class lines.

Why do you think that still is? That one row at the multiplex can have blue collar workers sitting next to corporate VP’s?

I also marked that paragraph, but towards the end where he writes –

Today you and I are seen there quite often, and we find that our friends have been there, that they have given up the sneering pose and talk about the new photoplay as a matter of course.

The fact that Münsterberg by 1916 is already seeing this shift in movie audience is pretty interesting. It’s tempting for us to think that everything prior to talkies was primitive (though those of us who are fans of silents know better), but Münsterberg makes it clear that the shift in audience appreciation for movies occurred much earlier, more in line with the advent of feature films.

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American Movie Critics: Vachel Lindsay

After my post on Phillip Lopate’s introduction to American Movie Critics, Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee expressed an interest in reading the book himself and doing a joint series on it. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to discuss the book with another film fan while reading it, so that’s what we’re going to do. Ryan posted his take on the introduction and Vachel Lindsay, the first writer covered, earlier this week, so I’m posting this short piece on Lindsay’s section to catch up, and then from here on out, these posts will be conversations between me and Ryan. Look for the first one of those within the next few days.

In the meantime, here are my thoughts on the two pieces of criticism included from Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay was primarily a poet, but was also an enthusiastic supporter of the movies, writing the first American book about film aesthetics in 1914, a time when movies were still considered impossibly low entertainment and very few people seriously considered film artistic in any way. In the two excerpts in American Movie Critics, one from that 1914 work The Art of the Moving Picture and the other from a sequel written in 1925 but not published until long after his death, he rhapsodizes about the Action Picture and Douglas Fairbanks. According to Lopate’s little introductory bio, Lindsay also has chapters in his book about the Intimate Picture, the Film of Splendor and more, but it’s great to have this section on the Action Film, since action films represent the type of film most enthusiasts of the time pointed to as the major thing movies could do much better than the more established arts, yet they’re also the kind of dime-a-dozen thrill that detractors decried as the lowest of all forms of entertainment. Lindsay doesn’t deny the cheap ubiquity of the genre, but rather finds his way to praise that in itself, urging his readers to “close the book and go round the corner to a photoplay theatre. Give the preference to the cheapest one.”

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American Movie Critics: The Introduction (Phillip Lopate)

Reading David Bordwell’s series of posts on criticism in the 1940s made me want to dive back into reading criticism, so I’ve pulled my copy of American Movie Critics back out (I’d previously made it into the middle of the Ferguson section) and started over, because I don’t remember any of it anyway. I figured I’d chronicle my way through it, starting with the introduction and going section by section.

American-Movie-Critics-thumbFirst up, the introduction by the anthology’s editor Phillip Lopate. He gives a broad historical overview of film criticism in general – the historical flow of it from enthusiasts talking about a medium that got no respect, to the golden age of the 1960s and to the modern era, when many claim film criticism is dead. It’s also a good intro to what criticism is, from the perspective of weekly reviewing and the kinds of broader insight that really great weekly critics like Agee, Farber, Kael, Ebert, and Dargis are able to draw within a context that can easily devolve into cursory consumer reports. I’m on record as not particularly liking reviews (or reading them unless I’ve seen the film, a prejudice I’ll have to put aside to read this book), but what critics like these do transcends reviews. That said, I’m still looking more forward to the excerpts that are wider-ranging, like Kael’s famous treatise on Trash Cinema.

Here are some passages from the introduction I found particularly thought-provoking.

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