[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.

I don’t think I’ve encountered much criticism and writing on film that ponders the future in this way. For starters, it does so with a large dose of hope. At the moment, we are stuck in the doom-and-gloom of “In the future, every screening will be a Marvel movie in 3-D that costs $30 in theatres that are the only venues of their kind in a 50 mile radius”. Now perhaps we’ve reached a stage where the possibilities of cinema seem saturated, but I can’t remember the last time I heard of a technological leap sparking the imagination the way it does for Bakshy.

Evolution is inevitable. [47]

This line stuck out to me more than any other in this piece by Bakshy. It’s strange to read an artistic critic not only get on-board with an advance in technology, but actually hail its potential. Already we’ve seen a critic point out every last shortcoming of what such developments have to offer, and label it as “a gimmick”. What’s more, we still see that in so much of what’s published now.


I wonder – is that inherent to the cynical nature that comes with criticism, or is it a byproduct of a critic being more interested in the message than the medium. There are some out there who take great delight in examining technology and extolling its virtues. Perhaps artistic critics should be open to exploring such leaps. After all, how much would we want to read about an art writer who didn’t understand what a camera could do that a brush and canvas could not?

I think it’s much more common for critics (of anything, probably) to be dubious about the future, especially a future led by technology, and I think you’ve hit it right on the button, that critics are more interested in the message than the medium. Of course, we should remember McLuhan’s famous maxim that the medium is the message. Really, I’d say what we’re interested in, and probably should be, is how the medium furthers the message, which is often difficult to see when a new technology first comes on the scene because it usually is, quite frankly, gimmicky at first. This is certainly how I think of 3D at this point. We touched on this in an earlier entry, but I’m not a fan of 3D – generally even in those cases where I thought it was well-done (parts of Avatar and Hugo, Tintin), I didn’t think it particularly added to the experience or made me enjoy the film more than I would have without the 3D. The only exception where I thought the 3D was exceptional and improved the experience was Cave of Forgotten Dreams (and then I wish Herzog had not used it in the outdoor scenes).

All that to say that I expect most critics of the late 1920s felt the same about sound. They hadn’t yet seen it used in a way that wasn’t gimmicky, the technology wasn’t good enough yet to not be distracting, and it tended to restrict the camera movement and expressiveness that had only recently come into its own in silent cinema. It wasn’t until M in 1931 that sound design started to really play a part in storytelling, something that Bakshy predicted and seems completely inevitable now, but was not necessarily so at the time. So I guess even though I’m impressed by Bakshy’s prescience, I can understand where other critics of the time were coming from. Critics aren’t technologists; in 1929 they hadn’t seen the “killer app” yet.

Maybe The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D is the killer app?

Maybe The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D is the killer app?

Thus between the incompetence of the commercial entertainer and the superior self-righteousness of the intellectual, the talking picture is apparently doomed to grope blindly for several years before it reaches anything that may be properly described as an original form of drama. That it will reach this goal eventually does not seem to me in the least doubtful. [45]

In some ways, I feel like this is the role of a good critic: to be able to identify possibilities.

I almost feel like we’ve just read the film equivalent of Jon Landau’s 1974 article where he said “I have seen the future of rock & roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

The same way that they champion young talent – new directors, new writers, new actors – for what they can envision them doing with the right material, I believe that there should be a critical line of thinking that sees a new tool and wonders what it could do to the artform in the right hands.

I’m reminded of the documentary Side by Side, where the discussion centres around digital filmmaking…and while some saw it (and still see it) as blasphemy, others saw what could come from it. “Others” meaning ‘other artists’. One would hope if a critic spends so much time surrounded by these artists that they might see what could come from it too.

Should we be more open to the potential of shifts in technology? Probably. It’s tempting just to try to block out or shut down unfamiliar things or things we don’t fully understand yet, and that’s not a good tendency. Conservatism for the mere sake of conservatism leads to stagnation. At the same time, I’m not convinced that a healthy dose of skepticism is totally bad, either (see what I did there? I’m skeptical of not being skeptical!), because technology for the sake of technology is superficial. Sound eventually proved that it belonged in cinema, and that the best visual language we learned in the silent era could coexist happily with sound. That said, just because the skeptics were proven wrong about the value of sound doesn’t mean they were wrong to ask sound cinema to be better than it was in 1929 before fully embracing it.

Singin' in the Rain satirized the talkie revolution perfectly.

“Well, of course we talk! Don’t everybody?”

Maybe the trick here is to show tempered curiosity. Using a modern example, it’s one thing to say “3-D isn’t good” and “3-D isn’t good enough yet”. In a way, it’s part of the critics role to spur creativity – since all artists need to be subjected to critique to grow. But we don’t get that. We usually get a lot of pejorative speak or instigation. We don’t get much musing on what a particular technique could do with a bit of finesse. Is that a role that should only be left to the artists and designers, or does criticism have a role in that too?

I think critics do play a role in foreseeing, or at least allowing for the evolution of storytelling through technology, and other techniques, sure. But I don’t think that all or even most critics are necessarily wired for that. Let’s face it, critics tend to be reactionary, which is not really a good thing (though, on one level, our very job is to react to art made by other people – one hopes that we can transcend that at least sometimes). Ultimately, a healthy balance between skepticism and hopefulness is the best path, and I think Bakshy’s actually pretty close to that.

Even though he’s definitely convinced of the eventual success of sound cinema, he’s not unaware of some potential pitfalls. He clearly doesn’t think a lot of Hollywood as an entity (remember the “bilge” comment in the intro), and he spends a couple of paragraphs pointing out that if sound cinema followed its trajectory at the time of focusing on musicals and copying Broadway, it was likely to come to a bad end. He was right about that, by the way – Hollywood churned out crappy musicals at such a rate between 1928 and 1930 that they basically became box office poison. Were it not for Busby Berkeley and the surprise success of 42nd Street in 1933, which resurrected the recently deceased genre, the musical might’ve died out before its golden age had even begun.

The novelty of the backstage musical helped The Broadway Melody (1929) to an Oscar win; it's not that good, and its many imitators over the next couple of years were worse.

The novelty of the backstage musical helped The Broadway Melody (1929) to an Oscar win; it’s not that good, and its many imitators over the next couple of years were worse.

Analogies between the stage and the screen assume that they deal with the same material. But they don’t. […] It is obvious that with this extraordinary power of handling space and time – by elimination and emphasis, according to its dramatic needs – the motion picture can never be content with modeling itself after the stage. [47]

Also in contrast to Mencken, Bakshy carefully and correctly, I think, delineates the differences between cinema and theatre, pointing out that the stage is bound by space and time in ways the cinema is not – thanks precisely to the very editing that so bothered Mencken. This is a CRUCIAL element to understanding cinema form, and while others in the anthology have praised cinema for things that are uniquely cinematic, I think this is the first time we’ve seen someone point out that cinema’s inherent strength is really the elliptical way it treats space and time. I’m sure others had done so before this in history (this is 1929, after all, and cinema had been eschewing stagebound conventions since the early 1900s), but Bakshy’s description is beautifully clear.

I did find it interesting that one of Bakshy’s points of hope against Hollywood ruining sound cinema was the growth of “amateur productions” and “little cinema houses.” I quite frankly don’t know what he means by this, and would like to do more research on this. I wasn’t aware of any significant indie productions during this time period – unless people like Howard Hughes or David O. Selznick or Samuel Goldwyn count (though I think they’re pretty “Hollywood”), but I’d be fascinated if there were some.

I can only assume that he’s hoping that film will become a more accessible artform and be created and presented by artists other than the studios – which would come of course, but not for a l-o-n-g time. Perhaps this was one more instance where he was seeing potential (remember he was referred to in the intro as “a prophet”). When he mentions the possibility to create something “inspired by the genuine spirit of art”, something tells me he’s hoping for something that wants to push the boundaries…and not be commercially driven.

The one last thing that interests me is something that lays in-between what Bakshy is suggesting and what many people’s reaction to ‘the gimmick’ is. Why can’t we “go with it?”…critics and audiences alike.

We’re staring at a wall where people are playing make-believe in (usually) two-dimensional flickering light. We give ourselves over to not being able to see outside the frame, not get every last narrative detail we might want, and whatever colour palate (if one is even employed) and sound design the artist chooses. Why is it that one more crazy tweak to the presentation takes so much getting used to?

Trust me, it's much better when they don't talk.

Lonesome (1928) – trust me, it’s much better when they don’t talk.

In some ways, adding more tweaks (toward realism) creates an uncanny valley situation, at least until the technique is strong enough. Sound in 1929 was usually very flat, very forced, and not every actor made the switch well. Watch something like Lonesome, which was one of several transitional films that’s largely silent with a couple of talking scenes – the silent scenes seem much more natural and realistic, whereas the sound scenes, though ostensibly closer to reality, feel very faked and unnatural. Until the technology and the technique of using it improve enough to overcome this uncanny valley, or audiences spend enough time with it they get used to (what I imagine will happen with 60fps, for example), then these tweaks are actually distracting and block our surrender to the screen.

Perhaps we won’t come across anyone else like Bakshy in this collection, and if that’s so it seems a shame. Even for a cynic calling out the “bilge”, he has an unbelievable grasp on the potential:

The spoken drama of the screen will obviously and inevitably develop into something original and non-stagy – something that will be instinct with the dynamic spirit of the movies. [47]