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Critical acclaim. (Book Review).

Since the dawn of the motion picture age, the multi-million dollar movie industry has spawned more than just the admiration and ire of the general public. From the early days of the nickelodeon to the modern blockbuster era, film critics have shaped the way we choose to while away the hours in the dark. In It's Only a Movie: Films and Critics in American Culture (University Press of Kentucky, pp. 249), Raymond J. Haberski Jr. examines the origin of film criticism, exposes the critics who got a little too critical and even explores whether cinema is an art worthy of critique.

Moviegoers in the nascent phase of the American cinema often went to pictures to escape the harsh realities of daily life. "They were the everyman's vacation from reality and they taxed ones mind about as much as ones budget," writes Haberski. The pictures were vulgar and simplistic and weren't expected to be anything more than senseless entertainment. But three journals -- England's Sight and Sound, France's Cahiers du Cinema and America's Hollywood Quarterly -- saw the dormant potential of movies as entities to be both treasured and examined. These magazines served to "raise the level of discourse over movies ... bestowed a legitimacy on movie criticism and helped to refine the art of moviegoing." Critics knew that the majority of people attended the shows purely for pleasure, but "hoped to introduce a new type of cultural criticism through their interest in movies. Cultural arbiters had overlooked the photoplay for the very reason that these new critics picked it up: it appealed to the masses. The attracti on was in the opportunity to attack the cultural arbiters who seemed snug in their appreciation of fine arts and hypocritical in their condemnation of movies." Perhaps Roger Ebert, the snowy-haired half of Siskel & Ebert, arguably the most famous critical team the U.S. has ever known, said it best when he referred to film as "an art form that will forever be in a separate category if you can attend it while eating Twizzlers," notes Haberski.

But while mass licorice consumption might compromise movies as a credible art form in the eyes of some, that was not the case for British author and film critic Iris Barry, in whom movies-as-art found its most ardent ally. Making her way to New York in 1932, Barry quickly made a name for herself in Manhattan's artist community and was hired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to organize Americas very first film library. Though art was typically thought of as an elitist pastime while movies were considered the recreation of the masses, "Barry made a significant contribution ... championing movies as the most vital art of the day." In doing so, however, she made a radical statement: "By suggesting that aspects of mass culture such as movies could be art, Barry introduced the notion that popular taste could help shape artistic standards," an idea that would have surely been shunned just a few years earlier. As a result of Barry's tireless efforts to gather and preserve films of every nature, MoMA's film library eventually included popular and artistic films, both domestic and foreign.

But while Barry's work surely helped advance film's cause among intellectuals, at no time did it receive as much free publicity as in the 1950s and 1960s, when a heated debate arose in the "filmic" community between critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, on more than just the merits of the movies. "Sarris would help change the American perception of movies while he dueled with his most able detractor, Pauline Kael." Sarris, whose complete embrace of French cinema included the predominant view among French critics that movies should ideally be the personal expression of the director -- or what he later dubbed the "auteur theory" -- felt it his personal mission to "elevate Hollywood directors" to the ranks of gods. Kael, on the other hand, loved movies simply for what they were. "She interpreted the movies for the audience and reflected on audience reaction for those who produced films." She shared her distaste of Sarris as well as her opinion that his theory had "harmed American film criticism in a 14-page es say in a 1963 issue of Film Quarterly. His rebuttal soon followed and the world's first film critic rivalry was born. Their rather fiery print battle of wills grabbed the "audience as few critics had before or since" and ushered in a new age of film criticism, one in which what the critic said truly mattered.

Haberski's ably-crafted and well-researched work hits a few snags along the way -- his constant repetition of certain themes seems to hit readers over the head more than drive home points -- but It's Only a Movie does just what the author hopes a good flick will do: entertain. And if not, well, it's only a book, after all.
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Author:Hochbaum, Leah
Publication:Video Age International
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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