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Book Review: The Complete History of American Film Criticism by Jerry Roberts

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In the introduction to The Complete History of American Film Criticism, author Jerry Roberts states the book's intention is to offer "a narrative history to explain who was who in [American] film criticism … for the committed movie-goer or passionate movie buff." He does an extremely thorough job, offering an encyclopedia's worth of information in a very engaging manner.

American Film Criticism begins shortly after the twentieth century does, with Frank E. Woods, credited by historians as the first American film critic, writing about silent movies in The New York Dramatic Mirror. Unfortunately, Woods taints his work, as cited from Time critic Richard Schickel's biography of D.W. Griffith, when an incentive for trumpeting Griffith's work is revealed. Turns out Woods would later gain employment selling the director stories. He may well have liked Griffith's movies, but it's unlikely he could have sold scripts to someone who made "bad" movies.

Roberts reveals the many men and women who made a name for themselves as reviewers and critics through brief biographies and samplings of their work. Many gain varying degrees of notoriety due to a combination of their talents as writers and their love of films. Critics' tenures aren't predictable. Some stay in the job until retirement, some get fired, and others move on. Frank Stanley was the latter. He left no doubt that he had a great understanding of films since he went on to become a screenwriter, including five westerns directed by John Ford, most notably The Searchers.

The chapters in American Film Criticism are broken down into eras and changes in Hollywood naturally had a ripple effect in the review business. Publishers like Hearst got involved when they didn't care for a film's political agenda and had reviews tailored to their own opinion. Studios applied pressure through advertising and access if they received too many negative reviews from a critic. Coverage of films began to change to safe, promotional pieces about stars over reviews that dissuaded an audience.

As film rose in importance in the culture, so did everything associated with it no matter the medium, and reviewers became celebrities. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker became more famous than some actors and directors writing passionate reviews and scathing attacks on other critics. Siskel and Ebert, critics of rival Chicago newspapers, became a nationwide phenomenon and forever linked due to their wildly successful television programs. Harry Knowles of the website Ain't It Cool News was the breakthrough reviewer on the Internet, which is now the home of many of his peers due to the changing media landscape that sees newspapers and magazines possibly heading towards extinction.

The reader gets to relive notable fights between critics and studios, critics and filmmakers, and amongst themselves over movies and theories. However, the most amusement I had was discovering people proven wrong by history. During the silent era, Boston Evening Transcript drama critic Walter Eaton thought "movies were a passing fad." The similarly named Welford Beaton, editor of Film Spectator, dismissed sound. In 1939 Leonard Lorentz called for "an obituary" because "there never again can be the excitement over movies as there was in the early days." And while everyone is entitled to their opinion, I have trouble imaging anyone agreeing with Russell Maloney's assessment that The Wizard of Oz (1939) "displays no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity … I say it's a stinkeroo."

The Complete History of American Film Criticism is filled with many great quotes, some of which are timeless truisms. Alexander Bakshy quit being a reviewer in 1933 due to "the incessant flow of bilge issuing from the film factories in Hollywood and elsewhere," an opinion frequently spouted since. With the widespread proliferation of amateur reviewers who have sprung up on the Internet, I wonder what Harry Potamkin's reaction would have been considering in 1930 he complained about "the perennial novice." In an age where so many novices are in too much of a hurry to get their immediate reactions quickly online to earn traffic to their blog, it's refreshing, although antiquated, to learn Schickel " mulls for a week before writing," allowing himself time to reflect and be affected by what he saw. Living a life and seeing less may help the problem Kenneth Turan sees where "a junk-film diet makes movies that are so-so seem like masterpieces."

Around 1921, Robert E. Sherwood wrote "praise is difficult to compose, for it is always easier to be harsh than it is to be ecstatic." Not true in this case, as Roberts has delivered a must read for film fans and a must study for film reviewers. Of course, the title is slightly inaccurate as it leaves a certain Internet film reviewer, but that can easily be remedied in the paperback edition.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/a-geek-girl A Geek Girl

    I’ve said it before. Schickel is not about to let a little thing like death excuse the man for making bad movies… or for being a bad critic either apparently ;)

    Sounds like an interesting piece. I really like to hear about the tawdry side. The insider gossip. Looks like you’ve got it all.

    There really are only a few critics who left a significant mark. Cool to remember the others who shouldn’t be forgotten.