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Interview with Phillip Lopate, editor of American Movie Critics: An Anthology From The Silents Until Now

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If you can judge the quality of a book by how much the reader talks about it, this book is a great success.

When I received it, I quickly told friends about some of the amazing reviews and essays it contained. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let me just jump straight into the interview with Phillip Lopate, editor of American Movie Critics: An Anthology From The Silents Until Now

He previously edited The Art of the Personal Essay and other books, and has written several books, as well as a collection of film criticism: Totally Tenderly Tragically.

As a lover of film and good film criticism, I can attest this book is a gem.

Scott Butki:  What did you intend to accomplish with this book project? Did you accomplish it?

Phillip Lopate: I wanted to offer up a possible "canon" of American film criticism, or at least start the discussion going, and at the same time to position film criticism as a type of American belles-lettres, a repository of some of the best critical prose we have.  I do think I accomplished both aims, to my satisfaction, at least. 

SB: How did you decide what to include and what to exclude?

PL: It was very hard to decide what to include and what to exclude.  My main emphasis was on the past, and I am particularly proud of the historical sections.  I knew the critics I wanted to include, but often they had written so much good stuff (or so much OK but undistinguished stuff) that it was hard to choose.  I settled for those pieces that knocked me over, or bit me in the ass.  Or were characteristic of some tendency or other.  It was impossible to include everything worthwhile that someone like Vachel Lindsay or Manny Farber wrote, so I put in a few pieces that would represent their thinking and achievement. 

SB: Which is your favorite selection? Why?

PL: I don't have a single "favorite" selection, but I suppose the selection I did of Otis Ferguson pleased me the most, because he is fantastic and largely forgotten.  I also got a kick out of Cecilia Ager, who wrote humorously from the women's fashion angle, and has also been largely forgotten. 

SB: For me the most interesting one is the one about Gone With the Wind. That's the one I most wanted to exchange opinions about with fellow movie buffs. I searched in vain for a copy of it online. It's one thing to talk about movies like Crash but quite another to read a black film critic's indictment of this racist movie. What are your thoughts on that piece: "Gone With the Wind Is More Dangerous Than Birth of a Nation?"

PL: I love Melvin B. Tolson's Gone With the Wind piece.  It is tough and true, and shows there is more to movies than pure sensation.  I did a lot of reading of black critics in the past, and Tolson really stood out.  I like the way he takes African-American audiences to task, doesn't just blame the success of the movie on whites.

SB: What do you think it is about film that makes it such a transfixing, absorbing medium, as your compilation demonstrates?

PL: Movies engulf us, partly because they are a synthesis of all the arts, partly because they speak to our dream minds and our fantasy lives in very direct ways.  People get much angrier at film critics than they do at, say, art or architecture or music or dance critics, because loving or hating a movie is a very personal response, and when the critic disagrees, watch out!

SB: Your book covers many years of films. How do you think films of this decade will stack up?

PL: I think brilliant art movies continue to be made, as do very entertaining commercial movies.  There are still old-timers making wonderful films, such as Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man or Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent, and there are funny comedies like In Her Shoes and good action movies like the two Spidermans and intelligent docudramas like The Queen.  I think this era will be seen as particularly rich in documentaries and personal essay films. 

SB: Some say that current television programs like Lost and The Wire are of higher quality than the movies. Where do you stand on that debate?

PL: Certainly, the best TV shows often seem better-written than today's movies, and they give us richer, more complex characters, because they have a chance to develop those characters over years — for instance Law and Order or The Sopranos.  Visually, they still don't hold a candle to the best feature films, but they may excel in terms of their screenplays and ensemble acting.

SB: What's your favorite film and why?

PL:  I don't know if I have a favorite film, but Max Ophuls' The Earrings of Mme de… always gives me the shivers when I see it.  By the time it gets to the waltz scene between de Sica and Daniele Darrieux, it becomes both transporting and fatalistic, charmed and very tragic.  I also love Ozu's Late Spring and Mizoguchi's Ugetsu.  They're sublime.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I’m only about a third of the way through, but it’s a great and valuable book with some really terrific pieces in it. A lot of those early articles are like schoolwork to sit through, but collectively they give a good picture of people grappling with a new art form. I agree with Lopate about the Otis Ferguson pieces, although I thought his negative appraisal of Citizen Kane was a pretty tough sell. (James Agee didn’t like it either, by the way.) Same goes for John Simon on The Last Picture Show — I got the feeling he was just kind of picking his way through it, aiming his howitzer at little stray faults here and there. The end result was a typically fun, bitchy read, if not a strong case for the prosecution. Anyway, I look forward to reading a lot more in it. And Lopate is right about Ozu’s Late Spring. I rented the Criterion Collection disc recently and watched it twice. It’s the least sentimental of films, and it broke my heart.

  • Scott Butki

    I haven’t read it all because I want to enjoy and it’s rich like chocolate. I’m reading the Pauline Kael section this weekend.

    Thanks for the comment, Rodney