I have a number of collections of movie reviews by classic film critics like James Agee, Pauline Kael, Robert Ebert, Gene Siskel, Andrew Sarris, Richard Schickel, Vincent Canby, Bosley Crowther, Richard Corliss, Rex Reed. I frequently read their reviews on the website, “Rotten Tomatoes.” Usually that’s after reviewing the film on IMDb, (Internet Movie Database).
When I took film courses at Boston College, they were taught by a young New Yorker, Manny Grossman. He was hired by the English Department to teach several film courses. Before classes, I would read whatever commentary and reviews available. It was limited in the 1960s. Manny was only a few years older than me, got married my sophomore year, the same year Diane and I walked the aisle. With our mutual interest in film we double dated rather frequently, a movie and dinner. A standing joke was “who was better prepared for class” — I watched the film(s) but also read whatever history, commentary or critical reviews were available.
In the early 1970s, Manny was teaching at a community college in New York. We may have been in mail contact a few times but what a surprise, we met in Soho, lower Manhattan, on I several weekends. Wonder where he is today?
I just finished another film book. Peter Biskind’s “Gods and Monsters: thirty years of writing on film and culture from one of America’s most incisive writers .” (2004) I love his introduction, “My name is Peter Biskind, and I am a recovering celebrity journalist. Which is to say, I started my career during the anti-Vietnam War movement of the sixties as a political activist with a general interest in culture and a particular interest in films, and more or less ended it — or at least a lengthy phase of it — in the late nineties, writing about movie stars for Premier magazine.”
Biskind came of age as a film and culture writer in the same period I became a film fan. He writes about the “movie brats” — George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — and other directors of the period — Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman and Woody Allen who challenged the Hollywood model and created a new American cinema.
The essays explore specific films, trends, personalities, including producers and agents. What amazes me is how these critics have a detailed recall of scenes, dialogue, and other cinemagraphic elements. And their ability to compare film to film. As I reread these film books, my Netflix list keeps growing.
Biskind’s first essay explores Eli Kazan’s “On the Waterfront.” In 1950s, Kazan was a “friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He gave names. As I’ve previously written, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) “squeals” on the waterfront hoods. Politics, anti-communism and film.
I was intrigued that Biskind reviewed science fiction movies in his “War of the Worlds” chapter. I never thought of them as leftist, conservative, or centrist. Do we place our trust in the federal government or the military? I’ll watch “The Thing,” “Them,” “Forbidden Planet,” and “The Day the Earth stood Still” through a different lens.
I’ll watch ” Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, if only to listen to the Bob Dylan music track
I was surprised to find articles on the TV series, the “Holocaust” and Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam: a television history.” I believe “Vietnam” going to be rebroadcast. Although it’s usually considered balanced, Biskind finds it “a great many facts, little analysis and much waffling. . . Karnow has a surprisingly rudimentary grasp of politics.” I’d like to rewatch.
Biskind writes about the theoretical unpinnings of some critics. Andrew Sarris was in the forefront of the “auteur” movement, the director was the “artist,” the auteur who created a body of film. These critics discovered Hollywood directors like Ford, Wilder, Wyler, Cukor, Hawks, Houston. No longer Hollywood hacks, these directors were artists. Articles were written; books were published. Pauline Kael was in a different camp. Biskind labels her approach “eclecticism.” She had no specific theory, but would draw on many; she had no formal standards, her reviews were personal.
Biskind writes about George Lucas’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the “Star Wars” empire — an anniversary this year. Children’s movie lands were back; but there were political overlays. At the same time Steven Spielberg was creating the Indiana Jones films — “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Temple of Doom.” Hollywood would never be the same.
Biskind also wrote, “Easy Rider, Raging Bulls: how the sex-drugs–and rock ‘n roll generation saved Hollywood.” I have the book and a video based on the book, so I’ll continue with Biskind later.