Stillness in Motion: Selections from “American Movie Critics”


American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now. Edited by Phillip Lopate. New York: Library of America, 2006. [Amazon]

A fascinating book. Wonderful for updating your Netflix list, and also for getting a sense of America’s love affair with the movies from the start.

Some quotes:

“The rhythm of the play is marked by unnatural rapidity. As the words are absent which, in the drama as in life, fill the gaps between the actions, the gestures and deeds themselves can follow one another much more quickly. Happenings which would fill an hour on stage can fill hardly more than twenty minutes on the screen. This heightens the feeling of vitality in the spectator. He feels as if he were passing through life with a sharper accent which stirs his personal energies.” – Hugo Munsterberg (b. 1863)

“First of all, reality (today anyway) is largely the invention of journalism and is based on the formulas of the neat, transmissible word-summary of action past. Visual media simply convert this formula into sight terms. In both fiction and so-called fact media, or a fusion of them, the same banal process always takes place: the technicians invent a plausible simulacrum of what is supposed to happen or have happened in life. A newsreel or documentary film is supposed (a) to represent accomplished fact or (b) typical and/or current and continuous fact. Each is an item, more or less edited, detached from the whole continuum of reality yet presumed to stand for reality-reality in an ontological sense, the “world,” and so on.” – Parker Tyler (b. 1904)

“The Astaire-Rogers dance films were romances, or rather, chapters in a single epic romance…. in those years dancing was transformed into a vehicle of serious emotion between a man and a woman. It never happened in movies again.” – Arlene Croce (b. 1934)

“…audiences who have been forced to wade through the thick middle-class padding of more expensively made movies to get to the action enjoy the nose-thumbing at “good taste” of cheap movies that stick to the raw materials. At some basic level, they like the pictures to be cheaply done, they enjoy the crudeness; it’s a breather, a vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses.” – Pauline Kael (b. 1919)

“People like me who champion pornography on the grounds that it is life-enhancing are constantly being told that it isn’t truly life-enhancing, because it is only a travesty of the real thing. The difficulty with that argument is knowing what the real thing is. Whenever I ask for a definition, my interlocutor begins to sputter; precisely as “everyone” knows that blue movies are boring, “everyone” knows what the real thing is. But I don’t. Or I do and I don’t. I live bathed in a continuous erotic glow, and I recognize pornography as among the thousand blessed things that heighten this glow. Like sunlight, like water, like the smell and taste of skin, it helps make me happy. I foresee that with every passing year it will become increasingly precious to me: a vade mecum when the adventure of old age begins.” – Brendan Gill (b. 1914)

“Film is stillness in motion. There is no such thing as a moving picture. All pictures are still pictures. The illusion of movement in film comes from passing a succession of perfectly frozen images before a lens so rapidly, with a convenient eyeblink between them, that we are deceived into thinking that stillness is action. Take the film out of the projector and look at any one frame – as you now must, if you wish to see it at all – and you will see what Keaton may have seen all his life: rigidity at the heart of things, rigidity as the very condition of apparent activity. Keaton may have taken his esthetic – even his attitude toward life – from the knowledge he derived every time he finished a strip of celluloid. What was printed on the celluloid was immobile, silent as the tomb, an extract and an abstract from the void. It was also, at the same time, part of a continuum, and when the continuum was seen whole – miracle of miracles that this should be possible – what had been indisputably dead leapt to unreal, yet mysteriously persuasive, life. Now Zero moves, has being, joins the tangible – without ceasing to be Zero. Whether he arrived at his identity consciously or not, Keaton became what film is.” Walter Kerr (b. 1913)

Films recommended by selected critics, not yet on Netflix:

Edgar Allan Poe (1909)
Man’s Genesis (1912)
Greed (1924)
Moana of the South Seas (1926)
Hog Wild (1930)
The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
Ceiling Zero (1936)
Elephant Boy (1937)
God’s Stepchildren (1938)
Youth Runs Wild (1944)
Counter-Attack (1945)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
Saratoga Trunk (1945)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Intruder in the Dust (1949)
The Tall Target (1951)
Banditi a Milano (1968)
High School (1968)
The Coming Thing (1970)
Law and Order (1969)
Hospital (1970)
The Gland Hotel (1975)
Welfare (1975)
Meat (1976)
Cheek to Cheek (1986)