MY FAVORITE BOOK OF FILM CRITICISM (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (1988)
George MacDonald Fraser
Okay, the competition is not exactly fierce. I respect their work ethic and even their skill with language, but, for ideas and insights, I’ve never been moved much one way or the other by Farber, Agee, Kael, Sarris. I counted Roger Ebert a genial dolt and Richard Schickel something less than that. Stanley Kaufman seemed like a nice man who was so cautious and judicious in his judgments that I could never remember what he thought of a movie ten seconds after I finished his review.

David Thomson? Don’t get me started on the clodhoppers.

Graham Greene was clearly slumming.

I like Molly Haskell a lot and I need to read more of her stuff.

Even so, I doubt anything she’s done would replace this. It’s the only book of film criticism I really like–and I like it a lot.

It probably helps that film criticism was the least thing Fraser did. Before and after that he was a novelist, essayist, memoirist, historian, screenwriter and all around exemplar (one of the last) of that old-fashioned breed: The Man of Letters.

It helps, too, that among Men of Letters, he was one of the best–not least because he took himself and the world less seriously than almost anyone else who ever earned his way into that club where no legitimate membership can ever be given.

And he was uniquely qualified to write his one book of criticism. The list of first rate novelists (he’s justifiably famous for his incomparable Flashman series, but don’t sleep on Black Ajax, a superb historical novel which recounts the rise and fall of Tom Molineaux, the ex-slave who, in the early nineteenth century, was the first great African-American boxing champion), who are also professional grade historians and accomplished screenwriters (he did Richard Lester’s Musketeer films and a personal favorite, Crossed Swords, among others) is not long.

Like a lot of his other writing, The Hollywood History of the World occupies a space all its own–in this case, defending Hollywood’s take on history. That’s not something I’m sure anyone else has ever even attempted, but I have a reasonable confidence that it has never been carried off so well.

For starters, Fraser knew that History itself is contested, often hotly so. For closers, he knew how to write it–so it’s not surprising that he knew how to write about it. The Hollywood History of the World then, works on three levels: as straight film criticism, as a back way into a historical worldview (the author’s own) and as a front way into the manner in which Hollywood, from the silent era to the 1980s, presented history as both History and Mythos.

That’s a lot to take on, but Fraser did it elegantly and forcefully, without coming off as being too full of himself. The book’s a great read–and it did for me something no other book of film criticism has done. Similar to the way Lester Bangs, alone among music critics, made me hear with new ears, Fraser made me see with new eyes.

Fraser wisely sequenced his book as a history of film itself, proceeding chronologically from the prehistoric era to Viet Nam, pairing up films from different eras by their subject matter, not their production chronology.

Along the way, he showed his grasp of the large scope of history without short-shrifting his own tastes and biases, both cultural and cinematic. Of course, not being a Leftist made him stand out. (Fraser once described his politics as whatever was dead opposite of the most recent attempt to convert him–a true kindred spirit.) But that never helped John Simon, or anyone else who was no better or worse than the competition.

Fraser stands out because he said things no one else said, and said them with the authority of someone who knew of whence he spoke. Perhaps most significantly, he spoke in the voice of one who was not concerned that others might have got it wrong and needed correcting.

In that respect, he really stands out from the crowd.

Hence…

From the introduction (a concise explanation of what film really does do better than any other art form):

It is worth remembering that the often-despised film moguls were the greatest patrons of the arts since time began; Hollywood employed more scholars and experts and diverse talents than any philanathropic or learned institution—and, incidentally, paid them better. They gave, and got, their money’s worth, and in the process they built us old Baghdad, new and shiny, and the Pyramids, and the Colosseum; they refought Trafalgar and Thermopylae for our benefit, and sent Columbus to the sands of Watling Island, Marco Polo to the courts of Cathay, Major Rogers to St. Francis, Rowan to Garcia, Drake around the world, and Stanley in search of Livingstone (to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, which hadn’t been written then, but sounded wonderful); they brought Clive and Zola, Lincoln and Saladin, Buffalo Bill and Catherine the Great, Wellington and Dick Turpin, Florence Nightingale and Calamity Jane, to life again; they showed us Argonauts and Mountain Men, Vikings and Jane Austen’s ladies, gladiators and Roundheads, Chinese warlords and Pilgrim Fathers, Regency bucks and Zulu impis. Really, it was the greatest show on earth.

Some of it was historical nonsense; most of it was not. If some of the images were blemished, they were better than no images at all. Samuel Pepys has given the most brilliant and finely detailed memorial of Restoration London that could be imagined–but imagined in the word; we must form our mental pictures from what he tells us, and from artists like Lely and Kneller; is it sacrilege to suggest that Forever Amber, Frenchman’s Creek, and Hudson’s Bay add something worthwhile, if it is only a visual impression? All the world knows that when the Light Brigade charged in the San Fernando Valley, it was as the climax to a film that had no more to do with Raglan, Cardigan, and Balaclava than with “Little Women”–but even Lord Tennyson might have had his imagination enlarged by the most spectacular recreation ever seen of cavalry going neck or nothing into cannon fire. Bette Davis or Flora Robson could play only an imaginative personation of the Elizabeth, but they gave us something that the historian cannot. Personally, I always doubted that an army could be stopped by flashing polished shields until I watched it on the screen; I envisaged the Gordian knot as a vague tangle of rope until Richard Burton was confronted with something that looked like a spherical doormat. What the beginning of the Exodus was like, no one will ever know–Demille brought it to life. The sight of old Vladimir Sokolov perishing in the snow while Charles Boyer made sympathetic noises, conveyed some sense of what the Retreat from Moscow was like; the scene in which Jack Palance pulls on his glove while Elisha Cook stands wary and angry in the mud is art of a high order; it is also as true an impression of a Western gunfight as we are ever likely to get.

There is something else that the costume picture has done. I have lived long enough in the world of historical fiction to know how strongly it can work at turning readers to historical fact; Hollywood, by providing splendid entertainment, has sent people to the history shelves in their millions.

And, on specific movies:

True Grit

Having seen True Grit my one regret is that John Wayne never had a shot at Falstaff; Rooster Cogburn, the boozy, disreputable old rascal of a marshal hired by an adolescent girl to track down her father’s murderer, is his best performance, possibly because the script is quite the most authentic ever written for a Western picture. Whether the principal credit should go to the screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts, or the original novelist, Charles Portis, (NOTE: For the Record, Portis, though Roberts also got off several wonderful lines that weren’t in the book). I don’t know, but for once the voice of the Old West is heard strong and clear; its splendid imagery cries out for quotation, but I will cite only Rooster’s final raging challenge to Ned Pepper (Robert Duval)–not “Reach!” or “Draw!” or “Go for your gun!”, but: “Fill yore hands, you son-of-a-bitch!’ Never mind the plot, listen to the characters–not only Rooster and Pepper, but the game little bantam of a girl (Kim Darby), the Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell), the renegade Chaney (Jeff Corey), and the superbly articulate outlaws encountered along the way; actors seldom get the chance to speak so well, and they rise to the occasion.

The Wild Bunch

..a foul film which for some reason received enthusiastic reviews. One critic wrote of it: ‘The bloody deaths are voluptuous, frightening, beautiful’, and described it as an ‘imagistic epic’. I don’t know if that critic has ever seen bloody death, but it is not beautiful at all, and there is nothing clever or artistic or worthy about its portrayal ad nauseum. (NOTE: The critic was Pauline Kael…and, no, she hadn’t.)

Platoon

Platoon is terrifying. Not because of its horror and violence, but because I suspect it is a true picture, and that makes me tremble for the safety (to say nothing of the good name) of Western civilisation. I would prefer to believe it is a grotesque fiction, but good authorities have claimed it an honest portrayal of the Vietnam war, and if it is, then there is no doubt why America lost. On this showing, they didn’t have an army….like all the blood, carnage, and pretentious talk with which the film abounds, the danger is that audiences may regard it as typical of all warfare, and the conduct of the principals as acceptable, even excusable. They may even tell themselves that Barnes, with all his beastly faults, is a darned good soldier; he isn’t. He is a rotten soldier, and I wouldn’t bet on his platoon to beat the Band of Hope..

…I am reluctant to believe Platoon, because the Americans of 1942-45 (NOTE: with whom Fraser, a Brit, had served in the Pacific theater) were not like this; they were good soldiers.

Even within this small sampling, I don’t agree with all of Fraser’s assessments. I would not, for instance, fault the soldiers in a badly led army and leave any criticism of their leadership implicit. There is much else in the book I would dispute more strongly.

But every assessment made me think–and not just about movies.

They still do.

As a historian, Fraser understood that, at a certain point, events consist not merely of the facts (whether agreed upon or disputed) but of the stories we make from those facts. As a first-rate novelist and screen writer, he understood film has become, for better or worse, the principal means of conveying those stories.

His best quality, though, was that he kept his head, and stuck to what his extraordinary life had taught him.

As a result, his criticism had the sting of moral authority, astringently applied.

And, in an age when the theater at the strip mall is filled every weekend with “imagistic” violence that makes The Wild Bunch look like Renoir’s Impressionistic Paris, his warnings about allowing our worst instincts to run free were prescient.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Holding Patterns and Subterranean Connections Generate Mild Disturbances in My Brain…I Strive to Move Forward)

Rio Grande DIrector: John Ford (1951)

American Sniper Director: Clint Eastwood (2014)

Sergeant York DIrector: Howard Hawks (1941)

Zero Dark Thirty Director: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

RIOGRANDE1

This sort of thing usually starts innocently enough.

I’ve been taking a break from Ford. For me, that means going maybe three months without watching any of his movies for the umpteenth time. So this week I got back around to Rio Grande, the austere, black-and-white finishing touch on the Cavalry Trilogy, made on the quick as the price for getting Republic Pictures’ famously penurious Herb Yates to back The Quiet Man, which Ford had been nursing for years, if not decades.

As always, when I’ve been trying to push Ford to one side, half-convincing myself that some of those lean, mean, craftsman-helmed westerns from the Golden Age that make the genre so bottomless (recent go-to’s include Rawhide, Yellow Sky, The Law and Jake Wade….one could go on) are so good Ford can’t really be all that much better, I’m shocked all over again once I let him back into the center.

Rio Grande has to run fast and hard to make it into Ford’s top fifteen…one of his “jobs of work.” But, as always the jump from everybody else’s top drawer to Ford’s middle ground is dramatic, like going from a set of finely wrought short stories to a great middle-length novel plucked from a shelf full of even greater novels. I know there are people who think short stories are a higher, purer form than novels and all I can say is, well, everybody has a right to be wrong.

But even as I was noticing new elements in Ford’s way with narrative, all the obvious things he chooses to leave out not merely to speed things along in the usual style or even to evade obviousness but to validate the breadth of his canvas, to effectively say, “I can go anywhere with this and even if I don’t, it’ll feel like I might have,” my rock ‘n’ roll mind, forever at work, suddenly churned up the notion that Ford was Bob Dylan (stark, jagged, dissociative, barbed, weird)  and Howard Hawks was the Beatles (clever, puckish, organized, forthright, orderly). Or, if you like, Dylan and the Beatles were Ford and Hawks brought forward.

Now, you can kick something like that around until you kick it to death or you can leave it alone and let it sit until it either hangs together or falls part under persistent intellectual mastication disorder. For now, I’m leaving it alone (though the notion of Ford and Hawks as twinned engines pulling in opposite directions has been on my mind for a while), but since I finally made it to a theater at a time when American Sniper was playing (third try, long story, my own stupid fault, let’s move along) and since, in my heart of hearts, I suspect Clint Eastwood would be John Ford if he possibly could and that maybe he hasn’t even quite given up on the idea, I can’t leave it entirely alone.

Not with the world on fire and everything.

AMERICANSNIPER1

I had some awareness of the “controversy” surrounding American Sniper and any relation it might have to how we’re all supposed-to-feel, are-feeling, might-feel, do-feel, can’t-feel, don’t-dare-feel, don’t-dare-not-feel about the “Iraq War” or the “Second Iraq War” or the “War on Terror” or “The Mistake” or whatever that particular phase of our quarter-century and counting conflict in the Middle East that happened to coincide with Chris Kyle’s tours of duty is being called this week.

I also had a strong sense that the controversy was breaking down along the usual lines.

You know how it works: the Right believes we’ve finally got a pro-American Iraq War film on our hands and the people are proving their support for the war that was by flocking to the box office, while the Left believes the Right just might have a dreadful point so let’s all go to our respective corners and come out shadow-boxing until our arms get tired and weasel-honor is satisfied. It’s all okay.

I mean, as long as nobody threatens the pre-existing assumptions.

Don’t worry. No one has.

Look. Ford always matters. A decade or so back, the great critic Molly Haskell wrote about fretting over a showing of The Searchers organized for inner-city kids. Living in a world where lots of film school profs at elite universities report kids being bored by Ford or even (per Tag Gallagher) getting angry and walking out of class, she worried they wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t connect, etc.

Her fears were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unfounded. Turned out kids who had been raised on Biggie and Tupac got Ethan Edwards, Chief Scar and ten-thousand-year-old male honor codes quite well. I suspect they would have had no trouble understanding Rio Grande, either, with its main theme of a single mother willing to go any length to protect her only child from a world defined by violence.

Still, it might have only been serendipitous that I started thinking specifically about Ford and Hawks while watching Ford during the week I happened to catch American Sniper (and, incidentally, also happened to catch Sniper star/producer Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Jason Hall on Charlie Rose, where Hall said the whole thing clicked during an early conversation where they thought of it specifically in terms of a western).

Then again, it might be a case of the bleeding obvious. I mean, the subconscious isn’t necessarily subversive or indirect or freely-associative just because it lies beneath. It might just be trying to tell you something. In this case, probably something like, “Hey, you’ve been trying to see American Sniper since it came out and you’ll probably actually make it this week, doofus, so it’s not exactly a stretch to assume that this is going to be a modern version of Sergeant York, which is one of the two attempts (Red River, which Ford helped edit, being the other) that Hawks made at being Ford-ian, so think about linking all that up will you?”

SGTYORK

Seriously, I was prepared to leave it alone, subconscious or no subconscious, but then American Sniper turned out to be, at least on the surface, a pretty straightforward modern take on Sergeant York.

Clint Eastwood trying to be John Ford by imitating Howard Hawks imitating John Ford.

So–o-o-o?

Well, like Sergeant York, American Sniper is a well-crafted-not-quite-great film about a war hero. Like Chris Kyle, Alvin York was a southerner raised on religion and hunting. Like York, Kyle was a freakishly superb shot and a bit of a roustabout. Both movies make a stab at tying each man’s heroics to the particulars of his upbringing and the moral conclusions each man reached (in their respective movies but, on the evidence, also in life) were markedly similar.

Killing is terrible.

The only thing worse is watching other men kill your friends because you failed to stop them. So both movies are fundamentally about men trying to define their honor through religion, courtship rituals, family loyalty and, finally, the cauldron of warfare.

There’s one big difference, of course.

Alvin York fought in an actual war, one which had the only object actual wars ever have, which is to take and hold all the ground that’s necessary for your enemy to give up hope.

Chris Kyle, who likely saw even more (and more intense) combat, fought in a shadow war, a sort of kabuki-theater-of-the-absurd where he was continually asked to supply the purpose the culture he volunteered to represent and the political leaders he volunteered to serve denied him with malice aforethought.

The sensible question to ask about Eastwood’s film then, is this: Does it capture what its like to fight in such a war.

In short, for any flaws it might have (and it certainly has them) it does this one essential thing superbly.

Whether or not they might have shared my experience of passing a television in the lobby of the theater on the way out that was tuned to CNN and showing the headline “Obama Asks for War Powers Against ISIS,” in front of Wolf Blitzer’s perpetually benumbed expression, anyone who emerges from this film thinking gee, I want a piece of that, is either seriously delusional or psychotic.

Because, in truth, any similarity to Sergeant York is superficial, just as any similarity between York and a Ford film is superficial.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

A much better comparison is between Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, a film which raised similar conversations (and similar evasions) on both sides two years back, though the roles were rather neatly reversed, thanks to director Kathryn Bigelow being perceived as reliably Liberal in the same way that Clint Eastwood is perceived as reliably Conservative.

However much Chris Kyle had in common with Alvin York, in life or on film, he had/has a much deeper bond with Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine, Jessica Chastain’s “Maya,” a fictional character based on a real life CIA operative.

He ends by understanding what she understands to begin with:

Shadow Wars produce Shadow Warriors….and Shadow Results.

That’s what all those various pronouncements of “victory” that have linked Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama really mean.

Nothing.

Well, that, and anybody who serves will be forced to play the Shadow Game one way or another.

Whether that’s what Eastwood meant, or even what Bigelow meant, is impossible to tell. Whatever they ever have or ever will talk about, it never has and never will be about that. War is not an option for either our culture or our political leadership. Neither is Peace.

That’s the difference between the No-Peace-No-Honor America we now all inhabit and the one Ford, the old-fashioned, out-of-step throwback, alone among Hollywood directors in forever looking backwards to better see around the corner, knew could so easily come to pass.

For what its worth, there’s a $300 million smash at the box office, which, knowingly or unknowingly, is carrying the same basic message all those “anti-war” flops carried.

We’re all Shadow Warriors now.

And even Clint Eastwood knows, as we prepare to retake some piece of Iraq yet again so we can give it back yet again, that we will win no more wars.

Which means there’s only one way for this week to end around here…a long way past the Beatles or even Dylan. Past everyone mentioned here. Except, you know, John Ford.