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.

ROMAN HOLIDAY IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR (And Then There Was Hollywood….Fifth Rumination)

Roman Holiday (1953)
D. William Wyler

There’s a famous anecdote about the discovery of Audrey Hepburn, from the notoriously unreliable Anita Loos, which is too good not to be true.

Colette, the famous French authoress of the Gigi stories, had refused all English language requests for rights to the stories for decades until she saw Loos’s stage adaptation of her own Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She agreed to sell the Broadway rights to Gigi if Loos would do the book. Loos signed on.

The rights were bought, Loos wrote her adaption, the theater was booked and the cast and crew assembled. As the date for official rehearsals drew nigh, the only thing missing was an actress right for the title role. In the midst of the New York producers developing itchy scalps and premonitions of doom, Loos received a telegram from Colette that read:

Have found Gigi. Come at once.

Loos rounded up her pal Paulette Goddard (the actress who David Selznick had finally settled on for Scarlett O’Hara once upon a time, until the last second discovery of then virtually unknown Vivien Leigh altered the Cosmos) and they caught the overnight express to Paris.

When they arrived at their hotel, they were told that Colette had sent a package to their room.

In the room, they found a model’s portfolio lying on the bed. No message.

Loos thumbed through the portfolio without comment. Then she handed it to Goddard.

Goddard leafed through the pictures, put the portfolio back on the bed and said:

“Maybe she lisps or something.”

Within a few weeks Audrey Hepburn was cast for the lead in the Broadway version of Gigi.

A star was born.

Except not quite.

Hepburn won good reviews on Broadway, but with only bit film roles to her credit (her cameo in The Lavender Hill Mob is dazzling) might well have been destined for a career limited to stage stardom….except that, just as her touring obligations to Gigi were winding down, Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons turned out to be unavailable for a script written by blacklisted screenwriting ace Dalton Trumbo, and William Wyler spotted her for his upcoming film, the first comedy he had done in nearly twenty years.

He called for a screen test. She passed. Gregory Peck got the male lead (which Cary Grant had turned down). They were off.

A few weeks into the shoot, Peck, who had a contract that stated only his name would appear above the title, called the producers and insisted Hepburn’s name be moved above the title as well.

It wasn’t altruism or self-deprecation, he later claimed.

He just didn’t want to look like an idiot.

Thus….a star was born.

I knew exactly none of that the first time I saw Roman Holiday.

TBS ran it after midnight when I was in college circa the very early eighties. I was then living in a studio apartment two blocks from FSU’s campus where I had learned to kill fleets of German cockroaches with my bare hands because I couldn’t always afford traps.

I could never reach the spray fast enough, and it was better than letting the nasty buggers get away.

The television was black and white. Nineteen inch.

Cable came with the rent and had maybe thirteen channels.

Roman Holiday had three and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide.

If  VHS existed, I didn’t know about it.

I was nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t know Audrey Hepburn from a stripper. Gregory Peck I’d heard of, which was more than I could say for William Wyler.

I’m setting the scene so you’l have a sense of the atmosphere in which I was struck by the lightning that struck Collette and Anita Loos and Paulette Goddard once upon a time.

I didn’t even have the defense mechanism available to Goddard.

Roman Holiday was a talkie and the talk was by Dalton Trumbo.

And Audrey Hepburn, she did not lisp.

*   *   *   *

For the next twenty-five years–until I grew old enough to understand John Ford–Roman Holiday was my favorite movie.

I only saw it half-a-dozen times, far less than I saw other movies that were nowhere near my favorite. Anyone who has seen it once might understand.

Yes, it is a comedy. But it is also an elegy and elegaic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy, not to mention the hardest kind of elegy. Even now, I’m not sure I want to examine its effects too closely. The degree to which Civilization has receded since 1980–let alone 1953–has made the final scene, a scene that made a friend of mine once declare “that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen,” punch even harder.

Was it really not so long ago that you could make a mainstream film introducing a breakout star (on her way to becoming a universally acknowledged icon and, less acknowledged, one of the best scene-for-scene actors in the history of film) with the expectation of an audience who understood that life, like glory, is fleeting?

Now there is no “mainstream,” hence, nowhere to for concepts like breaking out or iconography or history or film to go.

That’s the Lost World effect these days of a film that can, in production pitch terms, be described as a simple fairy tale: The Princess and the Peasant, though we’ve also traveled a distance that makes this variation–the Princess and the Newspaperman–even more far-fetched.

This is one of those rare movies that I revisit in hopes I’ll spot some way it might have taken a different turn, might have somehow come out different, knowing all the while such hopes are in vain.

I wonder if it would matter as much–hurt as much–if the social types who provide the narrative engine for Roman Holiday (or any romance, comedic or otherwise) were still recognizable in an Age when the human types barely are.

Whatever the consequences for Civilization, the consequences for story-telling have been devastating. Hard to expect individual stories to resonate when humanity itself has no narrative and, increasingly, no excuse for its own existence except consumption and excitement, the emptiest excuses us humans have so far been able to imagine.

More of everything please. That will sustain us!

Sure it will.

I think one reason Roman Holiday‘s absurdist tone and melancholy ending hit so hard in 1980 (harder as the years went by and I read the teeth-clenching reviews from the old codgers–Stanley Kaufman, David Thomson, the usual suspects–who wondered if you had to have lived through the War to really connect with it), is that I already knew the kind of stories I wanted to write weren’t going to have any agency in the world I was going to have to live in.

Looking back, I’m not surprised I was “clinically depressed” in those days and that Roman Holiday, wonderful as it was and is, only deepened that depression. It’s a bit disorienting to realize, all at once, that the world isn’t going to produce any more Audrey Hepburns, not even in the fantasy world of the movies–that we’re all doomed to live in a time and place where, one way or another, everyone lisps.