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Editor's Choice: 'The Rhapsodes' on America's first great generation of movie critics

The Rhapsodes by David Bordwell, University of Chicago Press, 174 pages, $20 paper.

In the current post-Siskel-and-Ebert Internet era, movie reviews are practically under every rock. That may be why the roaring heyday of film culture is receding in the rear view mirror. Even so, there is still nothing uncommon about fine books by film critics. What has never been exactly common --and certainly isn’t now -- are good books ABOUT film critics. This is an exceptional one.

Bordwell lays out his subject well: “The more visible movie reviewing becomes, though, the less important any one reviewer seems. Although a few elite critics remain powers to be reckoned with, they enjoy far less fame than the mighty figures of the '60’s and '70’s. Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert became more famous than most of the movies they wrote about, and upon their deaths they were the subjects of more eulogies and memoirs than most departed moviemakers.”

Here is what may be the definitive book about the point where a “New Age” of eminence for the profession could begin to be seen in the “little magazines” of the '40s and '50s, when four remarkable and startling men made film criticism into one of the most vital genres of American writing anywhere.

Bordwell gives us brilliant analyses and accounts of the four: Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. Ferguson, who wrote in the “laconic, wiseacre idiom” is the least known but was first to function regularly. (Mostly, he is remembered, if at all, as the fellow who had discouraging words to say about “The Wizard of Oz.”) Farber’s feistiness and subversion have, in the past decade or more, overtaken Agee as the most influential of that era’s critics.

Tyler, “still an obscure figure among his contemporaries emerges in Bordwell’s book from the figure buried by Gore Vidal’s camp mockery in “Myra Breckenridge. I wish Bordwell has gone into the relationship of Farber and his brilliant psychiatrist brother Les Farber (a terrific writer not even remembered these days by Wikipedia) but here, for certain, is where America first realized that something new and rather stupendous was happening among its film critics. It’s still happening among these four.

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