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Movie critics: The good, the bad and the ugly

His name was Vachel Lindsay. Once upon a time, he was inescapable in American middle schools and high schools.

What one was likely to learn about him is that he hoboed across America and quite literally traded rhymes for bread -- and that he wrote, in "General William Booth Enters Heaven" and "The Congo" gaudy, wildly syncopated poetry that can now be seen, in fact, to have anticipated rap a good six decades before the fact.

One might even have learned in one's tender adolescence the decidedly un-tender fact that Lindsay was an alcoholic who committed suicide (in 1932) by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

What remains virtually unknown about Lindsay is that he was probably America's first major film critic, the progenitor of a whole vast culture that now includes smug TV thumbsters, chattering radio magpies and Internet marauders preening with bloggadoccio and indulging in one of the greatest of adolescent pleasures -- pitching custard pies at movies, famous people and, indeed, all specimens of authority who are unlucky enough to be in the neighborhood.

Long before half of America decided to become critics (thus confirming producer Billy Rose's ancient truth: "Everybody has two professions -- his own and show business") there was old Vachel Lindsay 90 years ago flatly declaring "In the Action Picture there is no adequate means for the development of any personal passion . . . People are but types, swiftly moved chessmen." ("Die Hard" anyone? "Firewall?")

And now Lindsay -- along with the whole 90-year parade for which he served as drum major -- has been collected by the venerable and redoubtable Library of America in the indispensable 700-plus pages of "American Movie Critics," the biggest and most complete anthology, thus far, to collect what has long since become a kind of folk art in America.

It is a great book that deserves to be in every home. But it is also an appalling one whose editor -- personal essayist and anthologist Philip Lopate -- has blithely allowed himself to be so guided by whim, miscomprehension, superficiality and mind-boggling ignorance that the anthology sometimes resembles a blind man's chortling tour through the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Two of the greatest of all American movie critics -- the late Dwight Macdonald and the New Yorker's current movie critic David Denby -- are badly and inadequately represented by their work and preceded by introductions that don't begin to to understand what in God's name their work is all about. (Full disclosure: the single review that turned me into a movie critic was Macdonald's hilarious demolition of "Ben-Hur" in 1959. And Denby, nearly 20 years ago, did an earlier, and much shorter -- but infinitely wiser -- anthology of American movie critics called "Awake in the Dark," thereby virtually volunteering to be treated uncomprehendingly in this one.)

The New York Times' estimable Vincent Canby is dubiously memorialized by Lopate as having taken "the practice of newspaper movie reviewing to new heights by composing, almost daily, film criticism of seemingly effortless literary grace, wit and taste" and yet there is nothing included by Canby's self-declared disciple, Janet Maslin. Nor, incredibly, could Manhattan-centric Lopate find anything to include by longtime Los Angeles Times film critic and Arts Editor Charles Champlin in a career of immense longevity.

Judith Crist? Rex Reed? John Leonard? Peter Biskind? Gore Vidal? Norman Mailer's decidedly overcooked but wildly insightful ruminations on film, even? Forget them. They're off the menu. Find them yourself. You suspect, early on, that a volume at least half the size of this might annotate all the scores being settled or irrational aversions being indulged within those 720 pages.

The jubilant truth, though, is that the glass is more than half full. For anyone who loves -- or merely likes -- movies, this is a festival. There's wonderful work here, a veritable cavalcade of wit and enlightenment, along with a deeply flawed and immensely valuable crash course in how American movie reviewing got that way from the age of D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks right up to the era of "Sideways" and "A History of Violence."

You'll find Carl Sandburg, no less, writing (badly) on "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Nanook of the North," and "What Price Glory?" And proto-feminist Cecilia Ager -- Variety's first female critic -- writing this about the sudden new blondeness of formerly dark-haired Fay Wray in the original "King Kong": "Blonde, she looks even more the part of Beauty in the fable, 'Beauty and the Beast,' so what can the beast do but act good and beasty?"

And no less than 14 pieces by the great (and greatly obscure) Otis Ferguson, probably America's first truly great working film critic. And 16 pages of James Agee, from whom all subsequent working film critics spring, whether they know it or not.

And, along with the expected allotments of Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, Jonas Mekas, Stanley Kauffmann, and Penelope Gilliatt, there are some bracing surprises -- bell hooks, for instance, slapping the bejabbers out of Quentin Tarantino in full, four letter splendor ("Tarantino's films are the ultimate in sexy cover-ups of very unsexy mind-f----. That's Hollywood, the place where white supremacist capitalist patriarchy can keep reinventing itself, no matter how many times the West is de-centered.")

There is much serious and weighty work within, sitting cheek by jowl with awfully good journalism.

Lopate is about as erratic and downright errant as a curator could be but, by and large, he's not a bad docent and his gallery of offerings by film critics, living and dead, is wrong-headed but invaluable anyway. Now that everyone feels they're movie critics, it's a great book to find great work by many who really are and have been.

The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert is the man who probably made the single greatest and most cynical dumb-down step in the entire history of American journalism when he went along with the scheme of Chicago rival Gene Siskel in turning their profession into a dueling thumb weekly pillowfight of snippy sound-bites.

Whether or not Ebert has conciously and deliberately spent the years since Siskel's sadly premature death atoning for condensing his wild and sometimes noble profession into the direction of his thumb, there's no question that he has spent the years since Siskel's death producing books that deserve a shelf-life longer than a couple of weeks.

In the new paperback edition of the second volume of his "The Great Movies" (Broadway Books, 518 pages, $16.95 paper), he presents you with one of the primal pleasures of the indentured critic's trade, as he puts it stepping "aside from the production line (of current movies) and looking closely and with love at the films that vindicate the art form."

In the case of Ebert, the rule should be: pay no attention to the trivial TV jabberjaw in front of the curtain weekly and on talk shows. Go instead to the best recent books by the writer who loves what he's writing about and has left his thumbprints back at the studio.

If he's been on a guilt trip for a while, heaven bless him for it.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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>Book Review

"AMERICAN MOVIE CRITICS: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now"

720 pages

$40 hardcover

Philip Lopate's anthology of American movie criticism from the beginning, published by the Library of America

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