An Overview of American Film Criticism from 1896 to Today

[18 May 2010]

By Sarah Boslaugh

It takes some guts to claim to have written a complete history of American film criticism, let alone the complete history. Unfortunately, despite its confident title Jerry Roberts’ The Complete History of American Film Criticism doesn’t deliver anything close to what its title proclaims.

This is a shame because it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to interest a publisher in bringing out a better volume on the same subject (let alone with the same title) for the next few years. Therefore libraries and fans of film criticism (yes, the latter do exist) may find themselves making do with Roberts’ book simply because there isn’t anything better to choose from. That’s too bad, because given the rapid changes taking place in film criticism today we could really use a knowledgeable, comprehensive and integrated history of the art.

If writing the history of a subject means amassing chunks of information and arranging them roughly chronically in chapters then perhaps I’m being too hard on The Complete History of American Film Criticism which seems to have been assembled rather than written. There certainly is lots of information in this book and for that reason alone it may prove useful as a starting point for people interested in the subject.

However, to trust an overview history you have to have faith that the author has been fair in terms of the topics included, space allotted to each, and the treatment of each topic. Based on Roberts’ treatment of the areas of film criticism I know well I’m not comfortable on any of those scores.

The lack of footnotes or endnotes (although there are some in-text references as well as a bibliography) means we frequently don’t know when (if ever) Roberts is writing from primary sources and when he is simply repeating information already available in books written by others. For instance, did Roberts really track down a copy of the 1913 Moving Picture World for the W. Stephen Bush quote on The Prisoner of Zenda and was that quote selected after perusal of many articles by Bush and other authors of the period? Or is it included in this volume because it already appeared in someone else’s book and was thus readily available to Roberts? If the latter then we must distrust not only Roberts’ judgment but also that of whatever secondary source(s) he used to have chosen a quotation which gives a fair impression of Bush and his point of view.

The Complete History of American Film Criticism also suffers from a disturbing inconsistency of style: sometimes it is as impersonal as an encyclopedia while at other times it takes on a colloquial tone loaded with subjective judgments and gratuitous information (thank you, we didn’t have to be told Harry Knowles’ weight). The end result is a volume which is not well-organized as a reference book (paragraph-length sentences are not uncommon and there is not a single subheading in the entire book) but the information is not integrated into anything resembling a comprehensive history either. 

Although I don’t think much of this volume as a history of American film criticism it certainly has its moments as an assemblage of information. The chapters about the early years of American film criticism are fascinating and much of this history will be unfamiliar to most people. For instance, I already knew about Frank E. Woods who, some consider the first American film critic (in part because Woods was mentioned in Gerald Peary’s documentary For the Love of Movies), but names like Louis Reeves Harrison, Hugo Münsterberg and Alexander Bakshy were completely new to me, and I got enough information from this volume to pursue their work further should I choose to do so.

The chapters covering criticism since 1960 have less to offer although they are covered at greater length (Roberts devotes 129 pages to the pre-‘60s period, 283 to the years since 1960), in part because most of the critics covered are familiar. Seriously, is anyone with the least interest in criticism not already aware of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and their influence? This ground has been trod before and the primary sources are readily available as well so the standard for making a contribution toward the history of post-‘60s criticism requires writing from an integrated, supported point of view, something sadly lacking in this volume.

Roberts ends with a chapter on the current state of the art including the obligatory statistics about laid-off critics and declining circulations for old-media outlets but offers little in the way of analysis. Instead he relies primarily on quoting others or making bald assertions like “Newspapers went soft in the 1990s on big blockbuster films”, and “The interview feature with Hugh Jackman or Nicole Kidman or Christina Ricci…became more important than any evaluation that a critic might have on a film’s merit.” I’m inclined to agree but I’d like to see some statistics or other supporting evidence to back up such glib generalities.

There are also a few pages devoted to griping about those damn kids on the Internet with Harry Knowles as Exhibit A although he’s no more a fair example of an Internet critic than Pete Hammond or Harry Travers would be for print critics. In fact, one of the best sources for information on “quote whores” is the web site which could have provided far more up-to-date information than the 1999 “most blurbed” list Roberts includes in his book.

Sigh. If an undergraduate turned in writing this thoughtless and sloppy I’d hand it right back for revision. All I say in this case is that unless you are desperate for a compendium of information of uncertain quality don’t bother with this volume and hold out hope that someone will soon write a better book which actually deserves the title this one carries.

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