‘The Rhapsodes’: When an Aesthetic Approach to Film Criticism Was Novel

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the '40s it was a daring thing to champion film. These four critics did just that, and did it very well.

Film criticism that takes its subject seriously as an art form became an intellectually respectable practice in the ’60s. The work of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Roger Ebert became widely known and eagerly consumed through weekly columns, books, and television appearances.

With The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, David Bordwell, Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, provides a history for this phenomenon, and makes a compelling argument that it was only possible because of the work of four critics who, starting around the time of the Second World War, wrote about Hollywood productions with respect, bravura, and humor.

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time it was a daring thing for Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler to champion film. Movies, especially Hollywood ones, didn’t fare well in the estimation of intellectuals and in the pages of journals like the Partisan Review.

Bordwell’s four worked counter to the theory of mass culture that prevailed in the middle of the last century, when cultural critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer railed against what they perceived as the generic, easily consumable products of the “culture industry”. Ferguson and company instead “forged an aesthetic approach to American film. The reach of their imaginations and the sheer dazzle of their prose made a case, against all the skeptics who disdained Hollywood as a factory of mass delusion, that something deeply artful was at the base of studio cinema.”

Ferguson began reviewing films in 1934 and died in the war nine years later. “An anti-intellectual intellectual” according to Bordwell, he insulted artists and other reviewers when they deviated from his exacting standards, and panned films he found pretentious, but his bile came from a deep respect for the movie industry and his writing displayed the vitality and improvisational quality of the jazz that he began his career reviewing.

One of the many joys of this book is Bordwell’s generous excerpting of his writers. Here is a taste of Ferguson: “David O. Selznick’s colored-candy version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer should make Mark Twain circulate in his grave like a trout in a creel — sentimentalist though the old boy was, partial though he was to the black and white, the character bromide.” Opposed to “pure cinema”, Ferguson often focused on and praised the components of Hollywood storytelling: scripting, shot selection, and continuity editing. Bordwell explicates at length Ferguson’s detailed assessment of one scene from The Little Foxes, compiled after several visits to the set.

It’s a common thread throughout The Rhapsodes: the four, each according to his interests, practiced a kind of cinematic New Criticism, providing close readings of the film text, in sharp contrast to the generalized assessment of film delivered from on high by the critique-of-mass-culture crowd.

Agee came to film criticism from literary fiction and nonfiction, and brought “a Romantic conception of art” and an ambivalence in the face of evaluation to his writing about the cinema. Of Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Agee wrote, “Yet the more I think of it, the less I esteem it. I have, then, both to praise and defend it, and to attack it.” Bordwell calls Agee’s habit of documenting the tortured act of assessing a film, “the squirming push and pull of arriving at his judgments”. But when he gets down to complimenting a film or filmmaker, there’s no mistaking his meaning. Of John Huston, Agee said, “His pictures are not acts of seduction or of benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty.”

Just as he begins his exploration of Ferguson’s style with his music criticism, so Bordwell explicates Agee by looking first at Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the collaborative documentation of the lives of Alabama tenant farmers he wrote with photograph Walker Evans. Agee would always be drawn to film documentaries, and to narrative films that evinced a documentary-like realism.

Farber, an art reviewer as well as an artist, applied the tools of art criticism — focusing on technique and emotional expression — to visual practices like comics that were usually ignored by critics, and to film. “Having a voice, eyes and legs, [film] is more fluid than any other medium,” he claimed. “Like the mind, it is physically unbounded and can paint.”

He could also deploy humor to great effect when, as Bordwell asserts, “he ransacks the resources of figurative language”. Farber called The Postman Always Rings Twice “almost too terrible to walk out of” and said that Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca “seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood.” Sharing a suspicion of pretention with Ferguson and Agee, Farber lauded B movies of the early ’50s, inventing the labels “underground film” and “termite art” to contrast this work favorably against Hollywood’s self-consciously artful “white elephant art”.

The least known of the four, Tyler deviates from the valorization of realism and continuity of the “Ferguson tradition”; Bordwell dubs him a “Surrealist”. He thought that the tenets of psychoanalysis and the study of myth could illuminate film, and applied them in his criticism, though not in a systematic way. According to Tyler, “Hollywood is a vital, interesting phenomenon, at least as important to the spiritual climate as daily weather to the physical climate.”

Hollywood production created “crevices” in films, places where audiences could glimpse fears or impulses latent in American culture; for example, Frankenstein’s monster conjured the soldier traumatized by war.

Serious, yes, but Bordwell counts Tyler as a Rhapsode not just because of his critical acumen, but also for his “hectic prose”: “It somehow partakes”, Tyler observed of Frank Sinatra’s allure, “of the schoolgirl’s dream that a voice dripping with the most nectarish sauces should originate in a diaphragm over which the suitable screen would seem to be a large school initial surrounded by a sweater.”

Ferguson and the others would make any author self-conscious, but Bordwell’s own prose stands up to the Rhapsodes. Here he is on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “Agee is torn in so many directions by the bad faith behind his assignment, and he records his agony in such painful terms, that the book becomes about a man suffering from hatred for himself, his place in the world, and his efforts to adjust his obscene job to the affection and respect he feels for the families.”

Or glossing Farber’s use of the second person in reviews, now commonplace: “…the reader is flattered, especially when the critic attributes to you a knowledge of dozens of other movies. This just-pals mind meld asserts authority while implying equality. Pauline Kael lived off this device. I flinch every time I remember her claim that after seeing Roxanne (1987), ‘You want to go to the town; you want to go back to the movie.’”

Bordwell promises, and delivers, an exploration of the origins of modern film criticism through the work of these four early critics. But this compact book is also a treatise on, and example of, great writing. After finishing The Rhapsodes — more likely, after the first chapter — if you are unfamiliar with some or all of Bordwell’s critics, you’ll want to get your hands on collections of their writing for yourself. I’ve already ordered my copies.

RATING 7 / 10