PRINT May 2016


David Bordwell’s The Rhapsodes

Poster for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, 1941.

The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, by David Bordwell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 176 pages.

A COMPARATIVE SURVEY of the writings of four American movie critics whose careers overlapped in the 1940s—Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler—might seem the perfect setup for a narrowly specialized monograph. In the hands of David Bordwell, however, there is no subject, filmic or otherwise, that cannot yield gleams of pleasurable understanding. For decades, whether alone or in collaboration with Kristin Thompson, Bordwell has exercised his meticulous and thoroughgoing scholarship on a staggering range of filmmaking practices—from early Hollywood to late Hong Kong, from the history of CinemaScope to the style of Ozu—parsing formal, technological, and economic intricacies while always keeping larger perspectives and connections in view. (His blog, Observations on Film Art, is the most consistently enlightening of any such site I know.)

Bordwell’s great merit is to put aside prejudice and examine what is in front of him—a trait that has enabled him to take an unencumbered look at how movies actually function—and to convey the results with a bracing clarity not always found in studies of morphology and narrative structure. He has the scholar’s capacity to absorb large and contradictory masses of data, but also a fine critic’s flair for proportion and relevance. In The Rhapsodes he has produced a book of disarming freshness, brimming with a sense of delight and surprise. In other hands, such an undertaking might have yielded a reductive academic attempt to wrench the idiosyncrasies and contemporary biases of individual writers into reconciliation with some general thesis about the function of criticism or the nature of film. Bordwell’s thrust is quite different. He wants to dwell on, to celebrate, the peculiarity and eccentricity and combativeness and deliberate perversity of the four writers he has chosen to explore: Ferguson, the New Republic movie reviewer (1934–42) who was an early casualty of World War II; Agee, whose writings for The Nation and Time were widely admired in their day and proved even more influential when collected in book form after his death; Farber, who in his 1940s reviews for the New Republic applied a ferociously angular and elliptical style like a drill to the surfaces of seemingly ordinary movies; and Tyler, who contemplated popular culture with a poet’s sensitivity to occult meaning and free association in The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947).

Bordwell calls these writers Rhapsodes “by analogy with the ancient reciters of verse who, inspired by the gods, became carried away.” The term, he goes on to say, “aims to emphasize the exuberance of their vernacular prose.” The notion of critics as, potentially, vehicles for divine inspiration sets the tone for these readings. It’s an exhilarating premise (certainly for anyone who writes criticism of any kind). Bordwell sees these four not as commentators but as artists, makers of freestanding verbal objects, bent on finding language forceful and untrammeled enough to avail itself of the energies released by movies. Both the traditionalist aesthetic pieties and the left-wing ideological strictures of the period tended to perceive the force of those energies as something debasing, if not malign. Movies were typically seen, broadly speaking, as a poor relation of the older arts or as an opiate for the pliable masses. In Bordwell’s telling, his Rhapsodes found ways to maneuver around such exclusionary stances in order to make contact with what was really going on between movie and spectator, not as uncritical admirers of Hollywood or of any other films, but as “practical aesthetes” alert for unexpected expressiveness sometimes hidden in plain sight.

They enjoyed, of course, a remarkable freedom to make things up for themselves. The emergence of cinema in the first decades of the twentieth century far outstripped the ability of cultural diagnosticians to keep up with it. Moviegoing in 1940s America was an experience so pervasive that the whole nation swam in it. To write about it was to go straight to the heart of a shared culture. At the same time, precisely because movies were such ordinary fare, so taken for granted, Ferguson and the others were at liberty to invent their own ways of talking about them. There was little to draw on in the way of established canons or principles. As Bordwell points out, film history for these critics as for others of their time was defined by a restricted repertoire of older films: “D. W. Griffith (for some shorts and The Birth of a Nation), the silent clowns (Chaplin above all), Caligari, The Battleship Potemkin (sometimes Earth), and René Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat and his early sound pictures.”

There were standard surveys of the subject, but they too were limited, focusing on a few approved standout productions—approved whether for aesthetic innovation or socially valuable messaging—and implicitly consigning all the rest to the realm of commercial dross. Ferguson, Agee, Farber, and Tyler had the nerve to put presuppositions aside and come each to his own very particular way of seeing. Even Tyler, the most theoretically minded of the four, with his invocations of Frazer and Freud, took a free-form approach to parsing the “transparent artifices” and “perverse play of desires” of Mildred Pierce and The Picture of Dorian Gray (both 1945). Each of them brought to his film writing skills and insights developed in other areas. Ferguson had his deep immersion in jazz; Farber his practices as painter and art critic (“Like the mind,” Farber wrote of film as a medium, “it is physically unbounded and can paint”); Agee the sometimes self-lacerating passion that turned a journalistic assignment on sharecroppers for Fortune into the formally explosive Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941); Tyler a grounding in the poetic avant-garde and in the gay scene that he had chronicled, with Charles Henri Ford, in the banned novel The Young and the Evil (1933).

Bordwell gives us a series of quick, sensitive portraits, mindful of how these critics’ backgrounds and circumstances informed their film writing. Ferguson, for instance, grew up on a farm and had served in the navy before signing on at the New Republic as an all-purpose reviewer and editor whose mind, in the words of his colleague Alfred Kazin, “seemed to be constantly dancing and darting, moving and shaking.” As Bordwell puts it, “He presented himself as the tough guy who came up the hard way,” and indeed Ferguson’s writing perfectly captures, among other things, the hard-boiled, Cagneyish side of 1930s movies. He was, atypically for the time, actually interested in seeing how movies were made, and on a 1941 visit to Hollywood observed William Wyler filming The Little Foxes and drew a chart in which he analyzed Wyler’s setups and blocking, for an article titled “The Camera Way Is the Hard Way” (published in October of that year). As an enthusiast of big-band music, Ferguson liked to focus on how the discreet meshing of a team’s separate concrete tasks could result in powerful but undemonstrative art: “You don’t see it in the picture, but they were not just playing leapfrog. In fact, the very reason you don’t see it is its own justification.”

Like Farber after him, Ferguson was drawn to lean work, disdaining ornamental grandiosity and self-proclaimed ambition. He was awake to the qualities of Howard Hawks’s Ceiling Zero or Fritz Lang’s Fury (both 1936) but could muster only lukewarm admiration for Citizen Kane in 1941, impatient with showy technique getting in the way of storytelling efficiency: “Crane shots and pan shots, funny angles like showing the guy as though you were lying down at his feet, or moving in over him on the wings of an angel, won’t help.” Then again, it may be observed that all four of Bordwell’s Rhapsodes found reasons to withhold the highest praise from Welles’s breakthrough masterpiece, which is another way of saying that we don’t turn to any of these critics to consult the grades they hand out to particular films, grades whose retrospective accuracy is predictably varied. (For a more recent instance, think of the deep suspicion of Stanley Kubrick’s work shared by the otherwise opposed critics Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael.)

If we read them, then, it is for the intensity and invention with which they wrest language into an approximation of their film-watching experience. The primary pleasure of this book comes from Bordwell’s appreciation of the originality of these writers, the way each of them constructed a distinctive prose whose mixing of unlike elements calls to mind that “homemade world” that the critic Hugh Kenner discerned in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. There is real enthusiasm, and valuable guidance, in Bordwell’s tour, as he plucks out particularly lively or audacious passages. He walks us through the literature with an admirably light step, pointing out highlights and connecting dots, and, as he goes, filling in some of the background of the 1940s intellectual milieu in which these men worked.

Audacity—“brazen verve”—is the through line for the whole quartet, an audacity by turns prankish or sarcastic or (in the case of Agee) feverishly emotional or (with Tyler) capable of baroque spirals of elaboration. Bordwell responds to the way “Ferguson could jump registers,” the way Agee could qualify his own reactions in almost comically tortured fashion, the way Farber “ransacks the resources of figurative language,” the way Tyler can envision, in a wartime submarine picture (1943’s Gung Ho!), how an erotically charged image of perspiring soldiers unfolds into a mythic evocation of the bond between mother and child. Their ideas, he suggests, can be found in the specifics of the styles they made for themselves, their rhythms and textures, their abrupt or modulated shifts of tone, their incongruities of vocabulary, even their conjunctions and commas.

Of course, as Bordwell acknowledges, “if there hadn’t been films that tested the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, even the cleverest reviewers couldn’t have written so zestfully.” The Rhapsodes elicits an awareness of just how much expressive energy was pouring out on the movie screens of America in pictures that many continued to regard as disposable time killers. Whatever their judgments on particular films, and however skeptical their view of the industry’s motives, Bordwell’s four chosen critics were alive to that energy. Unlike so many of their colleagues, they did not condescend to the medium. They respected its expressive power and strove to respond with comparable expressiveness. They also, as any exploration of their writings will reveal, managed to have a lot of fun doing so.

Geoffrey O’Brien is Editor in Chief of the Library of America and the author, most recently, of Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film 2002–2012 (Counterpoint, 2013).