n his recent book, Better Living Through Criticism, A.O. Scott argued, in part, that without criticism art has little purpose—that art needs to provoke a reaction of some kind. If that’s the case, then the world of film owes a great deal to Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. This quartet of critics highlighted by David Bordwell in his new book, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture, helped breathe new meaning into an entire art form.

The Rhapsodes

By David Bordwell

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“These four writers made criticism more than a vehicle for ephemeral observations and displays of taste: it became a serious (though often sprightly) inquiry into how Hollywood movies worked,” Bordwell writes in his introduction. “They sought to change a situation expressed concisely by Ferguson: ‘Film criticism is obediently dull and uninformative, and surely unworthy of so lively and immanent a subject.’”

Among the first writers to tackle the subject of popular film in more serious venues, Bordwell’s four “Rhapsodes” (originally “the ancient writers of verse who, inspired by the gods, became carried away”) brought a sharp tongue to their task. They rejected the pretensions of their peers and sidestepped the now silly-seeming arguments of the day over whether or not an intellectual could take popular culture seriously. Instead, they infused their criticism with wit and style while trying to understand how the pictures worked—and, perhaps more important, how to explain to the average reader what worked and what did not.

Ferguson joined the New Republic in the mid-1930s and would help change the game of film criticism before he died in 1943 while serving in the Merchant Marines. “As the first long-running film critic in a national intellectual weekly, Ferguson enjoyed more space for his provocations than did his rivals, those sad short-termers and half-hearted reporters working elsewhere,” Bordwell writes.

A man’s man with a softer side, Ferguson “wrote with a bottle of whiskey at his elbow,” his prose ranging “from roughneck slang to tender lyricism.” Among the joys, and the frustrations, of Bordwell’s book is being treated to a taste, but only a small one, of his subjects’ writing. Here’s a snippet from Ferguson’s oeuvre: “The more specious [Holiday] appeared, the more I noticed and resented Katharine being Hepburn till it hurt, and the Stewart-Buchman writing job that encouraged her in this to points where that flat metallic voice is driven into your head like needles.”

On his way out the door and into the war, Ferguson threw a sharp elbow at his fellow film writers, in “The Case of Critics.” In this 1942 essay, he lambasted the boringness of “Standard Critic English,” railed against his cohorts’ general refusal to cultivate an aesthetic sensibility, and suggested that critics with no understanding of the technical side of filmmaking couldn’t truly understand the films they were seeing. That last complaint is a special concern of Bordwell’s—he’s the co-author of Film Art: An Introduction, one of the better academic texts aimed at getting novices acquainted with the technical side of the medium. He decries a common lack of film expertise several times in The Rhapsodes.

James Agee, writing in the Nation and Time between 1942 and 1948, answered Ferguson’s call. A novelist (following his death from a heart attack in 1957, he would win a posthumous Pulitzer in 1958 for A Death in the Family) and a screenwriter (he wrote The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter), Agee cannot be accused of being a dilettante: He understood the art of storytelling as well as anyone. It was, perhaps, that understanding that led him to sometimes sound a bit more cautious than his peers. As Bordwell puts it, Agee “was famous for what looked like equivocation,” highlighting the following passage as an example:

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, the new Preston Sturges film, seems to me funnier, more adventurous, more abundant, more intelligent, and more encouraging than anything that has been made in Hollywood for years. 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 notes that his subjects “recast one of the conventions of film reviewing: the rhetoric of faults and beauties. . . . Unless you’re writing a hatchet job, you must dose your praise with some vinegar, and you must dilute your severity with a few compliments.”

Manny Farber, an occasional Commentary contributor in the 1950s and 1960s, is probably the best known and most widely read of Bordwell’s subjects today. Bordwell writes appreciatively of the innovative critical strategy he championed. “Farber’s review of North Star is a cascade of you’s, creating a reader who is simultaneously following his prose and watching a virtual movie,” he writes. “The strategy is shrewd. When the critic’s impressions are transferred to the hypothetical viewer (you), you’re already halfway to agreeing with him. Moreover, the reader is flattered, especially when the critic attributes to you a knowledge of dozens of other movies.” Bordwell adds: “Pauline Kael lived off this device.”

Farber was a painter in addition to a film critic, eventually giving up writing about film altogether in 1977 to concentrate on his creations. The painter’s eye infused much of his criticism—he thought and wrote about films and the coherence of their storytelling in a visual manner, praising seamless continuity for keeping a work moving. It was an aesthetic appreciation that sometimes put him at odds with his contemporaries in the art world. “The demand for invisible illusion and narrative continuity clashed with the version of modernism that dominated the gallery scene,” Bordwell writes.

If Farber is the most read of the Rhapsodes in the modern day, Parker Tyler is probably the least well known. In part, I imagine, it’s because he eschewed the mainstream journals of the time, opting instead for more esoteric outlets and book-length treatises. That’s too bad, according to Bordwell: “Tyler makes forties movies talk a four-ring circus. It’s time to re-read him.” The smart excerpts of Tyler’s work included in The Rhapsodes support this recommendation.

A gay surrealist who traded in Freudian thought without devolving into boring cliché, Tyler’s work centered on the idea that Hollywood was a modern mythmaker and a creator of cultural icons. “The movies give us, for example, the archetype of the absent-minded professor or inventor,” Bordwell writes of Tyler. “The bumbling success of the awkward scientist, mocking efficiency but also proving that even fools can flourish in a democracy, is no less a myth, for Hollywood purposes, than is Diana the virgin huntress (often incarnated, incidentally, in Katharine Hepburn).”

It’s hard to deny the impact of these four writers, not only on one another but also on the modern day. As Bordwell puts it: “Without Ferguson, probably no Agee and surely no Farber. Without Agee and Farber, no Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. Without Kael and Sarris, no modern film criticism.” The Rhapsodes helped increase intellectual appreciation of film, which in turn challenged filmmakers and filmgoers alike to think harder and smarter about the art form. And they did so in a way that influences, however indirectly, the way we write about movies to this day: It’s hard not to read some of the more stylish critics working in newspapers and online without echoes of the Rhapsodes ringing in your ears.

Bordwell has written a judicious and accessible book. But at a slight 176 pages, The Rhapsodes is best thought of as a useful entry point into the world of early film criticism, a brief work designed to give readers some context for delving deeper into the work of the four writers in question. Fortunately for those who find themselves intrigued, collections of their work are readily available: The Library of America has compiled Agee’s and Farber’s film writing, while Ferguson’s essays and Tyler’s Hollywood Hallucination can be found used online for a few dollars. This is great news for those of us who enjoy reading great writing about film. As Bordwell persuasively argues, his Rhapsodes are still well worth reading today.

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