“The Devil Finds Work”: James Baldwin On Film

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James Baldwin & The Devil Finds Work. Image via Wikipedia.

James Baldwin & The Devil Finds Work. Image via Wikipedia.

James Baldwin was, no doubt, one of the deepest American thinkers to have ever lived, and, even more importantly, a damn good writer — a skill that, if ever missing, makes all the great thinking in the world quite sterile, and oftentimes irrelevant.

I’ve called Baldwin’s work blackness without bullshit because unlike, say, in the time of empty ‘nationalist’ posturing back then, or of frauds like Cornel West and Al Sharpton today, James Baldwin refused to accept any demands placed upon him by any race or creed, and, therefore, had a longevity that so many others in his niche do not. And I use the word ‘niche’ intentionally, for James Baldwin (like James A. Emanuel) is pigeon-holed as a black writer, first, despite all evidence to the contrary. Yes, he wrote of prototypically black things — gay things, as well, and literary things; European things — but in a way that dissented from the fads, ideologies, and self-limiting perspectives that afflict so many to this day. One only needs to read his reactions to black leaders (such as his brilliant take-down of Elijah Muhammad in Down At The Cross) to realize that he was, and still is, on the margins, neither desired by revolutionary blacks, who preferred polemic, nor liberal whites, who wanted their allies to be a bit more narrow-minded, and therefore more easily squirreled away into some ‘side’.

Among the many books he’d written, I’ve always found one particularly difficult to categorize: in fact, as all great writing should be, when deeper possibilities come open. The book is The Devil Finds Work, a long essay on American film as filtered through a racial lens. No, this is not true film criticism, in the sense that James Baldwin is able to give the reader a blueprint for understand good and bad art qualitatively, but it’s not the wan social analysis that passes for film crit in academic circles, either. So, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book, which — as per the James Baldwin aesthetic — combines some important social insights with flat-out great writing.

On Lawrence Of Arabia (1962):

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Image via Wikipedia.

David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia. Image via Wikipedia.

“For, this overwhelming desert, though it exists geographically, and was actually filmed by an actual camera crew, sent there for that purpose, is put to a use which is as far from reality as are most of the people we encounter in it. The least real of these people is Lawrence himself. This is not O’Toole’s fault: but so grave an adventure can scarcely be ascribed to the vagaries and idealism of a single man. Lawrence’s courage and steadfastness are given as admirable, because hard-won — here, the film, unconsciously, rather patronizes Lawrence; his complexities are barely — or, rather, perhaps, endlessly — hinted at, that is to say never illuminated. His rapport with the Arabs is of great use … Continue reading →

James Berardinelli Knows Film (And Woody Allen) Better Than Most

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. The full essay can be read on the book’s website.]

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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #3: James Berardinelli

Coming off of Dan Schneider’s cerebral highs, it would be easy to dismiss James Berardinelli as a rather ‘plain’ writer not too different from many online critics. Yet if one is aware of the things that have gone on in film criticism over the last few decades, it is clear that Berardinelli is above and beyond most writers in his ability to get at the core of a film, and stay there. No, he is not a stylist like Roger Ebert, but while Ebert would sometimes get lost in his own reveries, or even fail to tackle a film at sufficient length (see Stardust Memories), Berardinelli has a tendency to — well, to be right, which is an underrated skill in a world where mere opinion, no matter how poorly argued or wrought, indubitably reigns. It is for this reason that Ebert once championed Berardinelli[34] in the same way that he’d later do for Schneider, even as these two critics were in some ways closer to each other than to Ebert. In an interesting aside, Berardinelli was also the subject of one of the longest (and deepest) interviews ever conducted with a film critic, via the “Dan Schneider Interviews” on Cosmoetica.[35] In it, Berardinelli comes off precisely in the way of his reviews: as a ‘populist’ critic who does not preen or bullshit, but merely writes of a given film, and that film’s art. This helps differentiate him quite a bit from other critics, and of his twenty or so reviews of Allen’s work, most of them are spot-on, and put him squarely in the camp of Allen’s ‘champions’ — silly and unfortunate as that phrase will sound to future generations parsing these men’s work.

woody allen james berardinelli

Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a film that James Berardinelli gets right. Image via Deadline Hollywood.

Perhaps the most indicative of the above qualities is James Berardinelli’s review of Manhattan.[36] Like Ebert before him, he does not fall prey to most of the cliches surrounding the film, and even when he gets quite close to calling it a ‘love poem’ or ‘letter’ to the city, he saves things somewhat by opting for the word “valentine” instead. No, this is not some great stylistic breakthrough, but it shows that, at the very least, Berardinelli gives a damn about the craft, even in the smaller moments of switching a familiar word for a slightly different one. The film’s cinematography is praised, and Allen’s love for the city duly noted, but such commonplaces merely serve as the critic’s de facto ‘hooks’, for they lull the reader into being more open to Berardinelli’s deeper (and therefore less familiar) comments on the … Continue reading →

Dan Schneider’s Film Criticism Is The Best In The Biz

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. The full essay can be read on the book’s website.]

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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #2: Dan Schneider

Dan Schneider Cosmoetica

Dan Schneider’s Cosmoetica is one of the most popular arts websites in the world.

It makes sense to pair Roger Ebert alongside Dan Schneider, for while the former is a good writer and primarily emotional, Dan Schneider is a great writer and above all cerebral. In fact, the two critics’ reviews were compared at length on Roger Ebert’s own blog, in a feature that has garnered over 1400 comments to date.[18] This includes an involved look at Stardust Memories vis-a-vis Ebert’s original review, with many commentators ultimately dissenting from Ebert after having read Schneider’s own piece, as it’s been partly responsible for the film’s revitalization among ‘lay’ viewers. Yet one of the more interesting things to come out of the exchange is Ebert’s class compared to other ‘name’ critics before him (such as the inflammatory Pauline Kael), not only in Ebert’s willingness to champion a writer he believed in, but his ability to take criticism from a source he considered quite “fair”, even as his own views remained unchanged. Indeed, for while Ebert concluded that Dan Schneider is an “ideal” critic that “keeps an open mind, approaches each film afresh, and doesn’t always repeat the same judgments”, he merely reiterated the value of emotion — at least for himself — and the judgments he’s made over the years. Yes, it would have been good to see Ebert respond to specific comments he apparently respected, but implicit in the man’s words is that some things, such as one’s leanings and emotions, are immanent, and perhaps even immutable. Perhaps biases (such as Ebert’s self-admitted ones) are ever-present, and aim to nullify what might otherwise be objective in one’s views. But if that is true, Dan Schneider’s work is a corrective, and asks a far more relevant question. Sure, biases are real, and quite dangerous for the arts, to boot, but what if a critic learns to be aware of them, and exercises control over their effects? What if ART is the critic’s main focus? Or communication?

Prior to going any further, I must confess that I’ve known Dan Schneider for several years now, have contributed pieces for his website, Cosmoetica, and give and receive feedback on our respective works. I have also been more influenced by his criticism, poetry, and fiction than any other writer I can think of, and even when I’ve disagreed with him on politics, art, or other subjects (for example, on the strength of Manhattan’s ending; that Ben is one of Crimes’s “losers”; Hannah’s “happy” denouement), the important thing — as Ebert once declared — is that the man is fair, and that his claims are well-argued, diverse, and incredibly consistent. … Continue reading →

Where Ebert Went Wrong: Roger Ebert On Woody Allen

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Roger Ebert Woody Allen

Roger Ebert. Image via Wikipedia.

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. It covers the late Roger Ebert, spans several decades’ of material, and is part of a much longer essay, which can be read in full on the book’s website.]

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What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #1: Roger Ebert

At a time when the Cahiers du Cinema critical style was still in vogue, Roger Ebert approached films in a way that merely ‘stuck to the facts’. Narrative, character, visual poesy, and dialogue were once again paramount — respectable, too — and all else was left to become mere trivia. Thus, from 1967 on, an interesting thing began to happen. On the one hand, Roger Ebert slowly became America’s (if not the world’s) most well-known film critic, replete with a popular column at a major newspaper, television shows, books, interviews, and a distinct cultural presence. Yet his success was often resented, too, by the film-school ‘types’ as this was only further evidence, in their view, of how utterly vacuous popular notions of film really are. Yes, it is intriguing to read of this today, but Ebert, now cushioned by celebrity, acceptance, and death, is a much safer bet than he once was, even as other critics have come and gone by way of fads and cycles. Indeed, for the real problem was not Ebert’s alleged vacuity, but his utter lack of a political or aesthetic ax to grind — a good thing, in fact, for a writer’s longevity, despite what is often claimed. In short, Ebert did not prefer happy or sad movies, democratic or supposedly fascistic ones, films shot via hand-held camera, or ‘plain’ editing as opposed to jump-cuts, and the like. He merely wished that films communicate something of worth through character, narrative, and visuals, which is — oddly enough — the way that most people view film, when they’re not afflicted by the sorts of blinders the more theoretical critics so proudly don. He was, therefore, never part of ‘the club’ (extreme minority though they were), but merely relegated to second-tier status by the very people that had so little idea of art, and none of his writing ability.

So, is Roger Ebert’s struggle with acceptance a David and Goliath story, wherein good trumps evil, and all is finally seen aright? Perhaps, but such a simplistic view obscures not only the facts, as they are, but what makes Ebert’s own views — even some of the wrong-headed views — so unique. On the ‘plus’ side, Ebert could be a wonderful writer, as his great ending to Taxi Driver shows[1], for he was capable of a poesy, insight, and economy that few critics ever have. There are a number of ‘critical’ hits, as well, such as his reviews (and reassessments) of Annie Hall, Manhattan, … Continue reading →

Ray Carney Misinterprets Woody Allen, Again And Again…

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[The following essay is an excerpt from my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, now available via Amazon. It deals with film critic Ray Carney, and is part of a much longer essay, which can be read in full on the book’s website.]

What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen

Critic #6: Ray Carney

Ray Carney Woody Allen

Ray Carney attempts to critique Woody Allen, and flounders horribly. Image via Carney’s personal website.

It is interesting to put Ray Carney into the category of Woody Allen ‘detractors’, since — despite his often sketchy line of argumentation — he is still quite above critics such as Pauline Kael and Jonathan Rosenbaum, for a number of reasons. For one, I am an admirer of his scholarly work, and especially what he’s done to help resuscitate John Cassavetes’s film legacy. Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes, for instance, took eleven years to write, as he had to conduct hundreds of interviews, hunt down obscure documents, and force himself to come to terms with his own perceptions of the artist, as a great filmmaker, versus that of the man, who was moody, sick, and quite dislikable, at times. This, by itself, shears Carney of some biases, and proves that he is at least able to look at things from a fresh perspective, no matter how it might discomfit him. Yet it is really his cogent attacks on Hollywood, film theory, and film criticism that stand out the most, given that he is an academic willing to stake his professional reputation on some unpopular claims. Needless to say, most don’t take any real positions (much less create them, as Carney has sometimes done), and thus belong to far lesser company.

That said, there is a world of difference between scholarly ability and a critical one, and Ray Carney prides himself on both. The former revolves around patience, meticulousness, and being able to digest large amounts of information to get at what’s ‘essential’. The latter talent, however, is quite unpredictable, and no skill-set, college degree, earnestness, knowledge, creativity, or ‘expertise’ will ever guarantee it, much less the ability to replicate these sound judgments, time after time. (This, as I’ve shown, was quite often Ebert’s flaw.) One can, for instance, be a great artist, yet know little of art’s ‘why’. A quick perusal of Shelley’s confused In Defence of Poetry will reveal this,[64] as will the opinions of many artists, big or small, on what art is and how it’s made. In short, one could be intelligent, creative, honest, and a wonderful communicator, to boot, yet still be unable to articulatewhy something works, on a deeper level, while something else does not. And this is really Carney’s problem, as he is a great scholar, and sometimes even quite good when dealing with the generalities of Hollywood, artistic stagnation, and the like, but tends to break down when it comes to more specific critiques of art, itself. He has written, for example, why … Continue reading →