A Complete History of American Film Criticism

By Slatton, Anne | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

A Complete History of American Film Criticism


Slatton, Anne, Journal of Film and Video


A COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM Jerry Roberts. Los Angeles: Santa Monica Press, 2010, 480 pp.

Published in a time when newspapers are in decline and most film criticism is relegated to online sources, Jerry Roberts's A Complete History of American Film Criticism intends to be a narrative history of the profession, although it might be more aptly described as a eulogy. Although critics may immediately be put off by the title-Complete History tends to set off warning bells for readers wary of the media's exaggeration-Roberts states that he has written his history for committed moviegoers or passionate movie buffs, not academics. He has attempted to create a roadmap to place film criticism within film history, tracing the rise and fall of the profession from its beginnings in the early 1900s to its heyday in the 1960s and 70s to the current contraction of the field. This chronological perspective serves as a framework to place important critics in the context of their publications, focusing on large circulation papers in major metropolitan cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), influential dailies, and alternative weeklies.

Although the chronological organization of the book may prove useful as a starting point for people interested in the subject, one of the problems with this "narrative history" is that it often feels encyclopedic, reading more like a who, what, and where than a why-that is, why a particular critic was influential in shaping public opinion or changing Hollywood habits. Roberts admirably attempts to organize more than one hundred years of information from disparate sources; however, with average chapter lengths of ninety pages and no subheadings, at times the reader feels overwhelmed. When you add to that pages filled with paragraph- length sentences listing reviewers and their publications, certain sections become almost unbearable for a scholar, let alone an average film buff.

The style of The Complete History of American Film Criticism is also strangely inconsistent, vacillating between dry facts, engaging stories, and glib turns of phrase-his reference to Vachel Lindsay's writings as "pure corn pone" comes to mind. Roberts is at his best when he is putting critics and their insights into historical context. He has amassed some amazing quotes and provided juicy anecdotes about famous film rivalries among critics over time; his accounts of the battles between the critics and studios (Crist vs. Twentieth Century Fox), between critics and filmmakers (Kael vs. Orson Welles), and between critics themselves (Kael vs. Sarris) are a fascinating read. Unfortunately, although he has a twenty-page bibliography, the lack of footnotes or endnotes throughout the text is troubling because it is unclear whether he is quoting primary or secondary sources. Ironically, Roberts includes this quote about Leonard Maltin's writing: "the author has researched his work with such diligence that he establishes a standard that will be difficult for most writers to meet" (291). Apparently, Roberts did not wish to try.

Each chapter provides a basic film history backdrop and then incorporates mini-biographies of the major critics of the time period, placed within the chronological framework to function as a biography of the profession. "The Beginnings: The Silent Era" focuses on the burgeoning growth of the industry and the rise of its new opinion-makers in New York. Roberts follows the initial flurry of criticism in the 1920s in newspapers and magazines to its establishment on a more permanent basis in regularly circulated periodicals. He credits the reviews of such critics as Frank S. Woods, Gilbert Seldes, and Robert Sherwood with improving the film industry during its silent era. His description of the unification of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures is important given that it details early stands against censorship.

In "The Sound Era," Roberts points out that film criticism was not established as a firm vocation in the 1930s and that film critics were certainly not considered to be on par with critics who covered theater, literature, or the arts. …

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