It's Only a Movie!

It's Only a Movie!: Films and Critics in American Culture

Raymond J. Haberski
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130jsbv
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    It's Only a Movie!
    Book Description:

    Once derided as senseless entertainment, movies have gradually assumed a place among the arts. Raymond Haberski's provocative and insightful book traces the trajectory of this evolution throughout the twentieth century, from nickelodeon amusements to the age of the financial blockbuster.

    Haberski begins by looking at the barriers to film's acceptance as an art form, including the Chicago Motion Picture Commission hearings of 1918--1920, one of the most revealing confrontations over the use of censorship in the motion picture industry. He then examines how movies overcame the stigma attached to popular entertainment through such watershed events as the creation of the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library in the 1920s.

    The arguments between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris's heralded a golden age of criticism, and Haberski focuses on the roles of Kael, Sarris, James Agee, Roger Ebert, and others, in the creation of "cinephilia." Described by Susan Sontag as "born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other," this love of cinema centered on coffee houses, universities, art theaters, film festivals, and, of course, foreign films.

    The lively debates over the place of movies in American culture began to wane in the 1970s. Haberski places the blame on the loss of cultural authority and on the increasing irrelevance of the meaning of art. He concludes with a persuasive call for the re-emergence of a middle ground between art and entertainment, "something more complex, ambiguous, and vexing -- something worth thought."

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5899-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Recently something remarkable has happened to a number of America’s foremost movie critics: they are in near unanimous agreement. They all believe that the movies are in a state of crisis. Not a financial crisis, but, more shockingly, a spiritual crisis. Among the leading exponents of this view are Susan Sontag, Richard Schickel, David Denby, Stanley Kauffmann, and Roger Ebert. Each has weighed in with print pieces lamenting the “decay of cinema,” “the death of cinephilia,” the loss of “film culture,” and, in general, the waning power of critics to inspire moviegoers. The reasons these critics are concerned about the...

  5. 1 Amusement or Art?
    (pp. 9-32)

    On an evening in 1915 in Knoxville, Tennessee, a fictional little boy named Rufus took a walk with his father to see a picture show. The details of this short journey open James Agee’s extraordinary narrative on loss and living entitledA Death in the Family. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Agee in 1958, three years after the author’s death. The story was also made into a play and, fittingly, a movie.

    Agee conveyed in much of his work the nobility of being humble and ordinary. While film scholars today attempt to fit commonplace occurrences into large methodological...

  6. 2 Menace or Art?
    (pp. 33-47)

    During the late 1910s the motion picture industry began to take shape as a powerful commercial force. The first industry magnates—the Warner brothers, Marcus Loew, Samuel Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer—intended to expand studio operations to keep the seats filled in their newly constructed theaters. Movie budgets also swelled in order to produce more elaborate pictures and to attend to the growing stables of high-paid actors and actresses. A “star culture” flourished as the onscreen performances of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks made people laugh, sigh, and swoon. But the fascination with money also kept people...

  7. 3 Forging a Mainstream Movie Aesthetic
    (pp. 48-62)

    Among the most promising informal channels for influencing the public’s relationship with movies was the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures (NBR). The NBR was founded in 1909 in New York City as a way for the movie industry to defend against prior censorship, and saw its role as being a mediator between the film industry and the public. From 1909 through the mid-1920s, the movie industry submitted thousands of films to the board for its review and approval.¹ The industry imagined that this arrangement would satisfy all concerned with movie content. The NBR believed that its policy of...

  8. 4 Dreiser versus Hollywood
    (pp. 63-80)

    In 1941, at the end of the Great Depression, Preston Sturges made a movie entitledSullivan’s Travels. The picture was ostensibly a romantic comedy staring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. McCrea plays a wealthy and popular movie director named Sullivan who is wracked with guilt because he makes seemingly inconsequential Hollywood pictures. While the rest of the nation contends with the harsh reality of the depression, Sullivan pumps out box office hits filled with fantasy and humor. Having failed to address the great dilemma of the day, Sullivan decides to become socially conscious.

    In order to empathize with the desperate...

  9. 5 Movies into Art
    (pp. 81-101)

    Museums tell us what art is, right? The paintings, sculpture, and exhibits inside large, ornate, imposing buildings help us identify what is significant to our culture. Facilitating that process are the experts who choose pieces for museums, place each piece in the history of art, and, through such work, create a set of standards that we can apply to other cultural expressions. Through the early 1930s, most people understood why a painting by Rembrandt was high art and a Charlie Chaplin movie was popular culture. The painting was a significant landmark in Western culture; the movie was an important source...

  10. 6 A Certain Tendency in Film Criticism
    (pp. 102-121)

    In 1932, Norman Wilson, founder of a new film journal calledCinema Quarterly, insisted “there is an intelligent cinema audience sufficiently large to support films of the highest artistic standard if they are given the benefit of the commercial resources that are placed behind any other type of picture.” His journal spoke to moviegoers who “have come to realise the potentialities of the cinema as a medium of expression with greater range and depth than any of the other arts.” A significant faction of that audience also generally despised Hollywood. “In the fullness of life,” Wilson argued, “there is abundance...

  11. 7 Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and the Duel for the Soul of Criticism
    (pp. 122-143)

    American essayist Phillip Lopate remembers that as a nineteen-year-old student his passion for films ran very strong. In 1963 he agreed to run a film society at Columbia University and needed a way to justify his selections to a crowd of cinema enthusiasts. Lopate discovered his holy grail in the work of film critic Andrew Sarris. Sarris “seemed to cherish movies because they spoke to one’s half-buried desires,” Lopate recalls fondly, “but then cherished most those with an ‘adult’ (one of Sarris’s favorite words) perspective, which acknowledged the necessity for sacrifice, whether gallant or otherwise.” Sarris was gallant and Lopate...

  12. 8 The First New York Film Festival and the Heroic Age of Moviegoing
    (pp. 144-164)

    In February 1962, Jonas Mekas, the fiery editor ofFilm Cultureand dean of New York City’s experimental filmmakers, observed in hisVillage Voicecolumn a significant confluence in the moving picture world. Opening within a week and no more than a block away from each other wereLa NotteandLast Year in Marienbad. The first was from Michelangelo Antonioni, an Italian director who had won international fame the previous year forL’Avventura. The second film was from Alain Resnais, a French director who, with his 1960 pictureHiroshima mon amour, had become even more of a darling than...

  13. 9 The Film Generation Goes to School
    (pp. 165-182)

    In his article entitled “The Film Generation,” Stanley Kauffmann attempted to assess the phenomenon of a “generation that has matured in a culture in which the film has been accepted with serious relevance, however that seriousness is defined.” He argued that as young people broke free from traditional cultural authority, they encountered a world that afforded them opportunities not previously available. Phillip Lopate has suggested that his generation “had no real perspective, which is why we called on movies to be our language and our knowledge, our hope, our romance, our imagination and our life.” But, as Kauffmann observed, that...

  14. 10 Whither Criticism?
    (pp. 183-192)

    Penelope Gilliatt, a critic who split reviewing duties at theNew Yorkerwith Pauline Kael, recognized that by the late 1960s and early 1970s being “filmic is always groovy.” But, she asked, “Does anyone else have fatal visions of carefully educated people getting more and more groovy and less and less intelligent?”¹

    Gilliatt also clearly shared Kael’s misgivings over the attitude of the film generation. As pithy as Gilliatt’s observation might seem, she hinted at a paradox of that era. Although movies had accumulated cultural capital, that development had happened at the expense of more traditional notions of art and...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 193-214)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 215-240)
  17. Index
    (pp. 241-250)