I suppose more nonsense, engaging and otherwise, has been written about films than about any other medium. And I mean written by the serious critic. Here’s Seymour Stern thundering somewhere in the Thirties: “Twenty years after Birth of a Nation, nineteen years after Intolerance, and ten after Potemkin, the cinema as a fine art, in every country of the world, presents a picture of absolute bankruptcy.” In passing, Stern pulverized Murnan’s Sunrise, Lubitsch’s “bits of persiflage,” the “absurdly overrated” René Clair, and such sports as Mervyn LeRoy, George Cukor, and King Vidor, whose “style” Stern considered about as profound as that of Mary Roberts Rinchart.
What’s interesting is not to smirk over any supposed lapse in taste, nor to suggest that Stern put money on the wrong horse (after all everyone still pays homage to the films of Griffith or Eisenstein, even if, as is usually the case, they’ve never seen them), but simply to wonder, from the vantage point of today, why he didn’t pick the whole stable. For with many a cinéaste, a galloping nostalgia is the thing, and just about any trotter, especially if it’s trotting in from the Thirties or the Forties, can be assured some laurel at the finish. In the past, from John Grierson to Dwight Macdonald, it was beneath contempt to have anything but contempt for the ostrich-feathered hocus-pocus Dietrich wandered through under Josef von Sternberg’s direction. Yet these very films (which the unfailing Stern called “pretentious vacuities”) are now the objects of a transatlantic cult. Over the summer both Cahiers du Cinéma and Movie offered devotional spreads, and it’s rumored that parts of Last Year at Marienbad owe something to Blonde Venus, or perhaps to The Devil is a Woman. Well, Dietrich is Dietrich, class is class.
Still, there are other spectacles. The revival, for example, of Maria Montez, that sleepy charmer of Universal’s back-lot Sahara. In the catacombs of the underground enthusiast, the late star’s immortality rites solemnly proceed, with Film Culture, no less, assisting at the organ. Then there are the grind-house directors (Phil Karlson, Anthony Mann), whom Manny Farber, writing in Commentary in the late Fifties, rated a little below Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, those “true masters” of the male action pic. To pump them, Farber not only deflated the “liberal schmaltz” of The Best Years of Our Lives (well worth doing), but also the “water buffalo” sloshings of De Sica or Zinnemann. Even amongst the chosen, Farber made distinctions. For such “overweighted mistakes” as G. I. Joe, William Wellman was slapped; for some trinket—say, Roxie Hart, a Ginger Rogers number he tossed off in the Forties—Wellman was applauded.
Or take another category: the varying fortunes of the art house idol. L’Avventura (surely one of the great films) caused consternation at Cannes and, until the “word” spread, a general apathy elsewhere. Yet as Antonioni’s magic progressively dimmed (first with La Notte, then with …