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That Uncertain Feeling

In response to:

Touching Lubitsch from the February 16, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

In the February 16 issue of The New York Review, Rhoda Koenig dismissed my book, Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, for having the quality of “books written for tenure.” If Koenig had less lofty disdain for the mustiness of scholarship, she might be less likely to repeat the misinformation she has cribbed from a book she does not bother to credit. Herman G. Weinberg and his book The Lubitsch Touch are mentioned nowhere in this review and yet they are used everywhere to give the impression of far greater expertise with Lubitsch’s films than Koenig actually possesses. She writes of Forbidden Paradise as if she had seen it, although the film to my knowledge does not exist in any complete print. Her description of the film actually comes out of Weinberg, complete with the mistake of identifying the lead as an “eighteenth-century czarina” and the same false claims for the anachronisms of bobbed hair and a “motorcar” (Weinberg’s word as well as Koenig’s, p. 76 in Weinberg). Lubitsch’s films in this period may have been ahistorical, as I have claimed in my book, but they never flouted history to the extent of plopping an automobile down in the eighteenth century. Koenig’s seemingly authoritative pronouncement on the composition of Lubitsch’s oeuvre (the inclusion of Desire, the exclusion of That Lady in Ermine) is again based on mistaken information from Weinberg, and again uncredited. (Like Weinberg, she appears totally ignorant of A Royal Scandal although Lubitsch directed the rehearsals of the film, which makes it far more a Lubitsch film than Desire.) Finally, when Koenig writes of a Lubitsch film not in the Samson Raphaelson book or not discussed in my book, her citation of lines of dialogue or individual scenes are almost always the same as in the Weinberg book.

While Koenig seems quite anxious to set herself apart from the ideas of my book with two extended quibbles over points of local interpretation, she bases much of the review on my ideas, unacknowledged in all but one case. Given the dismissive way in which she presents the book’s ideas (“Its few insights…”) I find it particularly offensive that she almost never identifies those insights or credits them. Towards the end of the review she writes, “Paul works too hard to shoehorn Lubitsch’s films into his thesis,” yet she has not once indicated what that thesis might be. With good reason, I suppose, for to have stated any thesis would have exposed how much she derived from the book.

Koenig’s eye is well focused on what she might gather from others and present as her own, but otherwise her reading skills do not appear to be those of the highest order. In the middle of a discussion of To Be Or Not To Be she complains, “For all his historical-contemporary analyzing, Paul never tells us if a movie or performance is any good.” Never? As a matter of fact, my chapter on To Be Or Not To Be begins with an analysis of the film’s distinctive comic method as a source of the film’s “complexity” and “brilliance,” two nouns that should make my high regard for the film clear to even a dull reader. In her haste to elevate opinion over analysis, Koenig seems to miss the connection between the two.

On matters of style she is similarly inattentive. She rejects my prose by using the following sentence as an example: “As I look at developments in Lubitsch’s career I must necessarily consider the various contexts, historical and contemporary, in which each film appeared.” Given the chance, I could come up with a half dozen far knottier sentences, but that’s because I have quoted my offending sentence merely as it appears in the book. Koenig’s review magically transforms it: ” ‘I must necessarily consider the various contexts, historical and contemporary (tragical-comical-pastoral), in which each film appeared,’ Professor Paul announces, tapping his pointer….” With a queenly indifference to the actual text, Koenig truncates the sentence, giving no indication that she has done so. And if what now seems a misplaced and pedantic adverb doesn’t make the prose plonk sufficiently, she confusingly interpolates some words of Polonius to render the whole thing nearly unreadable. There is plenty of sarcasm here, but it ducks the responsibility for any real analysis of style. Sarcasm seems a favored mode of response for Koenig throughout the review precisely because it pre-empts thought.

Naturally I would have preferred a more favorable review of my book, but had Koenig’s criticism appeared in her home magazine, I would not have considered it worth the reply. As a long-time reader of The New York Review, I felt impelled to write in this instance because of the low status generally given film in your magazine. I find it hard to imagine your publishing a review quite like this on a major literary figure. Ignorance parading as insight and opinion elevated over analysis are common enough in film criticism, alas, but the thoroughgoing anti-intellectualism underlying Koenig’s piece strikes me as directly at odds with most of the writing in The New York Review. Film can and should be treated with the same knowledgeability and intelligence usually accorded literary works.

William Paul

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Rhoda Koenig replies:

Since I wanted to give some information about Lubitsch’s life that did not appear in Professor Paul’s book, I took it from another book. How else should I have got those facts—mindreading? Professor Paul apparently likes to practice that art—witness his most scholarly pronouncement on what I do and don’t know—but I’ll stick with books, thanks. The professor’s arithmetic is also a bit paranoid—the facts I mentioned take up less than one paragraph in my piece; I really don’t think “everywhere” is an accurate statement of this. Of the citations and descriptions he refers to, one out of three (a single line of dialogue) appears in Weinberg—and also, incidentally, in my memory, from my own viewing of the film. Again, I don’t call one out of three “almost always the same.”

Yes, I summarized much of the material in Paul’s book—the usual practice in book reviews. I’m sorry if he thinks he’s been gypped, but it’s not the usual practice to put such identifying phrases as “The author says” or “The author’s idea is” before every sentence. Once more, he has his own system of counting. I did, in fact, credit his observations several times; Paul remembers only one, though, because it’s the only one that I said made any sense.

I shortened Paul’s sentence out of regard for the rhythm of my own, not because I wished to deprive readers of its beautiful introductory phrase; in doing so, I followed the commonly accepted Chicago Manual of Style rules on punctuation. I said that Paul never tells us if anything is good because, to him, everything in every Lubitsch film he discusses is good or complex or brilliant, making these judgments meaningless.

I am sorry if Professor Paul is confused by my comparison with Polonius. But I think that rather proves my point.

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