Milking the Elk

America in the Movies

by Michael Wood
Basic Books, 206 pp., $10.00

The Men Who Made the Movies

by Richard Schickel
Atheneum, 308 pp., $12.95

The Silent Clowns

by Walter Kerr
Knopf, 371 pp., $17.95

Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton; drawing by David Levine

“In what sense does the US lead the world in movies? We make more of them than any other country and are I suppose more proficient technically, but have we ever turned out anything that was comparable artistically to the best German or Russian films?…The idea of establishing and exploiting the lowest common denominator of audiences has finally killed the movies.”

Thus, Edmund Wilson in 1937—little realizing that auteurs were already turning out genre movies for future cinéstes. Ah, what a difference a few French words can make. Within a few years, the French New Wave were poring over the junk Wilson describes and, unhampered by English, finding gems, masterpieces after the fact.

The Anglo-American mind is traditionally pole-axed by French approval, however bizarre. And in no time words which not only Wilson but the directors themselves would have considered pretentious and wrong were the coin for discussing Hollywood, with Louella Parsons all but forgotten.

Not a bad thing. Our nonvisual intellectuals had certainly missed a trick or two, if the best of them could dismiss technical proficiency so lightly. But the revisionists could not stop with the pretty pictures and fine individual scenes: they had to find dramatic and narrative virtues that had eluded even the wide-ranging Wilson. And to do this, they had further to fashion a theory of “movieness” so self-enclosed that no previous aesthetic could touch it. Only on these terms could they have their Golden Age.

The auteurist wars ended in exhaustion a few years back. But they left a legacy of assumptions about Hollywood that both sides now seem to accept. For instance, to a purist, Michael Wood would seem like a natural enemy: what can a flippant English professor of literature know of movieness? Yet at the outset of his funny book America in the Movies, Wood invokes the magic word “style” as an auteurist would, to elevate whatever he wishes. After reciting a catalogue of movie nonsense from the old days, compounded of silly lines and inane plotting, he says it was exactly “right” for the period. Because of Style. He quickly adds that the same sort of thing is dead wrong in Cleopatra (1963), when apparently America had come of age.

This contribution to Age of Innocence theory would come as news to the survivors, who thought the nonsense was just as bad then as it is now, although time may have lent it quaintness. The witness from those years is overwhelming, and not just from snobbish intellectuals and sourball novelists. Dwight Macdonald, in his young dandy period, wrote about movies brilliantly in the late Twenties, but sat out the Whole Golden Age in protest; and if Macdonald is too verbal for you, consider Walter Kerr, a highly visual critic steeped in silent movies, who turned his back on the talkies to find more nourishment in, God help us, the Broadway stage.…

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