A film is like a soil sample. It tells you about the time it was made through its sets and dialogue, through who is acting and who didn’t get the part. Films remain in their time and thought of in our time as classics or trash, dated or modern, relevant or unwatchable. Of course, all this is as subjective as what you taste in a glass of wine. Much has been written about the cinema screen being primal because what we see is larger than life, the images looming over us as though we were infants in a cradle or beings in a cave watching shadows dance on the walls. The twentieth century was all about the movies. Our obsession with screens turned on has been amplified to a fever pitch. We can’t walk out of a theatre into a blustery day with only our thoughts of what we just experienced. The screen travels with us and moves our thoughts from ding to ding. What once was believable on screen, has turned to distrust for the screen. We always knew we were being manipulated by the gags, the romances, and the speeches, but they were on a human level, made by hand and mind. Diane Keaton’s coffee stained teeth with gold caps in Baby Boom (1987) wouldn’t have made it in the twenty-first century. Her teeth look like most of our teeth. There is something real about them because they are real. Films have always distorted reality or shown a different reality to escape to. What one watches as a kid stays with them like a recipe one doesn’t need the written instructions for anymore. Though most TV shows today are about the past, never before have we lived in a time so focused on the future. Most of what we remember about the past comes from the movies. All the more reason to watch films that began in the beginning. The earliest films document life as it had been lived for millenia. They are documents of change, of technology taking over, of trains cutting paths through places only people on foot and horseback had traveled. Whatever one loves most one thinks everyone should study. Like the gym or math teacher in my high school who thought their subject was the most useful in adulthood. Films like wine are entertaining and intellectual. They satisfy you and make you think. Or they taste like apple juice or vinegar and get dumped in the sink.
As films were being made, so were professions. Ingredients were needed, cameramen, gaffers, actors, seamstresses, location scouters, directors, financers, and cinema-goers. Enter the film critic. Each with their own idea on how to watch and write about film. In his author’s preface of, The Immediate Experience (1962), Robert Warshow explains his motivation for connecting culture and film, his example, T.S. Elliot’s poetry and Humphrey Bogart’s style, “To define that connection seems to me one of the tasks of film criticism, and the definition must be first of all a personal one. A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” Warshow died in 1955 at the age of 37 of an aneurysm the day after he received a letter from The New Yorker asking him to write for them. If one cares about film, Robert Warshow is a name dear and close. His writing is the connecting tissue between sight and understanding.
Otis Feguson wrote earlier than Robert Warshow. Ferguson also died at the age of 37, killed in WWII while serving in the Navy. The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson was published in 1971 with a preface by Edmund Wilson. Warshow’s book had an introduction by Lionel Trilling. They wrote about film when film was a large part of American culture. Films weren’t in the home but outside in the world. One couldn’t watch alone but had to watch alongside others in the dark, accompanied by sounds on the screen and sounds from the audience. Walking out into the sunshine or the cold night one walked out with others. Today we roll over into a more comfortable position to watch the next thing in our queue.
Some films, directors and actors are recognized like famous streets, national dishes, presidents, or countries who are friends or foes. Lines from the Marx Brothers have been passed around the table like a plate of mashed potatoes. “Hello I must be going,” Groucho declared making his entrance. Ferguson reviewed the Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera (1935) for The New Republic. Mostly he wasn’t impressed, “In terms of rhyme, reason, good taste and formal plot structure, A Night at the Opera is a sieve, a leaky ship, and culled to the guards with hokum. It has three of the Marx Brothers and absolutely no pride. It seems thrown together, made up just as they went along out of everybody else’s own head--it steals sequences from Rene Clair, it drives off with whole wagonloads of the Keystone lot without so much as putting the fence back up.” Ferguson writes like how beaujolais nouveau is talked about in some circles, yet drunk just the same because of tradition. Ferguson describes the film in visual terms; that is his brilliance. What he saw he wrote, and what we read by him we see. Ferguson didn’t dismiss A Night at the Opera; he was able to pick the film apart and write like this, “They are very much like somebody exploding a blown-up paper bag--all bang and no taste; but they are irrepressible clowns with a great sense of the ridiculous. They tear into it by guess and by god, they rush through it as though it were meat and they starving; their assurance, appetite, and vitality are supreme; they are both great and awful.”
In his review Ferguson wrote of laughing a great deal throughout the film. In Groucho’s stateroom, different professions pile in one after the other all searching for each other, “In the good spots the action is kept swift and disentangled, evenly spaced and in clear relief.” There was more than one writer of A Night at the Opera. George S. Kaufman, a character in his own right, known as “the gloomy dean of humor” and Morrie Ryskind were aided by Al Boasberg who wrote the stateroom scene. He famously cut it up and glued it to the ceiling. The Marx Brothers and the director Sam Wood quickly collected the strips and pasted them back together. Boasberg was known in Hollywood as an eccentric genius. He was called to doctor most scripts, punching them up with his wit. In 1936, the day after Jack Benny offered him $1500 a week to be on call for “The Jack Benny Show,” Boasberg died at home at the age of 45.
Film is one of those things you can’t get away from. It is a reflection; good films don’t flatter. Films are like wine in the way that Clifton Fadiman wrote about the juicy fruit in his essay, Brief History of a Love Affair (1957), “Name me any liquid--except our own blood--that flows more intimately and incessantly through the labyrinth of symbols we have conceived to mark our status as human beings, from the rudest peasant festival to the mystery of the Eucharist. To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.” True, the movies haven’t been around as long as wine, but entertaining ourselves and others has. Reading about the movies adds depth and flavor, dimension, and location.
My earliest memory of watching a film is the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera. That film has permeated my being. Groucho introducing Mrs. Claypoole to Mr. Gottlieb, “I could go on all night,” Harpo and Chico mopping up their plates of pasta with thick slices of bread, Harpo playing the harp to the delight of the steerage class. I have never seen or heard someone play a harp, but I can close my eyes and hear him playing anytime I want. Movies do that. It’s not so much their perceived greatness or what other people think about them but how they make you feel while watching and absorbing them. You are what you eat and drink, you are what you watch and read. We consume food and film as a whole; the experience stays with us in bits and pieces. The line in Fergusons’ review of A Night at the Opera that sticks most with me is, “Their picture is done the minute it fades on the screen. But the boys themselves are still with us,” I think I am reading differently than how he must have written it. Or maybe my interpretation is what he meant.