Monday, April 12, 2010

The Complete History of American Film Criticism by Jerry Roberts

For almost as long as people have been making movies, other people have been commenting on them publicly. The talk began with Thomas Edison's kinetescope and other moving picture devices. Though finding the very first movie review is now impossible, critic and columnist Jerry Roberts carries us back to the early days of film journalism in the opening chapter of The Complete History of American Film Criticism, a fact-filled volume that identifies film critics and the movies they reviewed by era.

What quickly becomes apparent to the reader of Robert's book is that modern issues of film criticism have not changed all that much since the beginning. People wanted to know whether movies were well made and told good stories. They sought honest reviewers who spoke independently, free of obligations to film makers, but some early critics broke that trust, becoming cozy with the new industry from which they sought jobs as writers, directors, and producers. The influence issue survives into the twenty-first century when film companies offer critics all-expense-paid travel to attend special viewings of their upcoming blockbusters. The fear that films could corrupt morals also rose in the early days of film. A few critics stood up early for free speech rights.

I found several things that Roberts says quite enlightening. He warns students against trying to judge the state of film criticism in the early years by looking at the New York Times; he says that its editors paid scant attention to the new media and more on the established New York theater scene; other newspapers, magazines, and industry journals pioneered film criticism. Also, because early films were sometimes shown during vaudeville performances, film comments are buried in newspapers' music hall stories. The study of early film is made more difficult because many of the reviews and the films themselves have disappeared.

As the eras progress chapter by chapter, The Complete History of American Film Criticism identifies and profiles major critics, including Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Pauline Kael, and Gene Siskel. Some get ten to twenty pages in this mostly chronological history. Its author follows the critics from newspapers to radio and television and then onto the Internet. Readers will also discover the films that generated the most comments of their time. Larger public libraries and colleges with film studies will want to add this lively and well researched history.

Roberts, Jerry. The Complete History of American Film Criticism. Santa Monica Press, 2010. ISBN 9781595800497.

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