Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Film blanc

Why do movies — or, at a further remove, books about movies — provoke critics into writing the most ridiculous tosh? Philip French, in the Times Literary Supplement, reviews a book about film noir by Edward Dimendberg. First, French gives Dimendberg the lash for name dropping:
Dimendberg is capable of going for seventeen pages talking about architects, designers and theorists such as Lewis Mumford, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Siegfried Giedion [heard of him? Me neither. Dimendberg scores 5 points] and Norman Bel Geddes without mentioning a single movie.
Now French sees him and raises him:
He even ignores the fact that Bel Geddes’s daughter Barbara appeared in such noir classics as The Long Night, directed by Anatole Litvak, Max Ophuls’s Caught, Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Wait! I can go him one better:
French unaccountably fails to note that Barbara Bel Geddes played trumpeter Red Nichols's wife in The Five Pennies, which, while not strictly a film noir, benefited from the underlying tension and slightly sublimated angst that Bel Geddes developed to a high pitch in her noir roles. Her expression of fear and vertigo when Nichols, played strictly for musical and comic values by Danny Kaye, cracks a high G note, hints at the psychological subtext, and would not have been possible had she not apprenticed in films in which her teeth, revealed in a limpid smile, cast lengthy shadows on crooked staircases.
Uh-oh. French tosses down his ace:
Still, there is much of value in Dimendberg’s book, including nuggets such as the suggestive notion that the recurrence of figures falling to their deaths from high-rise buildings is an instance of “Bernd Jager’s assertion that falling entails a loss of lived space”.
Lord love a duck! That would have gone right by me.

My own rather simplistic notion of film criticism is that the only things worth writing about are:

1. Dialogue. If you read it on the page, would it be worth the wear and tear on your glasses?

2. Acting. Is there any that rises above the routinely competent?

3. Cinematography: Is there anything out of the ordinary, and if so, does it help or hurt the movie?

4. (Once in a while) Direction. Does the director have any ideas, and if so, do they help or hurt the movie?

Now of course, if we're talking about Jean Renoir — son of the painter, you know — who had a son, who had a daughter who …

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