Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor (and national editor) of The Atlantic. As I’ve written before, his tastes tend toward the obscure. Which is fine. We need that. But what really sets him apart—what really gets me excited—is the way he wields his critical authority like a bullwhip, subduing his charges with alliterative adjectives & sweeping conclusions.
Consider a few examples from this month’s epic, four-page consideration of American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate and published by Library of America.
Writes Schwarz in typical fashion: Arlene Croce’s “slim, elegant 1972 The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book is simply one of the best volumes about film ever published.” We are not given much in the way of why, or what the ramifications of such a gavel-pounding judgment might be, but that’s OK. We, the drooling & ignorant, are expected to take comfort in the fact that Schwarz has actually read this stuff.
And we do. Critical apparatus be damned! Context? Screw you! This kind of reviewing is about raw authority. And I love to be dominated.
David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film, meanwhile, is “audacious and addictive.” All the more impressive, then, that Lopate “chooses from Thomson’s thousand entries the two finest.” Side Note: Schwarz is not at all jealous about other critics’ absurdly authoritative claims, at least so long as he approves of them. For example, he quotes Thomson’s assertion that Cary Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.”
Could you imagine a world where anyone could possibly disagree with such a statement? This review can’t.
Schwarz pronounces Richard Corliss’s essay on Robert Altman to be a “responsibly contrarian evisceration of Robert Altman’s grossly overrated, mean-spirited, and cheaply hip M*A*S*H.” It would take a bored academic a month to unpack all the unexplored arguments in that one sentence. What, for instance, is the definition of “responsibly contrarian”? Where is the line between grossly overrated and merely overrated? Or, for that matter, where is the line between hip and cheaply hip?
This review is like an hour on the couch: We now know so much about what Benjamin Schwarz feels. But what on earth does he mean exactly?
Vincent Canby, the former longtime New York Times film reviewer, was “wryly incisive,” says Schwarz firmly. But then he trips up, arguing that Canby was “sometimes unfairly regarded by the relentlessly modish as something of a fuddy-duddy.” Relentlessly, fine. But sometimes? Something of a fuddy-duddy? This kind of hedging makes me nervous. Schwarz quickly returns to form, though, when he approves of Lopate “pronouncing him (Canby) the best daily reviewer this country has ever produced.”
OK. Much better. Then, just to let us know he’s back, he slips into the same sentence a couple jabs at Easy Rider (“trite and smug”).
Roger Ebert is “winsome and wise.”
Andrew Sarris is “Achesonian.”
Joan Didion’s “two greatest pieces on film” are . . . oh, who cares?
Otis Ferguson “rates among the five greatest American film critics.” His take on James Cagney? The “best appraisal of the actor ever written.” (Surely Schwarz has read them all.) Ferguson also managed to explain the Hollywood studio style “more clearly and engagingly than any critic before or since.”
Pauline Kael, finally, is just . . . I don’t know . . . awesome?
By the end, Schwarz’s victory is absolute. Whip me, Ben! Whip me with your adjectives!
IMAGE: Bettie Page