Thursday, June 27, 2013

Graham Greene as Film Critic

Graham Greene was certainly one of the finest novelists of 20th century, and yet there's a lot more in his cannon than fiction. He played around with verse, was a wartime reporter, wrote travel books, was a screenwriter, and perhaps most interesting of all was his bout as a film critic. He wrote reviews from about 1934 until 1939, loving the cinema during those years but ultimately by the end growing tired of it.

I've been reading much of his criticism of late and I find myself kind of loving it. He's harsh and cruel towards any movie he feels, and yet he's also eager to praise, especially those movies that fulfill this wonderful little maxim of his:

"Life as it is and life as it ought to be: Let us take that as the only true subject for a film and consider to what extent the cinema is fulfilling its proper function."

Reading this, it becomes clear why Greene disliked Hitchcock (of course, we only know what he thought of his early British work, though I imagine the move to America would not have fostered much of a change in opinion), or why he gave a bad review to The Petrified Forest, a film I for the most part like quite a bit. Of that film, Greene writes: "There is good dramatic material here, but Mr. Sherwood doesn't see his play as certain things happening, but as ideas being expressed, "significant" cosmic ideas." Greene goes on to criticize the logic behind Leslie Howard's sacrifice (which I would agree with, though I won't mention it if you haven't seen the film), and then ties in a brilliant Othello reference in his attempt to laugh at the movie's pseudo-philisophical ambitions. 

It's also fun to see what Greene thought of more classic material, like The Wizard of Oz. He actually liked it, but he didn't see it as anything more than a breezy entertainment, though of the technicolor he said it's "no more dreadful than the illustrations to most children's books." In reviews like this, Greene definitely comes across as a pretentious critic, yet his writing is so good and his reasoning so sound that I generally embrace him a lot more than others who have earned that same title. Back to Oz, it's interesting that later in his review Greene writes: "The whole picture is incredibly lavish, and there's a lot of pleasure to be got these days from watching money spent on other things than war." A quote like this, or when Greene later complains that the censors believed the movie suitable only for adults, remind us of the passage of history. Something like The Wizard of Oz would have been a completely different experience in 1939, greater because it was new and unprecedented, but lesser because there was no culture to back it. 

I wish Greene hadn't lost his love of film, though based on the cynicism found in his reviews it's no surprise he did. But I think he would have benefited greatly if he were reviewing in a different time. I'd love to see what he thought of Bresson or the Dardenne Brothers, the French New Wave or John Cassavettes and the American independent movement. Because as strong as the 1930s were, they were also the decade that Shirley Temple became a massive star because the censors found her to be safe and innocent. Greene's cinematic ideals were for the most part incompatible with the austerity of 1930s moviemaking. 

But the reviews are definitely worth reading. In terms of style, his criticism is unlike any I've read. Like all his writing, he presents his ideas with deft clarity, wit, and biting honesty. And in an age like today when the majority of online criticism is banal and by-the-book, he should be read simply as an example of how the structure of a movie review often overshadows the opinion of the critic. 

The collection of reviews is available on Amazon. 

No comments: