Phillip Lopate's reputation in American letters resides primarily in his championing of the personal essay, both as an editor (The Art of the Personal Essay
, The Anchor Essay Annual
) and as a writer (Against Joie de Vivre
, Portrait of My Body
). So it might seem odd, at first, to imagine him as a film critic--but as his thoughtful considerations of Pauline Kael
and Andrew Sarris
demonstrate, the movies are as likely a subject for a skilled essayist's reflection as any other. Like his favorite critics, "I have sought out," Lopate writes, "precisely those films that would take me to a place where the uncanny, the sublime, the tragic, the ecstatic, the beautifully resigned, all converge."
These are not, then, so much reviews--although Lopate happily discusses the strengths and weaknesses of his chosen films--as they are meditations. In his best pieces, such as his essays on Godard's Contempt (the film from which this collection derives its title) and Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, Lopate performs extended readings that tease out the richness of the films' texts with delicate intricacy. But this artful approach can only be carried so far--not even Lopate can quite redeem Jerry Lewis's Three on a Couch, which the most ardent Lewis fans acknowledge as a lesser work, no matter how earnestly he probes it for Freudian subtext. Folks who simply want to enjoy the movies may find the high culture assumptions of Totally, Tenderly, Tragically, including Lopate's overwhelming emphasis on foreign directors, a bit much, but if even one reader is inspired to seek out a film by Luchino Visconti, Kenji Mizoguchi, or Yazujiro Ozu on the basis of the descriptions herein, Lopate's efforts at conveying the artistic value of film will have been a success. --Ron Hogan
From Publishers Weekly
Best known as a personal essayist par excellence, Lopate (Portrait of My Body) is an inveterate film buff who, by his count, has spent more than 50,000 hours watching movies?and, it would seem, many more writing about them. This mixed collection is a cross section of that writing, from a dead-earnest review of the first New York Film Festival in 1963, written for the Columbia Daily Spectator when Lopate was an undergraduate, to a savvy appraisal of the 32nd, which marked the New York debut of such films as Pulp Fiction and Hoop Dreams. So occasional are these essays? which range from film reviews to polemical essays, reflections on the medium to interviews with directors?that, like films, there are hits and misses. Among the highlights are Lopate's account of his days as an impoverished student at Columbia, locus of his cinematic coming of age, where a monastic fixation with the flickering screen eventually led to a suicide attempt; a bracing look at the dumbing down of contemporary American cinema that champions "rural idiocy" and asks audiences to "groove on the mysterious, ineffable, surreal charm of the premental"; and searching appraisals of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. Lopate's early musings on Jerry Lewis and Antonioni might have been left on the cutting-room floor. Though Lopate gravitates toward obscure work by famous directors and international pictures that never crack the American market, his curiosity about even the most mainstream Hollywood fare shines through the collection, even as he reserves particular scorn for phony sentiments, recycled plots and movies like Krzsztof Kieslowski's Red that he deems exercises des styles without intellectual substance. Lopate's writing, by contrast, has considerable style and substance.
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