A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
Joseph McBride, currently Professor of Film Studies at San Francisco State University, has had a long and varied career both in the film industry and as an independent critic for many decades. Soon we will finally get to see his long-awaited role as Mr. Pister in Orson Welles’s now edited and released version of The Other Side of the Wind that began in the early 1970s and took many decades to complete. During his long career he was fortunate to “walk with giants” who belonged to the classical Hollywood studio system by interviewing personalities such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and many others as well as writing meticulously researched studies of Ford, Hawks, Frank Capra, Welles, and Steven Spielberg. In addition he has worked in various roles in the American film industry, scripting and appearing in Rock and Roll High School (1979), actively participating behind the scenes for many American Film Institute tributes for prestigious individuals, and also working as a journalist and historian since his many interests include modern American history, such as Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J.D. Tippit (2013) reveal.
I’ve long been familiar with his work from a distance, having read his early 70s articles for Sight and Sound. I still have his Cinema Two 1974 UK edition of his co-written John Ford on my shelf and immensely enjoy reading each new addition to his already immense bibliography – even those I disagree with (but more on that later). Covering nearly five decades and divided into six parts, containing sixty-four items with five new articles, a new introduction, and new introductory material for each piece, Two Cheers for Hollywood (Hightower Press, 2017) contains samples of his best work celebrating past cinematic achievements as well as forebodings concerning the present and future of Hollywood cinema. Hence the title. I would cynically suggest “One Cheer” seeing the contemporary industry as also representing “two steps back”. But McBride is correct with his chosen title that justifiably honors a past tradition that may potentially provide the basis for a renewal for some unexpected change in the dismal situation of one of America’s artistic and industrial complexes today. We can but hope.
The dedication is revealing since it includes the author’s early University of Wisconsin teacher Russell Merritt as well as those no longer with us – William Donnelly, Francois Truffaut, Andrew Sarris, and Robin Wood. The inclusion of Wood is no surprise, except to certain academic philistines who prefer that we bury the Robin Wood critical legacy, sneeringly regarding it as now being irrelevant and antiquated while indulging in promoting obscurantism and using bullying tactics to quash any opposition to condescending attacks on the continuing relevance of this great critic and his colleague, the late Andrew Britton. Times do change, but traditions often continue in new and unexpected ways. In “Postscript: A Note on the English Language”, Wood laments the decline of the critical prose style represented by F.R. Leavis “capable of expressing nuance and complexity to a degree perhaps incomparable within modern critical writing.” (1)
Maybe so, but there is also a different type of journalism that does not fall into the impoverished category that Wood condemns, and the journalistic background and work experience of McBride reveals this. It is one that is direct, honest, sincere, and accessible to any reader, one that does not hide behind obscurantist jargon engaging in intellectually aggressive word games designed to make readers feel inferior to the mandarin type of academic superciliousness of those engaged in this type of activity that espouses what has been accurately described as “intellectual terrorism.” This is where McBride’s work is significant. If we are now all actively discouraged by academic peers and reviewers not to follow the original paths of Leavis and Wood, alternative paths exist that we may also follow if we choose to do so and perhaps, still remain true to these earlier influences. We need not sell out our souls in the process of conforming to the prevailing system until things change for the better – if they ever will?
In a university system that Wood recognizes is far from Leavis’s definition of a “creative center of civilization” but is now “thoroughly coopted by consumer capitalism” and designed “to slot students into positions within the status-quo” (2), the role of oppositional forms of writing hostile to domineering values of obfuscating prose and vulgar anti-intellectualism is needed far more than ever today. Interrogative nuances of “Yes… but” are relevant as well as prose derived from Leavis and Wood’s highly accomplished examples of creative critical writing. But I would also argue that McBride’s practice of clear and coherent criticism, though lacking discursive literary nuances of any “Great Tradition” (as I assume he would be the first to admit?), are important weapons in a struggle that need not be devoid of crucial elements of “critical aims”, “positive values” and “evaluative criteria” that Wood sees as essential to maintain the practice of criticism. (3)
In one sense, it is a shame that this collection emerges from an independent rather than a prestigious mainstream or university press, but such is the state of market-economics affecting the realm of publishing. Three decades ago, any major publisher would have been proud to release and promote it. However, knowing full well how other books that deserved to be constantly in print, such as David Bordwell’s fine work on Ozu and the Hong Kong Film Industry, have been allowed to go out of print, it often becomes necessary to write and publish independently. The advantages of new technology allow any author to make such material available continually for those who are interested. It may be a blessing in disguise that McBride has been spared from any disdainful “anonymous reviewer” comments on the part of those wallowing in Deleuze and Guattari, Zizek etc, and other contemporary examples of academic and establishment film conference “flavors of the month” that soon decay and end up exuding the aroma of rotten fish. Many accessible and interesting works are now emerging from independent publishers often written by non-academics who know their film history and subject matter far better than any faculty higher administrative wannabees who detest their profession and students in equal measure.
This is a collection of essays I would recommend everyone to have in their library due to its overall excellent nature. Ok, I’m biased and should not be engaging in this non-academic review practice but I’m doing so regardless. Two Cheers is the best anthology I’ve read for some time since it contains an equal measure of past criticism, revised material, and new items that make reading about film the pleasure it once was before Screen Theory judged such delights reactionary.
Sub-titled “I Loved Movies, But…,” McBride’s introduction queries whether those of us devoted to film have wasted our lives in view of the present dire state of cinema today. Times have changed. So has the medium and not often for the better, according to reasons supplied in this introduction. Living in a time when personal filmmaking is discouraged in favor of Hollywood blockbuster productions, it is perhaps necessary to change direction, to “go beyond auteurism” (or any other single theory, perhaps) and “reconcile it with the other realities and other theories of filmmaking” to account “for all the richness and complexity of this art form” (26) without totally denying the importance of personal vision. This is the intellectual journey the author has taken and a path which he wishes to guide the reader along, one that is positively comprehensive rather than too narrowly focused.
“Writers” contains illuminating surveys and interviews with illuminating perspectives on subjects such as Michael Wilson, John Lee Mahin, Robert Riskin, Marguerite Roberts, Abraham Polonsky, Frank Nugent, Gore Vidal, and John Sanford as well as areas on “The Screenplay as Genre” involving the case of Citizen Kane’s shared credits being “entirely fitting for a collaborative medium of which the hybrid craft of screenwriting is a crucial part but not a pure art form existing for its own sake” (55), and the 1975 heyday of young screenwriters in Hollywood.
“Directors” is the most extensive section, covering over 210 pages with articles and interviews on John Ford, Maoist Godard (whose Dziga-Vertov group films I’ve grown fond of lately, in reaction to Hollywood dreck!), Truffaut, George Stevens, Huston, Wilder, Cukor, Anthony Minghella, a critical review of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the collaborative relationship between Joe Dante and Spielberg on Gremlins and other projects, Edward L. Bernds and The Three Stooges, early Frank Capra, James Whale and Gods and Monsters, the Coen Bros, and Spielberg.
All these essays are worth reading and I recommend potential readers do so, but here I must part company with McBride since I dislike the Coens and Spielberg for several reasons that are too detailed to discuss in this review. Here, I’m going to engage in a dialogue knowing full well that an author I’ve met on more than one occasion is not going to throw a tantrum and utter threats of litigation like one academic (I will not name) whose recent behavior resembles a toddler tantrum version of Scorsese’s Joe Pesci on a bad day!
McBride has written what I regard as one of the best studies of this director that I would recommend to anyone, which I recently did to one of my 100 level students who brought the last War of the Worlds adaptation with her to college unaware of the 1953 version I ran in class. (I don’t think I’m the type of James Mason teacher depicted in the UK 1945 The Seventh Veil!) I still stand by my Wide Angle 1983 article on Close Encounters mentioned by McBride in his November 2007 “Spielberg at Sixty” where I supposedly accuse the director of “Nazi-like tendencies” (366). The article is titled “Close Encounters of the Authoritarian Kind” (italics mine) and my quoted sentence “Close Encounters is nothing less than a Disneyland version of Triumph of the Will” notes clear parallels towards the end of the film to a Nuremberg Rally. In my opinion, Spielberg, who Michael Moriarty once described to me as a director who “sees everything”, should have been aware of the associations. That he did not, I would ascribe to stupidity and unawareness rather than espousing Nazi tendencies. Spielberg does not recognize deep authoritarian implications within his early works. Then, as now, I see ugly anticipations of the type of Christian authoritarian Fascism later described by Chris Hedges. (4) The reference does not appear in any edition of McBride’s book on Spielberg. But that was 1983 and Spielberg has developed since then, but not entirely to the realm that would justify his claim to be recognized as a great artist. Today, I would acclaim Empire of the Sun (1987), Minority Report (2002), and Munich (2005) among Spielberg’s most accomplished achievements since we are long past that old Cahiers du Cinema axiom of “An auteur cannot make a bad film and a metteur-en-scene can never make a good film”. But I remain skeptical about any assertion that Spielberg belongs to that old Sarris pantheon that includes Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ophuls, and others.
Allegations of anti-semitism on the part of Spielberg’s detractors have been raised elsewhere (5), yet one of the director’s most vehement critics was American Jewish writer and critic Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) who, contrary to Spielberg and the other Jewish artists cited by McBride, never “sought assimilation in American life.” (370) Ellison’s attitudes to Spielberg were often mixed, ranging from acceptance of some of his films to outright condemnation of others. (6) The writer was no academic but an extremely creative, self-educated personality who did not belong to any anti-semitic, Marxist conspiracy, designed to deprive Spielberg of the recognition that Hawks, Hitchcock, and others had previously gained. He was very knowledge about cinema and certainly no-self hating Jew. His observations recognized certain problems in the films of the director during the 1980. Britton and Wood detected the malign influence of Lucas and Spielberg on Hollywood cinema during that decade. So did the independent Harlan Ellison as well as allied issues concerning content, style, and cinematic technique:
Spielberg and Lucas and their protégés are scabby-kneed, snotty-nose neighborhood urchins scaring the crap out of their elders by walking a plank across a building excavation. They are so busy letting us know how clever they are, that they counter-productively shatter the best, first rule of film direction: don’t make the direction obvious. (7)
To McBride’s credit, his book contains criticism of what he regards as Spielberg’s lesser achievements as well as the director’s misjudgments on certain occasions. This represents the best qualities of McBride in terms of a lost tradition of fair and impartial journalism displaying the real merits of his work. But where he asserts that some of Spielberg’s critics “may have unresolved issues with their families and their childhoods that have left a lingering anger and bitterness they project onto Spielberg’s screen” (376), the statement seems directed anonymously at two of his major critics, Andrew Britton and Robin Wood, the first long dead in 2007 and the other in poor health at the time this article was first delivered as a conference speech. It is a shame that these two critics never had a chance to respond to such allegations, and I will state in their posthumous defense that these comments are unproven assertions. I will end this section by sadly commenting that McBride is one of the most learned and qualified champions that Spielberg has ever had, and it is really unfair that he has never (to date) been granted an interview by a director who should at least recognize his most devoted and sincere champion – unlike his predecessors within the classical Hollywood system. This is another example of why Robin Wood’s famous,” Yes…but…, “is still so relevant. Debate is always important in this field.
The final three sections, “Visiting Sets”, “Actors and Others”, and Essays on Film and Literature” contain noteworthy items all too numerous to mention individually, so I’ll just mention some of my personal favorites: the justly reprinted interview with the unjustly maligned Stepin Fetchit that first appeared in Film Quarterly; “The Private World of Fahrenheit 451” that contains a justified defense of a misunderstood film as well as defending Oskar Werner’s acting; Hitchcock’s unfulfilled project of J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose (that I saw performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre in the late 60s, then based near Manchester University Student’s Union; the performance featured Mia Farrow in the title role and Ralph Bates as her abandoned husband. If only Hitchcock had seen this performance!); Kazan’s indisputable masterpiece Wild River; a still-timely article concerning Orwell’s apt relevance to America today (and I would add, many universities!); an extension of his review of the recently re-discovered Welles lost film Too Much Johnson; and his justified tribute to Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) that Robin, Andrew, and I all loved during my 1976-77 year at Warwick University. However, one error needs to be corrected in future editions. Texan-born Bessie Love (1898-1986) was not a “British actress” (383), despite the fact she worked in England during the latter part of her career, but American. Also, since I’ve finally got round to seeing Ford’s The Plough and the Stars (1936) and appreciate its visual expressionism, I’d also like to add that it is not entirely devoid of humor (394) as Barry Fitzgerald’s performance shows.
This is an outstanding collection of essays written by one of America’s long-standing and prestigious film critics and historians. It is not accidental that this work is the product of dedication and self-education since all the major achievements in literature and other fields often come from outside the academy, no matter how much certain self-inflated, smug defenders argue otherwise. Stimulating and evoking debate/further thought, this is one of the best collections of critical essays on film that has appeared for many decades. So I will end by calling “Three Cheers for Joseph McBride” in terms of his valuable contributions to an area of study that is increasingly under threat today, whether by university administrators or faculty complicit in “dumbing down” what was once an area for critical growth and genuine appreciation for achievements, past and present.
- Robin Wood (1989), Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. Revised Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 49.
- Wood, p. 38. Governor Scott Walker’s planned destruction of The University of Wisconsin System is already well known. In the state of Illinois, two billionaire candidates from the Democratic and Republican sides are competing for the Governor’s Mansion, both of whom show little interest in education except as “job-training.” My already ignominious institution had a recently deceased Chancellor who was under investigation for Ethics violations by the State who planned the introduction of a Police Academy and School of Homeland Security in which electrical and medical engineering departments would presumably be “encouraged” to introduce new degrees in Electrical Information Acquirement Techniques and Waterboarding!
- Wood, pp. 41-43.
- See Chris Hedges (2006), American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. New York: Free Press.
- See Joseph McBride (2011, 1997), Steven Spielberg: A Biography. Second Edition. Jackson, MI.: University of Mississippi Press, p. 517, who quotes Spielberg’s former Rabbi who asserts his belief that anti-semitism is at the root of many attacks on Spielberg. A few lines down McBride quotes some of these criticisms and categorizes them as all-familiar tropes of anti-semitic rhetoric. Having been slandered as a “Nazi” on one Facebook page after citing documented sources concerning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and well aware of American Right-Wing (the Heritage Foundation particularly and Steve Bannon’s activities in the UK) and Zionist motivated attacks on British politician Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed anti-semitism because of his (and other Labour Party members) criticism of the activities of the state of Israel against oppressed minorities, I must personally express my disgust at this clichéd line of attack being once more evoked to silence critical dissent. Andrew Britton and Robin Wood were definitely not anti-semitic!
- See Harlan Ellison (1989), Harlan Ellison’s Watching. Los Angeles, California: Underwood-Miller, pp. 193-195, 199-200, 203, 205,221, 252, 268-269, 292-293, 301, 319.
- Op. cit., p. 196.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.