Sunday, April 10, 2011
Vernon Young: Unpopular Critic of a Popular Art
Below is another of my first published pieces, devoted to my favorite film critic, who was probably the most gifted writer to go near the subject on a regular basis. The original piece can be found here.
"Nobody can predict future opinions on so perishable an art as that of the motion picture. Nobody can predict, in our time, what people will celebrate or what they will destroy six weeks from now.I believe in the power of the mind, provisionally at least, to make choices and to exercise discriminations." [CB, p.282] (1)
Nearly forty years ago, the savage New York-based critic John Simon introduced the sensible view that the best film critics are never merely critics of film. They are often also critics of theater, books or art. In the U.S., at least, this view would appear to be virtually axiomatic: Otis Ferguson's essays on Jazz are often anthologized; James Agee wrote novels, poetry, and screenplays; Dwight Macdonald was a lifelong political commentator; Stanley Kauffmann, at 94, also comments on theater and books. Whatever advantage it might give them as writers, this interdisciplinary experience also gives a critic a necessary edge when it comes to discriminating or determining any given film's worth as art, since it provides perspective on a film's status not simply among other films, but among other works of art. Of course, this has led to ongoing arguments over the very status of film among the other, older arts.
My favorite film critic is Vernon Young. Already I can hear the pages fluttering in people's film encyclopedias. Vernon Who? In reply to his publisher's request for a personal account, Young wrote: "I am English by birth, American by citizenship and I feel most at home in Europe - preferably south of Scandinavia and north of the Alps." [CB, front dust jacket] In our critic-as-superstar era, no one could possibly be more peripheral. And yet, from 1949 to 1986, no one could possibly have been more brilliant. Throughout his career, his only steady forum was in The Hudson Review, a legendary literary magazine that featured such other notable contributors as W.H. Auden and Vladimir Nabokov. Over the years, he also wrote pieces for several other equally arcane journals. This meant his readership was small, and often not directly concerned with film. But neither was Young ever directly concerned with film:
"I think we tend to take for granted the most obvious yet the most precious contribution of the film-maker. (With such statements, I have in mind always and only the namable, gifted few among the ten thousand who are there to make the whole thing pay.) So often an object invoking disdain (I have expressed my share), the film is in nothing more wonderful than this: it brings us not simply a world we never made but worlds we would not otherwise glimpse. It compensates us for all those lovely dawns we slept away, the sycamore trees under which we never awakened, the rivers we never crossed, the fugitive friendships that never ripened, the Southwest canyons or Bavarian churches we never reached." [OF, p. xvii]
Like any other great critic, Young always managed to relate film not only to art, but also to life - more crucially, his life. Not to give us superfluous biographical details, as too many reviewers are apt to do. For them, criticism is something akin to therapy. For Young, "criticism is a method of rationally explaining the emotional experience one has already had." [CB, p. 169] And because his prose is both so acute and sensuously beautiful, the encounter with his intelligence is something felt as well as understood.
We know next to nothing of his life. What little we do know comes from what scraps he threw to his editors. One bio credits him with being a novelist, a theater and radio director and an occasional actor. The one acting credit we know for sure is in A Matter of Morals (1961), an American/Swedish co-production whose only other distinction was that Sven Nykvist photographed it. We can derive much more from his writings, which give us fascinating glimpses of his itinerant life:
"My pursuit of films, during the late fifties and early sixties especially, assumes in my memory the character of a nightmare odyssey. The recall of any particular film from the middle past is associated with the places in which I saw it. As if caught in a montage, I am again sitting day after day in Rochester, New York - during a wintry March - watching the brute phantoms of UFA and Soviet films loom and grimace soundlessly; when I emerge at day's end, though at four o'clock only, the landscape - like Sweden's, too far north to be lived in happily by man - is leafless, lightless, dirty-snow-banked, as gloomy as the film I have just left, likely, and I rush with relief to my bottle of Black and White. Or I am in London, traveling in the fag-butted underground, alone of course, hoping yet skeptical, headed toward a remote and dismal suburb where, in a schoolhouse, a local film society is showing a French film from 1931; probably not worth seeing, but sundry chumps with reputations as annalists have affirmed its uniqueness and there is no way of settling the case except to see the thing for myself. Or I am struggling up at six-thirty A.M. in Rome (I'm not at my best in the sane light of early morning), hoping to be properly awake by nine when, after breakfast (not too heavy) and a journey which might better have been to Orvieto (it wouldn't have taken much longer) than to Cinecitta, I am to see four films, two on a movieola (which increases one's anxiety since the concentration is thereby more intense), following a lunch which must be solid enough for sustenance but not so much antipasto and wine as to induce an overpowering desire to sleep around two o'clock! Or I am in Milano, arriving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, nine-fifteen sharp, as arranged, at the wrong studio (the right one being at the exactly opposite end of town), owing to our old friend and crippler, 'language misunderstanding.'" [OF, p. xii-xiii]
Young was clearly trying to arouse our sympathy, and who could not feel sorry for an ardent filmgoer before the age of multiplex theaters, video and DVD? "After listening to other anecdotes similar to those above, someone asked me, 'Is it worth it?' Great heavens, what a preposterous question! Life under any conditions is filled with idiotic excursions, false goals, prodigal waste, disappointed loves, galling personal insufficiencies, half-witted associations. Is it worth living?" [OF, p. xiii]
Young gradually developed an approach to film that respected its cultural origins. He wasn't the first to notice qualities peculiar to films from different countries, but he was insistent that, despite their international reputations, Fellini was an Italian, Bergman a Swede, Buñuel a Spaniard. Any full understanding of their work must begin with an examination of the group from which they came. "All art is a game played with ethnic rules." [OF, p. 9] This comes as close as any other single point to explaining why some of the most brilliant filmmakers, when transplanted by war or economics to another country, fail to make films as compellingly or as convincingly as those they made in their native land. Of course, Young was never so doctrinaire as to use his theory to pound round pegs into square holes. His first published book was a study of Ingmar Bergman whose very title gave away his agenda: Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethos (1971). While examining every film Bergman made (prior to 1970, of course), he presents an often surprising - and none too flattering - view of Swedish society: "Let it be understood clearly, since without this premise nothing else makes sense. Sweden is a prohibitive society. Root, stem, and branch it is prohibitive. It is a society of the armored personality, it is a never-on-Sunday society, it is a society whose doors are locked before 9 P.M., a society of no dialogue, a society in which hospitality is merely a word. It is in short a puritan society and let no one tell you differently." [CB, p. 92]
He examines the suicide rate in Sweden, which is curiously much higher than any other Scandinavian country. And he demonstrates the extent to which the gloominess of Bergman's films, and Strindberg's plays for that matter, are virtually racial characteristics. "On certain days in Sweden, you feel you should note in a diary that Someone smiled." [CB, p. 114] And perhaps in mockery of their famous social welfare system, Young suggests that "Every Swede has a Strindberg phase: it lasts from the cradle to the grave." Incidentally, these very elements - the weather, history, and culture - have combined to produce, among other things, one of the richest film traditions in the world - a point that Young is only too eager to make.
The book was a tour-de-force, and it encouraged Young the following year to collect his far-flung writings into a single volume. On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (1972) was nominated for the American National Book Award. It is, first and foremost, a collection of essays - some of the finest written in English. Some of his admirers, not enamored of movies, wondered why he was devoting his energies to so ephemeral a medium. And yet who cannot detect, in a sampling from these essays, the presence of Young's heart prominently displayed on his sleeve:
"Those of us for whom the written word is after all the sustaining expression to which we turn for statements of the imaginative and intellectual life must deplore the contemporary abandonment of reading in favor of those shortcuts to culture which are actually endless detours: the picture magazine (see, look, and live!), television, and the movie. For a film critic, this is an especially troublesome acknowledgement, since his function is precisely to discover and relate in motion picture art those concerns which are basic to all the expressive arts. If he is honest, he will admit that instances of a film, in its own esthetic terms, supplying the spectator with an experience equal in serious definition and in style to the arts with which it is contemporary, are distressingly rare. Carl-Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent movie (this, one hour after you've watched it, seems hard to believe), is one of those instances; it forces our consent to the proposition that to see is as fruitful as to know, when the object of our seeing had been invested with the form that inspires knowledge. Knowledge of the poetic order, let us say. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one film among probably less than a dozen of which it can be said that it adds deeply to the sum of one's experience." [p.44]
"All Japanese films are not lovely; they are all composed, Kurosawa's least obviously, since they are more dynamic. The grotesque plays a prominent part in the Japanese movie, but we may imagine that only disorder is considered ugly. The loving scrutiny of the Japanese is impartial: almost equal pictorial value is bestowed on the skirt of a roof, wrinkles around the eye, a dragon on a lacquered box, polychrome parasols lanced by rain, shirts flapping in a slum compound like the banners of defeated samurai. Despair, reconciled by formal beauty - the Japanese answer to life resembles that of the ancient Greeks, or of Nietzsche."
Scola's La Nuit de Varennes: "In the long run (from Paris to Limbo), you may well remember, indelibly, the whips and the wheels, the dust by day and the torches by night, the citizens of Varennes crying havoc on their captured king (all we see of him is his feet), the Comtesse curtsying to royal robes on a dressmaker's dummy and, in the person of Casanova, the lust of the flesh canceled by the unforgivable insolence of time." [FCVY, p.123)
Picnic at Hanging Rock: "Weir's movie is permeated with suppressed eroticism that never crudely surfaces. By lyric touches and the art of indirection he conveys the somewhat smelly radiance that emanates from the girlish admixture of innocent crush and diffused smut which constitutes the eternal milieu of adolescents segregated from the other sex. . . Lovely girls, lovely analogies: swans, flowers, young trees reflected in darkening waters. I was reminded of Elie Faure's inspired image when describing the phenomenon of Watteau's art under the regime of Louis XIV: 'a profound sigh of nature delivered from a corset of iron..'" [FCVY, p. 124]
So often, Young was moved to expand on what a scene in a particular film merely implies: Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe: "Crusoe is suddenly aroused by the woman's dress he salvaged in the sea chest, which now, stirred by random breezes, is invested by his fancy with a woman's body. Feel the possibilities: the tropical evening, the oceanic loneliness, the plants breathing, the devastations of memory visiting a predominantly physical man - the unbidden but palpable shape of lust, hardest of all our inclinations to divert." [OF, p. 383) This practice, far from detracting from the film experience, contributes to it by expanding on its implications. We all bring to a film our own storehouse of experiences, impressions, prejudices. We also bring with us our prevailing moods which events unrelated to the film that we are watching have put us in:
"Relative to the observer, we have learned: relative to the observer's constitution, his experience, his cultural presumptions. . . . Jules and Jim is neither romance nor morality not pure farce nor psychological epitome, yet it touches and sometimes invades each of these territories. 'Like life,' one is too easily tempted to conclude; the very conclusion can only be drawn by adopting what seems to be the most embracing inference of the film, viewed as a story. 'Life' has no such tone - life has no tone at all until endowed with someone's imposed vision of it. 'Be careful how you interpret life,' Erich Heller has advised - 'it is that way.'" [OF, p. 174]
Often this practice makes a film seem more impressive than it is. How is one to account for a film failing to measure up to the quality of its review? Young is surely at his best when he commits his considerable skills to evoking a scene from a film that one is never likely to see. Concerning a Brazilian item, The Priest and the Girl (1966), he remarks on how
"the situation gathers a lot of conviction for itself, after its pedestrian opening scenes, chiefly because Paolo Jose is utterly believable as the mulish, harassed priest and Helena Ignez is the most persuasive rebuke to celibacy I've seen for nigh twenty years, palpably bewitching, with her young amplitude, heavy eyelids, earthy hands, and long Raphaelesque neck. (I am dedicating my next bull to her.) There is one particularly impressive piece of cinema, probably suggested by Woman in the Dunes, when she sits stark maddeningly naked in the desert. The camera frames her face and shoulders, primo piano, tendrils of corn-silk hair blowing into the lens. After which, a curve of shoulder and naked back - pure draftsmanship. The priest, in profile, kisses her arm: past reason haunted, he drops to his feast; the camera remains, above it all, just focusing the melody of her face. Beautifully done: nothing Swedish here." [OF, p. 364]
Sometimes Young saw a filmmaker's glorious opportunity inexplicably passed by and found it necessary to remind him - and us - of what was lost. Admittedly, over the course of almost forty years of writing on the subject, and passionately more often than not, his perspicacity was sometimes hit-and-miss. He was unkind to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, while devoting a whole essay to the adroit but decidedly lesser The Hidden Fortress. He was dismissive of Ozu's Tokyo Story: "at the end the girl speaks a last sententious word, declaring that she is not going to live like her elders, and I am immediately made conscious of the message." [OF, p. 376] He was high-handedly dismissive of American film in general: "There is always someone announcing that the American movie has come of age. The announcement is always premature." [OF, p. 399] He was equally inflexible toward Godard and post-1960 Bergman. Insisting that there is no such thing as a definitive opinion is rather like saying there is no such thing as a definitive performance of Hamlet. Every generation has at least one of its own. Reading Young may occasionally force us to re-think an opinion, while not necessarily shaking us from it. Disagreeing with a great critic is always a learning experience.
But get him on the right subject - and in an expansive mood - and Young is unsurpassed. Particularly indulgent to the Italian film, no one wrote as sensitively about De Sica, Fellini and Antonioni. Consequently no one was as personally disappointed at their decline. Detecting a crisis in international film in 1966 he opened his essay "The Verge and After" with a chilling statement: "The party's over. . . . Another phase of film history, in many ways the most creative, is drawing to a close, accompanied by a jump-cut bang and a pornographic whimper." [OF, p. 273] This same crisis drove Dwight Macdonald to give up his film column at Esquire magazine and turn to politics. One by one, seemingly every great European filmmaker who had emerged by the early '60s had been "extolled, excoriated, and finally expropriated." [ibid]
Thereafter, the only filmmaker who earned Young's wholehearted praise was the Swede, Jan Troell. In his review of The Emigrants he opens with a rare salvo: "The Great American Film has now been made - in Sweden." [FCVY, p. 40] And after minor reservations concerning Troell's The Flight of the Eagle (1982), he concluded: "But this film is touched by greatness; it confirms my insistence, for seventeen years now, that Jan Troell (in this case director, co-writer, cinematographer and editor) is unsurpassed by any film-maker of our time." [FCVY, p.125]
But one swallow, alas, doth not a summer make. The New Wave - Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette - washed ashore fifty years ago. New names emerged, perhaps not enough (nor as great) to supplant the old, but Young watched and commented with his customary acuity until his death in 1987, shortly after his last review was published in The Hudson Review. Given his experience of film, we can only speculate what Young might have made of the New Asian Cinema, or the surprises and frustrations of American Independent film, of Kiarostami or Béla Tarr, or, indeed, of Bergman's re-emergence as a magisterial scriptwriter.
Doubtless the major films on which Young comments will retain our attention. But, honestly, who will care in another twenty years that he chose to single out for praise such out-of-the-way films as Nunca Pasa Nada (Spain, 1964), or the Polish film True End of the Great War (1958) or The Golden Fern (Czechoslovakia, 1963)? Or, more to the point, who will ever have a chance to see these films? "Among the critic's obligations is the salvaging of neglected films before they go softly into that dark night." [OF, p. 11]
It will come as no surprise to those of you involved in the business that the two books Young published in his lifetime are long out of print. The last, a collection published in 1990, is on backorder. Young seemed to welcome obscurity, if not the very oblivion that so many of the films he chose to italicize have suffered:
"I have never, or rarely, known for whom I was writing. It was made pretty clear to me for whom I was not writing - among others, most 'film people,' who never read opinions expressed outside the film publications or the columns of the wide-circulation press. As I was principally published in the Hudson Review or in magazines with a comparable, if not identical, readership, I could infer the status of my reader up to a point. He was very likely affiliated with a college, either as a student or as a teacher; he was closely interested in the arts; he was worldly by inclination; he was not the sort you talk down to, and he would welcome a minority voice (otherwise he would not be reading that magazine). Yet I never knew how much I might assume of what he knew about movies. For a while this worried me until I realized that the anxiety did not improve my communication. Then I began to discover that numerous people read my criticism (not just mine, of course) who never, or seldom, went to a movie! They simply liked to read about movies if they found the critic's point of view interesting and the content vividly re-created. I felt better after that."
1. Sources are identified as follows: CB - Cinema Borealis: Ingmar Bergman and the Swedish Ethos (New York: David Lewis, 1971); OF - On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972); FCVY - The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, Edited by Bert Cardullo (New York: University Press of America, 1990).