In an ironic witty voice V.F. Perkins starts at square one in Film As Film: Understanding and Judging Movies with Cecil B. DeMille’s denial of film as art, a philosophy which permeated the bedrock of film criticism until…until when or what? According to Perkins, Vachel Lindsay tried in his 1915 explanation of the theory of film, The Unchallenged Outline of Photoplay Critical Method to convince the world (then, unsuccessfully) that “the motion picture art is a great high art.” Perkins also notes that after Lindsay’s book, critics could bring themselves to discuss—seriously discuss, without laughing—D.W. Griffith’s 1914 film The Birth of a Nation, which is why (I always wondered why) virtually every university film class begins with mention of The Birth of a Nation.
Up until Ingmar Bergman, Perkins says, as late as the 1930s and 1950s, critics of the same stamp as Lindsay were still appealing to the universities and critics to give film a place as art. This scenario changed, as Perkins tells it, in the late 1950s when Ingmar Bergman, Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni presented, respectively, The Seventh Seal, Hiroshima Mon Amour and L’Aventura, which Perkins calls carrion for the “culture-vulture as rich and ripe as any provided by painting, music or literature.”
After this tantalizing start in revealing film as film, Perkins further entrances by discussing the complex questions of what constitutes a “good” film and of who controls the choice of what films are produced, revealing that there are at least three separate groups that control what films run on the projectors in theaters. These groups are the money-paying customers, without whom theater doors will close; the director and—surprisingly, or perhaps not—the financier.
The customer, Perkins says, holds the power of going or not going to films (although in this contemporary age, filmgoers seem to have forgotten that they have the power of censure in absentia for films that outrage or distress moral, emotional, psychological and philosophical sensibilities, feeling that if an esteemed director and cast of actors collectively affirm a film’s “goodness” by association and work, then the film must be suitable for consumption and “good,” particularly when such films go on to win Golden Globes and Academy Awards), thus driving the director’s choices (and the actors’ choices) of what films to produce.
The director may believe, Perkins continues, movie selection is driven by “what the public wants” when in reality it is truly driven by what the director thinks or believes the public wants, which may or may not be an accurate true thought or belief. Ah ha. The plot thickens and the mystery unravels.
On top of this, the director’s “immediate employer,” the financier, often has restrictions or fantasies or requirements that constitute an “imposed…strait-jacket” for the director, who is thus ham-strung by those who “claim to be able to predict a picture’s prospects by reference to its…story, casting, setting, etc.,” as Perkins says. Once again the plot thickens and the mystery unravels.
Film as Film has much more to say, including a detailed description of the world as we see it in film. As a film fan, you will greatly enjoy Perkins’ style of intelligently accessible writing and you will certainly enjoy his original perspective on the world of film. Using brisk insight and knowledge he covers many fresh topics and many topics embedded in assumed wisdom. After reading Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies, your pleasure at the cinema will increase and your thoughtful evaluations of what you’re presented will take on new lights. Film as Film is most enjoyable and most enlightening, two things that every filmgoer and devotee cherishes.
[Film As Film: Understanding and Judging Movies reviewed from Reviewer's private library.]