The editor-in-chief of the Library of America holds forth on film and culture, to reassuring result.
Amassing 16 years of essays written for the New York Review of Books, Film Comment, and elsewhere, O'Brien presents “a series of encounters” and “re-encounters” with movies of the past several decades, from The Cocoanuts to A.I. While in his introduction he addresses “the fundamental mysteriousness of what finally occurs” in the interaction between film and viewer, he does not dwell on theory here, but instead offers healthy doses of movie history and talk. A member of the generation that cut its teeth on classic sound films, he has the appropriate admiration for Hawks, Lang, Sturges, Michael Powell, and John Ford, to whom he ascribes the 20th century's greatest film, The Searchers, neatly praised not for its usual points but for its “world of cyclical rhythms and irrevocable losses” and the power of its “vast stretches of space and time.” Similarly, he takes fresh looks at other iconic subjects, in part to refresh popular memory (as with Bing Crosby, who pioneered “calm and intimate” singing years before Sinatra made it big), but also to examine public and private personalities. In his discussions of actors—Crosby, Groucho Marx, Orson Welles, and others—he presents offscreen personalities, but mainly to illustrate the idea that these men revealed themselves most fully in performance. Maybe the real Groucho is “the one at whose routines we are laughing”; perhaps Orson Welles's “essence” is not “beyond the outward spectacle” but within his movies or radio shows. On non-film topics, O'Brien is equally scrutinizing, as in the discussion of comedy, money, and Seinfeld—and the mind-shaping powers of Mad magazine.
O’Brien’s at his best in observations of what takes place on screen, disk, or page and how these actions define their practitioners. A smooth after-dinner drink.