Multitasking writer/editor O’Brien (The Fall of the House of Walworth, 2010, etc.) showcases his work over the past decade as a film critic and historian.
The historian gets more of an outing in this new collection; substantially more than half the pieces, many of which were written to accompany DVD re-releases, cover such staples of college classes and museum retrospectives as directors Fritz Lang and Jacques Tourneur and vintage film ranging from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. The author’s insights into these familiar icons are unfailingly intelligent and delivered in polished prose, though there’s little here that any reasonably literate movie buff hasn’t read before. His take on contemporary blockbusters (including a single TV series, The Sopranos) is often more idiosyncratic and interesting. “Spider-Man, the movie…has a ponderousness its model altogether lacked,” he writes, contrasting the scrappy Marvel comics that inspired it with the Hollywood franchise that “descends from above, trailing clouds of magazine covers and licensed toys.” His take on Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is similarly well-informed about its pop-culture source (a Philip K. Dick story) and appreciative of Spielberg’s abundant moviemaking gifts, while holding the film to a higher intellectual standard than its director seems interested in meeting. O’Brien, editor-in-chief of the Library of America, tends to take a serious, quasi-academic approach to movies; obituaries for his predecessors Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris are appreciative and shrewd about both critics’ essential qualities, but he’s clearly more in sympathy with the “reverence for film history” he praises in Sarris’ work than with Kael’s fierce advocacy for “the sovereignty of her own taste.” In general, the author is less an innovative thinker than a tasteful summarizer of received cultural wisdom, right down to the concern expressed in his preface that movies are part of the semisinister digital revolution.
Smart, careful reviews covering a reasonably representative swathe of movies past and present.