Seasoned Time film critic Schickel (Elia Kazan: A Biography, 2005, etc.) devastates a few dozen books about the movie industry, offering his own wittily informative insights in their stead.
Rather than straightforward reviews, this loose collection features detailed mini-essays (most originally published in the Los Angeles Times Book Review) offering pithy, opinionated commentary on the state of film criticism and brief lectures in movie history, each about 1,300 words long. Schickel laments two particularly unsuccessful kinds of movie books: laudatory biographies written by starry-eyed fans posing as critics or historians, which offer no illuminating analysis of the celebrity lives they chronicle; and overly dry, scholarly works by writers he’s not convinced actually watch the movies they dissect. In his little sermons, Schickel tries to fill in these gaps, bemoaning the authors’ foibles and sparing no one’s feelings as he elaborates on what they should have said and known. His reiteration of favorite themes throughout—the contemporary dearth of knowledgeable, sensitive film writers and the rise of the auteur theory—allows his critical animus to shine through, unencumbered by the pesky footnotes that accompany larger works of film criticism. He’s generous to the few gems he finds, among them Andrew Sarris’s “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film History and Memory 1927–1949 (1998) and Alexander Mackendrick’s On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director (2004). Here, Schickel confines himself to the more restrictive book-review format to explore their merits, even though it provides him less scope for airing his own theories.
An enjoyable bedside companion for cinephiles of a classic bent, as well as amateurs who want to learn a bit more about the history of film without lugging home a library.