Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Critical Massiveness: Gary Giddins’ Warning Shadows

     Gary Giddins is as close to a perfect critic as we’re likely to see in our time. His style, at once easy and authoritative, is a seductive delight to read. He has an uncanny eye for detail—for the way films are shot and edited, for the subtle play of emotions on an actor’s face, for the way movies illuminate their moment and take their place in history. His patiently arrived at judgments are witty, impeccable, and, to my mind, indisputable. I’d rather read Giddins on the movies than go to most of them.
—Richard Schickel, writer, filmmaker, and film critic

I’ve always been a bit in awe of critics. Not the garden variety simpletons who slap together off-the-cuff, minimally-informed, self-serving blather about an artist’s latest album or a glorified plot synopsis of a new film, but those who provide something deeper, who have studied and thoroughly understand what their subject is all about and how it applies to our world in a larger sense (if applicable), and present it in the form of memorable, inspiring prose. I’m sucked into the dizzying depths Tag Gallagher plumbs in his studies of John Ford and Leo McCarey. I’m entranced by Peter Bogdanovich’s blog. When I was younger, and (overly) enthusiastic about rock music, I would hang on every written word by the likes of Dave Marsh, Paul Nelson, and Greil Marcus, whether in Rolling Stone or Art Forum. Stranded: Rock And Roll For A Desert Island is still one of my favorite books.

At the top of the critical mass is Gary Giddins, who doesn’t only “get” jazz music, his area of well-proven expertise—he gets” movies, too. After digesting only a few pages of his new collection of movie reviews (most of them from the recently defunct New York Sun), Warning Shadows: Home Alone With Classic Cinema, it becomes clear that he intimately comprehends, and has the uncanny ability to bring into focus for the reader, not only the bigger picture (which he does, breathtakingly, in the very first chapter—a stunningly astute overview of the full-circle journey of motion picture viewing since the turn of the last century), but also the diverse intricacies of genres and sub-genres, of film directors' entire oeuvres, of the basic, indefinable stuff that makes us love to watch movies, even when we're home alone.

Though best known as the long time jazz critic for the Village Voice and multiple award-winning author of several books on music (and one of the more memorable talking heads in Ken Burns' marathon documentary Jazz), Giddins revealed in an earlier anthology, Natural Selection, that prior to his gig at the Voice he was a movie reviewer, and it was a toss-up as to which direction he would opt to go in when the Greenwich paper beckoned. After a long career as the most respected jazz critic alive, it’s nice to see him spread the wealth of his erudition and come back to critiquing films. 

Actually, in Warning Shadows he focuses on DVD releases—more often than not, box sets and compilations, which provide him with the opportunity to delve into the works of time tested auteurs and much-appreciated actors and stars as well as overlooked geniuses and forgotten, would-be masterpieces. It’s both an enlightening experience and an enjoyable ride to partake of his knowledge, which is vast.

He adroitly notes, for instance, that Alfred Hitchcock has had the last laugh on his many biographers and critics by remaining the most durably popular studio-era film director in the English-speaking world, and he illuminates in two essays about the often misinterpreted and misunderstood John Ford more than some have managed in entire volumes. He makes the following observation, lost on so many, about Ford in his overview of Young Mr. Lincoln:

     (Ford’s) famously stubborn refusal to elucidate himself of his work or to admit that 
     what he did had anything to do with art honors the audience. Art implies intellect, 
     which is unequally distributed, and Ford demands emotion, which ruthlessly seeks 
     out the common denominator in us all. The implication is that if he has your heart, 
     your mind will follow, if only afterward as the justification for losing your emotional 

Giddins writes in his piece on Noir-cum-Western-cum-Sixties Epic auteur Anthony MannThe 1950s were arguably the greatest years of the Western, the period in which generic formulas were at once sustained and destabilized through psychology, revisionism, high style and the kind of grandeur that follows when the most durable clichés are reframed against classical paradigms. In the same manner Giddins reinterprets much of what has come to be accepted (or dismissed) as cliché in classic cinema, and reframes individual films and entire bodies of work within fresh new evaluations that make you want to watch them.

Beneath the analytical surface, it's disarmingly obvious in every chapter that Giddins is an unabashed fan of cinema, and this fact, palpable in each line, makes the book an absolute joy to read, for the rest of us unabashed fans as well as the casual reader who may wish to learn more about the defining art form of the twentieth century and some of its most adept practitioners.

© Jon Oye, 2011

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