With an open mind I read the first chapter of renowned author Jonathan Lethem's book of essays, The Disappointment Artist.
The essay, "Defending The Searchers," is about Lethem's love affair with the old John Ford movie. (I enjoy westerns, and so was prepared to like the essay.)
1.) The essay is about Lethem himself, not the movie. The movie is an excuse for Lethem to write about himself.
2.) The essay is a failure. Lethem doesn't convince the reader that The Searchers is a great movie; in fact, he undercuts it throughout. He asserts its greatness, based on little more than that it interested him. Not moved, troubled, or excited him-- interested him. Even during his first crucial viewing of it, at Bennington, he's only halfway absorbed in its narrative. The other ever-present analytical (emphasis on the "anal") half of his brain is objectively studying it. Not the best way to approach art!
Of prime importance is Lethem himself; that this god of the intellect has noticed the old film. THAT makes the movie noteworthy. It impressed itself on his consciousness, so he spends the entire essay explaining this process. He thinks it might possibly be a very good movie-- he's arrived at this conclusion, "aha!" as if contemplating a chess move-- but has difficulty forming a hard opinion of it through his many viewings, always worrying about the reception his friends have of it-- as if they MUST like it also; that they don't is earth shattering. (Quite a picture of the mind of a demi-puppet!)
Lethem's essay builds no momentum, has no theme (other than the author's preciousness), arrives at no point.
-- is dominated by feelings. The feelings aren't about the movie, but himself. He never puts his mind fully INTO the artwork. His sensitivity is confined to his chair. The "I" is everpresent in his thoughts. It's unremoveable. One would like to blast it out of the essay for a few minutes so we can focus on the movie. Given the nature of his kind of writer, this is impossible.
Lethem's fumbling, embarrassing essay has one achievement-- a reminder of the flaws of classic movies.
The films themselves can't be blamed for this. When seen in their own day, they were undoubtedly great. But after seeing countless hyper-speed "Matrix" and "Mission Impossible" films, to us most of the output of legends like John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock look contrived and glacially paced. This isn't because today's movies are better. Most are far worse. But the fact of them destroys all that came before.
Movies have always been illusions-- tricks played upon the spectator. The original impact of North by Northwest depended upon shock effects; a car swerving down a road; a helicopter charging the camera. A crafty director combined the contrivances for maximum impact, but the illusions no longer work. All that remains is the narrative and dialogue, which isn't bad-- but slight compared to a novel's.
Film's advantage over literature was technology. What happens when the technology becomes obsolete?
Citizen Kane or Dr. Strangelove seen today on a large screen become laughable. With Kane we notice all the obvious Orson Welles camera tricks and ridiculous special effects. (Watch for the toy nightclub.) Strangelove comes across as not-that-daring satire wrapped around sophomoric jokes and low budget 60's-TV production values.
The old movies which do impress when seen on a big screen are those, like The Robe, whose type of tricks (Technicolor and Cinemascope) haven't been improved, and which are so over-the-top dramatically they rise, when seen on a big screen, to the modern moviegoer's minimum thrill level. Or, like David Lean movies, those which combine superlative narrative with an emphasis on film as an artistic canvas. Lean didn't try to overwhelm with flashy edits and sudden thrills. His movies emphasize the opposite-- film's unbroken flow; art as a river.
We'll never appreciate the thrills of The Searchers-- the shock 50's audiences felt when the shadow of Scar looms over the child Debbie near the beginning; the everpresent sense of approaching violence. Too much cinema blood and decapitated movie corpses have already passed through our minds for that!
(I search through the DVD collection in the spaceship as I hurtle faster toward my destination. No westerns are available.)