Geoffrey O’Brien isn’t your garden-variety critic, and his “Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows” surely isn’t a beach book. That is, unless you take your dictionary, brain and infatuation with movies, past and present, to the shore.
Then, word by word, the classy smarty-pants leads you on an edifying excursion through his fresh, mavericky writings, about film, television and books, from the past 10 years.
He may be a cultural egghead and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, but O’Brien’s no snob. Don’t let his literati creds awe you. He’s a stand-up fan of Marvel Comics and Shaw Brothers martial arts films now happily being restored.
O’Brien, whose day job is editor-in-chief of the Library of America, a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature, opens with a lyrical nod to the mystery and power of the moving images that form “the very walls within which we live.”
In the preface, he recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s awe in 1860 at seeing stereoscopic projections magnified on the wall: “And the lovely manner in which one picture was changed for another beat the faculty of dreaming.” Walking in the woods with a friend, the Concord Sage wonders, “where is he who is to save the present moment, & cause that this beauty not be lost?”
And, of course, that’s where a little over a half century later, motion pictures came in. “Movies were a device to stop time in its tracks — trap it like a genie in a bottle — and keep it from ever escaping,” O’Brien opines. “Film seemed close to being the perfect trap, a sticky dangling strip for moments to get stuck on.”
In 38 brilliantly original, sometimes autobiographical “prose poems,” O’Brien reminds us that movies from silent films to innovative features like last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Moonrise Kingdom” are an art form that haunts our dreams and molds our memories and lives.
The first essay, “Popcorn Park,” begins with a hymn of thanksgiving for Marvel Comics that leads into a review of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” which O’Brien likens to a “narrative theme park, cautious, respectful, planned down to the last dangling coil of webbing.”
He salutes the director’s professional job and Willem Dafoe’s “fire-eating” performance (that “makes everybody else look as if they’re just rehearsing”) but notes the blockbuster lacks “that factor of eccentricity, that wild card of random improvisation that made the comics so much fun.” After declaring that the more real special effects look the less real they feel, O’Brien tackles the films of Fritz Lang, the German director Marlene Dietrich called a member of “Sadist Incorporated,” the horror classics of Val Lewton (“almost too beautiful to be scary”) and the many selves of Cary Grant (“No movie actor ever achieved quite so total a mastery of surface.”).
O’Brien’s film ardor is so infectious it makes us want to rush out to rent John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” (“the perfection of his art”), Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” (“as pure a pleasure as the movies have offered”) and Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” (“virtually a showcase” for the best in French production design, music, cinematography and costuming.) He turns his elegant headlamp on filmmakers Rohmer, Tourneur, Tarantino, Becker, Malick, among others, and calls our attention to the cinematic written word like Josef von Sternberg’s autobiography “Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” “one of the best books about the chaotic circumstances under which films are actually made.”
Like this reviewer, fans won’t concur with all his accolades or choices and may notice that he manages to review Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” without mentioning the stigmatic German nun upon whose writings it’s based, the anti-Semitism charges that swirled around it or the Slate critique calling it “a two-hour-and-twenty-six-minute snuff movie.”
Though the collection’s subtitle is “Writing on Film 2002-2012,” O’Brien also weighs in on TV. He likens Peter Falk’s rumpled Zen detective “Columbo” to Rabelais’ description of Socrates. “Seeing him from the outside and judging from his external appearance, you wouldn’t have given a slice of onion for him, ugly of body as he was and ridiculous in his bearing … always concealing his divine knowledge.”
The neatest trick of “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, O’Brien writes, “was to make a show about the mob … that constantly suggested that the mob was not what the show was really about.” Also, he says admiringly, Chase cast “as brilliant a stock company as any ever assembled, they had on first encounter the memorable force of gargoyles.”
In closing, O’Brien pays tribute to film critic and auteur proponent Andrew Sarris, who died last year. Unlike New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who tended to be a monologist “asking for nothing beyond mute assent,” he says, Sarris insisted upon the possibility of dialogue and even argued with himself. He read and re-read Sarris, he says, because “at the center of his writing was a reverence for film history.” It’s also the reason to read and re-read Geoffrey O’Brien.
Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows
Counterpoint Press, $25