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What We Can Learn From Greil Marcus, Film Critic

Every writer has a book that changes them – a particular volume that hits you like a thunderbolt, magnifying with crystal clarity what the best prose can do, and what you could only hope, on your best day, to approach. For me, that book was Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train (out in a handsome new, fully illustrated reissue from Folio Society), which I read the summer before entering graduate school in the hopes of writing about movies for a living.

As I tore through the pages of Marcus’s breakthrough book, I was impressed in the ways that his first-time readers often are: by the energy of the prose, by the precision of his insights, by the depth of his knowledge of all kinds of popular music, from blues to rockabilly to R&B to country. And then, in the midst of his stunning essay on Sly Stone, “The Myth of Staggerlee,” he moves into a lengthy digression on the blaxpoitation cinema of the 1970s, culminating in a powerful analysis of a shattering monologue near the climax of the 1972 film Across 110th Street:

… in one of the most extraordinary scenes in any American movie, a death’s-head reversal of every warm close-up you have ever seen, Jamaica begins to talk—about green hills and a blue sky; about quiet, rest, peace of mind; about going home. He has only killed nine men to get there. His face is scarred by smallpox; his eyes try hard to explain. Jamaica goes on; you don’t hear him; the camera stays in tight. Every few seconds his whole face shudders, seems almost to shred, as a ghastly, obscenely complex twitch climbs from his jaw to his temple, breaks, and starts up again.

It is the visual equivalent of that last song on [Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”], “Thank you for talkin’ to me Africa,” another reach for a home that isn’t there.

To this day, I remember setting the book aside at the end of the section, and muttering to myself, in a mixture of wonder and jealousy, “Jesus, he writes this well about movies too?”

It’s a busy spring for Marcus – besides the reissue of Mystery Train, BFI Classics is finally releasing a Kindle edition of his extraordinary 2002 examination of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, and Yale University Press is releasing his latest volume, Under the Red White and Blue: Patriotism, Disenchantment and the Stubborn Myth of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which (amongst many other topics) delves into the film adaptations of Fitzgerald’s seminal novel.

Particularly in the latter, we’re given a momentary glimpse into a tantalizing alternate reality in which Marcus’s primary interest was not music, but film. When he writes of the stilted 1974 adaptation, for example, we can imagine the sort of delicious pans he might’ve regularly poison-penned (“Mia Farrow’s Daisy seems to be on barbiturates. Robert Redford acts like he’s not completely thawed out”). But when he defends Baz Luhrmann’s widely dismissed 2013 reimagining, he does so with such verve and persuasion, even a reluctant reader (like this one) is forced to reassess:

Bad movies don’t send critics to the ramparts; they file them by genre and move on. Luhrmann had struck a nerve. It might have been that going on a century since Fitzgerald’s story first appeared, Luhrmann had completed it: brought it to a fullness that, when the final note was hit, revealed that the movie was what the book had been searching for all along. He tore the tale around the edges, giving it a new frame. He filled in the plot with drunken visions that could make you think a movie director had somehow divined what a long-dead novelist wanted to say but couldn’t.

Then again, it’s easy to assume that Marcus’s station outside the world of (conventionally defined) film criticism, the day-to-day grind of forgettable new releases and PR masquerading as news, enables him to see these movies through his sui generis lens. But there’s more to it than that.

His Manchurian Candidate book – which I believe, pound for pound, to be one of the single finest works of written film criticism – is not only noteworthy for the writer’s keen insights into the cinematic merits of the 1962 political thriller, though they are certainly present (and adroit). It’s a miraculous book because Marcus has such a spectacularly wide frame of reference: not just other films but obscure books and popular songs and political speeches and, on top of all that cultural ephemera, a full range of American history (McCarthyism, Vietnam, assassinations, etc). When you read that book, the scope of his knowledge is dazzling, but he never seems to be showing off. He just… knows all this stuff.

One gets the sense, when reading his work or listening to his interviews, that he doesn’t consume all of this information to be some sort of know-it-all; he’s just interested, and more importantly, curious. Revisiting these works, I found myself thinking about a debate that flares up in the unfortunate corner of the Internet known as Film Twitter, like clockwork, every few months, in which some writer or another will insist that not only have they not seen a vast swath of films considered canonical, but are proud of these blind spots; some will swarm to condemn their ignorance, others will defend the original critic’s refusal to play by the rules.

Even Quentin Tarantino, both a divisive subject and spiritual godfather to Film Twitter, has weighed in on the topic. In a recent appearance on the essential Pure Cinema Podcast, discussing his retirement from filmmaking and move into film criticism and analysis, the writer/director fumed:

Half the podcasts out there right now are people talking about movies, and they don’t know sh*t about them. I’m surprised at the true level of ignorance that they have, as they just pontificate about every movie coming out every week, and then when they try to talk about older films, it’s even worse. As snarky as I thought a lot of the critics were in the ‘70s and the ‘80s – and they were snarky – they had a base of film understanding, of directors and of Hollywood and of the cinema of Europe and the cinema of Japan. Compared to today, they would be the deans of Harvard Film School – and I’m talking about critics I don’t even like! But even if I didn’t agree with their opinion, even if I didn’t like their writing style, even if I thought they were petty, they had a knowledge of cinema that was what it was. They did understand the art form. And even in the last decade, that’s changed.

No one – no writer, no creator, no fan – can see everything, and no matter how hard any of us try, the sheer volume of media to consume, in the past and present, means there will always be more. But the best film critics, from Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber and Roger Ebert to Manohla Dargis and Justin Chang and A.O. Scott and Stephanie Zacharek and, yes, Greil Marcus, remind us that the more we take in, the wider our depth of knowledge and the scope of our interests, the better our work will be. Blind spots are not shameful. Lack of curiosity is.