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American Movie Critics Phillip Lopate Essays

The personal essay has always been a stepchild of serious literature, seemingly formless, hard to classify. Lacking the tight construction of a short story or the narrative arc of a novel or memoir, such essays have given readers pleasure without winning cultural respect. Written in a minor key, they could be slight and superficial, but their drawbacks could also be strengths. The style of the first-person essay tends to be conversational, tentative — in tune with our postmodern skepticism about absolutes, the trust we place in multiple perspectives. Few writers have pursued this more resourcefully than Phillip Lopate, who started out as a novelist and poet but gained traction when he began writing lively first-person essays in the late 1970s, later editing a landmark anthology, “The Art of the Personal Essay” (1994).

Lopate belongs to the generation — my own — that came of age in the ’60s, a dec­ade that gave a huge push to all sorts of self-expression, including the essay. Suddenly everyone seemed to have a story to tell, and it could be told directly, not dressed up as fiction. But this avalanche of essays and memoirs began falling into predictable patterns: politically shaded accounts of victimization, self-help homilies, therapeutic tales of abuse and recovery. The immediacy of personal witness got bogged down in self-absorption or social protest.

Lopate’s essays have taken a different course. His gods are Montaigne, the father of the essay, whose field of research was his own mind, and William Hazlitt, who, besides being an incomparable literary critic, sketched vehement novelistic impressions of what no one else thought worth noticing, from boxing matches and Indian jugglers to “the pleasure of hating.” Lopate’s three earlier collections and his book-length essays match Haz­litt’s promiscuous host of interests with Montaigne’s piercing attention to his inner life, his quicksilver thoughts and fugitive impressions. No other writer could have written books on both Susan Sontag (“Notes on Sontag,” 2009) and the Manhattan shoreline (“Waterfront,” 2004), each of them exhaustively well informed yet disarmingly subjective. Lopate’s new collection, “Portrait Inside My Head,” gives full play to an even wider range: immensely readable essays on his family, on remaining a baseball fan, on his sex life (“Duration; Or, Going Long”), on the tense romance between movies and novels, on old and new features of New York’s urban landscape, and on elusive writers like James Agee and Leonard Michaels, themselves bold essayists who blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction.

To get such a mélange published, most writers would have grasped at some theme to give the appearance of a “real” book. Lopate’s introduction takes the opposite tack, making a case for this “motley collection” as a frank miscellany. What holds it together is an engaging voice, the projection of a curious, appealingly modest, sometimes self-mocking character behind that voice, and “the fluent play of a single consciousness.” He’s gifted at staging his inner conflicts, radiating intimacy without descending into the confessional. Again and again Lopate writes less about a stable subject than about his own constantly evolving views of it. In an ingenious essay, “On Changing One’s Mind About a Movie,” he writes: “The ultimate question may not be, What is the correct critical judgment to make of a particular film? but, What are our different needs and understandings at various stages in life?” With a wealth of examples of movies that felt different for him when he was younger, he serves up an oblique sliver of autobiography, taking the measure of his middle-aging self through the movies that formed him.

The personal essays that open the book are like snapshots, a memoir by glimpses, each from a different angle: his parents’ ill-fated camera shop in their mostly black and Hispanic — and poor — Brooklyn neighborhood; his loving but competitive relationship with his older brother, Leonard, the well-known radio host; an embarrassing episode as a youthful Hebrew tutor, sliding down “the slippery slope of disbelief,” behaving badly, losing his small store of Jewish faith; and best of all “The Lake of Suffering,” a wrenching account of a grave illness that kept his baby daughter in the hospital for many months after her birth. These last two, one comic, the other near tragic, are as riveting as short stories, with arresting openings, sculptured scenes worthy of fiction, introspective passages fingering his own feelings, and haunting conclusions that resonate with everything that came before.

Lest we miss the craft that shapes these pieces, Lopate has brought out a second collection of essays, “To Show and to Tell,” that gives away all his trade secrets — a thoughtful guidebook for writers of literary nonfiction that could serve as a commentary on his essays. It threads its way around the pitfalls of personal writing: the need to turn oneself into a character; to write honestly, assertively about friends and family; and to find exactly where and how to sign off. From experience he counsels writers to “make lots of friends, because you are bound to lose a few,” and “for the same reason, try to come from a large family.”

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"With his deep knowledge of the medium, Phillip Lopate provides a tour of a century of film and the splendid writing it has inspired. Lopate, a gifted essayist, is an ideal guide to these riches."
-ROGER EBERT
"This provocative collection provides not only dozens of colorful close-ups of iconic movies but also a vivid panorama of modern times."
-A. SCOTT BERG
"A distinguished compendium, which . . . has earned its place in the library of any devoted cinephile, and on the shelves of readers interested in the development of the critical essay in America."
-"San Francisco Chronicle"
"It's a great book for carefree browsing. Set it on the nightstand or the coffee table and flip through it until something catches your eye-and it will, guaranteed."
-"Richmond Times-Dispatch"
"This great, illuminating companion, . . . which features writings by great daily critics and writerly giants like Edmund Wilson, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, is both a canon and a priceless greatest-hits sampler."
-"Boston Globe"
"The value of American Movie Critics lies in its sweep, its attempt to grab the whole history of a vibrant and underappreciated genre, a mode of conversation, often of provocation. . . . I loved this book even when I disagreed with it."
-"Los Angeles Times"


aWith his deep knowledge of the medium, Phillip Lopate provides a tour of a century of film and the splendid writing it has inspired. Lopate, a gifted essayist, is an ideal guide to these riches.a
aROGER EBERT
aThis provocative collection provides not only dozens of colorful close-ups of iconic movies but also a vivid panorama of modern times.a
aA. SCOTT BERG
aA distinguished compendium, which . . . has earned its place in the library of any devoted cinephile, and on the shelves of readers interested in the development of the critical essay in America.a
a"San Francisco Chronicle"
aItas a great book for carefree browsing. Set it on the nightstand or the coffee table and flip through it until something catches your eyeaand it will, guaranteed.a
a"Richmond Times-Dispatch"
aThis great, illuminating companion, . . . which features writings by great daily critics and writerly giants like Edmund Wilson, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, is both a canon and a priceless greatest-hits sampler.a
a"Boston Globe"
aThe value of American Movie Critics lies in its sweep, its attempt to grab the whole history of a vibrant and underappreciated genre, a mode of conversation, often of provocation. . . . I loved this book even when I disagreed with it.a
a"Los Angeles Times"


With his deep knowledge of the medium, Phillip Lopate provides a tour of a century of film and the splendid writing it has inspired. Lopate, a gifted essayist, is an ideal guide to these riches.
ROGER EBERT
This provocative collection provides not only dozens of colorful close-ups of iconic movies but also a vivid panorama of modern times.
A. SCOTT BERG
A distinguished compendium, which . . . has earned its place in the library of any devoted cinephile, and on the shelves of readers interested in the development of the critical essay in America.
"San Francisco Chronicle"
It s a great book for carefree browsing. Set it on the nightstand or the coffee table and flip through it until something catches your eye and it will, guaranteed.
"Richmond Times-Dispatch"
This great, illuminating companion, . . . which features writings by great daily critics and writerly giants like Edmund Wilson, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, is both a canon and a pricele

?With his deep knowledge of the medium, Phillip Lopate provides a tour of a century of film and the splendid writing it has inspired. Lopate, a gifted essayist, is an ideal guide to these riches.?
?ROGER EBERT
?This provocative collection provides not only dozens of colorful close-ups of iconic movies but also a vivid panorama of modern times.?
?A. SCOTT BERG
?A distinguished compendium, which . . . has earned its place in the library of any devoted cinephile, and on the shelves of readers interested in the development of the critical essay in America.?
?"San Francisco Chronicle"
?It's a great book for carefree browsing. Set it on the nightstand or the coffee table and flip through it until something catches your eye?and it will, guaranteed.?
?"Richmond Times-Dispatch"
?This great, illuminating companion, . . . which features writings by great daily critics and writerly giants like Edmund Wilson, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, is b

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