Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Marxism Goes to the Movies: On Pioneering Activist Film Critic Harry Alan Potamkin

It would probably be an exaggeration to call Harry Alan Potamkin America's first great movie critic. The country would have to wait for the advent of the mature Many Farber in 1949 for sustained, idiosyncratic greatness. (I intentionally bypass Otis Ferguson and, for all the pleasure his prose affords, James Agee). Read nearly any of Potamkin's reviews or articles and his distinguishing faults become immediately apparent: the abstract terminology ("visual motor-graph," "social idea"), his now-naïve faith in the Soviet Union as the most promising hope for civilization, the occasional clumsiness of his prose, his ultra-stringent criteria for a film's accomplishments that left a personal canon of only about half a dozen films that were deemed worthy of inclusion. But for all that, Potamkin remains America's first critic who produced a body of work of lasting value, the first to understand film's role as a social medium that wasn't either passive entertainment or isolated work of art, but one that played an active role in shaping the society that produced it.

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