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A master craftsman

Natural Selection Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books Gary Giddins Oxford University Press: 448 pp., $35

July 23, 2006|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography" and "The Essential Chaplin."

TO write seriously about topics -- movies, jazz, popular fiction -- that many people regard as peripheral or totally irrelevant to their lives is among the least gratifying of occupations. That's particularly true now, when the pendulum seems to be permanently stuck at the burbling end of the spectrum, where the bloggers -- history-free and sensibility-deprived -- weekly blurb the latest Hollywood effulgence and are rewarded by seeing their opinions bannered atop movie display ads in type sizes elsewhere reserved for the outbreak of wars and the demise of presidents.

Even in the dwindling realm where critics still attempt to make fine distinctions, there are problems, mostly of tone. For my sins, I enjoy the wise-guy riffs of Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, but I have to admit that his manner is not well-suited to the middle range, where many of the movies that are most interesting to write about uneasily reside. At the spectrum's other end is Stanley Cavell -- the professor Irwin Corey of film studies -- who has never met a movie he cannot obfuscate with a viscous prose style that reaches ever higher levels of unintended risibility. Where, I've often wondered, is a critic who wears his erudition lightly, writes with an impeccable combination of verve and sobriety and, above all, makes you see (and hear) the objects of his ruminations? Is it possible to find such a critic whose medium is prose (always slow-footed in comparison, say, to a Bryan Singer movie) and topics evanescent: a perfect cut between scenes in a movie, for example, or a four-bar melodic fragment in an arrangement of Gil Evans' song "La Nevada."

I think I've finally found my man. His name is Gary Giddins, and he has, of course, long been known as a premier jazz critic (even by tin-eared me). I took to reading him on that subject purely for the pleasure of his company, long before I actually met him. (Full disclosure: We enjoy a pleasantly collegial relationship, tempered by the fact that we live at opposite ends of the continent.) He has previously written occasionally about the movies but in recent years has started regularly reviewing DVDs for the New York Sun while contemplating larger cinematic topics for other publications. These pieces are mainly about the "classics" -- a kiss-of-death word -- but they bring him into a world I know at least a little about, and they offer a vitality of insight that's inspiring. You read Giddins and you start adding to your Netflix queue.

DVDs represent a technology that is a boon (in image quality) and a nuisance -- they are often stupidly manufactured, technically speaking, and are still too fussy to handle without damaging. But they are vital to Giddins' critical practice, for he is a master of the rewind and pause buttons, which give him the ability to move back and forth, studying his material and making up his mind at leisure. (Actually, of course, the remote is available to all of us, but few of us have Giddins' passionate thumb.)

The results of his devotion are immediately apparent in the first two sections of "Natural Selection" (to be published early next month), one consisting of long essays on great comedians, the other of pieces about older movies and their stars and directors. The first thing you notice is the casual comfort with which Giddins introduces lofty critical references into his considerations of humble popular culture. He smoothly eases Henri Bergson and Ralph Waldo Emerson into his superb essay on Jack Benny, for instance. But he also introduces us, via a quotation from Larry Adler, the harmonica player who toured with Benny, to a radical conception of what Benny was actually up to: Adler said the comedian "not only epitomized Jewish storytelling and intonation, but showed everyone else how to do it." The high-low range of Giddins' references never fails to stir me to envy and despair.

I don't mean to imply that Giddins is more reliant on his research than he is on his own questing eye. Here he is on Charlie Chaplin: "There is a difference between sentimentality, which is almost always crass and phony, and pathos, the comedian's acknowledgment of tragedy. Chaplin has ruined numerous comedians who wanted his tears but didn't possess his equilibrium.... Movies always try to manipulate our emotions. We are pleased to admit that a filmmaker can make us laugh or keep us in suspense, but we are reluctant to credit one who makes us cry. Yet the latter effect requires as much precision and perhaps even more taste."

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