Acclaimed writer finds his muse - the movies

When does Phillip Lopate find time for the movies?

It's hard to imagine, since he is one of the busiest writers around. He's most famous as a personal essayist, with books like "Portrait of My Body" and "Against Joie de Vivre," but he's also published novels and poetry. He's an English professor and an acclaimed editor whose recent collection of New York essays earned a rave review from Garrison Keillor.

But movies have filled his mind for as long as he can remember, and he has finally published a book about this enthusiasm: "Totally, Tenderly, Tragically," named after a line in a beloved French drama. It covers issues as varied as the comedy of Jerry Lewis, the experimentalism of director Jean-Luc Godard, and the images of children on the screen.

Lopate is delighted that his two artistic loves, literature and cinema, have finally come together in his career. "I've written collections with essays on friendship, city life, family life," he said during last fall's Telluride Film Festival, where he has served as a guest programmer. "I always need something outside myself to get my prose engine going. In this case, I used movies as the meditation screen on which to think my thoughts."

What was the beginning of his "lifelong love affair with the movies," to quote the subtitle of his new book? "I grew up in a Brooklyn slum," he replies with a quiet smile. "In a way it was a very stimulating place, but in another way it was a sensorily deprived place. I can remember living in this tenement and going to movies where I saw swimming pools, dappled sunlight, whole alternate worlds."

Later on, he discovered "movies that showed poverty, reflecting back to my experience of growing up - but in an aestheticized way that gave it form, even nobility. At first I was dazzled by objects in space and the plenitude of the world, and then I became interested in a more austere approach. I realized that a movie could be emptied out of everything but what's most important, and this emptying can create a kind of spiritual shiver."

This explains Lopate's dedication to a profoundly religious drama like Robert Bresson's classic "Diary of Country Priest," which an essay in the book reveals is one of the movies that most deeply affected his life.

But he has lots of affection for the lighter side, too. Among the pictures of 1998 he singles out favorites like "The Last Days of Disco," describing it as "balanced and literate," and "There's Something About Mary," which he calls "kind of an art film. In a stylized way, it gives us an experience that's never mean, and is kind of utopian, since even though people hurt each other, the hurt doesn't last very long. The sweetness of the main character, Mary, is really remarkable!"

Lopate's tastes are so varied that it's hard to generalize about them, but he has detected a few trends in his own attitude toward film. "The older I get," he muses, "the more I like movies with good characters. I could be more easily seduced by a surface visual style when I was younger. But film schools have turned out so many filmmakers who are brilliant at technique yet know so little about life, so now I want to see signs of maturity, wisdom, complex characterization."

If that's what makes a good movie, what makes a good movie critic? Lopate chuckles at the question, pointing out that he's never worked as a regular reviewer, calling himself "less a critic than a lover, an 'amateur' in the original sense."

But he has ready opinions about what separates a good movie pundit from a bad one. "They respond to visual style," he says of critics he respects. "They don't just tell the plot. And they're responsive to issues outside of the movies, like the spirit of the times, the controversies and politics that are going on. What I like in good critics is the same thing I like in good filmmakers: a feeling for maturity."

He adds that good writers about film understand an idea expressed by Douglas Sirk, a director who reached his pinnacle in Hollywood during the 1950s. "In this book," Lopate says, "I try to tackle something Sirk meant when he said, 'The camera angles are my thoughts, the lighting is my philosophy.' How do movies think? How do we get a sense that the filmmaker is trying to get us to understand something?"

One advantage of writing occasional essays instead of regular reviews is that Lopate can concentrate on movies he likes. "Movies are certainly the most important art form of the 20th century," he says, "and I'd rather focus on the mysteries of good ones, not spend a lot of time writing about things that are miserable."

How can he detect the good ones in advance, so he won't have to waste hours sorting chaff from wheat? Savvy friends help him with tips, he explains, and he has grown "a sort of antenna" after so many years in the dark. "There are also certain words that tip me off to avoid a movie," he mischievously adds. "If someone says a movie is an allegory, or 'magic realism,' I usually don't go. I've also gotten suspicious of the word 'dark' lately."

Does the power of film remain strong for him after so much viewing, writing, and thinking about the subject?

"Absolutely," he says. "Powerful, engaging, mature films continue to be made. Are we living in a golden age of cinema? No. But can you have enough exciting experiences in a year not to feel like an utter fool if you go to the movies? Yes!"

David Sterritt's e-mail address is

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