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Daphne Merkin

Sex and the Cinema: How Hollywood Shaped Desire

Who doesn’t love movies? When my mother was gravely ill, there was nothing she wanted more than to watch the screeners of new films I brought her or old ones I rented for her. I, in turn, still remember the first movie I ever saw: an early Disney feature called “Third Man on the Mountain” (when I checked it out on Google the entry lined up with my memories of the film). I was all of 5 years old at the time, and TV watching, which was still a black-and-white phenomenon, wasn’t much of a thing in my family, so the whole experience of sitting in a darkened theater, waiting for the big screen to flicker into life, inspired a kind of awe.

The sheer frisson that comes with moviegoing still remains with me — and, I would wager, still exists for a lot of people, even those jaded by watching videos on their cellphones. Although there are any number of people who wrote and write well about film, including Robert Warshow, Richard Schickel, John Simon and Molly Haskell, the sense of primal excitement I am alluding to can be felt in the writing of only a few movie critics. I have in mind particularly the Scottish novelist and screenwriter Gilbert Adair, whose film criticism for The Independent was both witty (he was fond of puns) and profound; Pauline Kael, whose passion for film was palpable however wildly she often struck; and David Thomson, the British-born cinephile whose “Biographical Dictionary of Film” (now in its sixth edition) is one of the most trenchant and eccentric reference works ever conceived.

New York Times | February 18 2019.


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