Dancing in the Dark

Dancing in the Dark

Left in the Dark: Film Reviews and Essays, 1988-2001
by Stuart Klawans
Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002, 340 pp., $15.95

Around a decade ago, the Nation started publishing a movie critic who not only displayed the brains, sensitivity, social conscience, and intellectual horizon that we would expect in James Agee’s old mag, but who, when he was hot, burned up the page like he was twenty. In a single column, a week’s copy, he could do a Hollywood blockbuster, an independent short, a European classic—Fellini, say, or Renoir; he could be a muckraker, a gag writer, a liberation theologian (“screenplay by God”), and a lyrical poet; he could make it all come together, fluidly, like a dance. It didn’t take long for a cult following to grow, and I was glad to be part of it. For years many people have wanted to know, Why isn’t Stuart Klawans in print? It’s a pleasure to be able to give the right answer at last.

Through the years, I’ve become Stuart’s friend, but even as I composed this Full Disclosure, I realized I didn’t know much about him. I called him up and found out a little more. He is fifty-one years old; he grew up Jewish on Chicago’s South Side, near the steel mills that are no more (do you know Sara Paretsky’s mysteries? It’s her old neighborhood); he went to an integrated public high school full of Jews and blacks; he won a scholarship to Yale, where he majored in English; he has spent most of the last thirty years in New York, writing publicity for the Museum of Modern Art while he worked on his (as yet unpublished) fiction. It was only gradually, as he joined a synagogue, got married, had a child, and approached middle age that Klawans metamorphosed into a critic. Even now, he is often forced to morph backward, to work in art publicity and public relations, in order to make a living. But his sense of identity as a critic feels fairly new—when I asked on the phone, he said maybe a couple of years old, no more—and this may help explain why his critical voice is so fresh.

Left in the Dark is Klawans’s first book. It consists of fifty or so reviews and essays, going back to the late 1980s. It’s a very nice-looking book, and, because Klawans talks about so many things, it would be even nicer with an index and a more explicit table of contents. The pieces are not arranged chronologically, but according to some inner code that’s hard to crack. Still, as we read, we can feel an author grow.

The first great piece we see, which really pulls us into the book, is a 1994 review of Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert’s splendid documentary, Hoop Dreams. This film focuses on the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black teenagers who can play ball. They are plucked from Chicago’s streets, granted athletic scholarships, and sub...

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