Thumbs-up, thumbs-down? Hardly. Writing about movies is an art, and no one’s better than the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane.
A critic’s command performance
Nov. 3, 2002, Austin American-Statesman
For the poor newspaper critic, sandwiched between the twin tyrannies of limited space and lightning turn-around, there is no soul luckier than a critic at the New Yorker.
Each week, we flip to the back of the magazine to consume the latest feast of erudition, savoring the gourmet prose, swishing succulent epiphanies and cracking teeth on bones of contention. We envy the elegant typeface, marvel at the breadth of brain-power lent to the task.
Most of all, we swoon over the space. Newspaper folk write in inches. New Yorker scribes write in acres. Their minds are granted fenceless fields in which to gambol and cartwheel, run far and wide and swing from tree branches. They can digress and allude and seemingly take all day.
The extravagant space is one reason why the magazine’s second-string film critic Anthony Lane (David Denby is its chief film critic) has become a New Yorker star. On the page and in person (or at least during a recent phone interview), Lane is irrepressibly verbose. Words disgorge in precise eruptions, flittery but finely thought-out, crisp, lyrical and witty. But, still, copious.
Lane needs the magazine’s roominess to do what he does: write possibly the funniest, smartest and most urbane film musings in the nation. His expansive, riffing prose is allowed to roam and breathe. Filmmakers adore his words as much as readers. Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg are a few directors who have called or written Lane with praise.
Lane recently turned 40 and has just released his first collection of journalism, “Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker,” a 753-page tree stump engorged with roughly 100 movie reviews, a dozen excellent literary critiques and 20 or so profiles on everyone from astronauts to Julia Roberts.
Both exhilarating and exhausting — its sheer volume of distilled dazzle winds you — the anthology indeed goes to show that nobody’s perfect, not even Lane. This is not a swipe; no writer or performer (Lane is both) is flawless. Often you can sense Lane sweating for laughs, winding up for the big guffaw that turns out a groan. His clamoring need to entertain distracts from his spotty film knowledge, which he convincingly caulks with learned intuition and cultural acumen.
Lane is naturally being looked upon as heir to the late Pauline Kael, who perked up and aerated the dowdy vocabulary of criticism for three decades in The New Yorker. But the two are very different critics. Where Kael was harsh and decisive and rarely gallant, Lane is dapper and polite, with a gossamer touch and jolly countenance. Lane critiques with skipping insights, not spike-shoed stomps.
Irony is a way of being mean without looking your subject in the eye, and it is Lane’s handiest weapon. But occasionally the Briton peels off his white gloves: ” ‘Meet Joe Black’ is endless, bewildering, starved of logic, and, if you stand back from it, something of a joke. In short, it feels like death.” He chops down “The Phantom Menace” to a single epithet: “crap.”
In the book’s introduction, Lane admits he shrinks from blanket judgments. “The primary task of the critic . . . is the recreation of texture — not telling moviegoers what they should see, but filing a sensory report on the kind of experience into which they will be wading,” he explains.
“Any serious critic should have his thumbs removed surgically before they start the job,” Lane told me by phone. “The whole thumbs-up, thumbs-down is the least interesting part of our job. I’m not quite sure why our (opinions) should have any more validity than anyone else’s. Just because we’ve seen more movies than them doesn’t mean we’re better or worse judges. It’s what we do to back them up that’s important. . . . In Kael’s pieces, I feel her almost standing up and hectoring me. I think she genuinely, passionately believed in her judgment. I think she physically held to them and defended them in a spirited way, more so than I would.”
It is partly this timidity that has rendered Lane something of a lightweight in the eyes of more academic-minded film critics. Venom is frequently flung from pedants such as The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has dismissed Lane as a “stand-up comedian,” and former New York Press critic Godfrey Cheshire, who called Lane’s prose “gaseous and cute” and Lane himself “the most embarrassing high-profile film writer in the United States.”
“I’m sure some of it is true, and I bow to the superior knowledge of most of these guys who do know far more about movies than I do,” Lane responds. “I respect what they do far more than they respect what I do.”
But what Lane has on his detractors is sheer literary dash. His writing has a levitating effect. It flounces and sings, each sentence leaving behind a trail of stars. Amid the virtuosity, he still manages the dirty business of criticism, invoking historical and aesthetic context with authority.
“If we wrote about movies with the same slightly dogged intensity that we write about poetry or fiction — I’m not sure what it would come out sounding like,” Lane says. “It wouldn’t sound like somebody who actually goes to the movies and enjoys it. . . .
“I want to reproduce the conditions in which the viewing public gets to see movies. So if it seems I’m sort of coming upon them and tackling them and then walking away from them, I hope that’s not a fault. It’s in the nature of moviegoing itself.”
This glibness remains Lane’s strength and weakness as a critic. “A critic,” he writes, “is just a regular viewer with a ballpoint pen, an overstocked memory, and an underpowered social life.” Is that so?
That’s a dumbly demotic comment made for laughs and amity, and Lane is quick with similar unhelpful lines.
Still, his writing is such a treat most of the time that allowances can be made. The suggested approach is to savor Lane as a writer first, a film critic second. With writing this entertaining, it is positively churlish to resist it.