Wednesday, December 14, 2005

dec 12 issue: a few questions for lane

One Edward Champion had this to say about New Yorker film reviews. And I think Juniper Pearl had a similiar gripe with Denby on Broken Flowers, but I cannot find it. Both dislike the arbitrary judgements without evidence or reference.

The "slight" quality of the reviews doesn't bother me, exactly. You could say a lot with few words (I can't, but maybe you could) and Pauline Kael certainly could. This struck me when I was recently reading her capsules in 5001 Nights . . . but compared to Denby, and Lane too, she's got the world at her fingertips, her range of reference is so wide and deep and funny and startling too. A sharp comparison and a smidge of description goes a long way. (And, for better or worse, she calls a conventionally cinematic lesbian - the recurring figure of the interior decorator in a funny hat - a lesbian. Repeatedly. More on that later.)

Funny thing about 5001, the preface includes the following: "I sometimes tried to blend my view of the movie with some of the language from the magazine's initial review of it. So I've had to check those reviews to give the proper credits. Phrases from other reviewers still appear in eighty-odd cases [she lists and credits] Most of the time, these borrowings are no more than a few words, but in some I lifted descriptive passages that I liked. To these predecessors and colleagues I offer my thanks." (viii) This "borrowing" seems preferable to having no frame of reference - genre, period, industry - in a film review and sometimes I feel it has been like that in the New Yorker recently.

Anthony Lane is funny and I like him. I thought the Narnia review was hysterical but I didn't care for the books and I don't like sci-fi or Christian allegory or, frankly, any kind of allegory, I like fucking realism, OK, and Tim Burke did a nice job of addressing the film, if you are interested, but I'm not. It's fine for Lane to be glib when he's trying to be funny and dismissive. You don't want to get bogged down with a comparative study when you're trying to make people laugh.

But Lane on Brokeback Mountain was more frustrating. Because I like Westerns and adaptations and queer stories and Ang Lee and Michelle Williams. And so, it seems, did he. So I'd like him to be a little more explicit about the following:

1. "Does any director still have the patience to let our gaze rest without skittering upon the Western landscape?" (117) Good question. What other directors have been skittering lately? And what directors of yore do you recall as having had a slower pace? And what is wrong with skittering? What effect does it have and how would a slower pace have been more effective and to what ends, if that is what you feel?

2. "[...] Lee's helplessly good taste, which has proved both a gift and a curb, was always going to lure him away from sweating limbs towards the coupling of souls." (117-8) Where and when has Lee's good taste proved both gift and curb? And why is it helplessly good? What the hell does that mean? It sounds critical, but what are you trying to critique with that phrase? And why not hopelessly good? Is diction meaningful or not?

3. "Indeed what will vex some viewers is not the act of sodomy but the suggestion that Ennis and Jack are possessed of an innocence, a virginity of spirit, that the rest of society will strive to subdue." (118) Whom will that vex? I can see it vexing various spectators and for various reasons . . . And how does the film argue for their "virginity of spirit" and is this like or unlike the ways in which other Westerns and Hollywood queer stories have addressed similar themes? Related to that, I think, but Lane isn't too clear is . . .

4. "American Rousseauism, with its worship of open plains and its dread of civic constraint" (118) - I'll buy that there is such a thing, but what other names does it go by? How does it appear in other films in other times?

5. "There is little in Lee's film that would have rattled the spurs of Montgomery Clift in 'Red River.'" (118) Again, no doubt, but what are you trying to say about this film, Clift, Red River?

Better is Lane's description of "the most crushing moment" with reference to Lee's other work. But the end bombs.

6. "This slow and stoic movie, hailed as a gay Western, feels neither gay nor especially Western; it is a study of love under seige." This sentence only makes sense if we assume there are stable definitions for what "feels" gay (not very likely and Lane hasn't offered any anway) and "feels" Western (more likely, but Lane hasn't offered any of these either) and love. Baloney. There are good, political, reasons for insisting that the relationship in this film is part and parcel of some universal love but . . .

. . . the uncertain language of the review (and everything it does not say about Hollywood, Westerns, queer stories, Ang Lee and Michelle Williams) makes it seem as though Lane and the film share the attitude that gay love is still "the love which dare not speak its name." Which makes this stoic movie a particularly relevant movie for the politics of this particular time and place, not just a touching, abstract, universalized "study of love under seige."

So, if instead of a bunch of suggestive phrases, Lane had been a little more explicit, he'd have written film criticism with a political edge. And what is the relationship between a stoic film, like this one, and the "tell-all" pleasures of Celluloid Closet, which everyone on my blogroll (well, emdashes and Amardeep Singh) has been enjoying?

The dictionary definition of stoic is (like I need to tell you):

stoic - A. n. 1. (With capital initial.) One of a school of Greek philosophers (founded by Zeno, fl. c 300 B.C.), characterized by the austerity of its ethical doctrines for some of which the name has become proverbial (see 2). 2. One who practises repression of emotion, indifference to pleasure or pain, and patient endurance.

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Blogger Pip Harper said...

I thought Lane's review made sense, or most of it did.

Denby is a bitter, bitter man and I don't think I've ever read a positive review from him... unless it was a movie made in Eastern Europe for about 20 ducats.

9:55 PM  
Blogger juniper pearl said...

i made my gripe here, my beloved enemy, so that may be why you weren't able to find it. it's a comment under your october blurb about his apartment (tiddely-pom), and it isn't at all intelligent or supported by fact, just, well, gripey. but i stand by it; that movie deserved better.

12:23 AM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

Here's the link to jp's comment.

I think its right on because if the critic can't be descriptive or give us some points of reference, it sounds like he hasn't seen the movie at all. Which annoys readers who have seen the movie, and doesn't provide a meaningful experience for readers who have not and want the review to be, to some extent, a virtual experience of film. That would be me. You may have noticed that I don't see films very quickly after I read about them. I once read and thought about a movie for 2 years before I saw it . . .

Welcome, pip. FYI, I cry in public ALL THE TIME.

10:39 AM  

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