Thursday, May 21, 2009

Oh Anthony Lane, If That Really Is Your Name

Many readers of The New Yorker, I'm sure, can remember the first time they howled with laughter at one of Anthony Lane's film reviews. For me, this happened as I read his review of The Da Vinci Code while waiting for a table at a popular Ashland brunch spot--and was giggling by the end of the first sentence. In retrospect, I don't know why it took me so long to notice Lane--maybe it's because before that day in the café, I mostly read The New Yorker in my college library, not an environment conducive to fits of hysterical mirth. Or maybe it's because I'd actually read The Da Vinci Code and knew whereof he spoke.

At any rate, that review made me an Anthony Lane devotee, so I recently spent an inordinate amount of time wondering whether The New Yorker could persuade him to take one for the team and review Angels & Demons. Yes, it would probably give him an ulcer, but what's an ulcer compared to the delight his review would bring to thousands of New Yorker readers like myself?

Alas, 'twas not to be, and David Denby provides a humorless, perfunctory review of Angels & Demons in this week's issue. (I also got my hopes up for A.O. Scott's New York Times review of the film, which begins with some great zingers, but disappointingly, pulls its punches at the end.)

At least there are still plenty of mediocre movies for Lane to skewer on a biweekly basis. Most recently, his Star Trek review made me laugh with a digression that disparages the recent trend for movies to show the hero's "long-range backstory":
I lost patience with [...] Batman Begins from the moment that mini-Bruce tumbled into a well full of bats. What's wrong with "Batman Is"? In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince?
And because paragraphs like these make life better, I've been reading Lane's book Nobody's Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker for the past three weeks. This is like the Platonic ideal of a book to keep on your bedside table and read a little of each night. That's unusual for me to do: I tend to voraciously devour any piece of writing that interests me. But this one is worth savoring. And at 720 densely printed pages, it's lasting me a good long time. The first half of the compilation consists of film reviews; the second half (which I have not yet reached) contains longer profiles and critical essays.

Lane started at The New Yorker in 1993, and this book came out in 2002, meaning that it covers an odd selection of films--not old enough to be classics, but (by and large) not recent enough for me to have seen them when they opened. But I'm not reading the book to get ideas for DVDs to rent; more to stimulate my own writing skills and critical faculties, to delight in some very clever prose, and to fall asleep in a guaranteed good mood.

You get a different perspective on a critic by reading him in a concentrated dose like this, rather than fortnightly--you see more layers. By popular renown, Anthony Lane is the Great Eviscerator, scourge of brainless blockbusters, spinning out witty riffs about disposable movies. But that doesn't take into account the real moral indignation in some of his reviews, the anger at the Tarantino-ish trend of playing violence for laughs. And his reputation as a cultured Englishman writing cultured prose for a cultured magazine hides the fact that he has a thoroughly dirty mind. If you want a reviewer who'll always tell you if a movie has sex scenes and whether they're any good, Lane's your man. (Though perhaps all film critics would do this if they could--if they wrote for cultured magazines like The New Yorker rather than for "family newspapers.")

Lane's pans of movies like Watchmen or Star Trek lead some people to dismiss him as a cranky curmudgeon. But I don't get that from his writing at all: instead, the puns, the sex jokes, the breezy allusions to Shakespeare and other classic authors, remind me of a precocious boarding-school boy. (He was barely in his thirties when he started at The New Yorker.) And despite his erudition and his high standards, I wouldn't call him pretentious, either. If he's a little self-conscious about his love for a lowbrow movie like Speed, he still loves it no less than he does Before Sunrise. Besides, laughter is the world's best antidote to pretentiousness--and there are a whole lot of laughs in this book.


Tarra Slovan said...

I wish there were more cranky curmudgeons out there. I just read Lane's Bruno review and I officially want Mr. Lane to marry my sister --which is the highest possible compliment... in my compliment bag.

Marissa said...

I hope your sister doesn't mind cranky curmudgeons! Though that "Bruno" review is indeed an instant classic (and something that proves that Lane has more on his mind than just being funny).

Tarra Slovan said...

I just saw your comment. No, she loves cranky curmudgeons. I know have my eye on Anthony Lane and Peter Serafinowitz for her. They are married but ... down the road....

Saw Bruno since and Anthony Lane was competely right on in that review.

Gerry said...

Anthony Lane is the worst critic I have ever read. He is arrogant and uninformed about many things in pop culture, yet he masks himself as an intellectual and professional of such things. His Finding Nemo, Star War and Watchmen reviews are the most telling of his absurd and laughable reviewing style. He could at least get the facts of a movie right before he writes them. I wish I could make a living by being snarky and cutting other people down.

Marissa said...

Well, Gerry, you're entitled to your opinion. Yes, it would be nice if you could make a living by writing snarky and dismissive reviews. And I'm sure it would be much more satisfying for you to do it for a major national magazine than to do it in the comments section of an unimportant blog!

Gerry said...

Don't think I could live with myself by cutting down the work of other artists and getting paid for it.

My classmate studied abroad at Cambridge and had Lane as a professor. Said that man is brilliant, but completely pompous and pretentious. Quite full of himself. When one disagrees with him he bombards that person with references so that the he or she is merely overwhelmed.

He does this in his reviews too. Research his references and you see that the man has no idea what is talking about. Again, see his review of Watchmen. There are plenty of things to critique about that movie, but the points he harps on are just ludicrous. He acts as if he has read the source material when it is blatantly clear to anyone who has that the man has never touched it.

That's just shotty journalism.

Marissa said...

Hm. I guess that I just see Anthony Lane as more than a tearer-down of movies. I happen to think that movies like "The Da Vinci Code" and "Star Wars" do deserve some mockery (and I'm not sure what factual errors you're referring to--I always thought The New Yorker was really a stickler for fact-checking?). But, for instance, two of my favorite recent-ish movies are "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Lives of Others"--both of them morally serious dramas. And if Lane had spent his whole review mocking them in the way that he can mock a blockbuster, I would have found THAT unforgivable; even if you don't like these movies, you should at least see that they deserve thoughtful consideration! But Lane's reviews of these movies are both perceptive and highly appreciative.

As for what he's like in person, I'm sorry that your friend found him so unpleasant, but if I were to limit myself to only reading authors who are kind and lovely people in real life, I'd be missing out on a lot of good writing.

And hey, even after all that, you say that your friend was still willing to say he's brilliant!

Marissa said...

P.S. Gerry--So I guess, upon further reflection, I can see what you're getting at--you thought that a movie like "Watchmen" deserved the kind of thoughtful review that we know that Lane can give a movie like "Brokeback Mountain," and not his make-fun-of-superheroes stuff. Unfortunately I can't speak any more on this point, because I've neither seen nor read "Watchmen."