Thursday, July 3, 2008

Literate insults (present day)

Yesterday I bemoaned the passing of the age of the literate insult. Happily, it's not quite over yet, as a hardy few practitioners are keeping the art form alive. The most obvious example, at least in the media, is New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane.

He's a vestige of the era of Tina Brown, the flamboyant young Englishwoman who had made her name in Manhattan publishing circles by reinvigorating a tired Vanity Fair with a mix of investigative journalism, literary writing and intelligent celebrity profiles (intelligent occasionally even modifying celebrity).

Condé Nast owner Si Newhouse installed her as editor of the venerable New Yorker with a mandate to blow it up, and that she did. For decades the New Yorker had been a sweetly aging dowager, a refuge from the passage of time and the hurlyburly of modern life. With its mild covers featuring quiet still lifes and wintry paintings of Central Park, it was not likely to set your pulse racing. It was polite and restrained, smart and sober, a place to find 20,000 writerly words on the honeybee and no photos, thank you.

Many saw Brown's ascension to the editorship as a threat to the New Yorker they loved, and in ways it was. (The first issue under the new editor featured the Edward Sorel cover at right, which deftly captured the sense that a punky British hellion had invaded a stately New York institution.)

Some New Yorker loyalists were appalled by Brown's focus on hot topics (breaking news, Hollywood stars, the media industry) from which the magazine had long stood at a remove. Others embraced her declared intention to bring the magazine into the modern era while honoring its longtime standards.

For someone seen by many as a vulgarian, a barbarian at the gate, Brown forged an impressive track record in the recruitment department. Even as she'd elevated Vanity Fair with serious reporting from the likes of her biggest hire, Dominick Dunne, so did she make the New Yorker current and vital by bringing in such talent as Malcolm Gladwell, Hendrik Hertzberg, Jeffrey Toobin, Simon Schama, and her own successor as editor, David Remnick. If she loved the sizzle, she didn't forget the steak.

She also broadened its visual horizons, hiring the late Richard Avedon as the first staff photographer, and fired writers whose style or productivity didn't fit into her vision for the magazine. She burned old bridges while building new ones.

There are those who lament the changes Tina Brown wrought, but others who appreciate the energy and excitement she brought to the New Yorker. She also significantly boosted its circulation as she had Vanity Fair's.

No recruit embodies Tina Brown's legacy better than Anthony Lane, whom she brought over from a London newspaper to review films for the New Yorker. Young and elegant, British and impatient, clever and cutting, informed and authoritative, opinionated and blunt, Lane is Tina Brown in a movie theater.

And so to the literate insult. Lane may be billed as a movie critic, but to me he is more like a mild-mannered office worker who moonlights as a professional assassin.

Many of his reviews are beige wallpaper, perfunctory takes on obscure foreign films that play the Angelika for a few weeks and quietly disappear. These writeups are generally sleepy, respectful, uninspiring and uninspired. As for the reviews of mainstream American cinema, Lane's colleague David Denby handles most of these.

But when Hollywood cranks out something big, loud, and dumb, a blockbuster with a huge budget, in-your-face ad campaign, expensive stars, and an idiotic script, David Remnick grabs his highbrow Batphone: it's Anthony Lane time! Thus called to duty, the dapper Englishman unsheaths his poison pen and proceeds methodically to disembowel everyone responsible.

Lane can write a devastating putdown with the best of them; in fact he is the best of them. When he pans, he is by turns sarcastic, cruel, sardonic, broad, snide and hilarious. His facility with language and playful sensibility make his writing fun to read, but no less acidic for its entertainment value. He leaves a trail of scorched earth in his wake without even wrinkling his own starched shirt.

Like many cineastes of the first rank, Anthony Lane is a self-appointed moral guardian of filmdom. His frequent negativity is fueled by a sense of personal disappointment. If he takes you apart it's out of love, driven by his hopeful desire for something better. (As the late George Carlin said, scratch a cynic and you'll find a frustrated idealist.)

Come now, Lane's really saying if you read between the lines, we both know you had a better movie in you than this. He's the teacher who doesn't just give you a D but takes you aside for a personal pep talk; he skewers because he cares. But his tough love is more tough than love. If you release a terrible movie, he'll smite you so hard your ancestors will feel it.

Just the other week, he spent two full pages systematically dismembering the Sex and the City movie and its creators. I would post highlights, but the entire thing is a highlight. (All right, one nugget: "All the film lacks is a subtitle: 'The Lying, the Bitch, and the Wardrobe.' ") The highly unflattering illustration by David Hughes depicting the four leading women as ghoulish harridans underscores the contemptuous Lane-ness of it all. The final twist of the knife is the title: "Carrie."

What makes Anthony Lane's takedowns satisfying is that they're counterpunches. The filmmakers in question have cast the first stone: there is an offense implicit in their insulting our intelligence and wasting our time. It is the Lanes who stand up with righteous indignation in defense of those who ponied up their money and hired a babysitter only to be condescended to. He's not attacking so much as fighting back.

In fairness, when he is so moved, Anthony Lane can write beautifully. When the Lord of the Rings movies were in theaters, Lane wrote a touching paean to the literary trilogy, explaining the books as J.R.R. Tolkien's elegy for England's dying pastoral age and describing their impact upon an impressionable generation of his countrymen. It was fine stuff.

But for every Roger Ebert, equally adept at writing an appreciation or a condemnation, there is an Anthony Lane who shines brightest when eviscerating a subpar movie. Having crossed paths with Mr. Lane several times, I once asked him whether he shared my sense that there are critics with a special flair for negative reviews, and that he was perhaps one of these.

He replied somewhat diffidently that he didn't see things that way. His demurral was understandable, but the available evidence does not help his case.

The Da Vinci Code? Transformers? Speed Racer? To some these are movies, but not to me. I have not seen them and will never see them. To me, these are reasons for Anthony Lane to exist.


John C. said...

This is one of my favorite Lane eviscerations:

Benjamin Chambers said...

Great post - I've always loved Anthony Lane. However, Hendrik Hertzberg apparently started at the magazine in 1969, as a Talk of the Town reporter. Not the sort of thing I usually track, but I literally just learned that from Ben Yagoda's book about the magazine, About Town, p. 334.

Ben said...

Thanks about the post, Benjamin - it was ostensibly about Anthony Lane, but for some reason I went off about Tina Brown to place Lane's tenure in context.

You're right; Hertzberg spent like eight of his post-college years working for the NYer as a young lefty after working on RFK's 1968 presidential campaign. He later became a speechwriter for President Carter and edited the New Republic. So I guess I should have said Tina Brown brought him back.

John, that's a good Lane rip job. I remember reading that and so agreeing with this: "The general opinion of Revenge of the Sith seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion."

I posted a similar sentiment about the Star Wars prequels here: