Friday, August 19, 2005

Anthony Lane could most certainly write his way out of a paper bag and a good number of other things, as well

The man is skilled with a pen, I must admit. In fact, he's a better writer than film critic. This week's issue of The New Yorker amply illustrates how this trait can work to both his advantage and disadvantage.

In his review of Asylum, which has been roundly panned by critics across the board, he very creatively mocks the film's formulaic romance plot to devastating effect:

I wish I could tell you that what happens next came as a blistering surprise, but if there's one thing that years of moviegoing teach you it is basic algebra, and the rule runs as follows: (Frustrated Wife ÷ Late-Fifties Lingerie) - √(Dull Husband) x (Demonic Yet Strangely Tender Hunk + Glowing Eyes) = Greenhouse Rock.

This happy marriage of prose and mathematics is a fine example of the kind of fun one can have when writing a negative review. Having some personal experience with the matter, I can assure you it's a great feeling and, ironically (considering that bad art is the jumping off point), a perfect opportunity to flex one's writing muscles. Some of the best pieces I've ever written were about really bad movies.

It's important, however, not to become too enamored with one's own writing, because it can lead you astray. Given the opportunity, the writing will push the movie - the ostensible subject of the piece - out of the spotlight and direct all attention to itself; once it picks up some momentum, a review can develop it's own logic and reason that will direct it away from the actual facts about the movie and into the more theoretical realm of what looks best on a piece of paper.

Such is the case, sadly, with his second review: a lukewarm piece about 2046. Now, I'll grant you that I am clearly biased against this review from the start - Wong Kar-wai is one of my favorite directors - but, nonetheless, Lane's review, although very gracefully written, has precious little merit or justification.

His first crime is his attack against the verisimilitude of Chow's success with women:

I am not competent to judge whether Chow is really the type to make the opposite sex go weak at the knees, waist, neck, and other points of seizure, although to my eyes he looked, with his whisker of mustache, like a no-good rat in a George Raft movie. What I will say is that nobody who has the ungallant gall to inform us, in voice-over, that “I became an expert ladies' man” is a ladies' man at all. Ladies of every description will know him better as a creep.

If, as he claims, he's incapable of judging whether or not Chow is attractive to women - a statement reminiscent of the kind of homophobia displayed by George Costanza in Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that" - how does he have such a priveleged perspective into the female mind as to be so assured of what ladies would think of him?

From this point on, Mr. Lane seems to simply miss the point. His mockery of Wong's "visual dictatorship" and so-called impassive approach to romantic affairs, reveals one of the following: he didn't understand In the Mood for Love, he didn't like it, he doesn't understand the connection between the two movies, or he cannot sympathize with the effect of lost love upon a sincere and emotional man. The impassivity of both Chow and the visual design of the film reflect the character's emotional retreat after the heartbreak he experienced at the end of In the Mood for Love. This emotional defensiveness does make the movie harder to relate to than its predecessor, but it also makes it true. Chow hides his emotions and keeps women at arm's length and, yes, does outwardly act like something of a creep, so, in that sense Mr. Lane is right, but not for the reason that he thinks he is.

For the most part, I like Anthony Lane - he's certainly a better critic than his New Yorker colleague David Denby - but he needs to remember that although his writing is important, it's not quite the point. In this recent piece, it looks like he allowed the negativity of his first review to seep unjustifiably into his second, perhaps because it made the piece flow better as whole. Although it does make for a pleasant read, it's unfaithful to the material. A critic is still a journalist and sometimes you need to sacrifice a little cogency for the sake of honest and thorough reporting.


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