Why The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane Should Be Avoided

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Down Anthony’s
Lane


But there’s the occasional
example of film writing so extravagantly awful that my forbearance snaps and
irritated silence bows to professional pride. Such a grating instance is Anthony
Lane’s review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the Dec. 11 New
Yorker
. As a piece of prose, Lane’s polite rave for Ang Lee’s
film is competent enough, if typically gaseous and cute. But as film criticism
it’s something far less innocuous, a riot of errors and absurdities that
would make the shoddiest webzine blush.


What’s at issue here
has nothing to do with "opinion," or whether one likes or dislikes
Crouching Tiger. It has to do with the critic’s basic grasp of his
subject, in this case a movie that combines the sleek gravity of a Western art
film with the high-flying acrobatics of a Chinese martial arts movie. Lane seems
to have trouble with both sides of that equation, and I can imagine a couple
of reasons why.


For one, he’s not really
a film critic but a quip-minded belletrist who happened into a lucrative gig
and appears to have no inclination, now, to patch up the gaping holes in his
knowledge of film. (Why learn anything about a subject that’s only there
to be the object of one’s witticisms?) Thus his review reflects a virtually
complete and unapologetic ignorance of Chinese action-movie traditions and conventions
that, besides being of central importance to Crouching Tiger, are by
now familiar to many Western movie fans. The only name he mentions, Bruce Lee,
is the one Chinese star your granny in Dubuque knows.


Arguably a greater stumbling
block, though, lies in the fact that Lane, a Brit who lives in London, is habitually
so uninformed and tone-deaf when it comes to things American. Writing of two
Chinese women in Lee’s film, he says that the younger treats the elder
"the way a young black kid would treat Michael Jordan–as a blend of
role model, escape route, and god." Amazingly, that manages to be racist
in two directions at once. (Why would a black kid, as opposed to, say,
a poor kid, view Jordan as an "escape route"? Does Lane think that
all black kids are poor? Or all poor kids black? Or is it blackness that
this rhetorical kid is bent on escaping?)


When he turns from race
to filmmaking, Lane’s ignorance produces some real howlers. "The career
of Ang Lee–and its prospects–strikes me as the most interesting in
Hollywood today," he grandly pronounces. Hollywood? A native of Taiwan,
Lee has spent his career avoiding H-wood by (a) remaining steadfastly based
in New York and (b) making most of his films independent of the major studios.
If he’s a Hollywood director, Woody Allen is the mayor of Bel Air.


Stumbling on, Lane notes
the varied settings of Lee’s movies, including Civil War Missouri in Ride
with the Devil
and "the East Coast" in The Ice Storm, and
explains to the reader that Lee’s films have this diversity "not because
he wants to try his hand but because each new environment promises the chance
of immersion."


In the critical trade, that
sort of analysis is what’s known as pure, grade-A horseshit. It sounds
good but means less than nothing. How does Anthony Lane know why Ang Lee chooses
his projects? Not only does he patently not know, but he appears innocent
of the fact that these choices are jointly made by Lee and James Schamus, Lee’s
longtime partner as producer and writer. Indeed, the creative union of Lee and
Schamus (who goes unmentioned in Lane’s review, though Schamus wrote Crouching
Tiger
) is one of the most unusual and noteworthy phenomena in recent New
York filmmaking. But why should the critic know anything about New York’s
film culture? He only writes for a magazine called The New Yorker, after
all.


The review’s greatest
astonishments, however, are saved for last. Lane’s concluding paragraph
begins:


"This movie is not
just the best of its kind; it seems on the verge of creating a new kind, surpassing
and deflating the old Bruce Lee jamborees with the same dashing intelligence
that allowed Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring
Errol Flynn, to outstrip the more basic bravado of Douglas Fairbanks. Curtiz,
the director of Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, was born Mihaly
Kertesz, in Budapest, and Ang Lee can be seen as a Curtiz for our times: the
uncondescending outsider, reading the runes of the New World. Hollywood needs
such men–civilized craftsmen with honor and humor–more than it needs
the maverick or the self-igniting genius, and just now the need is acute…
Is it too fanciful to suggest that the generation of Lee, Chen Kaige, Wong Kar
Wai [sic], Zhang Yimou, and Hou Hsiao Hsien [sic], or perhaps the generation
that follows them, might ride to the rescue–or, at any rate, the resuscitation–of
American movies with some of the panache that marked the great Mitteleuropa
immigration of the thirties and forties, itself an escape into the entertainment
industry from a world of threat…?"


Not to put too fine a point
on it, but that strikes me as one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read.
It surely takes the cake as the stupidest bit of "film criticism"
committed in the past year. Indeed, its stupidity is so dense and multilayered
as to defy easy untangling.


Crouching Tiger is
the best of its kind? As Lane seems eminently unversed in the Hong Kong tradition
of female-centered martial arts movies, how could he begin to make that judgment?
Well, then, maybe it’s a new kind. Meaning what? A hybrid Western
art film and martial arts film–who’s going to make another one of
those? And even if they did, how could this newfangled "kind" surpass
and displace the kind represented by Bruce Lee, et al.? Do fans of the latter
stand to be won over by art-film finery? On the contrary, they’re the ones
so far who are most down on Ang Lee’s movie.


Even by Lane’s lofty
standards, the horseshit factor here is extraordinarily high. A confectioner
of showy erudition ("born Mihaly Kertesz, in Budapest…") that’s
usually three-quarters hot air, he blithely insults both Bruce Lee and Douglas
Fairbanks, who stand to different sorts of action-movie athleticism roughly
as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire stand to dance-movie athleticism. He then proceeds
to pen phrases as frilly, absurd and condescending as "reading the
runes of the New World" and "a Curtiz for our times" while bounding
toward what he evidently imagines to be his showstopper: that climactic rhetorical
question.


"Is it too fanciful
to suggest…?" No, Tony, not fanciful. Just dumb as dog poop, and wrongheaded
in about 15 ways simultaneously. One cannot read that sentence and think Lane
has ever seen a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, the most critically lauded Asian director
of this era, an austere, glacially uncommercial artist who speaks only Chinese
and rarely leaves Taiwan. In the image of Hou riding to the rescue of American
movies–pigtail flying! saber flashing! whistling "Yankee Doodle Dandy"!–Lane
serves up a fruitcake hallucination worthy of Homer Simpson. What could top
it? "Maybe we could get Monsieur Bresson to resuscitate the Die Hard
series!" "Doesn’t T.S. Eliot realize his mission is to rescue
Tin Pan Alley?"


A veteran English critic
recently lamented to me that publishers in London are so bent on wooing the
rising class of young, empty-headed New Laborite stockbrokers that their idea
of acceptable film criticism is reduced to one thing: telling jokes about Hollywood
movies that leave the dim reader feeling smugly superior and in the know. Lane’s
achievement is to have imported this brand of chortlesome Sloane Square know-nothingism
to the U.S. He’s such a clever writer! So funny! So say half-bright
university graduates at cocktail parties across America, and they are not wrong.
Lane is clever and funny. But when he’s not flicking bon mots at
Charlie’s Angels, when he’s faced with a subject that requires
a bit of knowledge and critical savvy, he’s easily the most embarrassing
high-profile film writer in the U.S.


Then again, he’ll write
a piece about some author or literary phenomenon and you realize: he’s
actually very knowledgeable and incisive on certain subjects. And therein
lies the problem. Unlike his New Yorker colleague David Denby, Lane evidently
doesn’t see films as his passion, his metier, his mission. It’s his
paycheck. Alas, critics caught in such velvet cages often end up the bitterest
of writers, bilious with a self-contempt that eventually gives even the funniest
jokes an acrid aftertaste.


The New Yorker’s
dubious treatment of foreign-language cinema has recently been the subject of
various sorts of commentary, from the lengthy dissection in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s
new book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films
We Can See
(A Cappella) to the numerous surprised comments I heard that
there was no review of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, which was not only arguably
the fall’s best foreign film but one that would seem particularly appealing
to the magazine’s readership. In the case of Lane, this neglect of the
non-English-speaking cinematic world has an odd corollary in the most curious
aspect of his writing: its giddy, Magic Kingdom vision of Hollywood.


Emerging from Crouching
Tiger
, he says, "you can’t decide whether you feel like a five-year-old
coming out of Peter Pan or like a Cary Grant fan coming out of To
Catch a Thief
." Has there ever been an American critic so apt to invoke
Cary Grant or some other classic-Hollywood mainstay at the drop of a hat–any
hat? No, this seems a peculiarly English tic, and I would half-seriously suggest
that it conceals the lingering reflexes of empire, with the critic projecting
his Kiplingesque fantasies and panegyrics onto an imaginary kingdom improbably
centered in Southern California.


This is how we get those
"civilized craftsmen with honor and humor," for whom Lane can envision
no higher purpose than to abandon their own art and cultures and rush to save
Hollywood’s blighted, irretrievably corrupt empire. (Those dusky craftsman
chaps, so stout, so true!) This rescue fantasy may be as dizzy as anything ever
offered under the guise of film criticism, but at least it allows us finally
to identify the mysterious figure that looms behind Lane’s description
of Ang Lee and his valiant Asian brethren.


By Jove, it’s Gunga
Din!


..