What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Drive": Lane v. Brody

It’s interesting to see the various ways New Yorker critics treat movie violence. For example, Anthony Lane appears to have little appetite for graphic, Peckinpah-esque bloodletting. In his review of No Country For Old Men (“Hunting Grounds,” The New Yorker, November 12, 2007), he writes:

Acts of monstrosity are coolly perpetrated throughout, but the resulting film strays beyond cool to the verge of the passionless; if Deakins’s camera leans in close to gaze on damaged flesh (we focus on Chigurh’s leg as he swabs and stitches a gunshot wound), that is not because the Coens harbor any tenderness or pity, still less an urge to lament the legacy of violence. They simply retain a juvenile weakness for gore, challenging us to match their sang-froid and saluting Chigurh himself for showing the way.

Note that “juvenile weakness for gore.” The implication is that a more mature approach would eschew luridness. This matches with what Lane says in his recent review of Drive (“Road Kill,” The New Yorker, September 26, 2011):

When James Stewart was deliberately shot in the hand, from close range, in “The Man from Laramie” (1955), we did not witness the bullet enter his flesh, nor did we need to. The director, Anthony Mann, knew that his proper focus, moral as well as physical, should be on Stewart’s face, which turned into a writhing map of outrage, agony, and shame—a peculiar, emasculated shame, as befitted a cowboy who lived by the sweat of his hands. Compare the sequence, in “Drive,” in which Albert Brooks shakes a man’s hand and, holding tight, slices through the veins in his wrist. Brooks—the most prominent presence in the movie, caustically cast against type—tells his victim not to worry. “It’s over, it’s over,” he says, and the pitiless soothing of his voice, as the man’s lifeblood ebbs away, is unforgettable, but it’s difficult to concentrate, because Refn is far too concerned to show the fountain of that blood, and its ridiculous leap. In grabbing our attention, he diverts it from what matters. The horror lingers and seeps; the feelings are sponged away.

Far too concerned to show the fountain of that blood. This reminds me of what Pauline Kael said about The French Connection (“Urban Gothic,” The New Yorker, October 30, 1971): “The only thing that this movie believes in is giving the audience jolts, and you can feel the raw, primitive response in the theatre.”

Compared to Lane, David Denby and Richard Brody seem far more accepting of screen brutality. They scan the violent imagery for meaning. Denby, in his recent review of Haywire (“Flesh and Fantasy,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2012) writes:

The movie is a divertissement; it’s lightweight and almost meaningless except for the fights, which are exceptionally violent. Soderbergh chops up the chronology and keeps us off balance, so we watch each scene knowing no more than Mallory. We’re with her all the way; she fights in order to learn what traps have been laid. For her, fighting is the only means of discovery.

Brody, in his review of Drive (“Spinning Wheels” (“The Front Row,”, September 19, 2011), interprets the show of violence as “an ultimate proof of self-control.” He writes:

Refn doesn’t seem interested in pain but in its infliction—specifically, how blank-faced, soft-spoken people manage to commit mayhem and, at the moment of violent outburst, stay fixed on their plan and maintain a fearsome calm in the face of disgusting gore.

Fighting as “the only means of discovery,” violence as “an ultimate proof of self-control” – these are interesting interpretations. Denby and Brody test the violence to see if there’s an intelligent point to it. But when they read meaning into movie violence they have to be careful they’re not just rationalizing a hack device for “giving the audience jolts.” I watched Drive last night. I found the violence, particularly the elevator scene, in which the Driver repeatedly stomps on a villain’s head, grossly excessive. I think Lane is right to question it. In his review, he says:

We watch as the Driver stamps, time and again, on the skull of a villain in an elevator; but what exactly are we watching, as the camera rests, for a second, on the mashed-up result? Prosthetics, pixellation, pastry dough? The people around me reacted with the eewrrgh sound that has become de rigueur in the viewing of violence, followed by the traditional hasty giggle to pop the tension; even those moviegoers who revel in such a sight, however, might usefully pause to inspect the kick of pleasure that it provokes. No doubt they will have seen much worse, and they will also know that a bursting brain is no more real than a game of Quidditch, yet what perturbs me about a film as careful and as intelligent as “Drive” is its manifest delusion that, in refusing to look away from the minutiae of nastiness, it is actually drawing us closer to the truth about pain.

I agree. I like Lane’s question: “But what exactly are we watching?” Sometimes, what we’re watching, gruesome as it is, has meaning. As Kael observed in her great “Bonnie and Clyde” (The New Yorker, “October 21, 1967), “The dirty reality of death – not suggestions but blood and holes – is necessary.” But, often as not, the violence is there just to give kicks. One of movie criticism’s purposes is to help us make the distinction.

Credit: The above artwork is by Tes One. It appears in The New Yorker (September 26, 2011) as an illustration for Anthony Lane's "Road Kill."

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