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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

March 19, 2012 Issue

Anthony Lane is starting to sound like Adam Gopnik, and that’s not good. One Proustian prose charmer on staff is enough. There was a time when Lane expressed himself clearly. Remember what he said about The Saint? “I’ve eaten bowls of spaghetti that were more tightly structured than this picture” (“The Saint,” The New Yorker, April 14, 1997). Okay, well, at least we know where he stands. Compare this with his comment on The Kid with a Bike in this week’s issue: “I will say nothing of what happens there, except that for every viewer who thinks that the film-makers are pushing their luck, another will claim, as I would, that they have earned the right to step across the threshold of transcendence” (“Not Child’s Play”). I think Lane likes the movie. But in what way are the Dardenne brothers “pushing their luck,” and does earning “the right to step across the threshold of transcendence” mean they’ve produced a film worth seeing? I suppose just saying “I really like this movie” would be too simple. Pauline Kael didn’t shy away from expressing herself simply (and bluntly). Remember her “Malick is a gifted student, and Badlands is an art thing, all right, but I didn’t admire it, I didn’t enjoy it, and I don’t like it” (“Sugarland and Badlands,” The New Yorker, March 18, 1974)? It’s not subtle, but, by god, it’s got rhythm, and it lets you know exactly what she thought of the film. Granted, Lane clarifies his position in the next paragraph of his review, when he says: “The real reason to see ‘The Kid with a Bike' is that it offers something changelessly rare and difficult: a credible portrait of goodness.” Still, all this talk about “threshold of transcendence,” “changelessly rare,” and “portrait of goodness” seems blandly abstract. Interestingly, these words are deleted from Lane’s capsule review of The Kid with a Bike that appears in “Goings On About Town” in next week’s issue (which can be accessed at Lane’s GOAT review is completely rewritten; I much prefer it. For example, instead of “portrait of goodness,” Lane writes: “De France fulfills the daunting task of making goodness look plausible, instinctive, and down-to-earth, rather than lofty or pharisaical; her nature merely instructs her to do the right thing.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Lane’s GOAT review makes it into the magazine’s online movie review archive “The Film File.” Currently, the capsule review of The Kid with a Bike that Richard Brody wrote a few of months ago is on file there. It contains this wonderful line: “The directors, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, track the young perpetual-motion machine through his small Belgian city, where he pedals, runs, scampers, dives, and climbs past all clutches, and, when cornered, fights with an animal ferocity.” The Kid with a Bike deserves the three New Yorker notices it’s received. I saw it about a month ago. I admired its calm, matter-of-fact style immensely.

Credit: The above artwork is by Annette Marnat; it appears in The New Yorker (March 19, 2012) as an illustration for Anthony Lane's "Not Child's Play."

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