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.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Barry Levinson's "Diner": Kael vs. Wolcott

It’s interesting to compare James Wolcott’s “French Fries and Sympathy” (in his recent collection Critical Mass) with Pauline Kael’s “Comedians” (in her classic 1984 collection Taking It All In). Both are reviews of Barry Levinson’s charming, offbeat 1982 autobiographical movie Diner; they provide an excellent opportunity to contrast Kael’s and Wolcott’s critical approaches. Also, I want to see how the student stacks up against the master. Wolcott was a Kael disciple, a Paulette. They saw Diner together. Wolcott writes about it in his memoir Lucking Out (“ ‘What’s that they’re pouring on the French fries?’ she asked as the camera panned the diner counter. ‘Gravy.’ ‘They put gravy on French fries?’ ‘Oh, yeah, beef gravy. Though chicken gravy is an option’ ”). Wolcott was just a fledgling; Kael was at the height of her powers. The comparison may be unfair to Wolcott. On the other hand, he may surprise us. He’s an inspired metaphorist. And he’s closer to Diner’s culture than Kael is; he grew up near Baltimore, where Diner is set.

Both pieces are appreciative. Kael, in her “Comedians,” calls Diner “a wonderful movie,” “that rare autobiographical movie that is made by someone who knows how to get the texture right.” Wolcott, in his “French Fries and Sympathy,” describes the film as a “bittersweet reverie about the pleasures of noshing and chumming about until the squeak of dawn.”

Wolcott’s piece starts strong. His first paragraph contains this marvelous line:

As Baltimore pretties itself with crinkly gold Christmas decorations and rows of navy-blue Colt banners, Levinson’s characters – Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), Shrevie (Daniel Stern), Fenwick (Kevin Bacon), Billy (Timothy Daly), and Boogie (Mickey Rourke) – scheme and gamble, cop cheap feels and mull over impending marriages, blow warmth into their knotted fists, reminisce about high school escapades, razz each other into fits of helpless laughter.

That “blow warmth into their knotted fists” is very fine.

In contrast, Kael’s loveliest effect is her conclusion:

Levinson has a great feel for promise. At the diner, the boys are all storytellers, and they take off from each other; their conversations are almost all overlapping jokes that are funny without punch lines. The diner is like a comedy club where the performers and the customers feed each other lines – they’re all stars and all part of the audience. The diner is where they go to give their nightly performances, and the actors all get a chance to be comedians.

Both critics admire Diner’s talented young cast. Both are excited by Mickey Rourke’s Boogie. Kael calls Boogie “the sleaziest and most charismatic figure of the group.” Wolcott describes him as a “tattered prince of sleaze.” Wolcott’s depiction of Kevin Bacon’s eyes as a “bleary, amused scrunch” is very good, as is Kael’s notation of Steve Guttenberg’s “perfectly inflected Paul Newman-like grins.”

Both critics are superb noticers. In his piece, Wolcott points out that the drummer in the strip-joint scene is “portrayed by Jay Dee Daugherty , formerly the drummer for Patti Smith.” In “Comedians,” Kael notes “the kid wandering around quoting from Sweet Smell of Success.” Regarding the wedding scene, Kael mentions “the Baltimore Colts marching song and the bridesmaids’ dresses in the Colts’ colors (blue and white), and Beth trying to teach her record-aficionado husband to dance.” Looking at the same scene, Wolcott observes,

Here girls in white gloves flex their fingers in anticipation of the flung bouquet, Earl affably picks his way through the buffet, Boogie and the gang gather around the table (ties loosened, smiles relaxed); the entire sequence has a hushed tenderness in which every character is given his dignified due and then suspended in time, to be remembered only with fondness.

That phrase, “girls in white gloves flex their fingers in anticipation of the flung bouquet,” is wonderfully alive. At the end of his piece, Wolcott says that Diner’s “world and feelings have the full crack of life.” So, too, do these two splendid, generous-hearted reviews. 

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