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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

September 8, 2014 Issue

I enjoy GOAT’s capsule movie reviews. Some are originals, e.g., Richard Brody’s beautiful “Night at the Crossroads” in this week’s issue. Others are reductions of pieces that previously appeared in “The Critics.” Regarding this latter type, it’s interesting from a compositional perspective to compare the “Critics” version with the “GOAT” version and note the modifications involved in condensing, say, a 1500-word review to a 180-word miniature.

Two such “capsules” in this week’s issue caught my eye: Pauline Kael’s “Hairspray” and David Denby’s “The Trip to Italy.” Kael’s note (a slightly longer version of which appears in her great 5001 Nights at the Movies) is based on her March 7, 1988 New Yorker review (included in her 1989 collection Hooked). The description that makes this “capsule” notable for me is “pop dadaist musical comedy.” It’s a recasting of “an entertainingly imbecilic musical comedy – a piece of pop dadaism,” in Kael’s original. I prefer the compression of the “capsule” version.

Denby’s “capsule” of The Trip to Italy contains the inspired phrase “hedonistic japery” (“This hedonistic japery is shot through with middle-aged melancholy and the fear of death”), which doesn’t appear in his original review (“Lasting Impressions,” September 1, 2014). The original does contain the word “japes” (“The Trip to Italy, for all its japes, is haunted by mortality …”).

All of which goes to show that even though you’ve read the “Critics’ version of a movie review, it pays to read the “GOAT” version, too – fresh felicities of language are there to be found.

Postscript: I relish John McPhee’s specificity – especially his use of place names. It’s one of the key ingredients of his style. Many of the names in his “Phi Beta Football,” in this week’s issue, are unfamiliar. They’re from a world – Ivy League football – totally foreign to me. But one name he mentions – “Penobscot River” – is pregnant with meaning. It recalls his great “The Survival of the Bark Canoe,” The New Yorker, February 24 & March 3, 1975 (“We drove the last hour into the woods on those roads, and put the canoes into the West Branch of the Penobscot River at six in the evening”), perhaps the finest “Reporter At Large” piece ever to appear in the magazine.

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