Introduction

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.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

January 4, 2016 Issue


Opening this week’s issue – the first of 2016 – I was delighted to encounter an old friend – Pauline Kael. Her capsule review of Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1967) is in “Goings On About Town: Movies.” It’s a condensed version of the note that Kael included in her great 5001 Nights at the Movies (1991), which is itself an abridgement of her “Orson Welles: There Ain’t No Way,” in her classic 1968 collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. All three versions contain variations of Kael’s memorable description of the movie’s battle sequence. Here’s the original description:

He [Welles] has directed a sequence, the battle of Shrewsbury, which is unlike anything he has ever done, indeed unlike any battle ever done on the screen before. It ranks with the best of Griffith, John Ford, Eisenstein, Kurosawa – that is, with the best ever done. How can one sequence in this movie be so good? It has no dialogue and so he isn’t handicapped: for the only time in the movie he can edit, not cover gaps and defects but as an artist. The compositions suggest Uccello and the chilling ironic music is a death knell for all men in battle. The soldiers, plastered by the mud they fall in, are already monuments. It’s the most brutally somber battle ever filmed. It does justice to Hotspur’s great, “O, Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth.”

That “The soldiers, plastered by the mud they fall in, are already monuments” is inspired. The lines “How can one sequence in this movie be so good? It has no dialogue and so he isn’t handicapped: for the only time in the movie he can edit, not cover gaps and defects but as an artist” refer to the movie’s disastrous, imperfectly synchronized sound track that Kael mentioned earlier in her essay:

Although the words on the soundtrack are intelligible, the sound doesn’t match the images. We hear the voices as if the speakers were close, but on the screen the figures may be a half mile away or turned from us at some angle that doesn’t jibe with the voice. In the middle of a sentence an actor may walk away from us while the voice goes on. Often, for a second, we can’t be sure who is supposed to be talking. And the cutting is maddening, designed as it is for camouflage – to keep us from seeing faces closely or from registering that mouths which should be open and moving are closed.

Kael’s condensation of “Orson Welles: There Ain’t No Way” for 5001 Nights at the Movies contains a vivid reference to Chimes at Midnight’s flawed soundtrack (“It is damaged by technical problems resulting from lack of funds, and during the first twenty minutes viewers may want to walk out, because although Shakespeare’s words on the soundtrack are intelligible, the sound doesn’t match the images, and often we can’t be sure who is supposed to be talking”). And it retains the brilliant description of the battle of Shrewsbury, except that it deletes the lines alluding to the technical trouble (“How can one sequence in this movie be so good? It has no dialogue and so he isn’t handicapped: for the only time in the movie he can edit, not cover gaps and defects but as an artist”).

The capsule review of Chimes at Midnight that appears in this week’s New Yorker deletes all references to the movie’s sound problems. It reproduces the Shrewsbury battle passage that Kael used in 5001 Nights at the Movies, not the one in her original essay.

Perhaps Chimes at Midnight has been refurbished and the technical problems that Kael described have been fixed. If so, I can see why her references to those problems have been deleted from the capsule review that appears in the current issue. But if they haven’t been fixed, I submit that her reference to them should be retained. They are, I believe, the main reason she calls the film not a masterpiece, but a “near-masterpiece.”

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