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.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

March 14, 2016 Issue

Anthony Lane’s comment on Terrance Malick’s Knight of Cups, in this week’s issue – “It’s worth seeing just for the underwater shots of dogs as they plunge, mouths laughingly agape, into a pool to grab a tennis ball” – made me smile. It pretty much sums up where criticism is today regarding Malick’s vacuous follies. Lane writes,

The aesthetic compulsion is so pressing, in “Knight of Cups,” that someone can approach a person, possibly homeless, who is sleeping on a stone bench, and lay down not a dollar bill or a sandwich but a flower. Malick’s pursuit of the beautiful was already devout in “Days of Heaven,” in 1978, and in recent decades it has grown more flagrant still. In “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005), it was touched with environmental anxiety, as the pristine glories of the world were menaced by war and by colonial invasion. Since then, in “The Tree of Life” (2011) and “To the Wonder” (2012), the impulse to seek out grace and loveliness—in weather, in women, and in rhapsodic flashes of the past—has all but blunted the dramatic urge.

I’d go further. Malick’s pursuit of the beautiful has all but blunted his sense of reality. David Denby, in his review of To the Wonder, said that Malick’s work has fallen into “a kind of gorgeous emptiness.” He said,

A Malick sequence has now become a collection of semi-disconnected shots, individually ravishing but bound together by what feels like the trivial narcissism of Caribbean-travel ads on TV. The sun sinks in flames on the horizon, tides ripple, oceans batter rocks, but this time the natural splendors return to an inane, undeveloped situation. Passages of music by Berlioz, Wagner, and Henryk Górecki lend an aura of solemnity to scenes as insubstantial as the wind.

Insubstantial as the wind. That’s mild compared to what Pauline Kael said about Malick’s Badlands: “The film is a succession of art touches. 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). Forty-two years on, Malick is till making those art things. Nevertheless, I might go see Knight of Cups. I’m curious about those underwater dog shots.

Postscript: It should be noted that The New Yorker's Richard Brody has consistently championed Malick’s work. He says of Tree of Life, “Malick daringly tries to capture not just memories but the feelings aroused by the act of memory—indeed, to represent subjectivity itself, by way of the cinema” (" 'The Tree of Life': Roots and Shoots"). In "The Cinematic Miracle of 'To the Wonder,' " he writes, “There is perhaps no film in the history of cinema that reveals such attention to light, which seems to suffuse the space of every frame and to imbue the characters with its moral and spiritual element.” And in his "Terance Malick's 'Knight of Cups' Challenges Hollywood to Do Better," he calls Knight of Cups “one of the great recent bursts of cinematic artistry, a carnival of images and sounds that have a sensual beauty, of light and movement, of gesture and inflection, rarely matched in any movie that isn’t Malick’s own.” This is eloquent praise. But I’m not persuaded. Malick is way too cosmic for my taste.

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