Friday, April 6, 2012

Looking at the Critics

One of the more interesting things about keeping up with the arts, both fine and popular, is reading what my colleagues across the aisle have to say.  Sometimes my reaction can only be a heavy sigh (close-cousin of hyper-ventilating), or a resigned shrug.

Take, for instance, David Denby in a recent issue of The New Yorker.  In the March 26th issue, Denby undertakes a review of the recent science fiction epic John Carter.  Now, at this point, I must confess that I have not only seen John Carter, but I also enjoyed it immensely.

Before my poetic license is revoked, let me say that John Carter is not art.  However, it never pretends to be art.  Even the most stringent fine arts critic must take a film like John Carter on its own terms.  To expect Summer Hours or The Dreamers (both reviewed in these pages) is fatuity.

Fatuity, however, seems to be Denby’s stock in trade during this review.  His bias is clear in the second sentence:  Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter,” based on an ancient novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (written at about the same time as “Tarzan”), begins with a battle on Mars…..

Hold the phone.  “An ancient novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs??”  One wonders how he would describe a film adaptation of Hamlet.  “Based on the super-duper ancient play by William Shakespeare?”  What did he say about Troy?    “Based on The Iliad, which is so old that we can’t even imagine its age?”

Later on in his review, Denby also adds I wouldn’t trust the sanity of any critic who claimed to understand what goes on in this movie.  Frankly, I would not trust the intelligence of any critic who couldn’t.

Denby is the author of quite an excellent book on bad behavior called Snark.  Sadly, I don’t think he took his own writing to heart.

My problems with Denby’s snark fade away to nothingness when I read an article by Michael Atkinson in a recent issue of LA Weekly.  This esteemed critic was providing an overview on a film retrospective of various versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  This is his opening sentence.

It's such a toxic-potent paradigm it's hard to believe Lewis Carroll came up with it first -- female puberty as a mud-wrestle with the irrational, a maiden's journey into a quasi-adult sphere drunk on its own rules and power but actually f--king nuts. It's an elemental conflict that's as political as it is psychosexual -- which is why Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, despite having little story to speak of, will not fade into a vague memory of 19th-century kid lit.

You correspondent must admit that he had to read the above three times before he almost got some glimmer of the author’s meaning.  But wait, it gets better.

No, the linchpin adaptation is naturally Jan Svankmajer's 1988 Alice (April 6, 7:30 p.m.), which only loosely intersects with the book yet musters an uncomfortable physical world of unpleasant juxtapositions, mucous mixtures, semi-animated impossibilities, revolting taxidermic tension and a pervasive sense of real childhood danger (without, fascinatingly, inciting the merest drop of anxiety from his star, placid blond Kristyna Kohoutova). Self-referential and playfully conscious of pedophiliac threat as only a surrealist's film could be, Svankmajer's Alice does Carroll better than Carroll did Carroll, swapping the smarmy wordplay and faux innocence for the claustrophobia and stress you taste in a real dream.

Mucous mixtures.  Revolting taxidermic tension.  Playfully conscious of pedophiliac threat as only a surrealist’s film could be.

You may be ready for more, but I don’t think my heart can stand it.  

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