A.O. Scott's Teeth: 8.8

Characterization: 9
Author Empathy: 10
Didacticism: 9
Catharsis: 9
Sophistication: 7

    I said in this review that I thought the New Yorker film review should be the most righteously accurate film review there is. That was a little unfair given that the current holder of that title is another of those heir-apparent rags that are obligated to be excellent in some ways simply because of the size of their reputations. I don’t mean to make the New York Times blush by going on about its size but hell, their film reviews are about as perfect as it gets.
     Partly because an additional dissection of a review of “A Serious Man” will tempt me to reveal too much about a great film and partly because I just don’t want to, I’ll not review A.O. Scott’s review of the same film for the New York Times. Instead I’ll review a piece by A.O. that I think is a useful contrast. The New Yorker article I reviewed was a panning of an effort by established moviemakers who have made a career out of brilliant idiosyncrasy. The New Yorker’s panning was poor, I concluded. A.O.’s panning of a massively different movie—a movie whose incredibly dull attempts at idiosyncrasy A.O. zeroes in on with a vengeance—is a righteous panning.

By “Righteous”
This is what is at stake in this little reckoning between New York- -Times and –er. We all know what “Right-” means, and that is certainly what we would hope all reviews of art (and all reviews of life in general) would be correct. But it’s that “-eous” half that is important. The best reviews are FULL OF RIGHT. Chock full of the stuff, and I say that these two publications should output the most righteous reviews because if we’re chocking something full of Right we may as well fill up the biggest somethings (e.g. publications) we can find. The reputations (and consequent readerships) of these two rags are gigantic. Their size begets so much influence that they, without any concurrent opinion from other publications, can affect public regard of their subjects. For a counterexample of something that can strive for “right-“ but whose reputation is so miniscule that almost zero capacity comes with the “-eous,” look no further than this itty-bitty blog.

 I’m reviewing A.O. Scott’s June 20, 2008 review of “The Love Guru,” starring Mike Myers. (Directed by Marco Schnabel but that doesn’t matter at all.)

    A.O.’s lead offers a conspicuous rehashing of Myer’s career but makes it inconspicuous with a wonderfully quick effacement of himself as someone with a “morbidly obsessive interest in pop-culture ephemera.” Obviously this effacement doubles as an announcement: A.O. knows pop culture better than you and, at least right now, that interest is kind of like that of a coroner who has seen too much death. He doesn’t make us readers feel bad for our inferior knowledge or the weight of his obsession. He gains out trust through some information and a quick joke: you can hardly ask more of a lead.
 This quick review then progresses through a deftly embedded question-answer cycle to a satisfying final answer. Read the sub-800 word review for the answers, here is the underlying procession of questions:
  • Why did we once like Mike Myers?
  • Can he still hack it?
  • Should we be worried about low brow comedy as a whole because of this one excruciating go at it?
  • Is A.O. just too snobby?
  • Should we forgive Myers?
By review’s end, the apparent answer to the final question is HELL NO. This is righteousness in art criticism.      
 If, like me, you’re wondering more about poor Mike Myers, take a look at this piece he wrote for Esquire to promote “The Love Guru.”
     Could you make it through the whole thing? It’s awful, it’s “downright antifunny.”(-A.O.) I was of the core target demographic when the “Austin Powers” franchise started and was in awe of it. “Wayne’s World,” I dug it, I owned a DVD copy of Myers’s best-of SNL. Is this the same guy? Either conclusion: that he was always a lucky schlub who was at times bolstered by others’ talent or that a comedian with a solid knack could plummet so far, seems too painful. I can’t bring myself to turn an eye back to the stuff I blew up in giggles for as a kid, A.O. Scott’s review has already exploded it for me.
     Now that, the chopping up of my long standing notions about Myers, is a result of good writing.
Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not opposed to infantile, regressive, scatological humor. Indeed, I consider myself something of a connoisseur. Or maybe a glutton. So it’s not that I object to the idea of, say, witnessing elephants copulate on the ice in the middle of a Stanley Cup hockey match, or seeing a dwarf sent flying over the same ice by the shock of defibrillator paddles. But it will never be enough simply to do such things. They must be done well.
Addressing the reader’s most probable concerns is advisable when your going beyond the normal function of your writing. E.g. panning an actor instead of just the one movie.
In the meantime talk amongst yourselves.
BECAUSE: Ending with one of Myers’s best catch phrases (from SNL) is a classy way to leave an invitation for the comedian to prove A.O. wrong.

Hardly the Best D.D. Can Do: 5.6

Characterization: 5
Author Empathy:4
Catharsis: 5
Sophistication: 7

This article concerns the first half of David Denby’s article, “Gods and Victims” for The New Yorker which ran on Oct 5, 2009.
*A caveat: as with all reviews that score under 7.0, my criticism below only applies to this one example of the writer’s work. Reviews over 7.0, conversely, speak to the overall skill of pen and fortitude of intellect of the writer in question.*

I sometimes find the New Yorker’s film review section to be utterly baffling. It’s also the section I often initiate myself into an issue with, despite it’s position near rag’s end, because a short word count makes it’s a relatively breezy read. I suspect that my approach may also be because I acknowledge a high risk of disagreeing with the film review, so I avoid that final impression of a magazine that is otherwise stellar (if intimidating and impossible to stay 100% on top of if, you know, you have even a single hobby).

This review of “A Serious Man” is emblematic of what I usually don’t like about what should probably be the most righteously accurate movie column there is. One: it’s inaccurate. Two: it’s spoiler-prone. To prove the point we can take a gander at the last sentence of each paragraph, an inarguably important spot to tell stuff to readers.

Graph 1: He won’t even sleep with the dragon-eyed but sexy and highly available woman next door who sunbathes naked.” –D.D.
I understand how having a hot, allegedly sexually promiscuous married woman next door to a miserable, near-divorced man is the equivalent of the gun in the drawer that must be fired. We’re at a time, though, when dramatists can refuse to squeeze that sexy little trigger as long as they deliberately address that refusal. The Coen brothers do so, and on top of that there is no incontrovertible evidence that the woman in question is looking to involve herself that deeply with a guy who is in a situation that would make a clinger out of the best swing—(RHYME ABORTED!) err, player.

Graph 2:But a schlep and a weeper is a hero impossible to stay interested in.” –D.D.
Let’s say right now that, no spoilers attached, Larry Gopnik (the hero in question) has reasons to break down and cry. Also this quote is stemming from the comparison of this film to the Old Testament gambling match that revolves around Job—specifically the moment when Job grows a spine and a shaking fist. This parallel is deliberate, but only a crazy person would assert that the Coens cannot differ at points (this should be obvious). Especially when this differentiation stems from the broken phone line to The Creator that was, I’m told, in better repair during the Torah times.

Graph 3:That song [“Somebody to Love”], plus dope and “F Troop” on TV, is all that keeps Danny going.” –D.D.
Yeah this is fair and valid until what is inarguably THE CLIMAX OF DANNY’S STORYLINE! That would seem unfair of me, because that is simply a statement of the film’s premise, if D.D. didn’t abuse this basic 1960s premise by focusing the next two paragraphs of his review on how unoriginal the movie is and ignoring the highly deft, brief, and original climax I’m referring to.

Graph 4: As a piece of moviemaking craft, ““A Serious Man”” is fascinating; in every other way, it’s intolerable.” –D.D.
As the author of a blog dedicated to summary judgments, it would be hypocritical of me to criticize D.D.’s major league claim. That said…it is mean and dumb and stupid and unthoughtful and I hate it. (Props are owed to the previous sentence, however, which is beautiful and is the second half of THE BEST MOMENT.)

The brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins uses super-hard focus and solid colors, and when Larry, perched on his roof, tries to straighten out the TV aerial, he looks like a forlorn figure in a nineties hyperrealist painting. Instead of paintings meant to look like photographs, the Coens give us photographs that look like paintings, and there’s a touch of the uncanny in the hard-edged look, as if Hashem had isolated and withered Larry with his gaze.

This displays D.D.’s possession of formidable powers of description and art-historical chops. If only D.D. could have applied the same knowledge to the lack of Larry’s sexual conquest that annoys D.D. so.

Graph 5: “Dozens of popular comics in the past half century have worked in the same satiric vein.” –D.D.
I suppose this is a valid criticism if this fact prevented D.D. from laughing. It didn’t stop me (mostly), but I’m not immune to laughing at a joke I’ve already heard if it’s related to me with a new person’s cadence. If D.D. truly believes this statement then perhaps he doesn’t laugh much.

Graph 6: Judging from ‘“A Serious Man”,’ one can only say, without blasphemy, that the cinematic Hashem is a malevolent son of a bitch.” –D.D.
No, no, no. There are possibilities spawned in the films last moments, but I refuse to do like D.D. and play the spoiler game. Which bring me to…

Gopnik’s wife (Sari Lennick) is leaving him for a sanctimonious bastard (Fred Melamed) who covers his aggressions against Larry with limp-pawed caresses and offers of ‘understanding.’ Larry’s kids are thieving brats, and his hapless, sick, whining brother (Richard Kind) camps on the living-room couch and refuses to look for work. There’s more, much more, a series of mishaps, sordid betrayals, and weird coincidences, but Larry, a sweet guy and ‘a serious man’—upright, a good teacher, a father—won’t hit back. 

D.D. is insinuating that Larry is the titular character when he is not. It is the sanctimonious bastard. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take that of my film reviewing hero A.O. Scott over at the New York Times. And read why he is so darn awesome here.  
Characterization: e.g. D.D. was too bold in his claims about the Coen bros without good backup. He also messed up in describing the woman next door and the titular character.

Author Empathy: e.g. D.D. thought we would agree that his lead pointed out the cleverest part of the film and we (I, at least) do not.

Didacticism: e.g. Excepting the BEST MOMENT I quoted where we can learn what makes good film, D.D. mostly only teaches about what happens in movie that we don’t want to know about yet.

Catharsis: e.g. D.D. tells us not to laugh yet drops punchlines in the article that don’t demonstrate any excellent grasp of funniness.

Sophistication: e.g. D.D.’s final paragraph would be a fine feat of writing if I could agree with almost anything in it.