Manohla's Maximalism: 8.8

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

Manohla Dargis’s review of Avatar is such a pleasant read because the form of her prose expresses the feelings she attributes to James Cameron’s film. You can really see this in her last sentence: “He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.” Here she has started with the stated expectation of the film—to change cinema forever—and parsed it down in a way that plays favorably to the movie’s fantastic form. “Blooms,” for instance, is a great choice over the more common “blossoms” because it suggests that the flowers onscreen are not meant to be flowers but sustained bursts of light shaped after some fantastic flourish in nature—but meant to be a fantastic flourish of cinema.

Not all of Dargis’s article is so discerningly penned, but the moments where it seems moderation was moderated service the message: it’s okay to get giddy about this movie. All circumstances being equal, most writers of editorial essays in newspapers favor short, simple sentences in their first paragraph(s). Now it’s true that circumstances are never equal (a writer’s style is the first thing to upset the balance) but Dargis’s first paragraph is made of three teetering layercake sentences. It’s against common wisdom but I think it works.

Dargis’s review is a great case study of how the way things are written manipulates our sentiments as we read it. To highlight my point I’ll catalog the points where Dargis best manipulates the form of her essay to add excitement. Bear with me, the first quote is a doozy. (The rest will be quicker.)

Graph 1:
Several decades in the dreaming and more than four years in the actual making, the movie is a song to the natural world that was largely produced with software, an Emersonian exploration of the invisible world of the spirit filled with Cameronian rock ’em, sock ’em pulpy action. Created to conquer hearts, minds, history books and box-office records, the movie — one of the most expensive in history, the jungle drums thump — is glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged.
            [All emphasis mine for the rest of this blog post]

You can read my bolding in pairs. Decadesyears is the first pairing and rightfully emphasizes the massive gestation period of “Avatar.” Natural—software is the next and emphasizes the same idea that Dargis points to more subtly in her choice of “bloom” over “blossom”—Cameron is embracing the idea of a hyper-artificial portrayal of things (and that may not be so far from hyper-artistic). Emersonian—Cameronian expresses Dargis’s understanding of where Cameron is coming from but also, I think, the fact that he prizes the audience’s experience over everything. Emerson, after all, wrote many of his speeches sentence by sentence without much care for whether those sentences made perfect logical sense when pasted together. Emerson knew how to thrill his audience on a moment to moment basis.

The last pairing is exciting not because of the meaning of the words but simply how they are arranged. I  bolded “hearts...records” not because it is especially exciting in its form but because it is the traditional way to write a list: with commas. Compare that list to the crescendo of Dargis’s lead paragraph, it comes in her last phrase. Using “and” in a list instead of commas—especially a list in which the last item is “blissfully deranged”—is a go-to method for rallying readers. To prove that simply say “glorious, goofy, and blissfully deranged” out loud then say it the way Dargis wrote it. Which time made you sound more excitable, more blissfully deranged? (This method is called polysyndeton, the “hearts..records” list is more asyndetonic. I’m only providing this information if you’re interested in making your vocabulary more snooty. Some folks are into that sort of thing.)


Graph 2:
“The story behind the story…”
Because: Repetition ties things together and our minds like that. Emerson LOVED that.
“… one still capable of producing the big WOW.”
Because: Using all caps RULES and is hated by prudish writers.

Graph 3:
“…a fast 2 hours 46 minutes,”
Because: Using a direct opposition to assure us that a movie that long actually feels fast delivers the strongest recommendation per word in the whole review.

Graph 4:
“Although “Avatar” delivers a late kick to the gut that might be seen
as nihilistic (and how!), it is strangely utopian.”
Because: Dargis has established how thoroughly she has considered what “Avatar” signifies and can toss in some cheesiness to offset a serious term like “nihilistic.”

Graph 6:
for this is, above all, a boy’s rocking adventure, if one
populated by the usual tough Cameron chicks
Because: You can’t tell but I’ve bolded the em dashes—or, as I like to call them, racing stripes for your writing. Dargis uses them all over in this essay and this is a substantial example of how she perpetuates the readability of her long sentences. Qualifying phrases as asides like this (usually between comma, dashes, and to a lesser extent parenthesis) is called an appositive and is among the only literary critical terms worth using in real life.

Graph 7:
“…he remains bound, contractually and existentially, to the base camp,”
Because: In the midst of a deft summary, Dargis checks in to reassure us that she’s still discussing both what happens in the movie and what it means.
A cartoon of masculinity, Quaritch strides around barking orders like some 
intransigent representation  of American military might (or a bossy movie director). 
It’s a favorite Cameron type, and Mr. Lang, who until this year had long been 
grievously underemployed, tears into the role like a starved man gorging on steak.
Because: Quaritch IS an actual, animated cartoon! He IS a representation of how the military like to be represented! Cameron IS a intransigently bossy director! Saying it’s a favorite Cameron type is a well played jab at Cameron’s ego. The last line is simply well executed, old fashioned simile.

Graph 8:
“…those members of the Michael Bay demographic who might find 
themselves squirming at the story’s touchier, feelier elements,
its ardent environmentalism and sincere love story,”
Because: Dargis efficiently delivers a silly image into our minds. Also, critics who attack problems in the industry even when not treating Bay’s work directly are doing righteous work. Fairly, Bay is relevant because he is the poor man’s James Cameron. Perhaps the master’s return to the scene will banish the usurper—or at least hurt his Blue-Ray sales.

Graph 12:
On the face of it there might seem something absurd about a movie that asks you
to thrill to a natural world made almost entirely out of zeroes and ones
(and that feeds you an anticorporate line in a corporately financed entertainment).
Because: The bulk of the subjects in the review are present here in some way. An unusual use of the word “thrill” highlights the effort needed on the viewer’s part to warm up to this crazy movie fantasy. “Natural..zeroes and ones” recapitulates that pairing from the first paragraph. The anticorporate—corporate bit portrays the problem of Hollywood that Cameron is certainly a symptom of just as he may be, only MAY be, a potential solution to it.

If there is one problem with the whirlwind style of Dargis’s review it would be that there is little respite from her maximalism. It never really becomes a problem, the reader’s focus is never lost, but some variety is lost. For instance, she waxes overzealous in just how many references to other big Hollywood endeavors (but only in THE WORST MOMENT).

It’s also familiar because, like John Smith in “The New World,”  
Terrence Malick’s retelling of the Pocahontas story, Jake has discovered Eden.
Because: Dargis brings other big budget blockbuster aspiring works up in this article but this one seems too tossed in. No one in the English speaking world needs a reference to one of the botched Colin Farrell epics to understand what Eden is.

I’d like to emphasize the small size of this quibble, however, and I think I’ll let THE NUMBERS say the rest.


Unfair Fight: Two Takes on a Teen Assassin: 2.8 vs 8

Ayse Wieting on Rosalio Reta:
Author Empathy: 4
Characterization: 3
Didacticism: 2
Catharsis: 4

Rusty Fleming on Rosalio Reta:
Author Empathy:5
Characterization: 10
Catharsis: 9

Ayse is a documentary film maker who works for the FOX series “War Stories.” (Incidentally, her name is also the product of either some kick ass parental cleverness or something far more lame.) Strangely, as a film maker who focuses on violence and those who commit it, Ayse leads her account of meeting Rosalito Reta by stating that she never thought she would “end up in prison,” especially the maximum security ones where authorities keep…most of the criminals who are convicted of violent crime. Well, despite Ayse’s ignorance about what her chosen profession would entail, she selected a great subject in this instance. Rosalito Reta is a compelling figure of terrifying significance. He was a professional killer who started work at 13. He is also an American citizen.

As it happens, another documentary film maker covered Reta’s story for another major news outlet. Rusty Fleming penned his account for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 website. Two film makers with snappy names sniffed out the same story and went in with directorial minds and burning questions and came out with two written accounts. Let’s strap razorblades to the legs of these two articles, lay our money down, and through them into the ring! In a metaphorical sense!

Rusty scores the first blow quickly by leading with a rendering of the event that is at the heart of this story, Reta’s story: the boy’s first kill. Compared with the puzzling introduction that Ayse dropped, apparently blind to her own résumé, anyone betting on her breaks into a profuse sweat at exactly this moment.

Oops. Rusty loses purchase with the reader when he plugs himself in a dedicated paragraph, all but musking Reta and screaming “I found him first!”

This is Rusty after introducing his subject but before moving onto why Reta is relevant RIGHT NOW:
Since Reta and I spoke last year, he has been featured in numerous news stories. But I spoke with him about his experience before the mainstream media even knew his name.
Major points here are lost in the author empathy category. Simply relating the facts of your several encounters to speak more profoundly than other reporter’s first encounter is enough. This is a blow to the reading experience after a great lead.

Rusty would have dealt his article a deathblow if his reporting wasn’t so singularly excellent. He moves onto a story of Reta falling out of favor with his cartel (it’s wild, read it) that I could not find covered after hours of scouring every article I could find on Rosalio Reta or his compatriots.

Rusty emerges quickly from the crapper of his vanity because of his massive authority on the subject and a genuine talent for clear writing. Ayse, however, mires herself in contradiction in an attempt to force the story into a prefigured mold. The three paragraph sequence from “Born in Houston…” to “That’s all there is down there” is a phenomenal blueprint for WHAT NOT TO DO as a writer. Against all other facts THAT SHE WRITES in the article, Ayse tries to portray Reta as having a normal childhood—the underlying assumption being that his inherent monstrosity drove him to become a hitman. Yet she leaves Reta’s claim that where he’s from you’re either a cop, a drug dealer, or a cartel man unevaluated. She actually positions this quote, one that contradicts her claim, in such a way that it seems meant to punctuate the story of his life of rejected opportunity. Any claim to logical progression is lost. Ayse simply proves herself wrong about her subject with her own reporting. It’s THE WORST MOMENT in either article.

From Ayse Wieting:
Born in Houston to a hairstylist mother and father who worked construction, Reta said he had a good childhood as one of 10 children. He grew up like any other kid…
…"Where I'm from, if you're not a cop, you're a drug dealer," said Reta. "If you're not a drug dealer, you work for a cartel. That's all there is down there."
BECAUSE: The way Ayse subtly manipulates the way she paraphrases Reta before the ellipsis is exposed by him saying something quite the opposite of what she puts in him mouth. A silly lead is forgivable but this is grossly irresponsible.

Being a thorough liar is important to being a writer. Ayse Wieting, however, delivers here a combination of untruth and un-thoroughness that is shameful. It even makes me think her name is made up!

It was this genuine inability for any story I read—Rusty’s being the thankful exception—to adequately provide coverage of the case of Rosalio Reta that makes his story so engrossing. I’d submit that a reason for Ayse’s atrocious coverage is not just her incapacity as a writer and reporter but her inability to envision a reality in which an American teenager becoming a highly trained professional assassin (and who loves it) is not just one isolated incident. For Ayse, Reta just has to be inherently bad because he was born into the opportunity to be good. This blinder and a reluctance to ask questions on Reta’s terms pervades all substantive coverage of this case that I found (i.e. this, this, this, this, this, this and this). All except Rusty’s for CNN.

Not only is Rusty Fleming’s article on Rosalio Reta the best on the matter, it is the only coverage worth reading. There should have been more.


From Out of Nowhere: 8.2

Author Empathy: 10
Characterization: 6
Didacticism: 8
Catharsis: 8
Sophistication: 9

David Orr? Who is this guy? He’s a staff writer at the NYT and I’ve never heard of him, even by the type of proxy wherein my friends mention NYT writers and I pretend to know them. Based on this first article I came upon by him, however, he is an excellent reviewer!
Ohh, now I see why I haven’t heard of him. David Orr is the poetry columnist for the NYT Book Review. (I dare you to tell me an image involving corduroy, flannel, and dark rimmed glasses didn’t just pop into your head.) Talk about wee readership. It is because Orr scored access to the Novel review section that more folks than average were able to glimpse him in the first week of September, 09. Here he reviews “The Anthologist” by Nicholson Baker.

In my case I found the review via a Google news timeline search for “Meghan Fox” (still work to be done, Google). I was at first disappointed and utterly baffled that Angelina Jolie’s twenties, redux, was mentioned nowhere in this review of a novel about a frustrated poet working on the introduction to a poetry anthology. I quickly found fuel to propel further reading: The best case scenario for a novel about poetry, Orr offers after some playful chops-displaying, focuses on “on the perilous effects of buried alien spacecraft.” I agree David, boy howdy do I agree.

After offering us a dutiful summary of the book’s plot-that-nobody-would-read-it-for, Orr both speaks for the work and lets it speak for itself. This reviewer does a flawless job of defying common expectations of highly literate writers writing on high literature and presents samples that are 100% what he says they are.

As the review wraps up, Orr levies criticism that I think not many people could. He attacks Baker’s superficial rendering of poetic culture as lacking breadth and idiosyncrasy. It’s classily done though, because it comes after heaps of praise and is backed up with specific reasons why Baker is off the mark. We are reminded that Orr knows the poetry world to an extent that would horrify normal minds yet his mind still seems pretty cool. By this point, because of Orr’s deft pen, I believe him for better reason than his extended byline.

But what’s the number one reason to be impressed with David Orr’s review? It actually makes me want to read a novel about a man’s efforts to type an introduction to an anthology of poetry. David Orr is capable of the impossible!

[The Novel’s narrator] can be amiably whimsical (“God I wish I was a canoe”) and then amiably bizarre (“Either that or some kind of tree tumor that could be made into a zebra bowl but isn’t because I’m still on the tree”).
Note my added bolding! A lesser writer would have sought a new word (e.g. cordially, genially, or in the worst case scenario: affably).

While it’s true that Baker charges directly at technical aspects of verse, it’s also the case that these rambling semi-lessons are delivered much in the spirit in which a mildly drunken Penn Jillette might discuss David Blaine’s latest attempt to bury/burn/defenestrate himself.
BECAUSE: I know exactly what he means AND I want to hear that conversation!


The Criteria

The Criteria

Author Empathy:
Many are of the opinion that FOX news owes its existence to author empathy, whether they term it so or not. This category rates the strength of the connection that the teller of the story establishes with the readers. The writers for pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann have weaved formidable bonds of empathy among their audience. The audience trusts them because they have produced content that displays shared values. The audacity of some of those displays—e.g. O’Reilly’s denouncing of the entire country of France on international television—is a symptom of the confidence the writers have in their knowledge of their audience's values. Risky moves can pay off because a neutral, invisible author will not likely recruit a faithful readership.

Pandering is another name for the form of author empathy I just described. It's more engrossing than neutrality but if aimed at the wrong audience it discredits an entire body of work in that audience's eyes (see FOX again). The best authors can make themselves almost universally empathetic. These writers have a fair chance of gaining the heed even of people who don't agree with their claims or conclusions. They simply provide enough information about themselves and their viewpoints to allow readers to agree or disagree with them but benefit from the read anyway by acting as either a guiding or goading presence.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Author Empathy:
0-3: The author seemed dishonest and manipulative; assumptions were present that an audience shouldn't be expected to agree with.
4-7: The author was neutral or felt invisible. Better discretion regarding what details their reader wants to know yields a higher score.
8-10: The author made herself known, admitting any imperfection or bias in an honest way and still continuing to deliver an illuminating account that was made better because this writer delivered it. The highest scoring writers seemed to answer my questions about them as they occurred in my mind.

Stories are about people. Even if people aren't present the value of a story is still judged by a person. The things we relate to most in a story are the actors: criminals and victims, athletes, celebrities and their doings, two animals who are mating in a funky way, etc. The actors are the subject of the report. We readers like true details—but they have to be provided in the right context.

Reporters sift through lots of conversation before choosing what quotes to include in an article. This is true of both news (interviews) and reviews (what's recorded in the piece under review). At the time of reading, we cannot know what words didn't make it into the article so we need to see a lot in the quotes that are on the page. If a Nobel prize winning physicist was mentioned as present during a science fair then there better be a good quote from him about the winning project. If not, we have to wonder whether our reporter asked enough good questions of the story’s actors.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Characterization:
0-3: The important actors in the story are so bland and anonymous they may as well not have names.
4-7: Either we feel the information we have about the actors is incomplete or it seems leading—like the author has only provided us with one aspect of the actor when others seem present.
8-10: We can vividly imagine the actor in the setting. Details of appearance and behavior have been provided and commented upon in ways that satisfy our curiosity and compellingly engage our interest with the subject.

What you learn from an article. This is just as important for reviews as it is for news coverage. A good critic will be able to describe why an effort is good or bad to an extent that will also teach laypeople what some of the criteria are. In hard news the goal is to find out what’s happening at a given time in a given locale with a given subject: clear cut learning. Longer, more editorial articles, however, have the opportunity to open that context up—and should allow a reader to walk away with more relevant knowledge about the subject than would be gleaned from a brief report. If this extent of learning doesn’t happen then why the hell was an article given more words than a simple wire report?

Didacticism signifies, more than any other category, the part of the article that you take away to the water cooler, the cocktail party, or the Parliamentary debate.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Didacticism:
0-3: I don’t know why I wasted my time reading this article because I learned almost nothing that I didn’t already know.
4-7: This piece was capable, I learned what I set out to learn. It may have been too long when I wanted essential information or too short, leaving me to search for more coverage on the subject.
8-10: The subject illuminated from all angles. I walked away with handfuls of reliable facts on the matter and will be able to formulate an opinion on it without feeling like I need to conceal a completely amateur understanding.

The feelies: the chuckles and tears. Catharsis scores measure how much emotion the article will provoke. Witty punchlines or simply portrayals of hilarious situations up the score substantially. Unadulterated, personal looks at tragedy will drive the numbers up, too. Nothing wrong with a visceral gross-out, either.

There isn’t much to intellectualize here, this is the stuff sensed by the gut.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Catharsis:
0-3: The lowest scores are reserved for articles that had opportunities to see humor or represent true drama and didn’t—for shame!
4-7: Middling scores will go either to articles that didn’t have much material to work with or made attempts that provoked minor responses that could have been major.
8-10: The most emotionally engaging articles portray the joyful, the absurd, the bleak, and the strange in ways that wrap us up. These examples remind us why we continue to read the human story.

This is the catch-all category for actual pen-to-paper prose technique. Did the author flaunt obscure, lengthy words when there was no need or was the language precise and accessible? Does it seem like the period or the comma was either forgotten or annoyingly worshipped as an itty-bitty inky deity? Does the prose ooze so much style it begins acting like a gel on a comb over or is everything so dry we wish the writer had been shoved into lockers more in high school so he’d learn not to be so eggheaded?

This category can seem intangible at times, especially given that the other four seem to pretty solidly indicate the quality of writing. But sophistication is important to note in the same way that a pit crew who wants to know why their car lost the race wants more than anything to take a look under the winning car’s hood. Writing is a craft and large media outlets too often allow novices to pen their important stuff. On the flip side, there are writers out there whose prose is so good that they make us nit-pickers wish that English-language poetry was alive again.

So here is the general scale upon which I rate Sophistication:
0-3: There is almost no style and no control in the writing. Even if the reporting was good the translation onto the page was noticeably lacking.
4-7: Capable to a lesser or greater extent. The writing that is clear, and maybe even allows a few clichés to sneak in will score in the middle range. Not much style here.
8-10: Writing in a style that contributes to the experience of reading the piece. It’s so good that I can’t tell whether the style was adapted to fit the mood of the subject or the writer was simply the perfect person to cover this topic.