Tag Archives: critics

I was an English major, and how anyone can survive that is a miracle. It is only through love that I have survived: love of the language I speak and write, a love that was nearly extirpated by those who explain literature and write the prefaces to anthologies. The experts, that is. 

It was nurtured, however, by many a teacher and professor, who also love the language and its productions. I don’t remember ever having an English teacher who propounded such gobbledygook as the professional explainer class regularly emits. (This, by disclaimer, is a class of which I was once a member, having made my living as a critic.)

I tried my best to write clear prose with understandable ideas, but my fellow guild members too often do the opposite. They can take something so simple and direct, so unimpeachably beautiful and clear, and turn it into a tangled knot of impenetrable theory, catching the flying sparrow in the fine mesh net of academic verbiage. I was, more particularly, an art critic, and I always said that I couldn’t read art criticism, that doing so was like eating an old mattress. 

It is the same for much buncombe written about literature and poetry. Something that should be read for pleasure, understanding or solace turns into a midterm exam, the kind that you have in your recurring dreams when you discover you aren’t wearing any pants. 

I am pretty sure such explainers are cases of arrested development, stuck in the sorrowful stage of the sophomore. The memory of having been once a sophomore myself gives me pause. There was a time when I, like so many other young minds, sought to “decode” a poem, finding the hidden meaning in the symbols therein. As if a poem required an enigma machine to untangle its “true”meaning, found in footnotes at the bottom of the page. 

Is Billy Budd a Christ figure? A victim of patriarchy or capitalist oppression. Perhaps he is a Marxist hero. Maybe, he is just a handsome sailor, like Melville tells us. What we are meant to glean from the story’s reading is inherent in the story itself. 

As Archibald McLeish put it: “A poem must not mean but be.” 

Any good work of literature explains itself, if we are willing to listen, to pay attention and to stay within the work and not require a university seminar to unpack. All this comes to mind because of a short discussion recently about an eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams. And a comment by critic Dave Wolverton who wrote: “The poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story…” 

Such ideas raise the hackles. 

The poem in question couldn’t be simpler, more complete, more self-explanatory, but no, Mr. Wolverton tells us we need to take a secret decoder ring to it, to find out what it is “really” about. 

The back story he refers to is of the poet-physician, who was attending the hospital bedside of a dying young girl and happened to look out the window to see a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. First problem: Williams was a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, where it is quite unlikely to find chickens outside a hospital window. More likely a traffic jam. 

Second problem is that despite the widespread retelling of this dying-girl tale, Williams himself tells us the genesis of the poem. It “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”

It was first published in 1923, and one head-scratching comment I found suggested the poem was a comment on women getting the vote. How the critic got there from the contents of the poem, I leave to you and perhaps your bong. 

Another sees it as a celebration of the proletariat. This is the kind of stuff that turns high-school students away from poetry and literature and toward auto repair. 

To wit: “The wheelbarrow is an enduring and universal tool, used by people for thousands of years. It is most commonly associated with farming and construction—arguably, the foundation upon which civilization is built. In the poem, the wheelbarrow and its surrounding environment could also nod specifically towards agricultural workers and rural communities. As such, the poem’s contemplation of the wheelbarrow can be read as a meditation on the link between humanity and the natural world—as well as an assertion of the importance of respecting the latter.”

Where is that assertion? Show me the line. 

Elsewhere: “By extension, the wheelbarrow here might be taken to represent the value of the working class. This class — the people actually performing said manual labor, such as farmers, miners, construction workers, etc. — is often stereotyped as being unskilled and unintelligent. Physical work, in general, is often misclassified as ‘lowly’ or ‘simple,’ which ignores the complexity that goes into planting, pollinating, etc. Seeing as this work is often undervalued despite its importance to human survival, the attention given to the wheelbarrow (and, through it, the people who use wheelbarrows) could act as a subtle acknowledgement and celebration of the working class.”

Where do manual laborers spend their time “pollinating?” Et cetera. 

It might be noted that none of any of that shows up in the 16 plain words that comprise the poem. What there is, is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. They are not symbols, they do not require a gloss. They are, in fact, a wheelbarrow and chickens. It is the ability to see them as just that that is the gift of the poem. They have been separated out of the rest of existence and shown to us as something worthy to be noticed. 

My acquaintance was remembering a common friend who had recently died, who had introduced him to the poem.  

“With my spotty poetry background, I’d never read this gemlike summing up of the power of first impressions. We were probably talking about things that seized our imaginations when we were very young.”

I always took it not as about first impressions, but about the importance of noticing, i.e., paying attention, even to the things you ignore in quotidian life. Paying attention is, for me, tantamount to being alive — I mean really alive, as opposed to merely existing. That is what so much depends on. 

It is also the importance of the senses, as opposed to rationality. So much of what we think is merely done in linguistic categories. House, bird, horse. We tend to value logic and think it is what we hold in opposition to irrationality. But logic has its own pitfalls: It is also thinking in linguistic categories, and so much of what is “logical” is only so in words. Zeno’s paradox never actually prevents Achilles from overtaking the tortoise in a single step. 

As Stephen Fry says over and over, the counter position to superstition and irrationality is not logic, but empiricism. Empiricism is paying attention. In that sense, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. Without it, Galileo is put under house arrest. In this sense, paying attention and sense data are a bundle, inseparable. 

Paying attention to our senses — looking carefully, hearing intently, touching, tasting, smelling — is also the key factor in squeezing the most enjoyment out of this brief moment we spend on the planet (seeming briefer with each birthday). In Keat’s words: “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine.” 

So much depends… 

chainsaw“Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place ‘Love Stinks’ will not be opening. love stinks

“It’s the kind of movie you fidget your way through, holding your wristwatch up to the light of the screen to see how long you have survived, sort of like seeing how long you can hold your breath underwater. It’s a macho test to survive this miserable, vile clunker. 

“You, lucky moviegoer, can always walk out. You can demand your money back. But pity the poor reviewer, paid to sit through it, who cannot leave but is handcuffed to his seat, with wire claws lashing his eyelids open, being forced to watch endless failed flatulence jokes, Elvis jokes and hair jokes. 

“How can a flatulence joke fail? This movie shows you. 

“Yes, you can demand your money back, but I can never demand back the time I gave to this sinkhole. It is time missing forever from my life and will be listed in my memoirs as my greatest regret. This is a movie that can damage you spiritually.”

Wow! I really didn’t like that movie.

But I seemed to have enjoyed writing about it. This is a constant nag to a movie critic, and one of the questions most often asked of us — “Do you have more fun writing bad reviews.”thumbs down The answer, of course, is I hate writing bad reviews, but — you got me — I love writing fun reviews of really awful films.

This is the crux: Some of the most memorable movie reviews are the pans, like when Roger Ebert wrote, of “North,” “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.”

Most people go to movies occasionally. The most avid rarely go more than once or twice a week. But the movie critic sees movies, sometimes several in a day. We become surfeited.

We also see a lot of un-inspired twaddle. You, the moviegoer may be mildly entertained by a mediocre movie; you can forget it soon after exposure. But the critic has probably seen a dozen rom-coms with the same plot, the same jokes, and the same actors — at least they do seem to blend together eventually into a single pair of Hugh Grants and Julia and sex

Imagine a light romantic comedy with Julia Roberts and Mandy Patinkin, with clever writing, snappy direction and a heartwarming ending.

  Then imagine that Roberts isn’t available, so you replace her with a look-alike. And then Patinkin isn’t available, either, and neither are the good writers nor a classy director. 

What you have is “Love & Sex,” a film that never rises to its own ambition.

It can’t decide whether it wants to make real points about real life and love, or wants to be a low-budget imitation of a high-budget Hollywood meet-cute romance.

It is true that I wasn’t a fulltime movie critic. Mostly I covered art and music. But I was a kind of back-up critic for our regular guy, and he often gave me art films and foreign language films to review.

For this I am hugely grateful.

It isn’t simply that foreign films are better than Hollywood films, but rather that the bad French films or Italian films are less likely to be imported and distributed in the U.S., meaning my films was pre-selected for quality.

That meant, I  got to see a better run of films than our poor movie critic.

But for times he was on vacation, or out sick, I wound up having to review some real dogs.

There have been so many first-rate foreign, indie and small films to come through town lately that it sometimes seems that a critic must have run out of stars to sprinkle from his pepper shaker.  So it should be a relief to find a dud, but it never is.

And there are so many.

earthbound humans Anyone who manages to sit through “The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human” to the end and, in a masochistic exercise, remains in the theater for the credits will see the two funniest jokes of the movie — not making too strong a claim for them. 

So you don’t have to squirm in your seat that long, I will reveal them here: First, the credit line says, ”This movie was shot entirely on location on the planet Earth,” and then the disclaimer line reads, ”No humans were harmed in the making of this movie.” 

There you have the best this sorry exercise has to offer. You can now save your money.

Or, to turn to another one:

wicker park To call “Wicker Park” glossy is an insult to the word “glossy.”  There is not a thought in its pretty little head. 

And it does look gorgeous. Shot mostly in winter, its cityscapes are as romantic as Impressionist paintings. The falling snow provides a sense of motion, even when the film is dead in the water. 

But it’s like watching a 90-minute fashion commercial, and with about as much character development.

You are grateful for good films; certainly, you would prefer that all the films you see are top-notch. Good films make your life better, richer, fuller. The only problem is that, for a critic, there are only so many words you can use to praise a film, and the praise can get a little numbing for your reader. How can you express your enthusiasm without seeming addled or hyperbolic? You put five stars at the head and hope your readers will notice.

And most films you see are neither very good, nor very bad. They are a bear to write about. What can you say? You won’t waste your money, but you won’t remember the film at all by next year.

A friend recently asked me to send her some of my old movie reviews for fun, and I scrolled through hundreds of them, and I was shocked at how many movies I saw, I wrote about, and yet I have not a single recollection of. They have evaporated.

But the truly awful movies: They are memorable. And they give the critic a chance to rev up the invective. We have suffered through you movie, so we are going to balance the karmic account by enjoying the review writing as much as we didn’t enjoy sitting in the dark theater cringing our way through the miserable offering.

ask the dust There is a long-abused, overworked and now out-of-date word to describe Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust.” 


This movie, set in Los Angeles in 1934, is as phony as a three-dollar Hollywood smile. Nothing in it rings true. Not the dialogue, not the acting, not the sets, not even the air. 

Which is too bad, considering Towne was also responsible, as writer, for the best LA-in-the-’30s movie ever, “Chinatown.”

But “Dust” fails in all the ways “Chinatown” triumphed.

It’s our revenge.

“A Home at the End of the World” was made by Warner Independent Pictures, and that pretty well sums up its strengths and weaknesses.  Warner Independent Pictures — that’s like Consolidated Amalgamated Home Made Pies Inc.

How can a gigantic multinational media conglomerate make an independent film?  Well, it can’t.

Critics are often accused of hating movies. And there are movies we hate, but critics — and it is true for me — don’t hate movies; we love movies. And so, we are heartbroken when a movie fails to live up to its potential. And more than heartbroken, we can actually get angry about it.

Because it is so unnecessary for a movie to be as bad as some of these films are.

A tin ear is a painful thing.

Not for those who have it, but for those who are asked to review its productions. 

It begins with this film’s title. Here is a story of epic sweep, recounting a heroic and desperate episode in the Mormon migrations westward into Utah. It is a tale that begs for a star like Charlton Heston, a score like “Exodus,” a cast of thousands. 

And they name it “Handcart.”

The technical name for this trope is bathos. It is a sign of tone-deafness.  But that is just the beginning. Throughout this two-hour saga, its makers manage to trivialize every point possible, turning genuinely dramatic events into cliches of cloying sentimentality and predictability.

fast food fast women

So, we have to lay our cards on the table. Wretched is wretched.

When friends and relatives rib me about being paid to watch movies for a living, I only have to point them to something like “Fast Food Fast Women” to prove that there is a cost involved. This film is payback. 

It’s one of the worst films of the year, a candidate for the Ed Wood Award for incompetent cinema. It’s that bad.

It isn’t only the cheapy films, or the exploitive films that cause this hiccup of disaffection. It is often the high-budget literary films that drive me to distraction.

house of mirth 3 If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with “House of Mirth.” It creases where it should drape. 

You might expect a movie with mirth in the title and Dan Aykroyd in the cast to be a barrel of laughs, but there is not so much as the hint of a smile in this glum period picture made from the Edith Wharton novel about New York high society in 1905. It is Wharton with all the subtlety left out. 

What is left is the worst of Masterpiece Theater: Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues. 

And, oh, those lines they are forced to mouth:  “If obliquity were a vice, we would all be tainted.”

I like that line: “ pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.” It is bad movies that evoke such language.

So, yes, I have to admit, writing reviews of bad movies (as opposed to writing bad reviews — reviews badly written) is often a good deal of fun. Certainly more fun than sitting through the movie.

But there is another kind of film that elicits bad reviews. There are movies that rile up the moral indignation normally complacent when watching an entertainment medium. Some films are morally reprehensible.

I am not talking about taking political sides in a current debate, as if a pro-Arab film is somehow a bad film because of its message. I’m talking about something deeper than that.

And readers so often confuse the content of a film with the quality of the film. I never had more reaction — negative reaction — to a review I wrote than when I panned Meryl Streep’s “Music of the Heart.”

The events of the film had a good heart, good intentions. It was about teaching music to inner-city kids. This is an idea no one can argue against. But the movie was a cloying, sentimental lie, from beginning to end. I could not believe a pismire of it, despite that it was “based on real events.”

music of the heart

“Music of the Heart” is the most nakedly manipulative movie I’ve seen in years.  It yanks you around from pillar to post, trying to make you grab for the hankies, but instead, it makes you squirm in your seat. 

It means to make you feel good as you leave the theater, but take my word, the earlier you leave the theater, the better you’ll feel. There is no other word for the movie but ”phony.” Nothing in it is believable.

The kind of thing that made me cringe was the fantasy that a part-time temporary teacher in the New York City school system, now a divorcee from a Navy man, had enough money — despite complaining about her poverty in the film — to buy and renovate a New York brownstone.

When I see movies like this, I wonder what chumps the film industry takes us all for. How many final basketball games are we meant to sit through, wondering if the underdog will win? 

The Big Game in this film is a Carnegie Hall concert, meant to save the music program in the school where Streep teaches. Will they pull it off? With the help of Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt and — if they are too highbrow — Mark O’Connor? 

This is not a story; it is a ritual. But even ritual must be judged by the truth that underlies it. There is nothing in this film even remotely related to real life: And I’m not just talking about how a single-mother substitute teacher with two young boys can afford to buy and renovate a house in Manhattan, building a little bit of Yuppieville in the middle of Harlem.  No, I mean that no schoolchild ever acted like these children, no ex-husband ever acted like this one, no new boyfriend ever thought the thoughts of this one, no group of tiny fiddlers, spending the year playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in unison can turn around and instantly start playing J.S. Bach’s four-part counterpart on the stage of Carnegie Hall. 

But what can you expect when a film sets out to press every button mechanically? There is artificial pathos at every moment, from divorce through rejection into spousal abuse and drive-by shooting. 

There is even a little girl in leg braces who received inspiration from the example of Perlman. No cheap tear is avoided by director Wes Craven. 

 The film moves from one crisis into another by rote, using each to create a mini epic of schmaltz with each problem and resolution leading into the next, building to the Big Crisis at the end, with the Big Payoff.

Well, I heard squawks and squeals from all the fine and sensitive readers who thought I was disparaging the idea of teaching kids music, that somehow, I thought giving Harlem children violins and attention was a terrible thing.

I tried to make it clear in my review that I thought no such thing. Teaching is good; movie is bad. The distinction isn’t always made by civilians, for whom the mechanics of filmmaking are subliminal and the story is all that they notice.

I want, finally, to give you one whole review, entire. I was often blamed for alleged artiness, that I valued art films over entertainment. And while I certainly asked of films that they have some lasting value to the viewer — something beyond the momentary tickle of amusement — I was no fan of mere artiness.

In fact, the film that gave me the most severe moral nausea was perhaps the artiest film I ever saw, save only “Last Year at Marienbad.” It was Peter Greenaway’s “8½ Women,” which struck me as so vile and misogynistic that it gave me the equivalent of metaphysical borborygmus.

8 1:2 women

There is no one who admires art films more than I. If you have read my film criticism over the years, you already know that if it is slow, wordy and has thoughtful gazes instead of car crashes, I usually give it stars out the wazoo. 

But I have met my match. 

Peter Greenaway’s new film, “8½ Women,” is so pretentiously arty, so aridly sterile, so ponderously coy that I could barely make it through to the end.

If you’ve seen other Greenaway films – “Draughtsman’s Contract,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” “Prospero’s Books” or “The Pillow Book” – you have some idea what to expect. If you enjoyed those films, you may enjoy this. I could find neither pleasure nor intellectual stimulus. 

The film follows a 55-year-old financier and his grown son as they accumulate a harem on their Geneva estate, and then we watch as the whole thing breaks down. 

That synopsis makes it all seem more coherent than the movie does, which is elliptical to the point of cloying.

It is all told in a series of brief, enigmatic vignettes strung together like baroque pearls on a string.

  The 8½ women are not really women, and they are not really stereotypes either: What they are are embodiments of various fetishisms.

Critics have lamented Greenaway’s misogyny – I won’t belabor that point – but it isn’t simple misogyny. In fact, the women in this film don’t matter at all, one way or another. What matters are the accouterments of their individual brands of fetishism. 

In other words, while pornography objectifies women, fetishism objectifies the paraphernalia and ignores the women altogether. 

So, we have a harem including: a prostitute dressed as a nun; a woman in a business suit who makes usurious loans; a nude woman in leather body brace who loves horses and a 600-pound, enormously pink pig; a Japanese woman who wants to be a female impersonator so she can be more ”feminine”; and an amputee – the ”½” woman. 

I have no doubt that Greenaway is serious about all this. But in human hands, such a cast could create only ludicrous comedy. Unfortunately, Greenaway doesn’t have a funny bone in his body: It is all quite grave. 

Both father and son in the film are notorious narcissists, and it seems as if Greenaway is, too, but instead of navel gazing, they are staring a bit lower.

Most of the nudity is of 55-year-old John Standing, admiring his penis in a mirror.

I’ve never seen a film with this much nudity that is so unerotic. 

Giving stars to a film like this is a problem. We are supposed to take into account the intent of the film. We don’t give bad reviews to action films because they are brainless: We take into account what the film intends and whether it succeeds at it. 

Well, Greenaway intends to make a pretentiously arty film. So, should he get five stars for succeeding at making a reptilian, repulsive, boring, emetic and anaphrodisiacal yawner? 

In his press material, Greenaway says that ”it is absolutely imperative to read poetry many times” and that we need to view his films multiple times to extract the meaning from them. 

I think you’ll be a champ if you manage to make it through even once.

pizza slice
People approach the arts generally in one of two ways: with taste and judgment or with curiosity.


You can spot the first group by the arch of their eyebrow, the second group by the gleam in their eye.

The first group includes a good number of academics, critics and — worse — politicians. They all suck the life out of creation (with a lower-case “c”). I speak as a lifelong critic myself. In all three cases, they have criteria outside the issues of art by which they judge the art.
jacques derrida

The academic asks whether the art promotes his particular hobby horse, whether it is Marxism, Feminism or Post-structuralism. The politician looks to issues of biblical morality or economic theory or national pride. The critic, too, has his narrows and straits.

They all have ideals — or limitations — they ask the art to live up to and tend to filter out divergent opinions and make moral judgments, not merely aesthetic ones, against those who failed to live up to their standards.

They ran the gamut from the most enlightened connoisseurship to the most craven bigotry.

But each came to a final and immovable resting place, so to speak. They came to a certainty from a certainty. Not much of a voyage.Epimetheus opening Pandora's Box

Curiosity is the libido of art and it is always searching and always finding new pleasures, deeper enlightenment. It begins not with certainty and knowledge, but with openness and ignorance.

There is this one simple truth that we cannot escape: What you know prevents learning. It is only when we give up believing in our knowingness that we can grow. There is nothing so stunted as theory; it is the brain wearing a whalebone corset.

And curiosity is where all the greatest artists have begun. It is also where any art lover needs to start: Judgment is for the censorious; art aims for the unprogrammed curiosity.rembrandt

Obviously, I have stacked the deck in curiosity’s favor, but that is only as it should be.

The greatest artists have always been open to the world. Rembrandt had his Orientalism, Hokusai his Occidentalism. Leonardo had the most promiscuous curiosity in the history of our culture.

For me, these are the heroes of art.

And I think of them every time the issue of multiculturalism comes up. The concept seems simple and desirable to me, but it is a bugaboo for those who have wished to see culture ossified at a certain time and place, usually late 19th century and Europe.sesshu

I am not one to knock European art. I fall in rapture over Beethoven’s late quartets, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Goethe’s Faust. But I also hunger to know as much as I can about the music of India, China, South America, Africa. I want to hear Ali Akhbar Khan on sarod, the clang of a Javanese gamelan. I want to see sumi paintings of Sesshu, the stonework of Macchu Picchu.

Shakespeare is a prodigy, but I also want to see Noh plays, Shakuntala and Chinese opera.

They all have something for me to experience and something to teach me.

picassoAnd they have something to teach the finest artists working today, a fact the finest artists are fully aware of. All the best artists borrow and steal from elsewhere, whether it’s Papa Haydn borrowing Alsatian folksongs or Pablo Picasso ripping off African masks.

But there are critics who decry Philip Glass for the Hindu in his minimalism or the Asiatic spectacle of Robert Wilson’s stagings.

But these are the people who are revivifying our high culture, just as Paul Simon and David Byrne, musical thieving magpies, are doing for our popular culture.

gauguinAnd artists have always been awake to these cultural borrowings, as Gauguin borrowed from the South Seas, Bartok borrowed from Hungarian folk music, as Shakespeare borrowed from anything he thought would be useful.

Everything, from top to bottom, is grist for fine art.

I know there is a politically correct aspect of multiculturalism that is ignorance incarnate: the enforced belief that anything from another culture is wonderful and we shouldn’t say anything bad about it. But that is a political consideration, not an aesthetic one.

I’m all for saying bad things about bad art, wherever it comes from, but let’s see and hear it first. Hold judgment in abeyance and just soak it all in.

There is not a culture anywhere on this planet that has nothing to teach us. We should never be so smug.

The critics and connoisseurs are concerned about being right. But much more important is maintaining a lively mind. What is correct and proper in any age is very likely to change over time. Such are not the “eternal verities” that their proponents like to think they are; they are mere fashion.

But a lively mind, whether it is in Third Century China, 18th Century France or 21st Century Brazil, will always be the medium of exchange for thinking, feeling people.

Remember when tomatoes were considered poison? If the reactionaries had had their way, we would not now have pizza. I rest my case.