28 December 2005

I Hate What You Love

The most interesting message board discussion I've seen recently concerns Lucius Shepard's film reviews, particularly his review of King Kong ("Jackson, once an edgy, intriguing filmmaker, has fallen prey to the same ethos that underscores the films of his immediate predecessors, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: To make a mark, a movie must play as though to an audience of children...and not especially astute children at that").

Some of Shepard's reviews get reprinted in F&SF, and a reader poses the question to editor Gordon van Gelder: "Why do you continue to publish film reviews from a man who hates every film ever made by Hollywood?" It turns into a pretty good conversation, because the reader is not entirely pigheaded about his opinions, Shepard joins in later, and lots of good issues are raised and bounced around.

Yesterday, I happened to read critic James Wood's essay in the third issue of N+1, written in response to the editors of the journal who had previously complained that the book reviews in The New Republic are written by "designated haters". It's a great exchange, and the editors of N+1 say it prompted them to create a symposium on American writing for the next issue. Here are a few of the things Wood had to say:
...I have always been fond of Turgenev's remark about Belinsky, that he was "not a negationist; he negated in the name of an ideal." ...

Henry James has a nice letter to Grace Norton, in which he defends Roderick Hudson against her mixed-to-negative review of it in the Nation: "I thank you must sincerely for noting those weak spots; it is invaluable, indispensable, to a style to feel itself watched, vigilantly." To feel itself watched, vigilantly: how stern James was, and how moist our own optic has become, as we run around town denouncing negativity and "snark." The issue has never been "snark"; it has always been intelligence, and writers rightly prefer intelligent hostility to stupid praise. ...

And yes, one knows what it is like to receive a harsh review; and yes, one is aware of the basic inhumanity of the critic's task. I write as one whose misfortune, having published a so-so novel, is to have received as his very first fiction review in England a piece with the headline, "You won't laugh, you won't cry," and then the obliging strap line: "James Wood's first novel has neither comedy nor pathos."
Wood goes on to create an argument for his own aesthetic beliefs, and to make a plea for serious, artful criticism.

Lucius Shepard's reviews are great fun to read, but they are also built upon some fundamental beliefs about entertainment and art. The negative ones are not superficial take-downs any more than the positive ones are shallow praisefests. Agreement or disagreement is nearly irrelevant with such writing, because the reviews lay out their ideas with specific evidence. I disagree with Shepard plenty, but find that his reviews help me better understand why I appreciate things he doesn't or vice versa because he offers both passion and reason -- the passion spurs my own, the reason challenges me to answer it.

If more critics and viewers were watching films as vigilantly and passionately as Shepard, we might not find our cinemas drowning in dreck. (Yes, that's an ideal.)

6 comments:

  1. Hi, Matt:

    Good points about Shepard. One thing:

    "It turns into a pretty good conversation, because the reader is not entirely pigheaded about his opinions..."

    As you say further on, it was a good conversation. I don't particularly agree with much of what the reader argued, but I didn't find him "pigheaded" either. I thought he supported his points rather well.

    Best regards,

    Laird

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  2. I didn't mean to suggest the reader was pigheadeded -- rather that these such conversations are usually a display of lots of that, and what separates this one is that many of the people responding actually listen to each other.

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  3. I agree, it's been one of the more civilized discussions about potential hot topics on the nightshade BB. I love reading Lucius's reviews. I love him dearly as a friend. But I tend to disagree with his opinions on many of the Hollywood movies we both see. And yes, his negativity forces me to analyze why I like the movie he does not--not a bad thing.
    Ellen

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  4. Matt:

    I read "not entirely" as necessarily indicative that the fellow was on some level at least partially pigheaded in your estimation. Thanks for the clarification.

    And I concur.


    Laird

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  5. I agree with Shepard's review... and I also think the film stumbled badly when it made King Kong an old, realistic gorilla instead of a "genuine" movie monster.

    My review of the film, "King Kong As A Dirty Old Man," can be read on my weblog:
    http://aryngve.blogspot.com/2005/12/king-kong-as-dirty-old-man.html

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  6. Interesting post...I agree that Woods may be a good bad critic (as opposed, you know, to a bad bad critic).

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