“Whenever possible, pass sentence on a movie the day after it comes out. Otherwise, wait fifty years.”
So says the world’s most entertaining film reviewer, Anthony Lane, in the introduction to Nobody’s Perfect, his collection of review and essays gleaned from his first nine years at the The New Yorker.
I hope he’ll understand if I completely ignore his edict when it comes to his own inspiring tome, which was published seven years ago.
I’d reviewed several thousand movies myself before I stumbled upon Nobody’s Perfect. By which time I was already a fan of this Cambridge-educated British ex-pat’s fortnightly reviews in the back pages of what for me – since I first started spending lunchtimes in the school library – has been the world’s finest magazine.
The introduction to Nobody’s Perfect, though brief, contains perhaps the most usefully instructive series of suggestions about what reviewers should and shouldn’t do, including mantras such as “never read the publicity material”, and “whenever possible, see a film in the company of ordinary human beings”.
In Australia, as in the US, most critics don’t; they watch them in very comfortable ‘theatrettes’, usually only with a few other colleagues in the room, a practice that to me has always seemed especially unfair on comedy or action films.
As Lane puts it: “Can one honestly promise a nimble response when the screen is the size of a parking space and the three critics hunched beside you, doggedly scratching down the work “joke” at the point where normal mortals would laugh, have already seen an Eddie Murphy comedy before lunch and a documentary about Swabian transsexuals in the early afternoon?”
There is no doubt that Lane, who was lured to The New Yorker from London by then editor Tina Brown, has one of the best gigs going in film writing. While staff film reviewers often disappear from newspapers, Lane still has the luxury of filing only once a fortnight – alternating with David Denby – and stretching his discussion about one or two films over 1,500 words.
This leads to Lane’s admission that he was “flattered…by the chance not only to review Showgirls, say, but to consider at leisure the lush philosophical landscape from which it sprang.”
The book, which sprawls to 750 pages of his writing for the magazine, includes not only movie reviews, but also a series of essays on books and “profiles”, which in this case are not interviews, but rather essays about individuals, or cultural icons such as Cannes, The New Yorker itself, and Lego (yes, Lego).
The introduction is, in typical Lane style, both entertaining and insightful in all sorts of lateral and literal ways.
“Movies deserve journalism” he says twice on the same page.
“Both involve a quick turnover, an addiction to the sensational, and a potent, if easily exhausted, form of communal intensity; books written about film are often devout and scholarly, but, unlike journalism, they bear almost no stamp of what it actually feels like to go to the movies.”
“A review”, he suggests, “should give off the authentic reek of the concession stand; it should become as handy as that finest of nocturnal inventions, the armrest-mounted soda holder.”
In other words, Lane is mindful that he is writing for an audience of filmgoers, and not to impress other critics. And there are other critics who aren’t too impressed, by him, including Godfrey Cheshire, who wrote a piece in New York Press in 2000 entitled “Why The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane Should Be Avoided“, where he argued that Lane is “not really a film critic but a quip-minded belletrist who happened into a lucrative gig and appears to have no inclination, now, to patch up the gaping holes in his knowledge of film”.
I beg to differ. Lane’s writing is possibly not to everyone’s taste, but to me his reviews frequently deliver substance as well as his very idiosyncratic style, peppered with astute if often seemingly effortlessly pithy observations about why movies do or don’t work, and how they connect to the contemporary zeitgesit. (See his takes, for instance on Before Sunrise, The Usual Suspects and Shallow Grave, to name by three.) Yet while he doesn’t play everything for laughs, Lane’s inventive wit is rarely absent. And sometimes it is never absent. Take the opening of his assessment of the Charlie’s Angels movie.
“Who is responsible for Charlie’s Angels? According to the credits, it was “directed by McG,” thus raising the intriguing prospect of the world’s first motion picture to be made by a hamburger…After seeing the movie, I have even less grasp of McG than when I went in, although the evidence suggests that we have Thick Shake to thank for the screenplay, and that the impressive special effects were by Large Fries.”
Or the first paragraph of 1998’s most tedious movies: “I had heard vile rumours that Meet Joe Black ran for almost three hours. The rumours were true, but let’s be fair: what matters is not how long a film is but long it seems, and Meet Joe Black doesn’t seem like a three-hour film at all. It seems like a ten-hour film.”
It’s true that some of the targets of his irreverence are predictable. “What is the point of Demi Moore?” begins his spray about The Scarlet Letter.
But his humour isn’t just reserved for the duds, and often takes the form of an element of surprise that reveals that he’s anything but a snob.
“Speed is set in Los Angeles. Most of if it takes place on a bus. It is a film full of explosions but bare of emotional development. Its characters are no more than sketches. It addresses no social concerns. It is morally inert. It is the movie of the year.”
Perhaps not all that surprisingly, he wasn’t quite as won over by 1997’s Speed 2; “I still left the theatre drenched in disappointment and missing Keanu Reeves. What is Jason Patric, after all, but Keanu without the passion, fire and intellect?”
Lane describes Nobody’s Perfect as a “hunk of old journalism”, and this in itself means that I’ll be ensuring that it’s on as many journalism subject reading lists as I can in the years ahead. And leaving space on my shelves for the next collection of his musings, whenever it should materialise.
In the meantime, the uninitiated might also want to explore some of Lane’s New Yorker writing online. Recent reviews can be found in full by going to http://www.newyorker.com/topics/movies, and abstracts to hundreds of other Lane reviews are searchable on the New Yorker website.
Nobody’s Perfect (2003) is published by Vintage Books.
Lawrie Zion is Journalism Coordinator at La Trobe Univeristy, and editor-in-chief of upstart. He previously wrote about and reviewed films for The Australian, The Age, Triple J, Empire, The Panel and Foxtel’s Premiere program.
Do you agree with Lawrie? Is Nobody’s Perfect a book every journalist should read?