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This article by Angelina Sciolla was prepared for the October 2, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Anthony Lane’s `Doorstopper’

I will arrive on the doorstep of the New Yorker, as

a pile of human remains stuffed in a paper bag." This is how critic

Anthony Lane predicts his current book tour will end.

While the words he places on the page have been known to intimidate

and even anger some, Lane’s conversation is laced with self-deprecation.

And why not, since his musings on film, art, books, and popular culture

are so pungent with wit and intelligence, Lane hardly needs to toot

his own horn.

The book, Lane’s first, is "Nobody’s Perfect," an 800-page

tome so heavy you could press flowers with it or smooth out the wrinkles

of your tardy homework assignment. ("The size of a doorstopper,"

remarked one critic.) Yet its primary purpose supersedes all other

household uses. Lane has bound together his New Yorker articles of

the last 10 years, delivering an archive of critiques on everything

from the work of T.S. Eliot to "Men in Black;" Thomas Pynchon

to London’s Sing-Along "Sound of Music." Suddenly 800 pages

don’t seem daunting because you don’t have to start at the beginning

and work through each dense discernment in chronological order. You

can start with a leisurely browse through the collection; in no time,

you’ve read enough to keep on reading.

Midway through his whirlwind tour, Anthony Lane arrives on the doorstep

of Princeton’s U-Store on Wednesday, October 2, at 7 p.m. to meet

his readers and sign and discuss "Nobody’s Perfect."

Most notorious for his film reviews, Lane often pricks the bubble

of Hollywood’s self-reverence. In describing the opening scene of

"Gladiator," Lane wonders: "The legions, fanatically faithful

to their leader, are ranged against a tribe of Germans so aggressively

hairy that even a soldier as war wise as Maximus is uncertain whether

to harass them with cavalry from the rear or simply shave them to

death."

Lane contends that film is too genial to have a vast amount of analysis

heaped on it. He cites "Jaws" as a good example, recalling

that it was once described as a movie about a "terrifying big

fish."

"Now, of course," Lane explains, "with retrospectives

on Steven Spielberg’s work and in the context of his career, the film

is seen as much more than that. It happens to be a very entertaining

film. And that can be enough."

Lane remains careful not to take his role as a critic too seriously,

arguing it is impossible to determine once and for all whether a film

is good, bad, or somewhere in between because tastes change and so

do the prisms of age and context through which we view films.

"A film critic gives a sensory report on the kind of experience

into which moviegoers will be wading," says Lane. "It’s not

about telling people what they should or shouldn’t do."

Despite the benevolence of the remark, Lane has been

the target of both praise and indignation ever since former New Yorker

editor Tina Brown brought him across the pond 10 years ago to help

shine up the magazine’s dusty class. In response to one of Lane’s

film reviews, a reader wrote, "You have joined the legions of

those who would rather be right than happy. And you’re not even right."

To which Lane could well reply, "Nobody’s Perfect."

"I prefer spirited disagreement to mild disapproval," says

Lane. "I even like to disagree with myself."

While doing so, Lane distinguishes himself from other film critics

through the conspicuous absence of banal superlatives that typically

end up as movie advertising quote-bites. "It would be a failure

on my part to have a quote pulled for a print ad. Then it’s a blurb

— and you should be working for the marketing department of the

film company."

In Lane’s assessments, however, good work gets its due as does the

bad. (For the record, he gave "Gladiator" a generally favorable

review.) Cultural references abound in his reviews but do not ring

haughty. Imagine the cheeky robots of Mystery Science Theater 3000

riffing on "Casablanca" or "Citizen Kane," but with

some semblance of critical thought and far better grammar.

As for the book’s title — it’s a line from "Some Like It Hot,"

Billy Wilder’s acclaimed 1959 comedy starring Marilyn Monroe and the

cross-dressing duo of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. It’s a film Lane

knows frame to frame, line by line. Yet the title might also be a

likely reply to a critic from one being critiqued. Or a critique in

and of itself.

Lane admits that actually meeting his readers — as he’ll do October

2 at the U-Store — is a new experience for him. "I’m in my

bubble, writing for the New Yorker, so it’s been very interesting

for me to meet the audience." And, he says, he is ripe for conversation

on just about any topic, as long as his voice and stamina don’t falter.

"I may very well lose my voice by the time I get to Princeton,

so you may just encounter a man in white make-up doing mime,"

says Lane. Should New Yorker readers now anticipate 3,000 words on

Marcel Carne’s 1945 marvelous mime story, "Children of Paradise"?

— Angelina Sciolla

Anthony Lane, Princeton U-Store, 36 University Place,

609-921-8500. Free. Wednesday, October 2, 7 p.m.


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