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