Why The New Yorker's Anthony Lane Should Be Avoided

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Down Anthony's Lane

But there's the occasional example of film writing so extravagantly awful that my forbearance snaps and irritated silence bows to professional pride. Such a grating instance is Anthony Lane's review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the Dec. 11 New Yorker. As a piece of prose, Lane's polite rave for Ang Lee's film is competent enough, if typically gaseous and cute. But as film criticism it's something far less innocuous, a riot of errors and absurdities that would make the shoddiest webzine blush.

What's at issue here has nothing to do with "opinion," or whether one likes or dislikes Crouching Tiger. It has to do with the critic's basic grasp of his subject, in this case a movie that combines the sleek gravity of a Western art film with the high-flying acrobatics of a Chinese martial arts movie. Lane seems to have trouble with both sides of that equation, and I can imagine a couple of reasons why.

For one, he's 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. (Why learn anything about a subject that's only there to be the object of one's witticisms?) Thus his review reflects a virtually complete and unapologetic ignorance of Chinese action-movie traditions and conventions that, besides being of central importance to Crouching Tiger, are by now familiar to many Western movie fans. The only name he mentions, Bruce Lee, is the one Chinese star your granny in Dubuque knows.

Arguably a greater stumbling block, though, lies in the fact that Lane, a Brit who lives in London, is habitually so uninformed and tone-deaf when it comes to things American. Writing of two Chinese women in Lee's film, he says that the younger treats the elder "the way a young black kid would treat Michael Jordan?as a blend of role model, escape route, and god." Amazingly, that manages to be racist in two directions at once. (Why would a black kid, as opposed to, say, a poor kid, view Jordan as an "escape route"? Does Lane think that all black kids are poor? Or all poor kids black? Or is it blackness that this rhetorical kid is bent on escaping?)

When he turns from race to filmmaking, Lane's ignorance produces some real howlers. "The career of Ang Lee?and its prospects?strikes me as the most interesting in Hollywood today," he grandly pronounces. Hollywood? A native of Taiwan, Lee has spent his career avoiding H-wood by (a) remaining steadfastly based in New York and (b) making most of his films independent of the major studios. If he's a Hollywood director, Woody Allen is the mayor of Bel Air.

Stumbling on, Lane notes the varied settings of Lee's movies, including Civil War Missouri in Ride with the Devil and "the East Coast" in The Ice Storm, and explains to the reader that Lee's films have this diversity "not because he wants to try his hand but because each new environment promises the chance of immersion."

In the critical trade, that sort of analysis is what's known as pure, grade-A horseshit. It sounds good but means less than nothing. How does Anthony Lane know why Ang Lee chooses his projects? Not only does he patently not know, but he appears innocent of the fact that these choices are jointly made by Lee and James Schamus, Lee's longtime partner as producer and writer. Indeed, the creative union of Lee and Schamus (who goes unmentioned in Lane's review, though Schamus wrote Crouching Tiger) is one of the most unusual and noteworthy phenomena in recent New York filmmaking. But why should the critic know anything about New York's film culture? He only writes for a magazine called The New Yorker, after all.

The review's greatest astonishments, however, are saved for last. Lane's concluding paragraph begins:

"This movie is not just the best of its kind; it seems on the verge of creating a new kind, surpassing and deflating the old Bruce Lee jamborees with the same dashing intelligence that allowed Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, to outstrip the more basic bravado of Douglas Fairbanks. Curtiz, the director of Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, was born Mihaly Kertesz, in Budapest, and Ang Lee can be seen as a Curtiz for our times: the uncondescending outsider, reading the runes of the New World. Hollywood needs such men?civilized craftsmen with honor and humor?more than it needs the maverick or the self-igniting genius, and just now the need is acute... Is it too fanciful to suggest that the generation of Lee, Chen Kaige, Wong Kar Wai [sic], Zhang Yimou, and Hou Hsiao Hsien [sic], or perhaps the generation that follows them, might ride to the rescue?or, at any rate, the resuscitation?of American movies with some of the panache that marked the great Mitteleuropa immigration of the thirties and forties, itself an escape into the entertainment industry from a world of threat...?"

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that strikes me as one of the stupidest things I've ever read. It surely takes the cake as the stupidest bit of "film criticism" committed in the past year. Indeed, its stupidity is so dense and multilayered as to defy easy untangling.

Crouching Tiger is the best of its kind? As Lane seems eminently unversed in the Hong Kong tradition of female-centered martial arts movies, how could he begin to make that judgment? Well, then, maybe it's a new kind. Meaning what? A hybrid Western art film and martial arts film?who's going to make another one of those? And even if they did, how could this newfangled "kind" surpass and displace the kind represented by Bruce Lee, et al.? Do fans of the latter stand to be won over by art-film finery? On the contrary, they're the ones so far who are most down on Ang Lee's movie.

Even by Lane's lofty standards, the horseshit factor here is extraordinarily high. A confectioner of showy erudition ("born Mihaly Kertesz, in Budapest...") that's usually three-quarters hot air, he blithely insults both Bruce Lee and Douglas Fairbanks, who stand to different sorts of action-movie athleticism roughly as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire stand to dance-movie athleticism. He then proceeds to pen phrases as frilly, absurd and condescending as "reading the runes of the New World" and "a Curtiz for our times" while bounding toward what he evidently imagines to be his showstopper: that climactic rhetorical question.

"Is it too fanciful to suggest...?" No, Tony, not fanciful. Just dumb as dog poop, and wrongheaded in about 15 ways simultaneously. One cannot read that sentence and think Lane has ever seen a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, the most critically lauded Asian director of this era, an austere, glacially uncommercial artist who speaks only Chinese and rarely leaves Taiwan. In the image of Hou riding to the rescue of American movies?pigtail flying! saber flashing! whistling "Yankee Doodle Dandy"!?Lane serves up a fruitcake hallucination worthy of Homer Simpson. What could top it? "Maybe we could get Monsieur Bresson to resuscitate the Die Hard series!" "Doesn't T.S. Eliot realize his mission is to rescue Tin Pan Alley?"

A veteran English critic recently lamented to me that publishers in London are so bent on wooing the rising class of young, empty-headed New Laborite stockbrokers that their idea of acceptable film criticism is reduced to one thing: telling jokes about Hollywood movies that leave the dim reader feeling smugly superior and in the know. Lane's achievement is to have imported this brand of chortlesome Sloane Square know-nothingism to the U.S. He's such a clever writer! So funny! So say half-bright university graduates at cocktail parties across America, and they are not wrong. Lane is clever and funny. But when he's not flicking bon mots at Charlie's Angels, when he's faced with a subject that requires a bit of knowledge and critical savvy, he's easily the most embarrassing high-profile film writer in the U.S.

Then again, he'll write a piece about some author or literary phenomenon and you realize: he's actually very knowledgeable and incisive on certain subjects. And therein lies the problem. Unlike his New Yorker colleague David Denby, Lane evidently doesn't see films as his passion, his metier, his mission. It's his paycheck. Alas, critics caught in such velvet cages often end up the bitterest of writers, bilious with a self-contempt that eventually gives even the funniest jokes an acrid aftertaste.

The New Yorker's dubious treatment of foreign-language cinema has recently been the subject of various sorts of commentary, from the lengthy dissection in Jonathan Rosenbaum's new book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella) to the numerous surprised comments I heard that there was no review of Edward Yang's Yi Yi, which was not only arguably the fall's best foreign film but one that would seem particularly appealing to the magazine's readership. In the case of Lane, this neglect of the non-English-speaking cinematic world has an odd corollary in the most curious aspect of his writing: its giddy, Magic Kingdom vision of Hollywood.

Emerging from Crouching Tiger, he says, "you can't decide whether you feel like a five-year-old coming out of Peter Pan or like a Cary Grant fan coming out of To Catch a Thief." Has there ever been an American critic so apt to invoke Cary Grant or some other classic-Hollywood mainstay at the drop of a hat?any hat? No, this seems a peculiarly English tic, and I would half-seriously suggest that it conceals the lingering reflexes of empire, with the critic projecting his Kiplingesque fantasies and panegyrics onto an imaginary kingdom improbably centered in Southern California.

This is how we get those "civilized craftsmen with honor and humor," for whom Lane can envision no higher purpose than to abandon their own art and cultures and rush to save Hollywood's blighted, irretrievably corrupt empire. (Those dusky craftsman chaps, so stout, so true!) This rescue fantasy may be as dizzy as anything ever offered under the guise of film criticism, but at least it allows us finally to identify the mysterious figure that looms behind Lane's description of Ang Lee and his valiant Asian brethren.

By Jove, it's Gunga Din!

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