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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Confessions of a snarky little child

Two of the most disappointing movies I've seen recently are Little Children and The Departed. My exact opposite in all questions of taste is the reviewer David Denby. And so it was my pleasure to discover, when catching up on October issues of The New Yorker, that Denby had reviewed both!

Alice has hinted that my snarkiness about New Yorker writers (Denby, Sasha Frere-Jones, Malcolm Gladwell) does not make for great reading. Or perhaps I've projected that opinion, inferring volumes from a raised eyebrow; the cause was a twitch, but I am reminded of the message of High Fidelity--whose main character my sisters swear "is Ben"--that it is easy to be a critic, and hard to be a creator. (Though I'm not sure how that applies to criticizing critics).

As someone who has been arguing for genetic reductionism recently, I should mention that my snarkiness may be inherited. My grandfather took great pleasure, as a liberal in Texas, in cancelling newspaper subscriptions in outrage. I understand that sometimes this happened several times a month, and I'm sorry he didn't live long enough for me to witness his famous tirades, though I understand that as he aged they were motivated increasingly by alcohol and less by his opposition to segregation, sexism and general parochial thoughtlessness.

Denby's own parochial thoughtlessness is really his business. I don't have to read him, and he doesn't have to please me. My desire to slander him is part jealousy, part dismay that a greater critic cannot use the forum, and part frustration that people as different from me as Denby control the center, both of political opinion and of Hollywood taste.

Denby describes Little Children director Todd Field as working "with such fluid grace and perception that the movie goes right to the top of the suburban-anguish genre." When I read this, I feel something is being stolen from me. Perhaps it's The Ice Storm or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, superior films about the types of anomie that Little Children attempts to portray.

To give some perspective, here are some events from Little Children:
  • Will Lyman, narrator of PBS's NOVA, provides persistent voiceover ala clinical science documentary narration
  • Man smashes room full of clocks
  • Grown man rocks back and forth, crying, "Mommy's dead, mommy's dead!"
  • Skateboarder tells a main character, who is searching for direction, "It's not about that... it's about... the skateboarding!" and later tells him that his risk-taking was "Gnarly!".
  • Things that make you "feel alive", according to Kate Winslet in separate scenes, include "trying new things" and "football".
  • Kate Winslet's marriage is in trouble. We know this because she walks into her husband's study, where he is masturbating to the website of "Slutty Kay" with a pair of panties stretched over his face.
  • Jennifer Connelly, when refusing to have sex with her henpecked husband, calls her young son "perfect" over and over.
  • When a pedophile with a prior conviction for indecent exposure shows up in the local swimming pool, parents freak out in mass terror, screaming desperately for their kids to get out of the pool. Then everyone at the pool--over a hundred people--stand in a perfect rectangle at the pool's edge and watch the pedophile swim in silent unison.
  • Pedophile's mom is obsessed with him and strokes his face in inappropriate way
  • The adults' night-football team has a coach who is wheelchair-bound, calls players "faggot" and accidentally runs his wheelchair into walls.
  • The stifled wife characters have a book group which reads Madame Bovary, and Kate Winslet--who is having an affair--argues for Emma Bovary's rebellion against a woman who repeatedly dismisses Emma as a "slut".
I would list more, but I took a 45-minute break from the film and snuck into the end of The Fountain, which was not so bad that it wasn't better than Little Children. (The special effects, created by filming oil and dust interacting under microscopes, were breathtaking.)

Out of context it's hard to make much of this list, but aren't most of these either obvious, or overdone, or trite? The filmmakers throw in the kitchen sink and even include an American Beauty-esque shot of a girl staring at an unlikely suburban thing of beauty, in this case a streetlight in a cloud of buzzing bugs.

Only David Denby, among all the world's bad film critics, could miss the film's many pat caricatures and write that there is a single, "only element of caricature in the movie". (He's not describing any of the things I listed). The cherry on the icing on the cake: regarding the swimming pool scene, Denby writes that Field "neatly pulls off a big set piece that another director might have ruined with overemphasis." Perhaps one day Denby will reveal, in the tradition of the Alan Sokal-Social Text affair, that his career has been an experiment to see if arts editors will publish anything.

What to do with this frustration? Alice tells me that Dave Eggers & co.'s magazine The Believer is guided by a no-snarkiness ethos. Perhaps swear off snarky reviews and stop poking the bruise by reading writers who drive me crazy? But then, Alice, what would we do when Chris Hitchens comes to town?

I can try positivity. Here's a list of 200+ movies I recommend. Go see Volver, which was a wonderful, shorter-focus version of Almodovar. Rent Dear Frankie (which Malcolm Gladwell praises, and gives away the ending of, in the same New Yorker issue). Rent Half Nelson (co-written by my classmate Anna Boden and with art by my classmate Tze Chun), when it comes out on DVD in a month or two.

Maybe the sign of a fundamentally negative person is that he will go on and on about what he dislikes, but has few words for what he likes. All I can say is that I wish that instead of seeing Running with Scissors, Little Children and The Departed, I'd instead seen Half Nelson three times.

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