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Posts Tagged ‘criticism’

Sartre and Borges on Welles

August 12, 2014 | by

Citizenkane

Theatrical release poster, 1941

In a sense, that poster doesn’t lie: everyone was talking about Citizen Kane. In another, more accurate sense, that poster does lie: not everyone was joining in that “It’s terrific!” chorus.

I hadn’t known, until Open Culture told me earlier today, that Sartre and Borges numbered among Kane’s more outspoken critics. Sartre reviewed the film in 1945, meaning he took four years even to bother seeing it. His is a damning appraisal not just of the movie but—kind of toothlessly—the whole United States cinema culture:

Kane might have been interesting for the Americans, [but] it is completely passé for us, because the whole film is based on a misconception of what cinema is all about. The film is in the past tense, whereas we all know that cinema has got to be in the present tense. ‘I am the man who is kissing, I am the girl who is being kissed, I am the Indian who is being pursued, I am the man pursuing the Indian.’ And film in the past tense is the antithesis of cinema. Therefore Citizen Kane is not cinema.

Not exactly an open-and-shut syllogism, but that’s in keeping with the Continental tradition, I guess.

Borges reviewed Citizen Kane in 1941—in fact, he reviewed many a film in his day, among them King Kong, The Petrified Forest, and Sabotage (the 1936 classic, not the 2014 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle). Many of these can be found in his Collected Nonfictions. As the translation below attests, his review of Kane is typically well observed, though he’s kind of hard on Rosebud, and we can now say, from the vantage of more than fifty years, that he was dead wrong about the whole endurance thing: Read More »

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Anne Hollander, 1930–2014

July 9, 2014 | by

seeing through clothes

Anne Hollander, whose acute writing on fashion, costume, and style infused those subjects with a new intellectual energy, died on Sunday at eighty-three. As the Times reports, “She argued that clothing revealed far more than it concealed—about art, about perceptions of the body and ourselves—and her interests spanned centuries and mediums.”

Hollander conducted—or co-conducted; she shares the credit with John Marquand—The Paris Review’s first Art of Theater interview, with Lillian Hellman, published in 1965. Back then, her contributor’s note read modestly, “Anne Hollander designs costumes, paints, and translates occasionally.”

A little more than a decade later, in 1978, she published her first book, the brilliant (and brilliantly named) Seeing Through Clothes, a history of clothing and a study of representations of the body in Western art. The book was full of offhand wisdom about what you could call our philosophy of dress: “People seem always actually to know,” Hollander wrote, “with a degree of pain that has required the comfort of fairy tales, that when you are dressed in any particular way at all, you are revealed rather than hidden.” The book took a while to find its audience, but, as one critic noted, it “pushes erudition to the point of originality. The thoroughness with which she examines Western art and clothes has precipitated a new subject: how painting, sculpture and photography mediate between bodily ideals and what we wear.”

Over the next decades, her reputation grew and she published a succession of well-received books, including Moving Pictures and Sex in Suits; she wrote essays for a number of magazines, including The London Review of Books. Not much of Hollander’s writing is available online, but she was, for a time in the late nineties, the fashion columnist for Slate, which has curiously yet to publish a remembrance. Her pieces there have aged well; a column from February 1997—“A Loss for Words: Why there’s no good writing in fashion”—is just as true nearly twenty years later:

Fashion journalists and sensational fictioneers like Danielle Steele have co-opted the field, and other writers are scared off. Fashion now seems like a club with a private jargon that leaves no room for the play of sensitive literary exposition. And good critical writing about clothing hardly exists at all. There is no tradition of clothes criticism that includes serious analysis, or even of costume criticism among theater, ballet, and opera critics, who do have an august writerly heritage. This fact may be what makes the fashion journalist hate her job—the painful sense that real work cannot be done in this genre, that it would be better, more honorable, to be writing about something else.

But Hollander didn’t write about something else, thankfully. She expanded the rhetoric and insight of criticism about style, engaging where most writers thought there was nothing to engage with.

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Elizabethan Warts and All, and Other News

July 2, 2014 | by

L0023521EB Arzneibuch. Western Manuscript 990, page 84, detail

Detail from “Treatment for lachrimal fistula performed on a nun,” an illustration from a seventeenth-century surgical guide. Via Wellcome Library.

  • A report by British dermatologists makes the audacious claim that Shakespeare is responsible for Western society’s obsession with clear skin. “Shakespeare’s works have survived the intervening centuries; has his success led to the perpetuation of Elizabethan negativity toward skin disease?” Apparently, too many of his plays feature insults about skin disease—poxes, boils, carbuncles, moles, blots, blemishes, plagues—an excess of abscesses, a sebaceous surfeit.
  • “One of the most intriguing questions I get from readers of my movie reviews is: ‘But did you like the film?’ … The binary scale of good and bad, like and dislike, is essentially pointless. Movies are complex experiences—even those that are simplistic or clumsily made are rich in substance—and sometimes criticism is like the science of medicine, with advances coming from diagnoses of some dread disease that you wouldn’t want to have.”
  • A linguist’s cri de coeur: death to Whorfianism! “What Whorfianism claims, in its strongest form, is that our thoughts are limited and shaped by the specific words and grammar we use”—but linguists have found only “fairly negligible differences … between language speakers.”
  • These hand-painted posters from Russian cinemas make movies like Shrek 2 and 50 First Dates look like surrealist masterworks.
  • You can live in the house from Twin Peaks. (Leland Palmer not included. Or is he?)

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Sacred Rites

June 10, 2014 | by

Crown

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Crown of Flowers (detail), 1884.

The food takes awhile which gave us time to watch a waitress deliver a Dutch Baby and envelop us with its fragrant, perhaps sacred, steam. A tray of ruby grapefuit [sic] juice in large glasses made me think of luxurious jewels. Obviously we had traveled back to a past time. —A review of the Original Pancake House

When I was about twenty-six, a friend sent me a listing for a job at an online review site, which, at the time, had not yet gone public. It seemed to me a good idea to apply to lots of things, so I sent in a letter.

“We’re looking for someone hip and quirky for this job,” said the woman, Tyler, who interviewed me from San Francisco; she’d mentioned an improbably high salary and a host of benefits and perks. “You seem hip and quirky. But we need someone more integrated into the Web site’s community. I notice you have no reviews, no profile, and no ‘friends.’ We’ll need to see more of a commitment.”

I attacked my new assignment with determination. I set myself a quota of ten reviews a day and implored everyone I knew to join my network. In my capacity as manager of the lingerie store where I worked weekends, I commandeered the computer, knocking out reviews of the coffee at the bodega on the corner (“too subtle for the common palate”), the new artisanal pizzeria (“a horseman of the gentrification apocalypse”), and the local nail salon (“The nail technician was slovenly and surly; her coat was soiled; she started cutting my cuticles without asking”).

While I placed a premium on quantity, I began to take my task seriously: I was appalled by the cavalier manner in which fellow reviewers dismissed small businesses after a single visit or graded spots where they hadn’t bothered to wait for a table. I took special care in rebutting what I felt to be thoughtless and uninformed reviews. My tone became hectoring. Read More »

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The Sicilian Defense

January 10, 2014 | by

Photo: Martin Lopatka, via Flickr.

Photo: Martin Lopatka, via Flickr

Dear Mr. Ross,

Thank you for sharing with us your review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound. The piece is colorful and sharp, and it is with regret that we say it does not suit our needs at this time.

Too much of the writing reflects back to the writer himself—to you yourself. (And, inexplicably, to your father.) While we certainly don’t mind personal inflection, and even tolerate the insertion of an occasional “I,” a review must be grounded more firmly in the subject or book under consideration. (And less so in the reviewer’s father.)

Critiques such as yours are redolent of ego. We say this not as admonishment, but as something of which you may want to be aware as you continue what looks to be a promising writing career. We wish you the best of luck in placing this piece elsewhere, and will be happy to consider your queries in the future.

Sincerely,
The Editors
The New York Review of Books

The difficulties began when I attempted to write, for The New York Review of Books, a review of Claudia Roth Pierpont’s critical biography of Philip Roth. My intention was simple: to demonstrate that I appreciated Roth’s work with a higher degree of sophistication than Pierpont. But articulating my Sophisticated Appreciation was tough to do. At first this didn’t bother me—an inability to articulate one’s Sophisticated Appreciation, I reasoned, may itself be proof of how complex and nuanced that appreciation is.

I’d been invited to submit to NYRB based on the success of an essay I’d written about Philip Roth for The New Yorker’s Web site. (An NYRB editor had e-mailed me to commend its “substantial humorousness,” and asked me to pitch an idea his way.) I wanted badly to be published in NYRB. I had some friends who’d been published in NYRB, and I was jealous of them. Moreover, my father is an avid NYRB reader—“It’s so wonderfully stuffy,” is his line; “the official periodical of leather armchairs and lowballs of Scotch”—and placing an essay in its pages, I believed, would recompense him for having twice paid my tuition to the universities where I’d learned to appreciate things sophisticatedly. (He would be pleased, too, to learn that I’d written something that wasn’t about him, as opposed to everything else I’d published—excepting the Roth piece—since finishing graduate school.)

NYRB’s editors expected six thousand words from my desk. Yet for several days I was too nervous to begin. More than anything else, the review would need to establish for NYRB’s readership how intelligent I was—establishing the writer’s intelligence seemed the purpose of most NYRB reviews, and I have always liked to fit neatly into prevailing systems. If it didn’t prove my intelligence, though, my review could only prove my lack thereof, and nothing was more terrifying to me than the idea of being exposed as intellectually inadequate. Read More »

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Paula Fox, Fighting Perfection

April 9, 2013 | by

tn_290_600_Paula_Fox_Jerry_Bauer_07112010

Our Spring Revel will take place tonight! In anticipation of the event, the Daily is featuring a series of essays celebrating Paula Fox, who is being honored this year with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize. The following is excerpted from an essay that originally ran as the introduction to Desperate Characters.

A book that has fallen, however briefly, out of print can put a strain on even the most devoted reader’s love. In the way that a man might regret certain shy mannerisms in his wife that cloud her beauty, or a woman might wish that her husband laughed less loudly at his own jokes, though the jokes are very funny, I’ve suffered for the tiny imperfections that might prejudice potential readers against Desperate Characters. I’m thinking of the stiffness and impersonality of the opening paragraph, the austerity of the opening sentence, the creaky word “repast”: as a lover of the book, I now appreciate how the formality and stasis of the paragraph set up the short, sharp line of dialogue that follows (“The cat is back”); but what if a reader never makes it past “repast”? I wonder, too, if the name of the protagonist, “Otto Bentwood,” might be diffi cult to take on first reading. Fox generally works her characters’ names very hard— the name “Russel,” for instance, nicely echoes Charlie’s restless, furtive energies (Otto suspects him of literally “rustling” clients), and just as something is surely missing in Charlie’s character, a second “l” is missing in his surname. I do admire how the old- fashioned and vaguely Teutonic name “Otto” saddles Otto the way his compulsive orderliness saddles him; but “Bentwood,” even after many readings, remains for me a little artificial in its bonsai imagery. And then there’s the title of the book. It’s apt, certainly, and yet it’s no The Day of the Locust, no The Great Gatsby, no Absalom, Absalom! It’s a title that people may forget or confuse with other titles. Sometimes, wishing it were stronger, I feel lonely in the peculiar way of someone deeply married.

Read More »

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