Saturday, April 24, 2010

An Open Letter to Anthony Lane, in Response to his New Yorker Kick-Ass Review

[Major spoilers for Remember Me, and light spoilers on Kick-Ass, but the ending is not discussed. Lane does spoil it, so look out if you click through to his review.]

Dear Anthony Lane,

Nearly a year ago I wrote on this blog a response to your colleague David Denby for his review of Inglourious Basterds, in part because he felt the need to spoil the ending of a movie he did not like. In that open letter I mentioned something you did that bothered me: you spoiled the ending of the movie Watchmen, a movie you did not like. I have heard arguments that movie reviewers should be able to spoil movies, because now they are too straightjacketed by "rules." I am sympathetic to this. The ending of the movie is part of the movie, and as a reader I might need to know about it to understand if it is any good. I never really got into Seinfeld until the brilliant final episode, and it was a wrongly mailed to me copy of Entertainment Weekly that spoiled the season 2 ending of Alias for me and got me into that show -- and from there to LOST, a show I love. And a lot of times I want the review instead of the movie. I am never going to see Remember Me, but I totally wanted to hear about the absurd ending in which it turns out this dumb love story -- surprise! -- does not take place in the present day, but in 2001, and ends with our guy going up the Twin Towers the morning of September 11. So if you guys decided to open reviews up to discussing the endings, this could be a neat thing. It would put you ahead of the game maybe.

But the New Yorker has not done this. I know, because after your review of Watchmen your magazine printed a letter to the editor from a reader who was bothered that you spoiled the ending. This was, I think, a gentle rebuke from your editor surely. In printing the letter the New Yorker was saying "hey, we think this guy has a valid point." That may seem like a dumb thing to point out to someone like you, but the fact that you later spoiled the ending of Kick-Ass shows that you were unable to see that. And I don't think that you want to have a spoiler-ific discussion of movies anyway. I think you believe that movies should NOT be spoiled. That is why you only spoil movies like Kick-Ass and Watchmen -- movies you hate. You are spoiling these not for discussion, but for spite.

Let me be clear. I did not love Kick-Ass either, even though I am a huge superhero comics fan who was raised on Quentin Tarantino movies. I am not asking you to change your basic opinions of movies. I do not hope here to "educate" you with some convoluted argument that a movie you did not like is actually great. I only want to point out that the way you express your dislike may be counter-productive to making the strongest argument, your job as a movie reviewer, and the magazine you work for. I know it is lazy on my part, but I am not being paid for this, as you are for your reviews, and I hope you will not mind my simply quoting you and responding to quotes.

In your review of Kick-Ass you write the following.

"“Kick-Ass” began publication only two years ago, but the cover line of its second issue (“Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It”) bore the exact tinge of lip-smacking irony that now passes for worldly sophistication."

This sets the tone of your review. You seem to be bored with your job -- and I can imagine how that could be since you have to see so many movies you would not see otherwise, movies that are not to your taste. So you seem to have decided that rather than simply evaluate the movie, you are going to become a kind of cultural critic, like Christopher Lasch or something. I think that is outside of the purview of a movie critic, but if that it what you want to do I can judge you on your own terms.

Judging something on its own terms is how I think you should approach Kick-Ass. And again, let me say, I think the movie fails on its own terms. While I was not sorry I saw it, because it had some fun and stylish ultra-violence, I think Kick-Ass absolutely fails on its own terms. it claims to be about what would happen if someone tried to be a superhero in real life, which is a great conceit. But when Big Daddy and Hit Girl are introduced the movie simply fails -- because they are not out of real life, they are out of a stylized superhero movie, with bad-ass moves and cool back-up music. Just like the movie Watchmen (and the movie Enchanted) the claim that a genre character is meeting "real life" is an empty claim. The directors of these movies cannot imagine real life as anything but a stylized, unrealistic movie, and that shows a failure to take their own claims seriously.

But let's return to your review. That "lip-smacking irony that now passes for worldly sophistication" concerns me too, but I am not quite sure what to do about it. I often feel trapped in a kind of extended adolescence that I both adore and worry about. You would like me to grow up I think. But the thing is, are YOU an example of proper worldly sophistication? Because, as I will discuss, I have some problems with your point of view. If my choice is between the sophistication of Kick-Ass and the sophistication you display, I am between a rock and a hard place here, Anthony Lane.

You write

"Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz)... father and daughter, [are] perhaps the closest duo since Oedipus and Antigone, though, unless you have a particularly corrupt text, you will not find Antigone greeting a roomful of evil men with the words “O.K., you cunts, let’s see what you can do now.”"

I am not a dumb person, but I am not super-clear what is to be gained by bringing in Oedipus and Antigone. I strikes me as simply an easy and condescending irony ("lip-smacking irony" perhaps?) -- It seems to say "look how far storytelling has fallen since the days of ancient Greece," and some-such. If this is worldly sophistication, then it does not seem to be for me. If you want people to dismiss "Kick-Ass" you should make its alternative look more attractive.

You write

"“Kick-Ass” is violence’s answer to kiddie porn. You can see it in Hit Girl’s outfit when she cons her way past security guards—white blouse, hair in pigtails, short tartan skirt—and in the winsome way that she pleads to be inculcated into grownup excess. That pleading is the dream of every pedophile, and I wonder if Goldman paused to examine her contribution to the myth. Goldman would presumably say that it is violence, not sex, that our pre-teen heroine learns, but that is a cowardly distinction. The standard defense of such material is that we are watching “cartoon violence,” but, when filmmakers nudge a child into viewing savagery as slapstick, are we not allowing them to do what we condemn in the pornographer—that is, to coarsen and inflame?"

Accusing the writer of the movie of contributing to pedophilia is a pretty big gun to bring out in a movie review. And here is the real kicker -- doesn't Tom and Jerry show "cartoon violence" and "nudge a child into viewing savagery as slapstick"? Do the makers of "Tom and Jerry" "coarsen and inflame," in the same way a pornographer does? If you think it is cowardly to make a distinction between violence and sex, then the only answer you are left with is Yes. And it is going to be an awfully hard line to tow. You are going to be in very acetic territory if you really want to take it seriously, but you do not elaborate. Perhaps you do not have room to elaborate because this is a movie review, but you were the one who opened the door here.

You write

"Vaughn knows that the vulnerability of the young is a more tremulous issue than ever, so he switches things around, leaving grownups vulnerable to their juniors. Hit Girl is eleven years old, and schooled by her father to slaughter and maim while displaying no emotion other than fizzy glee. Her first mass murder, of a drug dealer and his posse, is a flurry of cartwheels and gougings, backed by the theme tune from “The Banana Splits.” Many viewers, no question, will be jazzed up by the sensory sugar rush of this, but it’s worth asking, once the movie has calmed down, whether we have witnessed a silly mismatch of innocence and experience, to be relished for its gross-out verve, or a formidable exercise in cynicism."

While I have to admit that I did "relish its gross out verve," I think you are guilty of what you condemn here. You equate the filmmakers with child pornographers for the same reason the filmmakers have an eleven year old say "cunts" -- You, like Vaughn, "know that the vulnerability of the young is a more tremulous issue than ever." You accuse the film of being over the top -- but nothing in the film is more outrageous than your claim that the filmmakers, who at worst made a D+ fusion of Tarantino and Young Adult Superhero fare, are akin to child pornographers.

You write

"If you find your enjoyment of “Kick-Ass” unclouded by such issues, good luck to you."

This is how you start the last paragraph of your review, a paragraph in which you will spoil the end of the movie. So you don't want to be a movie reviewer. OK. You want to be a cultural critic. Ok. But when you simply dismiss the people in the culture you are trying to talk about with something as insensitive and unhelpful as "good luck to you," with no elaboration, you alienate the very people your "cultural criticism" aims to help. You cease to be a cultural critic and become simply a man complaining about "kids today" without helping. I am not saying you have to have the answers to the very complex issues you point to, such as growing cynicism, and a retreat into "coarse" fantasy. I am only suggesting that you make the questioning look more attractive, more open, more welcoming of alternative points of view. Be the change you want to see in the world.

If you can't do this, I once again recommend myself as your replacement at the New Yorker. I have a doctorate from Oxford, I have written two books, and I know better than to alienate the people who will eventually be the only ones left to read the New Yorker, when your current readership dies off.


Geoff Klock


Mario McKellop said...


Unknown said...

That was great, man.

dschonbe said...

I'd read your New Yorker work...

Streeborama said...

Fantastic rebuke, Geoff!

Kurt said...

Since bravo and fantastic are taken, all I can say is thank you. Thank you for standing up against these pretentious spoiler filled reviews.

Graham said...

I wonder what he thought of Orphan, the other "violent foul mouthed 11 year old kills people brutally" film from not too far back.

Ebert gave it 3 stars, so I guess the character in that film couldn't have bothered him as much as Hit Girl did, though I kinda fail to see why. Horror movie expectations vs. violent action movie expectations, perhaps?

James said...

Having seen neither film, I'll hazard a guess at a key difference - the Orphan's violence is a dangerous thing to be feared, where Hit-Girl's is an attractive thing to be celebrated. Diagetically, at least.