Monday, May 09, 2005

Life Of The Times

I was talking to a friend the other day about the movie "Crash," when they told me that they wouldn't watch the film because "the Times gave it a bad review." Here on the East Coast, the "Times" being referred to is of course the New York Times (most East Coasters probably consider the Los Angeles Times an able tabloid or a fictional newspaper Julia Roberts worked for in some movie).

My friend suffers from a phenomenon that afflicts many an East Coast thinking person: at least part of their lives is programmed by the writers and opinion-makers at the New York Times. Whether it is wines, books, vacations, or ideas, many people I know draw comfort and inspiration from Times scribes. In many ways, it has become a living cultural bible. Whenever I've been at a cocktail party -- you know, the kind that feature wine and cheese as opposed to beer and chips -- stories in the Times magazine have formed the basis for many a forced, new conversation. "Did you happen to catch the article in the Times magazine about evangelical computer game designers? It was fascinating, you see ... blah, blah, blah." Once I was at a function talking to a pretty woman, and she was going on and on about this Spanish rioja that she "absolutely had to buy because the Times recommended it." I was *this* tempted to say, "You know, I read in the Times that making out with me reduces wrinkles."

I guess I am one of "those" people. I read the Times every day, mostly on-line. On Sundays, I occasionally buy the actual paper, and find peverse pleasure in reading it front to back over many long, marginally wasted hours. My relationship with the paper is complex: (i) it is one of the best sources of information and news in the world, yet (ii) I feel like I have to read it not to lose my status as a self-styled thinking man. But, at the end of the day, the news stories are no different that what I read elsewhere. At least substantively. Or even stylistically, as all newspaper journalism these days features bland writing and unthoughtful dialectics.

In my opinion, the Times distinctiveness and influence arises largely from its impact on culture, thought and taste. I often wonder about the people who read the Times reviews -- be they movie, book or theater reviews -- and are influenced by them. Do they really agree with the critics or agree because they feel they have to? It is that question that makes Times reviews or recommendations subversive in a way. The Times critics, obviously aware of their import, take this empowerment as a license to veer wildly into pretentiousness. Take this line from A.O. Scott's review of "Crash:" "[Director Haggis's film demonstrates that] [n]o one is innocent. There's good and bad in everyone ... That these bromides count as insights may say more about the state of the American civic conversation than about Mr. Haggis's limitations as a storyteller, and there is no doubt that he is trying to dig into the unhappiness and antagonism that often simmer below the placid surface of everyday life. "

The state of the American civic conversation? Dude, you review movies; I don't go to movie reviewers for essays into the human condition. No doubt, reviewers like Scott are trying to not only emulate but expand upon the work of the great New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael, taking their reviews beyond the literary to the socio-political. But, Kael's genious was in being able to communicate a thought about a movie vividly, not just thoughts in the abstract or self-styled "great thoughts." Take this description by Kael of a scene from the movie "Platoon:" "the men are attacked in their foxholes and the bursts of fire are like a light show in the middle of a nightmare." That is exactly what I saw, but more beautiful.

I am not afraid to admit that my favorite movie reviewer is Roger Ebert. He is fat, homely, and popular. Moreover, his writing is mediocre at times. All of these factors damn him among the high brow literati. But, he has a real love of movies and filmmaking. He watches the movie as a member of the audience, not from above the audience. And I find that I like him because I agree with him, which I realize may be an absurdly simplistic prospect to most self-styled intellectuals. Until, of course, there is a feature on Ebert in the Times magaizne, rediscovering him as some sort of purist, retro-visionary type. But, until then, I am ahead of the curve, I suppose.


Blogger Stefanie said...

It's true, you just can't base your habits on the opinions of critics. Why would it make you look smart to spout someone else's opinion?

How often have you loved a movie that the critics hated? What makes you think that these critics are in any way similar to you? Not only that, there are many personal reasons why a critic may pan a movie (or whatever), maybe to impress their boss and get a raise.

I feel this way about critics and therapists: they are mere mortals. If you could be a fly on the wall and witness their personal lives, you might abhor what you see. Why let them have the upper hand IN YOUR BRAIN?

P.S. You should have said that comment about making out reducing wrinkles to that woman. If she was cool, she would have laughed self deprecatingly (something that happens way less than it should) and mini-bonded with you enough to realize that you’re cool enuff to neck with!

P.P.S. I wish that people weren’t so insecure that they feel the need to become critics at a major newspaper just so they can show off their advanced degrees in English Lit. You can do that at cocktail parties! (Hence creating a neverending cycle…eek.)

1:20 AM  
Blogger Joseph K said...

I agree 100% with your opinion re critics and therapists.

As for throwing that line at that woman, I think I would have had she not have been so pretentious (the comment about the Spanish wine was maybe the least annoying thing she said). There is no bigger turn-off than snoot.

6:55 PM  

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