I'm still excited every time I see James Wood has a review in The New Yorker; I've mostly given up reading Anthony Lane's. Wood, though he has his hobbyhorses and blind spots, is still an excellent stylist, a good reader, and a talented grenade-roller, and, for better or worse, since he's become The Critic Who Matters, his reviews are events and so reading them is a bit like watching the Oscars. Lane, though, has worn me out. I remember being smitten by him, back around the time he called the title of Showgirls "not so much a noun as an imperative," but over the years he's become my bete noir of the back of the NYer book, with his straining for non sequitur one-liners a measure of his boredom with the material he's been given to evaluate. He hasn't convinced me to see a movie since Speed.
But this week, Wood bored me a little with his predictability, while Lane surprised me. I smiled when I saw Wood was reviewing Pulphead, a book I'm in the middle of and am loving nearly as much as I expected. It's a collection of magazine essays, normally considered one of the lowest forms of literary life, but it's been fun to see the consensus build around it to match my own judgment that John Jeremiah Sullivan is one of the writers most worth reading right now. And Wood likes it too, and admires many of the things about it that I do: Sullivan's ability to hit many registers, his eye for odd and telling detail, and his generous willingness to open himself to his subjects.
But what Wood likes best are, well, the things he always seems to like best about the things he likes. He spends much of the piece making the case for the "novelistic" sensibility of these essays like these, and no regular Wood reader will be surprised that this is founded in Sullivan's use of free indirect style, which I too think is one of the great achievements of civilization, but it sometimes feels like that's all Wood is ever looking for in a book. And what of the content of the essays draws Wood's attention most strongly? The moments of when Sullivan, a lapsed Christian like Wood, is sensitive both to the power of belief and of its demise. Hmm: belief in the hands of former believers, and the ironic power of fiction: why those are the subjects of Wood's own first two collections of essays! It's hardly a bad review, and one I agreed with on many points, but it just felt like Sullivan's weird and wonderful book had been put through the Wood machine, and what you were left with at the end wasn't Sullivan but Wood, or if I was Anthony Lane, straining to end a review with a bit of wordplay, a pile of Wood chips.
Meanwhile, while reading Lane's "Year in Movies" entry in their "Year in Review" blog series I had to keep checking the byline to see if this really was Anthony Lane. Not a zingy, forced gag line to be found! (There are a few gags--"The backlash against 'The Artist' is, presumably, well under way, but I remain among the many who prefer to lash it forward"--but they are well in harness, not driving the whole thing.) Not a hint of boredom, just passionate enthusiasm. And what begins as a pretty standard year's-best wrapup turns into a subtle and open-ended reminder of how strongly what we remember from a year of viewing is influenced by the conditions under which we were watching:
Most accounts of films, moreover, proceed as if the work had been viewed in a vacuum, and pay dangerously little heed to the hours and backdrops of that viewing, which can act as permanent markers on the work concerned; this year, I happened to watch “Midnight in Paris” at midday, in Paris, and, like it or not, those circumstances are fated to stick to the movie like glitter; to encounter it with a French audience did not lessen one’s enjoyment, yet it was, I must admit, rather like coming across an immaculately decorated but artificial Christmas tree in the middle of a real pine forest.
And best of all, I came away with a handful of movies to see: some confirming raves I've already heard (Of Gods and Men, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), some bringing me new names for my list (Pina, Before the Revolution). I hope I like them as much as I liked Speed.
Lane just feels looser and well, happier in this format. Maybe he should stop reviewing movies and start blogging about them.