Tuesday, October 11, 2005

New Yorker update, and more on reviewing

Have procured the Complete New Yorker set. Thought I’d be calloo-callaying all over the place but in truth, having opened the thing and seen the enormity of what I’m now faced with, I’m worried. Have done some math and figured that at my current reading speed, and allowing for:

a) three hours of honest work each day,

b) one social call every four days,

c) three phone conversations a day, none to exceed 10 minutes,

d) evening walk, between 45 minutes and 1 hour long,

e) one short blog post every two days,

(all in addition to meals of course),

it should take me somewhere between 172 and 175 years to get through the whole thing. Now this is clearly impossible, but I figure if I eat healthy I might live long enough to finish nearly three of the eight DVDs. Will start effective today so stop calling/emailing me please.

Update: having accepted the futility of reading the New Yorkers in an ordered way, I’ve been browsing the old film reviews across the discs. Fun to see how some movies universally considered masterpieces today were roundly dissed by the Critics back when they were released. My favourite example so far is Russell Maloney’s trashing of The Wizard of Oz in 1939 (arguably the greatest year in Hollywood history). Maloney writes:

“I sat cringing before MGM’s Technicolor The Wizard of Oz, which displays no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity…It’s a stinkeroo…The vulgarity of which I was conscious all through the film is difficult to analyse.”

It’s a fun mini-review, Maloney allowing his personal prejudices to show, waspishly protesting a scene where the Wicked Witch says “You keep out of this!” on the grounds that witches don’t talk like that, period.

Then there’s good old John McCarten who, in a composite write-up in June 1960 (another good year for Hollywood), brushes off two of the most powerful, enduring films ever made, Hitchcock’s Psycho and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Of Psycho he says:

“Hitchcock does several spooky scenes with his usual éclat, and works diligently to make things as horrible as possible, but it’s all rather heavy-handed…”
This isn’t really shocking, for Psycho was trashed by almost everyone when it was first released. But The Apartment was one of the most well received films of its time, loved by audiences and critics alike, winner of the major Oscars for 1960. McCarten’s sniffs at it; it’s “not particularly stimulating”, he says.

Must look through some of the other reviews. But on a more serious note this reminds me of a discussion I was having with a friend a few days ago. Both of us are avid reviewers but we were mulling over how misleading even the most honest, dedicated reviews can be; we both had examples where we’d written something about a book or film in all sincerity and then, just a couple of weeks later, found we’d completely changed our minds. Meanwhile, of course, the review had neatly been printed with our bylines, a permanent, official record of what we thought; a summary judgement, by us and on us.

Another problem is that even when a review is favourable on the whole, the few criticisms in it stand out; readers tend to remember them, especially if the reviewer has succumbed to the temptation of being over-clever. More than once I’ve had the experience of writing about something I’ve really enjoyed, and then having the editor coming up to me and saying “Oh, so not such a good film, huh?”

I’m not saying Messrs McCarten and Maloney ever revised their thoughts, or that they should have, but it’s a little scary that so often a whimsical, fleeting opinion gets set in stone as one person’s final word on a subject. It’s almost never that simple.


  1. I don't think it is because of their judgments that we read reviewers. More important is how they reached those judgments.

    What makes good reviews last is not whether they are "right", in the literal sense of the word but rather the wit, the fresh, unique insight and playfulness of language. And in that department New Yorker reviews do score a lot.

    Did you read Anthony Lane's review of 2046? He calls Wong Kar-Wai and his fans "loopy" :) But he is as witty and as insightful as ever and even when he is wrong he is much better than most of the other three-star-four-star, thumbs-up-thumbs-down reviewers.

    Scroll down to get to 2046.

  2. Alok: Not sure what you mean by a review being "right" or "wrong". If a reviewer has written what he honestly felt and supported it with well-reasoned arguments, you can't say he's got it wrong (even if he says Citizen Kane was trash). There are no absolutes here; ultimately all reviews are personal, subjective opinions.

    Anyway, my point here was a different one: that famous reviewers can get associated for life with something they'd once written, even if they'd subsequently had a change of heart. There's something very random about the reviewing process.

    However, I agree that people like Lane are delightful to read even if you completely disagree with what they're saying (I do all the time).

    I've written about some of this stuff before, here. Check if you like.

  3. Our review for a particular book or movie is a part of our thinking at the moment of writing the review. It can also be affected by your mood or your circumstances while you read the book or watched the movie.
    So many people say that ‘To kill a mocking bird’ is a great story. Many disagree.
    It is also how we relate ourselves to a book or a movie. Many of my friends are die-hard fans of Harry Potter. It doesn’t appeal to me.

    Despite all these factors, there are some movies or books which are generally better than the rest or worst.

    So, a review, according to me, should be considered totally personal until the case in paragraph immediately above is true.

    When i listened to ‘November Rain’ or ‘Dancing in the dark’, I didn’t like the songs. If I had written the reviews on these songs then, I would have tore the lyrics and the music apart. But now, I cheer up whenever I hear these songs being played anywhere. I have also written a good, though useless, review on ‘November Rain’.

    What do we make out of it? :)

    p.s: i defer on BLACK with you. Did you get a chance to read comments on your post 'Bachchanalia'

  4. Shoonya: have replied to the comment on that post. Sorry, just been lazy about comment-replying generally.

  5. Re the comments above - I think there's a deeper sense in which reviewers can be 'interesting' (though certainly, there's the sheer quality of the writing that has a lot to do with it) - I think a good review is insightful, even if the insights aren't ones you agree with. In essence, a good reviewer can make you see a book or a movie from a new / different perspective, highlighting nuances that you might have missed or elements you may not have thought about. You may not agree with their way of looking at it, but by showing you something non-obvious they enhance the richness of the experience of reading the book / watching the movie. So for instance I'm generally not very fond of Harold Bloom (the man likes Wordsworth better than Eliot, for crying out loud) but I still read him because every now and then there's this a-ha moment where he says something that I'd never thought of before.

  6. Well observed Jai! Sometimes what we think and what we write and finally what gets out in print are so vastly different from what we hold in our hearts (about those things). But that is the risk one has to take while going through things written in the past. That is like a historian's job and one has to be very cautious.

    Then the other thing about art--who decides what is good or great or bad? It all depends. So, as an individual, I decide my own things for me. I have my own lists, my own rankings. Sometimes what others have said about something is just a cue for me, and it may or may not work for me.

    Anyway, as we have seen, history is always written by the victors, and then rewritten by the new victors, the new elites.

    For me, I guess, the New Yorker collection is worth its price for all the short stories in there.