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NobodyĂs Perfect: Writings From The New Yorker

by Anthony Lane
752 pages,
ISBN: 0375414487


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A Critic in New York City
by Matt Sturrock

"You are holding a hunk of old journalism." Thus begins Anthony Lane's introduction to his book, Nobody's Perfect, a voluminous anthology of movie reviews, literary essays, and profiles written during the first decade of his tenure at The New Yorker. It was 1993 when Lane, a conspicuously cultured young writer working in the "squalling pit" of the British press, was tracked down in London by then-editor Tina Brown's "scouts and spies¨her roving monsignors" and offered the post of movie critic with New York's most prominent weekly. Since his appointment, Lane's sublime skewering of awful movies and inspired lauding of good ones have earned him a large, attentive, appreciative audience. In an era in which, as he himself laments, "the value of a motion picture is indicated by the rotation of a chubby thumb through 180 degrees," his considered, erudite, and uniformly hilarious work has earned him a (dauntingly massive) anthology.
Lane seems slightly more harried and cruel in his early reviews for the magazine, as if overestimating the bloodthirstiness of his surrogate city's readership. In his assessment of Indecent Proposal¨the first review in the book¨Lane complains about Robert Redford's "mostly disgusting" wardrobe and "crinkled and potato-chippy" face, labels Woody Harrelson a "total idiot," and concludes that "everything that Indecent Proposal touches, it sullies." Things quickly lighten up in subsequent outings, however, and we are treated more consistently to the critic we now know¨the nimble, breezy provocateur with an arsenal of techniques more effectual than those brusque backhand swipes listed above. Self-deprecation, devastating humour, and deadpan understatement become his most potent tools.
In reviewing Speed, for instance, he confesses to practically sobbing during one its more involving moments: "It wasn't sadness," he assures us, "just the inevitable aftermath of excitement, but even so." In describing the love scene between Faye Dunaway and Marlon Brando in Don Juan DeMarco, he notes that "it's the only movie I've ever seen in which the man pulls the sheets farther over his chest than the woman does" and adds, "Dunaway has the kind of excited, awed look on her face that Ahab must have had when he drew alongside the white whale." The very best, though, is this mini-masterwork of soft-pedalling, so funny that laughter cannot offer relief:
As Robert De Niro stood up on the front seat of the speeding black Audi and poked the upper half of his body through the sunroof, the better to rest the rocket launcher on his shoulder and aim it at the car in front, I arrived at the mature conclusion that Ronin was, all things considered, a rather enjoyable film.

Lane states at the beginning of Nobody's Perfect that it's an "elaborate homage to Evelyn Waugh," and the essays that follow dutifully explore the manners, mores, and intellectual climate of New York and beyond. If there is a persistent theme in his work, it's the disappointment provoked in him by the highly stylized, hyperkinetic schlock that the movie industry has produced in the last decade. He wonders why so many movies seem "at once more tired and more convulsive than those which came before," and reminds filmmakers that it is the "small, scruffy patches of downtime" in a film, not the thermonuclear event or the fifty-car pileup of the uptime, that stay with the moviegoer. He wonders, too, at the morally obtuse, "unshockable, Tarantino-trained" audiences of today, who rely on increasingly depraved scenarios for their entertainment. When the crowd attending American Psycho howls its delight at chainsaw murders set to a camp eighties soundtrack, he wants to know "when did the faculty of irony become so refined, and so rapacious, that all human transgression, even on the borders of inhumanity, could be corralled into the comic?"
Part Two of Nobody's Perfect deals with books. Here we are treated to essays on publishing trade phenomena¨bestsellers, cookbooks, sex books¨and on the work of canonical heavyweights¨Shakespeare, Nabokov, Matthew Arnold, and others. You would think that the nature of books themselves¨subject to laborious and solitary consumption¨would make them less susceptible to the easy zingers Lane aims at movies. Somehow, though, his writing carries on with undiminished sting. "The victorious sales," he says, "of The Bridges of Madison County make it a more depressing index to the state of America than Beavis, Butthead, and Snoop Doggy Dogg put together." Of Martha Stewart he says "you keep hitting something sharp and steely in her writings¨ a demiglace intolerance of ordinary mortals." Granted, these subjects are easy targets¨lumbering, braying wildebeests stuck in a mudhole¨but seeing their mottled pelts bristle with Lane's arrows fills the reader with malevolent glee nonetheless.
Part Three consists of profiles. From repugnant fashionista Karl Lagerfield (he of the dark sunglasses and fluttering fan) to intrepid dog-eater Ernest Shackleton, from contortionist crash dummy Buster Keaton to gaping maw Julia Roberts, Lane pithily expounds on human peculiarity as exemplified by our cultural icons. The writing's as good as ever, but by this late point in the book (page 527 onwards), I suspect most cinephiles will lose interest and return to their favourite demolition jobs in the movies section.
If there's any weakness to seize upon, it's the book's 752-page length. A rather sheepish Lane has insisted in recent interviews that he wanted a slimmer volume but that his editors kept adding pieces. While the size of the book may be an accurate indicator of his writing's essential worth (and a good reason to charge $53), the time it takes to read it will keep his core audience away from other important activities: reading his latest pieces in The New Yorker and going to movies. That aside, there's not much else to complain about. Sometimes Lane seems a little too precious and a little too knowing. When, in his essay on T.S. Eliot he writes, "I have long considered 'Gerontion' one of the greatest short poems in the language, comparable . . . to Tennyson's 'Tithonus,'" the reader sits back and thinks "Come on, man. You were writing about The Nutty Professor 2 a few pages back. Ease off." Then he or she remembers that the Cambridge-educated Lane's appraisal of the Nutty Professor included Freudian theorizing on Eddie Murphy's real life self-loathing, and the grandiloquence passes unchallenged.
Just a little over halfway through Nobody's Perfect there's an essay on Cyril Connolly, one of the more influential English literary critics of the last century. Lane writes that Connolly "was not precisely a journalist, since the book reviews that he wrote . . . remain much too ruddy and vital to lie down and die." He adds that "a Connolly sentence will long hum in the ear of anyone foolish enough to be obsessed with English prose." In eulogizing Cyril Connolly, Anthony Lane has unwittingly encapsulated what will surely be his own fate and that of his work.
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