The time has come for David Denby to step down as New Yorker film critic. It is utterly clear to me and fully established by this foolish review that any thoughtfulness he once possessed as a critic has dissipated with the vast nest egg he blew so childishly on the stock market. And besides, Anthony Lane is funny (and perspicacious to boot).
I have not yet seen the film V for Vendetta. So I’m only going to comment on Denby’s criticism. Of course, like Ron, I’m a huge Alan Moore fan and I harbor a few hopes that this adaptation won’t be another The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I am very much familiar with Moore’s feelings on the film (channeled as they were by that white male-lovin’ Gray Lady staffer Dave Itzkoff).
But it is a critic’s job to comment upon the aesthetic and narrative qualities of a film, not devote tedious paragraphs to ancillary history that clearly voices his prejudices (and deflates his argument). It is a critic’s job to understand that a film which features terrorist acts does not, by necessity, “celebrat[e] terrorism and destruction,” but conveys a world in which a character might be fond of terrorism and destruction as a form of revolution. Whether or not a film is shelved is also a moot point, when we consider, after all, that Casablanca was “just another studio picture.” Indeed, the film is the thing. And Denby’s attempt to despoil his opinion before even seeing the film, all because V for Vendetta is “a media monster,” is particularly egregious for a national magazine that prides itself as being high-minded and sophisticated.
This is not a question of restraining a critic who utterly despises something, a la Julavits. I only ask that any cultural chronicler cite specific reasons for her feelings. For example, I disagree with Maud’s take on DFW’s Consider the Lobster, but she does reveal one interesting facet of DFW that I had not really considered: his dependence on sloppy qualifiers. And this is infinitely valuable for anyone trying to pinpoint exactly why DFW’s latest volumes of fiction, in particular, have lacked Infinite Jest‘s whirlwind exuberance.
In fact, the astonishing thing here is that Denby is so purblind by what he expects that it is difficult to understand why he was even assigned to cover the film in the first place. A responsible critic would recuse himself. An open-minded critic would experience the piece of art he couldn’t quite parse, mull over it for a few days, and then try to figure out where it stands in a justified manner. Instead, Denby adopts a reactionary aesthetic stance (“The last time I looked, London seemed more like a prosperous pleasure garden than like the capital of a jackbooted, dehumanized future.”), all because he can’t wrap his head around an exotic locale clearly beyond his imaginative paradigm. By that assessment, we should say no to Antonioni’s white-painted streets in Blow-Up, Death playing chess with Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal, Wong Kar-Wai’s beguiling greens in 2046, or the preternaturally capacious apartments in Woody Allen’s films. After all, the last time I looked, I didn’t say any of this! Therefore, these films must be invalidated! (Of course, I might be playing chess with the Grim Reaper next week, but only because a friend has agreed to dress up.)
Ask yourself, erudite filmgoers and devoted cineastes: is this a myopic critical approach that deserves credence?
There are two chief criticisms that Denby offers here: The first is that V for Vendetta, film and/or comic, was influenced by disparate sources. Well, what piece of art isn’t? For instance: Gene Wolfe ripped off Jack Vance, who ripped off Ernest Bramah, who…yeah, you get the picture. The point is not in how these artists were influenced by other narrative elements. It resides in how these elements are reconfigured to generate a fundamentally new voice in a contemporary work of art.
Second, Denby objects to the film’s use of Abu Ghraib-style imagery without really giving us a clear reason, other than that this represents “comic-book paranoia,” which isn’t “playful or innocent as it used to.” Beyond the rather surprising inference here that films exist solely to tow the entertainment line resides the more troubling realization that Denby is not only full of shit, but that he doesn’t know the subject he’s writing about. Clearly, Denby isn’t acquainted with Frank Miller or Dave Sim. His is a remarkably ignorant view of comics, failing to understand that comics are not unilaterally “playful or innocent.” Had Denby even bothered to glance casually at the DC Comics website, for example, he would have seen Infinite Crisis, a current effort to reconfigure the DC universe to a far less “playful or innocent” stance (read: Golden Age; like most genre naysayers, Denby, culturally equivalent to a Holocaust denier on this front, seems to act as if comics are permanently trapped in 1957).
The New Yorker has no business publishing such jejune nonsense. And if David Remnick truly believes that the New Yorker “should not smell of must,” then it seems to me that Remnick should either upgrade Denby’s critical faculties by demanding that he do a better and more thorough job or look for a Pauline Kael type who might replace him and provide a counterpart to Lane’s “funnyman” antics.
© 2006, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.