Yo, New Yorker: David Denby Has Gots to Go

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.

[UPDATE: Ron Hogan, via John Hodgman, uncovers an embarrassing error from Denby that evaded the New Yorker‘s army of fact checkers.]

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  1. Silver Age. Golden Age Comics, pre-Wertham, would be way too brutal for Demby. Thanks for pointing out that Demby, sadly, seems to have turned into a Dean Broderesque moralist (Broder came up with a thundering denunciation of the Spider-Man movies). Shame when even white male-lovin’ Dave could take a reviewer to school.

    Nit: Does your “I didn’t say any of this” mean “I didn’t see . . . ” etc.? It took me a moment to figure that out.

  2. Denby lost me with his review of The Matrix: Revolutions (the lousy third chapter), when he wrote: “It is, I suppose, far too late to bemoan the obvious truth that…college-educated gents, and millions of others like them, will spend many hours debating the apocalypse as revealed by the Brothers Wachowski but would die before reading a single story by Chekhov or Cheever dealing with the sensual and spiritual quandaries of ordinary people.” Get over yourself, Denby.

    Then again, I don’t think much of Anthony Lane, either.

  3. Indeed, Denby is a tool and as a tool is, a tool does.

    I was interested in this rhetorical device: “[Denby’s review] is particularly egregious for a national magazine that prides itself as being high-minded and sophisticated.”

    Am I the only one who thinks this pride is tragically misplaced? Caitlin Flannigan, anyone? Deborah Triesman’s management of the fiction? Muddleheaded and simple is more like it. Middle-mind all the way. You should be stomping on Remnick far more often.

    The New Yorker still commits some good journalism, particularly someone like Jon Lee Anderson, but when it comes to cultural criticsim or commentary, the wheels have been off for years.

  4. Denby was a jerk when he worked for New York. And let’s not forget his foray into daytrading, which he wrote about in a weird navel-gazing book that also detailed his porn-surfing. American Sucker, indeed! LONG LIVE ANTHONY LANE!

  5. “The last time I looked, London seemed more like a prosperous pleasure garden than like the capital of a jackbooted, dehumanized future.”

    I’ve never been to London; I’ve only watched movies about it. Even the fake happy ones like Mary Poppins and Oliver! make life in some parts of London look pretty miserable.

    Over at Movie City News, has an interview of the director of Why We Fight, and Denby receives a good thrashing about some dumb assertions he made about that movie.

  6. Let me get this straight: You haven’t seen this movie & you clearly don’t like Denby, but you’re getting bent out of shape about Denby’s reaction to a movie he HAS seen, on top of criticizing him for having pre-judged it? It just doesn’t seem fair to me. Nor does it seem fair to suggest that if he doesn’t give comic books enough credit, you can claim him to be the “cultural equivalent of a Holocaust denier.” What does that even mean? Does the reality of Holocaust denial matter to you, or is it just a convenient excuse for an insult?

    Then there is the comment above: Never been to London but have seen Mary Poppins!?

    When Orwell was writing, fascism & Communism existed. His 1984 dystopia had a firm grounding in reality. All Denby is saying is that this film’s dystopia is more grounded in paranoia than reality.

    You may disagree with that, but it’s not far out or dumb as far as assertions go. Nor is it purblind, or even jejune for that matter. Denby seems to be the only one seriously considering the film. The rest of you are, as seems appropriate I guess, ranting.

  7. It should be patently obvious from the above that I am arguing against Denby’s criticism — i.e., examining his writing to demonstrate how, in my view, he is a slipshod critic. This is what one does, after all, when calling into question a person’s writing.

    Whether or not I’ve seen “V for Vendetta” has nothing to do with it. Whether or not I like Alan Moore has nothing to do with it. Truth be told, I have my doubts about the film adaptation, if only because the Wachowsky Brothers fucked up the last two “Matrix” movies. So I really have no stake in the matter.

    My concern here is that the New Yorker prints this kind of half-thought out crap from Denby on a regular basis and, as a result, has the temerity to hold it in the same regard as Pauline Kael.

    And Orwell’s 1984 WAS riddled with paranoia. You’re a very silly man if you think that any work of art presenting an oppressive authoritarian state isn’t guided by some over-the-top sense of the absurd or the paranoid. By the very nature of totalitarianism, you sort of have to. Vestal virgins isn’t fucking paranoid? “2 + 2 = 5” isn’t paranoid? Come on.

    As for my “Holocaust denier” metaphor, aside from my over-the-top effort to steer this into Godwin, it’s quite simple. Denby, as I pointed out above, is completely unfamiliar with comics and has no right to criticize them with such a blatantly uninformed opinion. It is no less different than a historian writing about German labor in 1972, only to deliberately stop his history at 1932 and turn his back on Jewish slave labor. It is, in short, unjudicious and ignorant.

  8. Ed, I don’t mean for a second to deny you the opportunity to review the review simply because you haven’t seen the film. That’s fine. But your sense of certainty & outrage seem to be out of proportion considering the fact that you haven’t see the film. And you hardly write like someone who has no stake in the matter. If you do, in fact, have no stake in the matter, why the purple outrage? You must have a stake in something.

    I must be a silly man. Either way, I was trying to suggest that Denby was making a defesible assertion. I wasn’t attempting to argue it either way. You act as if he’s completely crazy, when in fact he’s making a perfectly reasonable argument.

    Back to my earlier point, I don’t feel you’re in a position, not having seen the film in question, to raise quite so high the charge of ignorance. Nor do I think an argument about comic books is the best place to charge anything even in the neighborhood of Holocaust denial. I say this not because I don’t get the logic of what you’re saying. I say this because some metaphors are simply injudicious and ignorant.

  9. Brendan: Okay, fair enough point. I don’t necessarily have a stake in what Denby or the New Yorker does, but I do have a keen interest in criticism, having once been a film critic and remaining a literary critic. When such tautological arguments as Denby’s are celebrated in a major magazine, to my mind it reflects that perspicacious criticism driven by specific examples and contextualization of a work is on the decline.

    We obviously disagree about Denby’s defensibility. I do happen to think that any critic is batshit crazy to tackle a genre that he’s not willing to learn the basics about.

    As for my umbrage over comics, I also disagree. Much as genre as dismissed unduly, comics are also dismissed unduly. And the time has come to raise the polemical level to ultraviolet to remind people that this is a battle for cultural credibility worth fighting.

  10. I care about criticism, too, Ed, which is why I take issue with what you’re saying. Shout to the moon about how great comics are. You’ll get no disagreement here. But David Denby dissing Frank Miller is not David Irving denying or excusing the murder of 6 million Jews. Your suggestion to the contrary demeans those deaths. You also demean yourself when you make such a comparison.

    So we’re clear: I don’t mean to say that the Holocaust is an ahistorical event that by definition is unique. I don’t mean to say that using it as a metaphor is always out of bounds. I only mean to say that HOW you use it matters.

    It matters that so many people were so brutally & uselessly murdered. Your need to “raise the polemical level to ultraviolet” because you like comic books—that doesn’t matter.

  11. I have no strong feelings about Denby. I am, however, puzzled by his vaguely pornographic description of water in his review of United 93: “….the passengers charge the hijackers with the force of engorged water breaking through a dam.”

    Engorged water. Now there’s a concept for you.

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