Tuesday, March 31, 2009

MOVIE GEEK VS COMIC BOOK GEEK THROWDOWN

It's been almost 20 years, but I can't open an issue of The New Yorker without a tinge of sadness that Pauline Kael isn't in it. Not only was her every sentence a joy, but she believed in doing her research whether in high or low culture--reading The Killing Joke before seeing Batman and First Blood before seeing Rambo, relating The Phantom of the Paradise to the state of rock music in the early 70s, etc. (although I can't agree that Alice Cooper is more of a threat to good music than Paul Williams). Nowadays, if a movie critic can name half the influences in Pulp Fiction, they consider themselves highly educated.

Though New Yorker movie reviewers have disappointed me greatly since, Anthony Lane's review of Watchmen* has to be the worst since Daphne Merkin compared Ben Affleck to a young Paul Newman (doesn't the prescience of that statement just send a thrill down your spine?). Lane is what Kael called a "gentlemen critic": sometimes handy with the witty remarks, but mainly eager to show you how superior he is to his subject. He makes it perfectly clear that he would never read any comic books, unless they were New-York-Times-approved and tackling Big, Important Topics like Persepolis and Maus. Lane certainly hasn't read Watchmen, as he doesn't seem to get that it's a critique of superheroes. To him, Rorschach is the author's mouthpiece and Nite Owl's similarity to Batman is a valid criticism. Oh, really? A satire of superheroes has a character somewhat like Batman? Who knew. Then there's this little trip down Comic Book Geek Stereotype Lane:

it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear - deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation - is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along.

Here I thought I was a middle-aged lady with a master's degree, but apparently I must be a teenage male misogynist. No wonder I hate talking to myself.

Lane then attempts to end with a devastating coup de grace in the style of Pauline Kael's review of Return of the Jedi ("Why can't good and evil stop fighting and be friends?"), but comes up with this head-scratcher:

"Watchmen" marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?

Uh, it does? That's like going to Gilbert & Sullivan and being mad that no one dies or wears a funny hat with horns on it. OK, I guess a combination of words and pictures can only be funny like Roz Chast and not serious like Alan Moore. That might seem extreme even to the people who censored comics back in the 50s. Why can't we have both?

Finally, Lane turns with obvious relief to a re-release of Leave Her To Heaven, which is just as overwrought and ridiculous as he considers Watchmen, but in a 40s Hollywood way. Mr. Lane, please accept that some aspects of humanity have to be over-stated to be truly depicted, and it's easy to get this wrong, but what art form it's done in shouldn't matter. The comic geek and the movie geek should agree on that (unless you're boring like A.O. Scott).

PS. I'm not saying that Pauline Kael would have necessarily loved Watchmen, she might've hated it, but it would've been a passionate hatred that also commented on where we are as a society. Oh, well.

*DARK VISIONS.
Lane, Anthony
New Yorker; 3/9/2009,
Vol. 85 Issue 4, p82-83, 2p
For more information, check with your friendly local librarian.

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