A Fine Whine

Janet Maslin Leaves the Times. Why?

If Culturebox didn’t know better, she would say that Janet Maslin was driven from the New York Times by the shame of almost having Lee Siegel agree with her.

Wait a minute. Maslin, the lead film critic, is leaving the Times?According to a memo circulated to the staff Tuesday afternoon by arts editor John Darnton, at the end of the year “she will leave the paper and try life without deadlines.” Did she quit or was she fired? It’s a pretty abrupt departure, and she has no other job lined up, but who knows? What else did Darnton say? He hinted that the job wore her out: “In 1973, Hollywood turned out 229 movies. Last year, the figure was more than double - 475. Janet’s workload doubled correspondingly but she bore it with customary grace and Stakhanovite fortitude.” What is Stakhanovite fortitude? Stakhanov was a Soviet miner famous for regularly exceeding his quotas. His prolific labors were endlessly celebrated by Stalin and reviled by everyone else. In the post-Soviet era, the adjective denotes a teacher’s pet and drone.

Is that why the Times got rid ofher, if that’s what it did? Who gets fired for working too hard? But she has taken a lot of flack  lately for her chipper enthusiasm about movies everyone else hated, such as The Phantom Menace or Eyes Wide Shut. Another Times critic, Michiko Kakutani, even published an essay that implicitly condemned Maslin for being credulous enough to embrace Kubrick’s last film. Wouldn’t it be unusual to fire a film critic for not being harsh enough? It would certainly say something about the difference between the East and West coasts. Can you imagine the art editor of the Los Angeles Times dressing down his lead critic for sucking up to the studios too much? Well, why did she suck up so much? In the novel Max Jamison, Wilfrid Sheed shows how the rigors of reviewing crap can reduce a critic to an embittered hack. Perhaps Maslin, striving to avoid that fate, stumbled onto one equally unfortunate–she let hope triumph over experience. What would you do if you had to watch 475 Hollywood movies a year?

Ok, I buy that, sort of. But who’s Lee Siegel? Lee Siegel is a regular contributor to The New Republic who has become famous for taking a hatchet to all subjects great and small. Novelists Barbara Kingsolver and Kurt Andersen, the New York Times Arts and Ideas page, a private salon of left-leaning intellectuals, the entire city of Manhattan–all are treated with the same withering contempt. All are seen with the same unwavering certainty as avatars of America’s cultural decline. Siegel’s latest cause, taken up in the current issue of Harper’s, is Eyes Wide Shut, which only he among all critics in America has realized is a great work of art. All the other critics in America–”[o]ur official arbiters of culture”–“have lost the gift of being able to comprehend a work of art that does not reflect their immediate experience; they have become afraid of genuine art.” All except Maslin. And Siegel, in his Siegelesque fashion, can’t bring himself to give her credit for her insight, even though that she was practically the only critic to praise the film: “Not a single critic, not even those few who claimed to like Eyes Wide Shut, made any attempt to understand the film on its own artistic terms.”

So what does he have to do with Maslin leaving the Times? Well, nothing, now that you mention it. They couldn’t have less in common or less sympathy for one another’s worldviews (if Maslin is even aware of Siegel’s, she is not likely to be kindly disposed toward it). Which, if Culturebox was illustrating a point, rather than manufacturing a conceit, was it: that these two extreme of contrarian critical opinion–Maslin’s brittle cheerfulness and Siegel’s apocalyptic dourness–have somehow brought their holders to the same lonely place. If I were her, I’d quit too.