The Phantom Menace: A film with half a plot, no engaging characters to speak of, and actors who speak in inhibited-zombie monotones as if the director had warned them to keep quiet while someone on the set took a nap. A film that introduces the noxious sci-fi creature Jar Jar Binks, whose bug eyes, lazy shuffle, and minstrelly speech suggest an alien Stepin Fetchit. A dull and annoying and occasionally rather offensive film, in other words. Yet here was the New York Times’ lead reviewer, Janet Maslin, almost alone among major critics in showering praise: “[I]t sustains the gee-whiz spirit of the series and offers a swashbuckling extragalactic getaway … jubilant ingenuity … sweetly, unfashionably benign … no better tour guide for a trip back to the future.”
Maslin did acknowledge, in passing, the film’s ethnic stereotypes, the overstuffed plot, Ewan McGregor’s blandness, the foolish spectacle of Liam Neeson acting opposite robots, and Natalie Portman’s resemblance to a costumed block of wood. But in her inimitable way, Maslin folds all these complaints into an overall rave. It was a bad piece, and a telling one. For more than a decade Maslin has stood out among critics for being what critics, those curmudgeons, so rarely are: She is upbeat and forgiving, often to a fault. As the Johnny Mercer song instructs, she accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. Or, as in the case of the latest Star Wars episode, she buries her list of negatives so late in the piece that it barely registers. This habit of combining compensatory praise with dismissals makes it difficult to know what Maslin actually thinks. (Her pan of Forrest Gump, for example, was dead-on and brave in its criticism but also packed to the gills with compliments.)
The question (not burning, perhaps–except for the poor dupes who suffered through the charmless Phantom because the Times recommended it) is how Maslin comes by this generosity. The paranoid explanation is that the paper’s growing dependence on movie ads compels her, in some oblique and unconscious way, to be an industry booster. Or it could be that Maslin is a little too well connected for a film critic, as some detractors have charged, and afraid to hurt her friends’ feelings. Or maybe she is just, as people who know her tend to comment, exceptionally nice.
The question grows more curious when you look back at Maslin’s career and realize that she once had a strong voice. She started off in the ‘70s writing about rock ’n’ roll for Rolling Stone and especially for the Boston Phoenix. At the time, the Phoenix and the now-defunct Real Paper were at the epicenter of alternative journalism–a training ground for critics and reporters who would graduate to big city dailies and the slicks. Joe Klein passed through the Phoenix/Real Paper scene, as did The New Yorker’s David Denby, the Times’ Frank Rich, Newsweek’s David Ansen, film critic turned Vanity Fair/New Yorker profiler turned Lolita screenwriter Stephen Schiff, journalist/wonk Sidney Blumenthal, and Slate’s own David Edelstein, to name just a few.
It’s unfair but true that a woman who started out at such a time and place, in such an atmosphere of heady debate, pot, scant female and plenty of male colleagues–such a woman will inevitably be noticed and talked about. So let’s get the gossip out of the way: Maslin was attractive; early on she dated Steven Spielberg; she got married to Jon Landau, a fellow rock critic who attended a small concert by a dynamic young man from New Jersey and wrote a famously prescient piece announcing, “I saw rock and roll future last night, and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” and eventually quit his writing job to manage the Boss. In the ‘80s, Maslin married Benjamin Cheever, son of John Cheever and also a novelist.
What’s interesting here isn’t Maslin’s personal life but the fact that her youthful writing on Joni Mitchell, say, or Elvis Costello carries more conviction, and therefore more weight, than her mature work on the movies. Maslin had a voice: As gung-ho as she is today but more deeply felt, more confident while still refreshingly free of the insider smugness of so much writing on rock. But, for some reason, when she migrated from music to movies, first for the Phoenix, then briefly for Newsweek, and since 1977 for the Times, she seems gradually to have inched away from her personal reactions. The pattern was set long before she became the Times lead critic in 1993. A 1988 Sunday “think piece” on a rash of Anglophilic “white flannel” costume dramas was typical. For much of the piece Maslin seemed to criticize the way films like A Handful of Dust distorted the novels they set out to adapt, the way they reeked of snobbery and voyeurism, the way they substituted rarified Ralph Lauren décors for content. Then she turned her argument upside down, praising a trifle called A Summer Story precisely because of its cynical, empty decorativeness.
To read a Maslin piece can be a disconcerting, at times even haunting experience. One senses her scrambling to fill the piece with everything but her own analysis. More often than not she leads with a lengthy, detailed visual description of a scene or a character. For paragraphs at a time she leans on plot summary of the timid undergraduate-book-report variety. She relies heavily–very heavily–on adverbs, which serve to pepper her noncommittal reviews with small emphatic bursts and to jack up her celebrations (from a 565-word review of Velvet Goldmine: “dazzlingly surreal,” “brilliantly reimagines,” “spectacularly reborn,” “dramatically presided,” “stunningly pretty,” “fabulously charismatic,” “hilariously decadent,” “typically wicked”).
When she does give the thumbs up, especially for an anticipated blockbuster, certain key words and phrases, such as “audience appeal” and “escapist fun,” suggest that she is not writing from her own point of view so much as she’s gauging in advance the public’s reaction. The lead to her review of Twister called the film “a gale-force movie with the energy to blow audiences right out of the theater.” This sounds more like publicity copy than criticism; what it expresses is the impression the studio hopes the film will have on an audience.
To be fair, there is much to be said in Maslin’s defense. She is hardly the first good writer to be slightly stifled by the Times nor, by any means, is she the first frustrating critic to work there. On the contrary: Vincent Canby wrote from high atop a pedestal, panned The Godfather Part II, and indulged in an inexplicable love of Blake Edwards. Before Canby, Bosley Crowther ruled the roost for three decades. He wielded immense power, but who recalls a single thing he wrote today, especially compared with the memorable work of James Agee or Andrew Sarris or, above all, Pauline Kael?
And these are tough times for reviewers in general. David Denby has expressed the disappointment of a generation of critics who entered the field during the feverish, Kael-inspired ‘70s: Once upon a time they wanted to grab readers by the hand and lead them to passionate works of art, but no one would aim so high today. Great movies are fewer and farther between (at least in this writer’s opinion–at least for the time being), and these days even the media that employ the critics measure a movie’s success not by the critics’ reaction but by opening weekend gross. Critics just don’t matter as much as they used to, and Maslin–though she’s still at the top of the heap, influence-wise–is no exception. Very much to her credit, she hasn’t become bitter about her shrinking influence; she’s not stuck in whiny nostalgia for the way things were. But she has developed a disembodied, ghostly way of writing about movies–a criticism of lowered expectations. Her main defense of the disappointing Phantom Menace? It’s “only a movie.” Exactly–and while we’re at it, Maslin is only a critic who asks for too little.