Goodbye. This is my final column (I’m off to do some journalistic judging of my own, including future writing for Slate), so as a farewell gesture, I thought I’d include a little summary of what I’ve learned during my time in the critical trenches. Thanks to all my readers, and good luck to my successor!
- Novelists! Write only a first novel, and then a third—ideally 10 years after the first. Your second novel will pale in comparison to your first; your tricks will seem all too familiar, and yet somehow you’ll have stretched yourself beyond your creative capacities.
- The best bet for a communal TV slam is über-harsh Television Without Pity. (But skip the forums on shows you adore; critical arsenic poisons the love.)
- Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum is the sparkliest enthusiast-contrarian, the New York Times’A.O. Scott the master of the deadpan rant, and the Onion’s team of critics the best source for rueful indie intelligence.
- There’s a thin line between snark and hate.
Finding Nemo (Disney/Pixar). “You could trawl the seven seas and not net a funnier, more beautiful, and more original work of art and comedy than Finding Nemo,” exults Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum. In the Chicago Tribune, Mark Caro calls Pixar’s dazzling kiddie flicks “timeless works passing before our eyes“; the Los Angeles Times’Kenneth Turan agrees that Pixar is the new Disney. Reviewers praise the witty script, Ellen DeGeneres as a forgetful fish, and visuals of “filtered sunlight, pinwheeling silt and gleaming, jewel-hued life forms“—not to mention the filmmakers’ Bambi-esque “refusal to sugarcoat their tale’s darker subtext.” In the Onion, Keith Phipps discerns “recognizable elements of heartbreak and happiness amid the ink-jetting octopi and irritable flounders.” (Buy tickets for Finding Nemo.)
Capturing the Friedmans (Hit the Ground Running Films). Raves for this “grim, watchable wormhole narrative” about a Long Island family accused of sexual abuse, with The New Yorker’s David Denby praising first-time director Andrew Jarecki (aka Mr. Moviefone) for his debut documentary’s Rashomonic ambiguities. The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson calls the blend of docu-footage and home movies “quasi-verite as community purge-fire“; Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman says it’s “the most haunting documentary since Crumb“; and in the Onion, Scott Tobias labels it “an Atom Egoyan movie come to life, or the other side of the Louds in PBS’$2 1973 documentary series An American Family.” Meanwhile, one of the film’s subjects, Jesse Friedman, praises the film for his own reasons: “While it is unlikely that I will ever be exonerated in the eyes of the law, this film is a crucial first step towards my exoneration in the eyes of the public.” (Buy tickets for Capturing the Friedmans.)
Self-Criticism. With grandiose humility, Vincent Gallo grabs the Cannes spotlight by panning his own film, Brown Bunny. “I accept what the critics say. If no one wants to see it, they are right. I apologize to the financiers of the film, but I must assure you it was never my intention to make a pretentious film, a self-indulgent film, a useless film, an unengaging film.” For an encore, he laments the fact that he got good reviews from French critics, calling their praise “almost like salt in the wound.”
Getting Mother’s Body, by Suzan-Lori Parks (Random House). This “fresh, clever and engaging” first novel wins praise for its multicharacter storytelling —and a few caveats for lack of depth. Prize-winning playwright Parks isn’t aiming at realistic psychology, suggests Newsday’s Meghan O’Rourke (also an editor at Slate): “She’s interested in the way her characters codify American history.” For the Denver Post’s Diane Scharper, the wacky pregnant-girl-on-a-quest comedy pays off, with a many-layered plot swinging “from the ridiculous to the sublime and halfway back.” But in the New York Times, Laura Miller argues that if Parks riffs intriguingly off Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, her version doesn’t live up to its inspiration: “There’s no tissue of imagery or ideas underneath the surface of this novel, nothing that repays the effort of rereading, even if the first time around the book is lots of fun.” (Buy Getting Mother’s Body.)
Behindlings, by Nicola Barker (Ecco). This “risky, witty” book is an “an excellent candidate for a cult novel,” suggests Michael Pye in the New York Times. Enthusiastic Kool-Aid sippers include the Village Voice’s Joy Press, who lauds Barker’s “distinct pleasures of disorientation,” and BookPage’s Becky Ohlsen, sounding an insider’s clarion. “Readers who just want to sort it all out, see what happens in the end, demystify the mystery, etc., will be frustrated beyond belief,” she declares. “Those of us who revel in the use and abuse of the English language, however, will savor Nicola Barker’s every delicious word.” The Guardian’s Alex Clark is half-in, half-out, calling the book “insanely inventive, defiantly fatiguing and periodically infuriating,” and a few bridle outright: The Washington Post’s Keith Gessen laments the frustrations of her “thesaurusized, caffeinated, abusively italicized narration” while the Boston Globe’s Elsbeth Lindner finds “this very English stew of a book … too fat, too rich, and too indigestible.”
(What’s the book about? God or celebrity or something like that—even critics have trouble summarizing it, let alone a summary summarizer!—so let’s go with Christine Thomas’ valiant explanation in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Halfway into the novel it still isn’t clear how things fit together, what exactly the plot is and why we should trust her to pull it off, making it all the more astounding when, in the end, she does.”) (BuyBehindlings.)
Artists vs. Critics. The Los Angeles Times’ Kristin Hohenadel rounds up artistic coping techniques for dealing with criticism—finding several variations on plugging the ears and singing, “La-la-la-la I can’t hear you.” She includes actor Billy Crudup’s own critique of a much-loathed critic. “We’ve got reviewers like John Simon in New York. The guy is like an encyclopedia of theater—he’s got a brilliant mind for theater. But he writes about people’s wigs, and their weight. What an ass! And what a destructive and useless waste of paper.”