April 10, 2006

I made Liz Smith's gossip column

And I didn't even have to do anything humiliating! The grande dame of gossip quotes from my review of "Thank You for Smoking:"

ARE MOVIES more anti-cigarette these days?

On the contrary, Steve Sailer tells us in "The American Conservative," "Lighting up is presently considered the surest way to give characters that edgy 'indie' attitude. A study in The Lancet found there was as much smoking in movies in 2002 as in Humphrey Bogart's heyday. Despite all its high-minded talk, Hollywood cares more about its coolness quotient than its social conscience."

Google allows any movie reviewer to do rapid factual research on the issues brought up in a movie, but it's remarkable how few bother, even with a film like "Thank you for Smoking," which is aimed directly at the kind of people who watch cable news more than movies. Instead, they typically check off what they liked about the film (of the "The fourth male lead, Tom Sizemore, was really good" ilk) and disliked.

For a good description of what a critic should do, Ben Yagoda's analysis of the failures of the NYT's Stakhanovite book reviewer Michiko Kakutani is worth reading:

It should be clear to anyone who has read Kakutani's reviews that she has an estimable intelligence; she backs this up with what must be many real or virtual all-nighters in which she digests every word ever published by the writer under review. She takes books seriously, a valuable and ever-rarer trait. Furthermore, in my observation, she is more or less right in her judgments most of the time...

But the sour-grapes sniping from spurned authors should not obscure the fact that Kakutani is a profoundly uninteresting critic. Her main weakness is her evaluation fixation. This may seem an odd complaint—the job is called critic, after all—but in fact, whether a work is good or bad is just one of the many things to be said about it, and usually far from the most important or compelling... Kakutani doesn't offer the stylistic flair, the wit, or the insight one gets from Kael and other first-rate critics; for her, the verdict is the only thing. One has the sense of her deciding roughly at Page 2 whether or not a book is worthy; reading the rest of it to gather evidence for her case; spending some quality time with the Thesaurus; and then taking a large blunt hammer and pounding the message home...

As a student at Oxford, the future drama critic Kenneth Tynan got back a paper with this comment: "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)" Tynan's tutor, who happened to be C.S. Lewis, was offering a lesson Kakutani could have benefited from... (Another Lewis quote with relevance to Kakutani: "If we are not careful criticism may become a mere excuse for taking revenge on books whose smell we dislike by erecting our temperamental antipathies into pseudo-moral judgments.")

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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