Jonathan Rosenbaum, Woody Allen, & Some Critical Perils

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Woody's face, upon reading Jonathan Rosenbaum's critiques.

Woody’s face, upon reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s critiques.

[Update for 11/13/2014: My book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, is now out, and can be purchased via Amazon. It includes, in full, the e-mail exchange that I describe below.]

About a week ago, I solicited Jonathan Rosenbaum for comments on my essay deriding his (and others’) interpretation of Woody Allen, which forms part of my upcoming e-book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real. I believed, of course, that the reasons were pretty clear. Rosenbaum — top critic, top film expert, top DVD commentator, top etc. etc. etc. — had a dozen or so reviews of Allen’s films, most of which, quite literally, involve a 4-5 sentence dismissal, with little to no evidence for his judgments, and even less argumentation. His essay, “Notes Toward the Devaluation of Woody Allen,” fares even worse, because unlike in the context of a brief dismissal, which might simply be constrained by the demands of a newspaper, or whatever else, Rosenbaum finally had a few thousand words to put the nail in Allen’s coffin. He does not, however, and given the man’s reputation, it’s shocking how little of his essay in fact even address Woody Allen’s films, content, as it is, to merely skim along the surface of things.

So I e-mailed Rosenbaum, reiterating my points, and not really expecting a reply. To my surprise, however, it came, quite respectful and very prompt. More surprising, however, was what happened near the end of our exchange, wherein Rosenbaum made the claim that he finds “evaluation” to be an unimportant task for the critic, all things considered. Now, such things are certainly in vogue these days, and subjectivists will still insist that art cannot be ‘judged’ for a while yet. It was shocking to hear this from Rosenbaum, however, because, well, the man gained his reputation on precisely that: evaluation. Ever read his take on Taxi Driver, which helplessly careens between minor adulation and silly charges that the film is “ideologically confused”– i.e., has no consistent idea or philosophical posit? That is called, what? It is ‘evaluation’. Ever read his various “10 Best” lists, across multiple categories, whose only existence can occur if the critic, first and foremost, evaluates films for this inclusion, thus naturally excluding others as substandard? I mean, the word is “best,” as in, transcending merely ‘better,’ or ‘good,’ but in the realm of best. Not favorite, mind you, not essential, not important, but best, which is a word with a specific meaning. Or hell, what of the essay in question– “Notes Toward the De-Valuation…”, which has the word ‘evaluate’, within, and implies judgment– the very thing Rosenbaum denies the importance of, yet does in review after review, essay after essay, thus staking his own celebrity on such, but eliding it when philosophically expedient?

Manny Farber Jonathan Rosenbaum

Manny Farber, who is both Jonathan Rosenbaum’s hero, as well as a pretty bad critic. Image via RogerEbert.com.

This line of reasoning is … Continue reading →

Review Of Haruki Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage”

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Haruki Murakami Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage

Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage just doesn’t work.

Although I’d read a number of Japanese novels as a kid, I only became interested in Japanese literature in earnest via Jessica Schneider, who’s reviewed a number of Japanese classics for PopMatters, and elsewhere. Compared to the West — at least in the past century or so — Japanese art has always struck me as a little more mature. No, this does not necessarily mean that it’s always better, but merely that, if you look at the subject matter, it aims a lot higher, and either succeeds, or fails, but fails nobly. This is true of books, film, and even Japanese anime, wherein shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, while delivered by solid/good directors who simply never grew up, have enough moments of poesy to keep things interesting and fresh, despite such films’ more obvious lacks.

That said, Haruki Murakami is one of those writers I’d suspect to be better in his short stories than long novels, and his latest book (quite the best-seller, today) is no exception. This is because, on the plus side, he attempts philosophy, and sometimes even poesy; he tries to get to the bottom of this or that idea, and, more importantly, see how characters might live this idea out, in real-time, which is really the difference between philosophy and art. Some of his situations are innately interesting (fantastical plot-points in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; the melding of waking and dream in Kafka On The Shore), and he doesn’t necessarily go with the most obvious trajectory. On the negative side, however, some of his novels go on too long, have many pointless details (the taste of coffee and croissants; lots and lots of ‘characterizing’ description, yet without the interaction to make it real), half-assed attempts at philosophy (Chronicle’s opening: “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta”), and other flaws that, had they simply been concentrated into a far shorter burst, via a story or novella, would naturally trim Murakami’s worst tendencies, and force him into a poesy that more often comes out in Murakami’s structure and juxtapostions, rather than any innate feature of the prose itself.

So Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage is long — too long — and is simply not a good book in its duration. Its biggest weakness, by far, is its over-reliance on a group of 5 high school friends to both form the narrative, as well as the narrative’s purported reason. Yet despite how deeply affected the 5 characters are by their friendship, one NEVER sees any genuine, much less affecting, interaction between them, at all, merely a bland, mechanical, and rote description of what they’re like and what they do early … Continue reading →

If George Orwell’s none too good, you better say why.

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George Orwell is a social force, but not really an artist.

George Orwell is a social force, but not really an artist.

I recently came across an article posted over at Reddit (link to discussion), re: George Orwell, and it immediately struck me as one of those faux ‘bad-boy’ envious types. This is not because the writer, Will Self, argues that Orwell was a literary mediocrity– in fact, I’d agree with this claim, even if I might be a little more charitable. The issue, really, is Self’s argument, in one of those moments wherein a person comes to the right conclusion about something, but seems to have little to no clue as to why it’s right. This always get me dismissive, because what good is a good opinion if its trajectory is unknown, and its origin dubious? In fact, it means that as the thinker hits upon new phenomena, he’ll be unable to analyze it, ill-equipped as he is for such tasks, and dependent on luck. Such is the case, here, and Will Self’s argument, after a series of overdone digressions, can be broken down as follows:

Orwell isn’t very good because he is too ‘unadorned’. In fact, he’s not simply a mediocrity, but– and after hundreds of potential examples, Self settles on Orwell– the ‘Supreme Mediocrity’ of recent English memory, mostly because he is too plain. In fact, Self goes on to blame his ‘prose style’, as if style, in and of itself, can be good or bad, rather than what is DONE within this style. He then points to the following Orwell quote as an explanation of the writer’s mediocrity:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Not exactly groundbreaking literary analysis, what with the invocations of ‘general collapse’, ‘decadence’, and other alarums that have been bandied about since the dawn of civilization, but not necessarily wrong, either. Language DOES go through periods of atrophy and decay, language IS abused via poor understanding of terms and definitions, categories, the mis-use of cliches, the non-belief in language, as a whole. And, of course, Orwell’s claim that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes” is 100% correct, and is, in a very real sense, a good explanation for art as a whole: that art is a means of higher communication, and that standard English, ghetto-talk, curse words, holy words, Latinisms, neologisms, derivations, non-derivations, etc., are not preferable to one another. They are simply ONE means to the same goal: Continue reading →