John Powers, one of the best cultural critics working, has a nice passage on Anthony Lane that captures the essence of the "popular critique" of Lane that I described in my last post. I wrote, "although he’s a wonderful writer, there’s something unserious about him. He never seems to care enough about the film’s he critiquing, either in his praise or in his condemnation."
Powers, who writes a semi-regular column for the LA Weekly, says of Lane, in the midst of an essay about the sorry state of film criticism:
He is the critic that every magazine editor covets, the critic that Hollywood most enjoys reading, because even when he pans its films, he does it so divertingly that what he’s actually saying barely registers.
In truth, the aristocratic ease that makes Lane so pleasurable to read is inseparable from his limitations. Caught up in the dazzling virtuosity of his leaps and twirls, he rarely breaks through the ice to see what might be swimming around in the chilly deep below; he never forces us to see a director in a brand-new way. He’s the ideal reviewer for today’s denatured Hollywood product — born, one might say, to dismember Pearl Harbor — because very little is at stake in his work beyond the splendors of his own performance. Delight he always does, but can you imagine Anthony Lane ever getting anyone angry?
As it happens, I got Nobody’s Perfect about the same time as two less-glamorous books, Afterglow: A Last Conversation With Pauline Kael by Francis Davis and last year’s Citizen Sarris: American Film Critic, a touching festschrift edited by Emanuel Levy. In their different ways, both books offer portraits of critics whose work actually changed lives — transforming how people thought about the movies, making them eager to become film critics themselves, showing them groundbreaking new ways to write about popular culture. Although nearly always at loggerheads, Andy [Sarris] and Pauline [Kael] had one thing in common — they cared passionately about movies.
Not so Lane, whose airy detachment from the medium makes him less the heir to Kael or Sarris (or the young Kenneth Tynan) than the fair-haired offspring of Clive James, whose supremely amusing TV columns for London’s The Observer in the 1970s became the gold standard for writing entertainingly about pop-culture events that nobody gave a damn about. Like James, Lane is far more deeply engaged by books, but he’s canny enough to know there’s more glory and dough in writing about movies. Funnily
Powers, by the way, is lamentably lesser known than he should be. He should be a film or book critic for the New York Times or Harper’s or the Atlantic Monthly (he’s got too much anger for the New Yorker). His relatively recent nonfiction book, Sore Winners, should have sold well.
As to why he’s not more famous, I don’t think there’s a great answer. He does commentary for NPR, so that’s kind of a big deal, and the LA Weekly is probably the best, and certainly one of the best read, alternative weekly papers in the country. So it’s not as if he’s toiling in obscurity. But he’s not a celebrity critic yet, not yet mentioned in the same breath as people like Anthony Lane and A.O. Scott.
I could construct a theory to explain this — probably having something to do with his aggressive unclassifiability/heterodoxy, and his willingness to rag on anyone and anything he feels like — but I suspect he hasn’t ascended to that topmost echelon simply because it’s hard to get there, and unless you’re a real genius (which he’s not) or you get real lucky, it’s likely to take a while, if it happens at all.
He’ll be there soon, I suspect. And if not, then what of it? We soldier on, we do.