Several years ago, when Godfrey Cheshire “left” The New York Press, some speculated his departure had to do with his evisceration of The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane a few weeks earlier in one of his weekly columns. “A very clever writer, but he represents the total degeneracy of film criticism,” said Cheshire, a great critic and erudite film scholar, in response to an article Lane had written about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. No doubt many shared his frustrations, and I’d be lying if I said I’ve never been irritated by a critic’s banality or dubious grasp of film history, but Cheshire’s article seemed to usher in a thorny new trend in American film criticism: reviewing people who review movies.
It’s written nowhere that this sort of thing can’t or shouldn’t be done (sometimes it’s necessary to study the way people respond to and write about films), but I fear that this practice has become a self-righteous sport for some, especially for The New York Press’s Armond White, who I’m not ashamed to say I count as one of my influences but whose contempt for anyone who doesn’t share his point of view is deeply unsettling. More times than not, this ire not only reeks of a holier-than-thou elitism but also strikes me as misdirected. It’s often asked who’s more to blame for the turkeys Hollywood makes, the people who produce them or the people who insist on seeing them, which allows me to make a correlation: Who’s to blame for someone like Anthony Lane, the people who employ him or the man himself, who is simply doing his job—for better or for worse—to the best of his abilities?
In a recent article for The New York Press, Matt Zoller Seitz asked what was on the minds of critics in the New York area who were shocked to learn of their colleague Charles Taylor’s dismissal from Salon: “What the fuck was Salon thinking when it fired Charles Taylor, intellectually serious film critic and one of the finest, funniest wordsmiths in American journalism? Will Salon, a haven for provocative criticism and fresh cultural commentary, now become yet another unpaid arm of the entertainment business, serving up ’features’ that are actually long, snarky ads for the latest movies?” I know what Salon was thinking (or, more accurately, I’ve been told what Salon was thinking): that Taylor’s cultural coverage was too “criticism centered.” Besides, I’ve got a bigger fish to fry: Why is it that a serious writer like Taylor, a fearless critic of shallow entertainment punditry, is out of a job while a shill like Rex Reed is allowed to continue spewing his venom from atop his perch at The New York Observer?
It doesn’t please me to rake Reed over the coals like Cheshire did to Lane—he and I are members of the same critics’ group and I freely admit to laughing at his quips (both in person and in print) from time to time—but my gripes with this man go beyond his utter contempt for youth culture, dubious appreciation of film history, and egregious (mis)application of the word “pretentious” over the years (which he even managed to apply to A Christmas Story in his review of the film for The New York Post back in the ’80s), things I can ignore by choosing not to read his “On the Town” column ever again. Except Reed’s insults aren’t simply against film culture but common decency itself. It’s something altogether personal…and it hurts. Lane is a good writer who, at worst, could stand to brush up on his Asian cinema. Reed commits a more dangerous crime: he actively encourages contempt for anything that’s novel or not suited to his very particular cultural palette, often using people’s race and traditions as ammunition.
In a recent column for The New York Observer, Reed refers to Park Chan-Wook’s hollow eye candy Oldboy as “sewage in a cocktail shaker,” a line that could only have been written by a total lush or someone with money to throw around. I understand that people who enjoy Reed’s “On the Town” column probably do so with a martini in hand, which is why I can forgive—or, at the very least, ignore—catty quips like this one. (I suppose that’s why I read The Village Voice regularly: because most of their writers share my income bracket.) But Reed does something worse than cunt up a storm here, overshadowing The New York Times’s own review of the film last week (in which the infinitely more sensible Manohla Dargis thumbed her nose at all those silly rabbits bound to swoon for the film) by resorting to racist digs. Editor’s Note: Charles Taylor points out that Reed makes an insensitive comparison between Bernie Mac and Uncle Remus earlier in the same piece.
Trying to contextualize the Korean Oldboy’s Grand Guignol, Reed ponders: “What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?” The question may be rhetorical but you have to wonder how Reed’s editor is addressing the complaints that have no doubt flooded the publication since this article was posted on the paper’s site. I’ve documented Reed’s condescension and its implications before—in his coverage of the Toronto Film Festival two years ago, he freely and happily ruined Dogville’s ending, and in his coverage of the New York Film Festival two years ago, he revealed that his ass was too weak to sustain him past the first hour of the brilliant The Best of Youth—but it’s obvious that he’s stepped over the line here.
I refuse to give the man the benefit of the doubt: He’s not sensitive enough to have meant this line as some kind of elaborate analogy for the trade of Asian films to foreign markets. His thoughtlessness reminds me of those titles in the Looney Tunes collection now relegated to dust bins for their political incorrectness (the “Censored 11” as they’re unofficially called). “All This and Rabbit Stew” comes immediately to mind, in which a black hunter (in the role of Elmer Fudd) is repeatedly outwitted by the rascally Bugs Bunny. This short reflects the nearsightedness of people who lived during the time, who often defined and ridiculed “the other” by the way they looked or by the things they ate. Of course, it’s easy to see the great Tex Avery’s short as a product of its time, but what’s Reed’s excuse? It’s 2005 and here is Reed condescending to people of color as if he were some prissy colonialist riding a bejeweled elephant through an impoverished Indian village.
Reed, whose “review” of The Best of Youth’s hour still poses as legit coverage on Rotten Tomatoes (where the man is considered—sigh—a “cream of the crop” critic), has resorted to these kinds of swipes before: If I recall correctly, he dismissed Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night as some kind of leftover Italian food, I think pasta primavera. This insensitive attitude encourages cultural dissent and reinforces notions of superiority amongst the New York City upper crust that reads his column, no doubt the same people who treat the arrival of every hermetic idyll of the city directed by Woody Allen as the second coming of Christ. (It probably goes unsaid that Reed loved Melinda and Melinda.)
I fear there’s a serious disconnect between the editors who work for certain publications and the people who answer to them, something I see in the firing of Charles Taylor and Reed’s ongoing crimes against the readers of The New York Observer. In one corner: Taylor’s radical voice is stifled. In another corner: Reed continues to affirm a shifty, racist status quo. Maybe Zoller Seitz is right to fear the direction film criticism is going in. That Reed’s insults continue to pass salt with his editors suggest that either his superiors encourage and support the man’s crude tricks (assuming that’s what the readers of The New York Observer want to read) or that the man wields more power than they do. Either way, there’s more than one person to blame here, and whatever the case, these offenses need to be acknowledged and addressed. As for reparations: If they’re afraid of the vacant spot Reed would leave behind, they can always give Chuck Taylor a job.