The best writers at the New York Times.

Media criticism.
July 25 2006 7:05 PM

The Best Writers at the New York Times

They write better by writing shorter.

If you want to write better, an old mentor of mine once said, write tighter. Pick the fewest possible words, he said, and rely on compression to make your ideas explode off the page. He wasn't thinking about the film capsules in the New York Times'daily TV listings when he shared this wisdom with me, but he could have been. Outside the Times classified pages, nobody does more with the English language with less space in the paper.

The capsules spend 20 words—and usually fewer—to pass informed judgment on movies. Even if you never intend to watch any of the films, the capsules make for good morning reading. Consider this taut kiss-off of The Matrix Revolutions: "Ferocious machine assault on a battered Zion. Stop frowning, Neo; it's finally over." Appreciate, if you will, the efficient setup and slam of the 2 Fast 2 Furious capsule: "Ex-cop and ex-con help sexy customs agent indict money launderer. Two fine performances, both by cars." And for compression, it's hard to better the clip for the Julie Davis feature Amy's Orgasm. It warns potential viewers away with just four syllables: "Change the station."

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Howard Thompson invented the Times capsule style in the 1960s and continued to write them on contract after his 1988 retirement, according to his 2002 Times obituary. Among his greatest clips cited in the obit were assessments of The Guns of Navarone ("Allied commando mission. Strong on scenery but weighs 10 tons."); Matilda ("A boxing kangaroo. What the world needs now."); and The Wrath of God ("They said it, we didn't and it's pretty close.").

Former Deputy Television Editor Jody Alesandro and freelance critic Anita Gates composed the mini-reviews after Thompson moved on, and today Lawrence Van Gelder is the primary wielder of the critical eyedropper. Whereas Thompson actually saw the movies he capsulized, his successors base their mini-reviews on the tone and spirit of Times movie reviews, adding up to 25 new onesto the database each week. Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Before and After: "New England couple's son charged with murder. Needs more in between."

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason: "Makes the first one look like a masterpiece."

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers: "The usual holiday fare."

Suspect Zero: "So preposterous it may kill the whole genre."

Rivaling the Times for succinctness and cheek are the Web smarty-pants who contribute to the Four Word Film Review (www.fwfr.com). As I write this, the site boasts 205,614 reviews composed in four words (or fewer) of 15,320 movies. For 2001: A Space Odyssey, its writers offer "Talkative computer Strausses out"; "Arthur C., monkeys do"; "Callow HAL"; "Dave should've installed firewall"; and 260 others. Somewhere Howard Thompson is whittling his miniatures down to three words apiece.

Writing pans of books, movies, and plays is always easier than writing raves, and this immutable rule of journalism applies to Times capsules. The brevity of the form generally prevents wit and praise from occupying the same place at the same time, so Times writers tend to alert readers to good movies by dropping the sarcasm and sticking to description. Hence, they tout Jules and Jim with this: "Three in love. Truffaut's classic. Charming and circuitous." Of Rashomon they write, "Kurosawa thunderbolt that put Japan on the world movie map."

I don't mean to imply that every or even most capsules soar off the page. The most pedestrian ones merely pun off—or sass back at—the movie title. "Futuristic man of justice. Judged dreadful," reads the Judge Dredd capsule, while Kicking and Screaming is rendered, "More like bumbling and mumbling." I also advise you not to read too many of them in one sitting. The writers depend too much on the words predictable, winning, contrived, credible, jolting,and scattershot.

Yet like all outstanding genre work, the Times capsules carry the freight assigned to them by entertaining readers and conveying a sound critical assessment.

Can you do better in 20 words or less?

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