Highlights from the week in criticism.
Nov. 27 1996 3:30 AM

Reviewers reviewed.

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(posted Tuesday, Nov. 26)
Movie The Crucible (20th Century Fox). Arthur Miller's play, which portrayed the 1692 Salem witch trial as a doppelgänger of the 1950s Red Scare, opens this week. Did the earnestly liberal 1953 script survive the decades? Yes, claimed producer Bob Miller--Arthur's son--in Time. The film's meaning is different from the play's: It's "about relationships, it's about betrayal, it's about forgiveness." So it is, noted TheNewYorker's Terrence Rafferty, adding that this makes it "an absurdity on every level." The newsweeklies were kinder to the Oprah-izing of Miller's political fable. "[Daniel] Day-Lewis and Ryder slip powerfully into their 17th-century skins," said Newsweek's David Ansen; Time's Richard Corliss, while more ambivalent, said Ryder's "winsome beauty seared with erotic rage" reveals "the real roots of the piece": What Arthur Miller really wrote, said Corliss, was "a colonial Fatal Attraction." NewYork's David Denby found the film too frenetic to be effective; he disliked director Nicholas Hytner's "groupings, movements, and mass faintings." S LATE's David Edelstein, however, liked the commotion.
Book Duchamp: A Biography, by Calvin Tomkins (Henry Holt). Reviewers have greeted this book as an opportunity to talk about Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the artist who displayed a urinal as sculpture and painted Nude Descending a Staircase, which contained neither a recognizable nude nor a recognizable staircase. In next week's New York Times Book Review, art critic Deborah Solomon summarizes the general critical consensus: To know Duchamp is to know our times. "To Duchamp we owe our current Age of Irony and a culture in which nothing is taken more seriously than the gravely hip joke." The reviewers don't say much about the book itself, perhaps because it is, as Robert Storr writes in the Washington Post, "organized around the enigma of someone who went to extravagant lengths to disguise his identity." What Tomkins gives us, says Storr, is "an enjoyable narrative," short on analysis. For Tomkins, Solomon writes, "[i]ntellectual responses constitute 'opinion,' and Mr. Tomkins apparently believes it is best not to have them." (The first chapter of Tomkins' book is available at the Washington Post Chapter One site.)
Television The Larry Sanders Show (HBO). A few days after sweeping the cable-TV awards, Garry Shandling returned with the fifth season of his spoof of late-night talk shows. In the New York Times, Frank Rich devoted an entire column to the first episode, calling it "a landmark." In it, Hank Kingsley, Larry's buffoonish sidekick, as Rich explained, "came out as a Jew." (This involved reverting to his real last name, Lepstein, and wearing a yarmulke on the air.) Rich: "If anyone doubts that this week's LarrySandersShow is a turning point in the long and complex cultural intermarriage of Jews and Hollywood, answer this question: When before did TV present a half-hour of hilarious comedy about Jews without a Jewish mother, Jewish-American princess, or shiksa-chasing Jewish prince in sight?" Times television critic John J. O'Connor called the show a classic. Frederic Biddle of the BostonGlobe declared, "Comedy this subtle is a hard act to follow." (Cast bios and other show info are available at The Larry Sanders Show site.)
Television The High Life (HBO). The comedy act that follows Sanders in HBO's Saturday night lineup made its debut this week, and according to the Globe's Biddle, it is worthy of that distinguished slot. More than one critic described The High Life, produced by David Letterman's production company, as the evil twin of The Honeymooners. The domestic comedy set in the 1950s features the Bomb, the Ku Klux Klan, and McCarthyism. Biddle compared co-star Mark Wilson favorably to Jackie Gleason. But the San Francisco Chronicle's John Carman found "nastiness" in the series' admixture of 1990s-style cynicism and Eisenhower-era nostalgia. The VillageVoice's Stacy D'Erasmo agreed. "Is anyone out there shocked by the idea that the '50s, or any other American decade, were perverse, racist, brutal, and corrupt?"
Art"Max Beckmann in Exile" (Guggenheim Museum, SoHo, New York City). Midcentury expressionist Max Beckman's frenzied images of horror, composed while he was in exile from Nazi Germany, have been garnering rave reviews. Beckmann is "the greatest German painter since Mathias Grünewald and Albrecht Dürer," declared Hilton Kramer in the New York Observer. The show "might not change your life, but it is likely to change your understanding of what the art of painting is capable of achieving in the hands of a master." In the NewYork Review of Books, John Updike agreed that Beckmann provides a welcome respite from the standard SoHo fare ("wherein visual stimulation has the duration and subtlety of electric shock treatments"). Beckmann, by contrast, "is stubbornly withholding of easy pleasures and a clear message." Deborah Solomon of the WallStreet Journal said: "Never before had I heard so much talking in a museum. Viewers were trying to decode the work."
Book Indian Killer, by Sherman Alexie (Atlantic Monthly Press). The latest novel by this 29-year-old novelist--who recently told the Village Voice that he prefers to be called "Indian" rather than "Native American" ("a guilty white liberal term")--explores the psyche of an alienated Indian who becomes a serial killer of white people. In the New York Times Book Review, Richard R. Nicholls declared that Alexie's lack of cant made Indian Killer a "meditative exploration of the sources of human identity" of "what might have been a melodrama in less assured hands." In Newsday, Erik Himmelbach discerned beneath the "ham-fisted dialogue and grand sweeping gestures" a "subversive tome about modern racial tensions." But reviewing the book for the Chicago Tribune, novelist Madison Smartt Bell strongly disagreed. While praising Alexie for his cultivation, in other novels, of a style that "might be called modern Indian magical realism," he said of Indian Killer that reading it "is rather like listening to someone so strangled with anger that he has become half incoherent."
Book The Car that Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle, by Michael Shnayerson (Random House). The sleeper nonfiction hit of the season is a book about an overgrown golf cart, otherwise known as an electric car, developed by General Motors and due soon at Saturn dealers. In the New York Review of Books, environmentalist Bill McKibben explained that the book isn't really about how the engineers created the car, but a look under the hood of the American corporation. "The real drama takes place in GM's corporate offices and board rooms and private jets." McKibben found Shnayerson overly confident that electric cars will succeed. In the New York Times BookReview, Judith Newman was also dubious about the electric car, but granted that Shnayerson is "adept at communicating his passion." Fortune declared the commercial prospects for electric cars to be "very shaky." But reviewer Alex Taylor III deemed Shnayerson a "graceful writer" who maintains "an admirable objectivity about [the electric car's] prospects." General Motors expects the EV1 will clean up, in addition to the environment, their corporate image. Shnayerson, proclaimed Fortune, "has made that outcome less likely by providing some messy details about the car's development."

--Compiled by Rick Perlstein.

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Illustrations by Mark Alan Stamaty

Rick Perlstein is associate editor of Lingua Franca.

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