Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 10 1997 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

Franklin Foer is a Slate contributing editor and the author of World Without Mind.


Men in Black (Columbia Pictures). Barry (Get Shorty) Sonnenfeld's shamelessly silly comedy about government agents who police extraterrestrials is hailed as the most offbeat and enjoyable blockbuster of the summer. "[S]uccessful absurdist fiction," says New York's David Denby. Like other blockbusters, it may suffer from a "perilously thin" plot (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker), but that's "the least important thing" about the movie (Newsweek). Instead, reviewers revel in its deadpan humor, stylish costumes, and comic performances, particularly that of Tommy Lee Jones--"registering levels of cool that would cause most actors to snap in half" (Lane). (Stills and clips are available here.)


Women With Men, by Richard Ford (Knopf). Having celebrated his 1995 novel Independence Day (which won a Pulitzer), critics are now wondering whether Ford can write about anything other than the subject of that book--that is, self-centered men. Two of the three stories in this volume concern the midlife crises of womanizers and all three are deemed mediocre knockoffs of Ford's earlier work, littered with characters "not complex enough to hold one's interest" (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times). Some, however, appreciate Ford's continued explorations of "contemporary manhood and its discontents" (Dan Cryer, Newsday) and his "sinewy" prose, reminiscent of Twain and Hemingway (Michael Gorra, the New York Times Book Review). "Nobody now writing looks ... more like an American classic," says Gorra. (An excerpt is available at the Knopf site.)

American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, by Pauline Maier (Knopf). The latest salvo in the Thomas Jefferson debate claims the Declaration of Independence wasn't his individual handiwork but the product of a committee, based on scores of similar documents around the American colonies. Most critics find Maier's argument well supported and persuasive. "An outstanding work of research and analysis, written with grace and wit," says Slate's John Patrick Diggins. But Richard Alan Ryerson, in the New York Times Book Review, faults Maier for giving short shrift to the document's philosophical underpinnings. "American Scripture comes close to creating a world without ideas." (Click here for an excerpt from the book.)


Man Without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism's Greatest Spymaster, by Markus Wolf with Anne McElvoy (Times Books). The memoirs of East Germany's Spymaster, legendary for helping bring down West German Prime Minister Willy Brandt's government. Critics are skeptical about his claim to have known nothing about the East German secret police's brutalities and to have been just a good Jew fighting fascism. "The dishonesty with which Wolf presents this case is almost childish" (Ian Buruma, the New Republic). But a few consider "the Dapper Don of the Stasi" credible. In The New Yorker, Robert Harris concurs that Wolf ultimately did little to abet the Communist regime and calls his memoir "a testament to the essential uselessness of almost all espionage."



"Keith Haring" (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City). The late subway graffitist turned '80s art superstar gets his first major retrospective, to grudgingly admiring reviews. Most critics fault Haring's work as repetitive and simple. But they can't help liking his much-merchandised and highly accessible cartoonlike stick figures. "Only the terminally embittered can fail to love Keith Haring," writes Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice. "Haring's enterprise was bigger than art and, in its fashion, better." Haring, adds the New York Times' Holland Cotter, brought "entertainment and edification together as later art has rarely been able to." (See the Whitney's site.)



Oz (HBO; click here for schedule). The cable network's first dramatic series gets high marks for its realistic and "gritty" (the critics' favorite term) depiction of life in a maximum-security prison. Critics credit the independence of cable with allowing what broadcast networks won't: four-letter words, grotesque violence, abundant male nudity. New York's John Leonard calls Oz "an ecology and anthropology of terror, not for the faint of heart or the queasy of stomach ... it's not by accident that one con speaks of 'the penis, not the penal, system.' "


Lilith Fair. A touring show of female musicians--including Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and the Indigo Girls--is said to herald the end of male dominance of rock. Most reviewers simply cheerlead. "Its value as a sign of women's achievements and solidarity is already undeniable," says the New York Times' Jon Pareles. Others are less enthusiastic. "It's almost possible to ignore the exclusion of male artists and think of Lilith as a savvy packaging of the hottest ... acts," says Entertainment Weekly. Newsweek predicts it could turn out to have "the touchy-feely feminist vibe of a grown-up slumber party ... the roster of performers reads like a who's who of political correctness."



The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik says the "Venice Biennale" is overpopulated by "[a]ging Pop artists, years removed from their best work (Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg), [who] sit alongside ... neo-expressionists, some of whom (Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente) never had best work to be years removed from." ...The New Yorker's Terrence Rafferty breaks with the consensus to pan Face/Off, calling it too serious. "Woo's wildly inappropriate gravity has the effect of dulling his natural showmanship." ...New York's David Denby raves about Hercules: "[p]retty much a hash, an amalgam of Ovid and everything else ... But who cares? Hercules, after all, is not a tragic hero like Oedipus or Prometheus."

Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

Movie--Batman & Robin;



Movie--La Promesse;


Book--The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick;

Book--How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel, by Alain de Botton;

Book--Bright Angel Time, by Martha McPhee.


Movie--Speed 2;

Movie--My Best Friend's Wedding;

Architecture--Shakespeare's Globe Theatre;

Book--News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman;

Book--The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt;

Book--The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy;

Book--The Perfect Storm, by Sebastian Junger;

Art--"Venice Biennale."

Movie--Con Air;

Movie--Ulee's Gold;

Movie--The Pillow Book;

Music--Wu-Tang Forever, Wu-Tang Clan;

Book--Without a Doubt, by Marcia Clark, with Teresa Carpenter;

Book--Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up, by Lawrence E. Walsh;

Book--Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, by Naomi Wolf;

Theater--Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

Movie--Trial and Error;

Music--Blood on the Dance Floor--HIStory in the Mix, Michael Jackson;

Television--Bill Clinton: Rock & Roll President (VH1);

Television--Port Charles (ABC);

Book--Race, Crime, and the Law, by Randall Kennedy;

Book--Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee;

Book--Kowloon Tong, by Paul Theroux;

Event--The Tony Awards;

Art--"Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life" (Museum of Modern Art).

--Compiled by Franklin Foer and the editors of Slate.