Hitchens Bites Clinton

Hitchens Bites Clinton

Hitchens Bites Clinton

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 1 1999 10:35 PM

Hitchens Bites Clinton

Books

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Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records, by Peter D. Goldsmith (Smithsonian). A book about the extraordinary, if messy, career of the founder of Folkways Records wins polite reviews, but it's no masterpiece of biography. Moe Asch created Folkways and ran it for 38 years, until his death in 1986, releasing 2,200 records, including sides by Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and artists from all over the globe playing everything from children's music to jazz. Asch's tale is compelling, but Goldsmith concentrates too much on the business story, writes the Dallas Morning News' Stanley Trachtenberg: "[S]ometimes Making People's Music reads like a discography." Similarly, David Nicholson (the Washington Post) dislikes the book's sometimes clotted prose and odd lack of personality: "The real problem is Asch himself. Variously described as a 'very lonely man' and lacking 'much of an interior life,' he is--for all the aforementioned complexity--strangely absent here. Names, dates, and facts abound, but Asch remains elusive." (Click here for a dictionary of folk music terms.)

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No One Left To Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, by Christopher Hitchens (Verso). Hitchens' jeremiad against Bill Clinton argues that the president's personal life is part and parcel with his political one. "Hitchens ... directs his argument at his fellow leftists, those turtlenecked worrywarts who hate welfare reform and the bond market and still get hoppin' mad about Sacco and Vanzetti," writes Andrew Ferguson in Fortune. Says Elizabeth Drew in the Los Angeles Times: "Hitchens obviously loathes Clinton, finds him a lying, ruthless, low-life. But in this compelling, disturbing, entertaining, necessary book, he raises questions that cannot be ignored." What worries reviewers is the relentless negativity of the Clinton portrait. Writes Karen Lehrman in the New York Times: "What's good about a well-done polemic is that everything fits neatly into place. What's bad about a well-done polemic is that everything fits neatly into place." (To read more by Hitchens and to purchase memorabilia, visit the Christopher Hitchens Web.)

Movies

Besieged (Fine Line Features). The critics are mostly respectful of Bernardo Bertolucci's sparse romantic tale about a wealthy British pianist and an African housekeeper. "From the start of ... Besieged, a film that combines a stunning sensuality with a rigorous economy, you know that you're in the hands of a filmmaker who trusts in the storytelling power of the camera," writes Kevin Thomas in the Los Angeles Times. "Besieged is a thrilling reminder of what moving, personal art the director of The Conformist and The Last Emperor can make when inspired by the right material," says Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. Most don't even mind the ending, which is invariably described as O. Henry-esque. Naysayers are Time's Richard Schickel ("[T]here's ... a portentousness in the silence that's distancing and annoying, especially since it leads to a too perfectly ironic ending.") and an irritated Variety, whose Derek Kelly lashes out at everything he can: "The butter is spread pretty thinly over the bread. ... [It's] structured in a rambling manner, often borderline risible in its dialogue."). (Click here to read David Edelstein's review in Slate.)

The Thirteenth Floor (Columbia). The Thirteenth Floor is the latest alternative-universe special-effects extravaganza, following Dark City, eXistenZ, and The Matrix. A team of virtual-reality technicians operates in an alternative universe, circa 1937. The critics agree that the movie suffers when the initially interesting conception falls apart. Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News calls it "a virtual reality thriller so caught up in its time and character confusions that it takes the entire movie to explain it." Some don't even think the basic premise is all that hot. "When a movie quotes Descartes's 'I think, therefore I am' right at the beginning, you should probably consider yourself warned," writes the Washington Post's Desson Howe. The critics cite solid performances by Vincent D'Onofrio and Armin Mueller-Stahl, and nearly all admire the film's production design (Kirk M. Petruccelli) and camera work (Wedigo von Schultzendorff). (Click here to try an "immersive simulation" of 1937 Los Angeles.)

Snap Judgment

Book

Bone by Bone, by Peter Matthiessen. Mixed takes on the third volume of a grisly Everglades trilogy. "This dense, mesmerizing novel will leave readers stunned, as if waking from a horrific sunburnt daydream," pronounces Gillian Flynn of Entertainment Weekly. Says Time's John Skow of the "quirky trilogy": "a reader might conclude: brilliant, obsessive, panoramic--and two novels too many."