Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 31 2003 5:30 PM

Silver Spoons

Lifestyles of the rich who hope to be famous.

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Born Rich (HBO); Rich Girls (MTV); The Simple Life (Fox). A documentary and two reality shows about the wealthy suggest "the precise point where rich people intersect with the common folk: an insane need to be on television," as the San Francisco Chronicle puts it. "Reality television is full of predictable archetypes," notes the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan in a sharp piece: "Now you can add 'poor little rich kids' to that stable." (The Miami Herald coins a name for the new wave: "American Idle.") Of the three shows, Rich Girls—and its stars, Ally Hilfiger and Jaime Gleicher—draws the most derision. The San Bernardino Sun calls them "bobble-head dolls with functioning cardiovascular systems." Of course, as Ryan concludes, the chance to mock is the point of these shows: "Why do people watch reality TV, if not to judge others? Who's easier to judge than someone who was born with millions?"

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The Human Stain (Miramax). It's almost December, which means it's time for what the Miami Herald calls the "kind of classy, dignified, vaguely dull production, backed by a literary pedigree and an all-star cast, that Miramax Films releases each year in hopes of adding to its stockpile of Oscars."The Human Stain, based on the Philip Roth novel about a college professor with an incendiary secret, "explicates Mr. Roth's themes with admirable clarity," says A.O. Scott in the New York Times, but fails to "approximate the brilliance and rapacity of his voice." Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman star, and the chemistry between them is "like a testimonial for Viagra," according to New York's Peter Rainer. But not everyone is unaffected: Citing personal experiences that parallel those of Hopkins' character, the Observer's Andrew Sarris admits to a "deep, almost uncanny identification with the inevitably tragic trajectory of many of the scenes." (Buy tickets to The Human Stain.)

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Shattered Glass (Lions Gate). This film, based on the journalistic deceptions of Stephen Glass at the New Republic, gives reviewers an opportunity to vent about the state of their profession. Shattered Glass"will teach you something about ethics gone awry, and the souring of the American dream in the rapidly disintegrating world of journalism," pontificates the Observer's Rex Reed (who seems to have forgotten his own youthful transgressions). On the opposite side of the aisle, The New Yorker's Anthony Lane asks "what, pray, is the big deal?" and wonders if Hollywood will turn next to "a major dustup over late-bottled port in the pages of Decanter." Somewhere in the middle is Slate's David Plotz, who admits that "As an editor, I found this suspenseful— Hitchcock for the J-school crowd. As a civilian, I didn't care very much: There were no dead bodies, after all." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Shattered Glass.)

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Alien: The Director's Cut (Fox). Critics are underwhelmed by the extra footage added to the revised version of this 1979 sci-fi horror classic, though they enjoy the faster pace and slightly shorter running time. Moviegoers "probably will not notice which scenes Ridley Scott altered," says the San Francisco Chronicle, "but the update still feels like a streamlined improvement on the original." Nobody thinks Alien needs much reworking, anyway: "Seven crew members, a rusting salvage ship 10 months from earth, and one ever-morphing, near-pornographic fiend —that's all Alien has and all it needs to have," says the Boston Globe. Many critics take the opportunity to historicize the film. Following utopian outer space movies like 2001, says the Onion, Alien reminded us that "it's bodies, not ideals, that travel the stars, and bodies break, burst, and scream." And the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes that Sigourney Weaver's Ripley "opens the way for all the competent and courageous action heroines of the next two decades." (Read Slate's take.) (Buy tickets to Alien: The Director's Cut.)

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Love, by Toni Morrison (Knopf). Toni Morrison's latest revolves around the patriarch of a midcentury East Coast black resort, as remembered by the women who loved him. As ever, critics grapple with Morrison's fragmented prose: "Each story refracts the previous one and is refracted by what comes next," says the Los Angeles Times. "This may sound impossibly complicated. It is." But most think this is her most grounded work in some time: "[T]he novel does move closer to a musical realism, manipulating scale and tone in passages that are less abstract, more accessible," muses the Miami Herald. And in Harper's, John Leonard admits he received a note from Norman Mailer saying, "I assumed that some day you would give us a major work. Instead you now ride shotgun for Toni Morrison," before hyperventilating: "It is a music box and an echo chamber, an exquisite miniature in which mermaids sing." (Love.)

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Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee (Viking). Those who find Morrison too abstract might want to avoid recent Nobel Prize-winner Coetzee's new novel, which takes the form of a series of lectures by an aging Australian writer. (Coetzee himself has delivered these lectures at various conferences, which makes for a tricky interplay between the author and his alter ego.) "Its genre might be defined as Non-Non-Fiction," writes Adam Mars-Jones in Britain's Observer. But wait: Coetzee "isn't interested in superficial formal experimentation," says Siddhartha Deb in the Boston Globe. "He is too bound in the corporeality of the aging Costello for that." Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times, agrees: "The tawdry aura of literary celebrity, the genuine authority of the great writer, the shameful physicality of the old woman" combine to make Costello one of Coetzee's greatest characters. Shulevitz goes on to wonder if this is a way for Coetzee to float provocative ideas without taking responsibility for them. In the London Review of Books, James Wood answers: "Far from being evasive, I think that Coetzee is passionately confessing, and that his entire book vibrates with confession." (Elizabeth Costello.)

Dale Peck. The latest episode in the debate over manners in book reviewing appears in the New York Times Magazine, in the form of a profile of Dale Peck by James Atlas. (For those who haven't been keeping score, Peck's vicious review of Rick Moody inspired the Believer magazine's campaign against "snarkiness" in reviewing, which in turn set off a series of pro-snark missives.) Peck, who is photographed posing with an ax, says he's trying to save literature from postmodernism, elitism, and esotericism. (This perennial crowd-pleaser is not quite as revolutionary as Peck thinks; B.R. Myers scored big with a similar line in the Atlantic a couple of years ago.) The piece concludes with Peck saying he's hanging up his hatchet—but not for long. In an IM interview-about-the-interview with Gawker.com, he dives back into the snark pit to take swings at Stanley Crouch ("homophobic") and blogger Jessa Crispin (uh  … "Jessa crisp-tits") and complains that "the only way I can get people to realize how good my books are is to question the standards of literary excellence that go into lionizing a book as bad as The Black Veil or Infinite Jest."

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Room on Fire, by the Strokes (RCA). Some shrugging of shoulders greets the New York post-punk revivalists' follow-up to their much-acclaimed debut, Is This It? "The boys got their album titles backward," smirks the Seattle Weekly; this "sounds like a holding action," sighs John Pareles in the New York Times. Even devout fans like Britain's NME admit that "the sense of territories being (re)discovered" is missing. But holding actions can signal commitment. Rolling Stone's David Fricke is glad that "the Strokes have resisted the temptation to hit the brakes, grow up and screw around with a sound that doesn't need fixing," and the Boston Globe savors, "World-wearier vocals. Spikier guitars" and a "motorized backbeat with a bigger, faster engine." The band may, in fact, be transcending its influences: "By simply sticking around they've bequeathed themselves the ultimate luxury," says Keith Harris in the Village Voice. "Now they just sound a lot like the Strokes." (Room on Fire.)