Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
May 21 2004 4:57 PM

Michael Moore Returns

Is Fahrenheit 9/11 Any Good?

Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore's muckraking movie about George Bush's war on terror still doesn't have a U.S. distributor, but critics at Cannes got a peek earlier this week. Most agree with the New York Times' assessment: Fahrenheit 9/11 "offers few new revelations." But they're still impressed by the scope of Moore's argument. The Los Angeles Times calls this an "ambitious" and "complex" "alternate history of the last four years," and the Washington Post says, "Moore puts it all together. It's a look back that feels like a new gaze forward." Time even thinks, wishfully, that the film will "engage audiences of all political persuasions." But the Wall Street Journal, not swayed by such naive sentimentality, blasts the film as "mostly a rehash of the conspiracy theories in his book Dude, Where's My Country?" And a familiar knock on Moore is repeated by Variety, which dismisses him as "an inadequate prosecuting attorney" whose "approach is scattershot and manipulative."

Abu Ghraib. Continuing a trend that has prevailed throughout the Iraq war, newspapers turn to critics to interpret the Abu Ghraib images. The most popular reference point is lynching photographs: Both sets of photos convey a mood that "is giddy, often verging on hysterical, with a distinct sexual undercurrent," Luc Sante writes in the New York Times. Critics also compare the photos to tourist snapshots ("Cameras engender their own violence," says Sarah Boxer in the Times; "some of the torment may have been done solely for the photo op") and painters like Goya and Rubens: "There's something oddly classical, almost allegorical about the deployment of the nude bodies," claims the San Francisco Chronicle. (Critics also consider the Nicholas Berg videotape, calling it "a sick extension of the universal tradition of the ransom photograph" and comparing it to "the morbid real-death videos popular in the 1980s.") The Los Angeles Times goes even further, arguing that the images "constitute a type of public art, the kind produced collectively and unconsciously by an entire culture."

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Revenge films. Spring's spate of vigilante movies— Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Punisher, Walking Tall, Man on Fire—has critics wondering if Hollywood has tapped some drive for vengeance in the American unconscious. The revenge genre is hardly new, admits A.O. Scott, but it's reaching "ever greater intensity" in the aftermath of 9/11. (Filmmakers themselves, naturally, claim that the trend is "a coincidence of timing.") "Our deepest wish is not just to have crimes answered," says Scott, "but to see them effectively undone," and this demands "a perpetual escalation of mayhem." The problem, says Charles Taylor in Salon, is that films like Man on Fire don't "force us to confront the implications" of revenge fantasies. Nevertheless, argues Nathan Lee in the New York Sun, these films are better than nothing; Hollywood was plunged into a "representational crisis" after 9/11, and until now has "hardly acknowledged" the tragedy. (Perhaps, Lee continues, revenge films will pave the way for the return of disaster movies—like the forthcoming The Day After Tomorrow, whose "marketing nod to September 11," agrees New York, "is unmistakable.")

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Shrek 2 (Dreamworks). The Shrek "franchise doesn't so much top itself as sail into overdrive" in this sequel, says LA Weekly. After a slow beginning in which Shrek and his princess meet her parents, the film takes off into a dizzying series of pop culture in-jokes. Fans are happy to go with the flow: Entertainment Weekly gets off on the "rowdy, jumpin'-jive vivacity," and Slate's David Edelstein advises, "Just wallow in the wave upon wave of parodies, songs and stupendous visual and vocal characterizations." But the New York Times is stubbornly unentranced, complaining that all the clever references leave a "sour, cynical aftertaste," and the Washington Post moans that the "piecemeal plot" "seems to go nowhere and be about nothing and wind up no place."Salon, however, discerns a deeper message, mooning: "It's about how we want whom we want —even if he's fat and green." (Buy tickets to Shrek 2.)

Seattle Public Library. Rem Koolhaas, the Stones to Frank Gehry's Beatles, finally surpasses his rival in star-chitecture. The Californian's MIT Center got mixed reviews recently, but the Dutchman's new library earns florid, Bilbao-like superlatives, confirming that architecture criticism is still in its Baroque period. "If Picasso ever painted a library, it might look like this," says Time; the five ascending "platforms" that house the different functional areas "could have just as well been called flying carpets." And the Seattle Times experiments: "A Rubik's Cube cinched by a corset? A crystal frog poised to leap at the staid federal courthouse up the hill?" The New York Times' Herbert Muschamp says it's "the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review" in a 30-year career—which is saying something, given Muschamp's proclivity for raves. TheNew Yorker backs him up, calling this "the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating." (Read Slate's slide show on Koolhaas' career.)

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Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, by Samuel P. Huntington (Simon & Schuster). The perennially controversial Samuel P. Huntington argues (among other things) that Latino immigrants pose a threat to American identity, which he considers to be fundamentally Anglo-Protestant. Responses range from splenetic—Huntington is "isolated in his imaginary parcel of racist purity," growls Carlos Fuentes—to sorrowful: Huntington's "penetrating" assessment of the challenges created by globalism makes it "all the more disappointing" that he "slips far too often into paranoid threat-mongering," says the Washington Post. (Huntington answers some of his critics in Foreign Policy, saying they "reflect intense emotionalism" and "resort to slurs and name-calling.") Louis Menand goes deep in The New Yorker, finding a "weird emptiness at the heart of Huntington's analysis" (he never explains why American culture is "more desirable" than, "say, Judaism, kibbutzim, and Hebrew") and dryly arguing that Huntington should pay "more attention to the actual value of his core values." (Buy Who Are We?)

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All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education, by Charles J. Ogletree Jr. (Norton); Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, by Derrick Bell (Oxford University Press). Two books considering the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling against school segregation provide a virtual "brain scan of the black intelligentsia, circa 2004," says the New York Times. Both authors claim the decision has had little effect; Bell argues that the court should have upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine, but enforced its latter half. While Ogletree and Bell dismiss Brown as merely symbolic, critics think that symbolism counts for something: The Los Angeles Times calls Brown a "Platonic" ideal that "gave Americans a measuring stick." The NYT diagnoses "a strong undercurrent of survivor guilt," wondering if Ogletree and Bell "consider trumpeting black advances, including their own, somehow disloyal to those left behind." And The New Yorker argues that Bell's "bold and sobering counterproposal" would give federal courts the "impossible" task of deciding "whether segregated schools really were equal," concluding that although schools are still segregated, the distinction between de facto and de jure is no small thing—"this ruling, at least, has stuck." (Buy All Deliberate Speed.) (Buy Silent Covenants.)

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You Are the Quarry, by Morrissey (Attack/Sanctuary). Little has changed, Morrissey fans happily report. He's "as witty, morose and heartbroken as ever" on his first new album in seven years, says the Detroit Free Press. He still "spreads out an extravagant feast of small slights and larger disappointments, and savors each bittersweet morsel," sighs the Philadelphia Inquirer, and he "hasn't lost a dollop of that luscious voice," according to the AP. (What is new, claims Rolling Stone, is his sound: These "top-shelf songs" are garnished with "crystalline modern engineering" and more adventurous arrangements.) Little has changed, Morrissey detractors sourly retort. "There's something peculiar about pining" for "alt-rock's Woody Allen," gripes New York; he's turned "adolescent inadequacies into a crass road show." In the New York Times, snippy Magnetic Fields singer (and ex-rock critic) Stephin Merritt contradicts Rolling Stone to complain that "the best lyricist in rock" is still surrounding himself with "warmed-over arena rock backdrops." (Buy You Are the Quarry.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.