Books

Constant Reader

Jonathan Lethem Versus "Rowdy" Roddy Piper

Constant Reader

Julie Jo Fehrie

JONATHAN LETHEM

Film criticism has been more or less comatose for quite some time now. The internet seemed to reduce film reviewing to its lowest common denominator—thumbs-up or thumbs-down, so the kids at Rotten Tomatoes can slap a percentage on the review and add it to the total pass-or-fail grade. Even the New Yorker has suffered serious declines from the days when Pauline Kael was the greatest film reviewer in the country; Anthony Lane is a gifted writer, and he can cut a bad movie to shreds in a most entertaining way, but he doesn't have the power to elevate a film, to have a conversation with it.

Soft Skull Press just released the first two volumes of its new Deep Focus series of book-length essays about movies (one has to assume they were heavily influenced by Continuum's 33 1/3 series about great albums), and it's off to a promising start. The two books—first is Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter's They Live, second is Christopher Sorrentino on Death Wish—make a case for good old-fashioned thinking and writing at length about movies.

Unsurprisingly, Lethem's book is the better of the two. He hacks his essay up into one- or two-page chunks about a particular aspect of the film that strikes him, in more or less chronological order. It's denser than a commentary track, but Lethem's enthusiasm for They Live—even the many parts of the film that don't work, like "Rowdy" Roddy Piper's acting—makes you want to pair the film with the book for one mammoth six-hour session of viewing, pausing, and reading.

Lethem, who repeatedly acknowledges his shortcomings as a "real" film critic, is relaxed and entertaining. He labels They Live as a bifurcated film that starts as something new and shifts into something familiar (like Psycho, which he says was an unprecedented shocker of a film that then "flattens into a routine whodunit" at the halfway mark), but then he wonders, "Are we seeing instead a Kubrickian strategy of halves, like that in Full Metal Jacket" or Barry Lyndon or The Shining? He concludes by throwing his hands in the air: "Am I hedging here? Sure I am!" Lethem remembers that film criticism isn't about answers—this film is worth your time and money, this film is not worth your time and money—but is instead about asking beautifully written questions and posing thoughtful arguments.

Sorrentino's volume on Death Wish is fine, if unexciting, academic discourse. It contextualizes the film intellectually and enriches the viewing experience, which is to say it does exactly what good criticism should do. Still, reading the two back-to-back inspires hope that future volumes of Deep Focus will hew more to Lethem's model—chatty, funny, curious, and excitable—of what excellent film reviewing should be. recommended

PSST! Check out The Stranger's New and Improved THINGS TO DO calendar.
It has a complete calendar of what's happening in Seattle's Readings & Talks Scene.
 

Comments (5) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
1
really no one gives a shit about this article or the people involved in it. i just came here because you had rowdy roddy piper in the tag line, talk about deceptive advertising. really critics are as useless as balls on a preacher,this guy even more so. i'm willing to bet almost no one even reads this crap bag of a write up.
Posted by ERIC CARTMAN on December 11, 2010 at 11:34 PM · Report this
2
awesome and astute commentary by eric cartman.

the Lethem book is a great read and the film has many great attributes. huzzah!
Posted by stan marsh on December 13, 2010 at 5:41 PM · Report this
Doctor Memory 3
#1: I've worked with Zodiac Motherfucker, I've trolled with Zodiac Motherfucker, and you, sir, are no Zodiac Motherfucker.
Posted by Doctor Memory http://blahg.blank.org on December 14, 2010 at 3:15 PM · Report this
Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In 4
Eric Cartman came here to do two things: Read about Rowdy Roddy Piper and chew bubble-gum. And there's not much about Rowdy Roddy Piper.

I guess he'll just have to go chew some bubble-gum.
Posted by Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In on December 14, 2010 at 3:31 PM · Report this
5
who the fuck is zodiac motherfucker ? and why should anyone care ? and no theres nothing about rowdy roddy , and thats why i'm pissed !
Posted by ERIC CARTMAN on December 15, 2010 at 8:45 AM · Report this

Add a comment