Sunday, March 8, 2009

Who Reviews the Reviewers?

We in The Middle Room have long tolerated the ravings of madmen, while slowly our patience eroded. There are, in this world, many reviewers of films deserving of their careers and paychecks. But, as we've learned all to well, such are the minority.

Watchmen represents an intriguing case, however: the majority of those who have viewed the film seem to have enjoyed it, at least if Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed.

But not all have responded favorably. Very well, there is room for dissent and disagreement, particularly in this scenario. While our overall impression of the film was positive, we did not feel it was entirely consistent. We've friends who liked it and others who did not. There are valid reasons one might have for disliking Watchmen, and we can respect such viewpoints.

But this does not mean all viewpoints are valid. Indeed, were all opinions equal, there would be no justification for the existence of film critics, at all.

Which brings us to Anthony Lane, film critic for The New Yorker.

It is with some hesitation that we single out this one reviewer: there are, of course, others as bad or worse. He came to our attention by chance; nothing more. But something about his review rubbed us the wrong way. Perhaps it was his superior tone or empty rhetoric. Or it may have been the factual errors he presented.

But, whatever the reason, we have decided that Lane has hidden behind the mask of his publisher long enough: his review should - nay, must - be examined.

In the interest of uncompromising truth, his review must be reviewed.

If you are interested in viewing the article in question, it is found easily enough. Be warned, however, that like the film it examines, it is not for the faint of heart. The review begins simply enough:
The world of the graphic novel is a curious one. For every masterwork, such as “Persepolis” or “Maus,” there seem to be shelves of cod mythology and rainy dystopias, patrolled by rock-jawed heroes and their melon-breasted sidekicks.
Already, we of geek sensibilities are given reason to pause. As we read this passage, it seems to us to imply that superhero comics, by their very nature, can never measure up to the greatest works of graphic literature. Lane is at odds now, not merely with geeks, but also with much of the literary community: Watchmen is often cited as a work of literature, one of the greatest graphic novels ever drawn and written.

Still, there are - though it pains us to admit it - those who dislike the superhero genre. As in all things, there is room in this world for many points of view. However, are we wrong in asking why anyone would be allowed to review a movie so embedded in a genre they have no respect for?

It is not merely the genre and story Lane shows a lack of respect. He goes on to mock the author of Watchmen, who had nothing to do with the film, at all:
One lord of the genre is a glowering, hairy Englishman named Alan Moore, the coauthor of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “V for Vendetta.”
This passage troubles us. While it may seem a trivial observation, the claim Moore coauthored these works is patently false: Alan Moore is the sole author of both, as well as Watchmen. The term "co-creator" is used in comics to give proper due to the artist, who shapes the world and characters in these stories. This is no trivial distinction: The New Yorker, we believe, should do more to edit their articles.

Watchmen, it seems, particularly troubles this insipid reporter. The very idea of crafting a movie with so many characters in spandex appears to confuse Lane:
As far as superheroes go, two’s company but three or more is a drag, with no single character likely to secure our attention: just ask the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four, or the half-dozen Watchmen we get here.
Of course, those of us familiar with the genre suffer no such difficulties. One wonders whether Lane complains as much about all movies with an ensemble cast. Is it really more difficult to keep track of characters wearing capes than those without? Or is it only that Lane finds his attention drifting due to a personal preference?

Again, we find ourselves wondering why a man with no interest in a genre is reviewing that genre.

But the depths to which Lane will sink have yet to be fully explored. He continues, almost boasting about his ignorance:
Last and hugest is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who is buff, buck naked, and blue, like a porn star left overnight in a meat locker. Whether his fellow-Watchmen have true superpowers, as opposed to a pathological bent for fisticuffs, I never quite worked out, but this guy is the real deal.
Doctor Manhattan is, in fact, the only character to have true superpowers. This information is readily available to anyone who reads the graphic novel. If Lane truly has no interest in doing so, the answer to this question could also be located online or, we would wager, by asking one of the assistants at The New Yorker, or perhaps someone who works in their mail room.

We suspect that someone could be found easily enough who has actually read and paid attention to the comic, and they could no doubt have verified this information.

They would also have been infinitely more qualified to write a review of Watchman.

The superhero is an American literary legacy which has influenced a great deal of art, literature, and film worldwide. A critic who is incapable of approaching this genre has no business reviewing it - just as we have no business reviewing High School Musical 3, a film Anthony Lane seems to have found more palatable.

In contrast, Roger Ebert has also reviewed Watchmen. You can find links to two reflections he's written here. Like Lane, he appears unfamiliar with the comic, but the similarities end there. Approaching the film with an open mind, he is intrigued by its world and characters. While he may not know more about superheroes than other reviewers, he shows the genre the same respect he'd show any other. And, because of this, Ebert is deserving of ours.

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