Nobody’s Perfect, by Anthony Lane (Picador)

 Anthony Lane, film critic for the New Yorker for the last decade, takes his title from a line in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Marilyn Monroe’s finest couple of hours. Lane clearly admires Wilder, admires Monroe, admires the film – but it’s not perfect.

If perfection is beyond criticism, imperfection requires it – and because there are too many movies and books and too little time, we need reliable guides, cultural navigators we can trust in matters of taste. In general, we trust two kinds of critic: the kind whose taste accords with our own, whose articulate way with words gives form to the response we have, or would have; and the kind whose opinions, no matter how biased, idiosyncratic, or plain wrong-headed, are so intelligently or entertainingly expressed that we find ourselves carried along, nodding in agreement with an account of a movie we may never see, a book we may never read.

Anthony Lane is both kinds of critic, and often at the same time. I like bad movies and good books, and I think Lane does, too. The first half of this book is devoted to movies, many of them deeply awful – not only is there Speed, but also Speed 2 (Lane quite likes the first one). Then there’s a section on books, and there’s not a dud amongst them – unless you count those listed, in a brief essay worthy of Orwell, on contemporary bestsellers. The book concludes with a series of ‘profiles’, which are as diverting as they are miscellaneous.

Lane’s writing is consistently penetrating and fresh – no movie is so base as to be beneath notice, and no writer so lofty that one’s admiration should be unreserved. “Whenever possible,” he says, in a series of maxims to aspiring critics, “pass sentence on a movie the day after it comes out. Otherwise, wait fifty years.” First up before the bench is Indecent Proposal, the movie where husband and wife Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore agree to sleep with Robert Redford, in return for a million dollars. Actually it’s just Demi who gets to sleep with Robert, but the film is so unengaging it might as well be Woody. Lane knows the film is bad, and if he were a lesser critic, he would take the easy road of witty send-ups and snappy put-downs. I’d be lying if I said he entirely eschews these, but you can tell he cares – maybe not about Woody, Demi and Robert, but about movies, about what this particular movie is trying to do and so dismally doesn’t.

You have the exhilarating sense that he applies the same maxim to reviews of books, including centuries-old classics: he tells you what he feels in response to the work, and never mind the reputations. “If Arnold looked, he never leaped,” says Lane, and says more about the author of “Dover Beach” and “Empedocles on Etna” than whole biographies have done. His most interesting subject in the books section, for me, is the late and enigmatic novelist, W.G. Sebald. Lane is a bit flippant about him, but he knows greatness when he sees it. When he talks about Sebald’s “shining, wary, unexcitable prose”, each adjective has a point, a job to do. Lane presses language into service of what he has to say: he doesn’t grab whole, ready-made phrases off the shelf. His knowledge is lightly worn, and his wit reminds me, a little, of the Spectator movie critic Mark Steyn, but Lane is cleverer, and he’s no redneck.

Collecting reviews from magazines and publishing them as a book is always a dubious enterprise, a bit like fixing a butterfly with a pin. Clive James should be a warning to all who venture here. But some ephemera deserve permanence, and Lane’s sparkling collection is its own justification.  

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets