Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On the Continued Misguided Critical Priorities of Nathan Lee

Béla Tarr may be the most important filmmaker working today, but you'd never know it from the flip dismissal given to even the possibility of seeing his new film by Village Voice critic Nathan Lee in his recent report from the Toronto Film Festival. Not content to merely skip a screening of the Hungarian master's latest work, The Man from London, Lee turns his unfortunate oversight into a virtue, gleefully describing how he ate hotel room service in his pyjamas while his colleagues were busy "contemplating" Tarr's film. In fact, Lee begins his piece with a shameful admission which pretty well undercuts any authority he might have had with the reader and makes a mockery of his prestigious position at the Voice. "It's pretty much a toss-up which I love more," he writes, "gorging on cinema or getting up at noon." Yet, when we consider that Lee has been sent to Toronto specifically to "gorge on cinema," a task he supposedly loves, and not to sleep late, an activity he presumably has plenty of time to indulge in in New York, this admission completely misses the jocular tone it shoots for and expresses instead a loathsome contempt for Lee's readers who, after all, are not given the chance to see all the films that he has access to and may have wished for their supposed representative to deliver on his side of the bargain.

Still, Lee certainly knows his audience and, since the Voice now seems content to aim its product at a new constituency of twenty-something pseudo-intellectuals (many of whom would also prefer sleeping until noon to doing anything productive), his report would presumably go over smoothly with its target demographic, especially since he makes sure to discuss the latest films from overrated hipster favorites Dario Argento and the Coen Brothers. Still, his discussion of Ang Lee's latest film Lust, Caution (or as he flippantly calls it, Lust, Comatose and, worse, "Chinese people fucking") is especially distressing. Those two alternate titles pretty much sum up Lee's analysis of the film: it's boring, but there's a lot of sex. Lee gleefully indulges in descriptions of "nipples, pubes, a pair of low hangers, and one or two insinuated inches of [Tony] Leung's mighty dong," while limiting any further comments about the film to the alleged yawns it induced in the Toronto audience (or at least in Lee who, we can assume, had just roused himself from bed before attending the screening). This is all bad enough, but to suggest that the awarding of Lust, Caution the top prize at the Venice Film Festival was the result of jury president Zhang Yimou being "stirred by... a boob" reveals Lee's unfortunate belief that everyone is as motivated by questions of cheap sexuality as he is.

All this is a shame since Lee, on occasion, has shown himself to be capable of surprising insight conveyed in a delightfully eloquent prose (c.f. his review of In Between Days). But, as in his Toronto Film Festival piece, he usually shows a much greater willingness to forgo any useful analysis in favor of puerile, supposedly humorous indulgences. Granted, a quick survey of a festival is not the place to offer a detailed reading of any single film, but the fact that Lee finds space for a catalogue of Lust, Caution's exposed body parts and Mother of Tears' oddball elements is illustrative of his critical priorities, priorities that become obvious if one follows his writing in the Voice with any regularity. That such misguided critical discourse has become an integral part of a once respectable publication is perhaps symptomatic of a general trend in American criticism or perhaps simply reflects a momentary taste for flippancy that may disappear with Lee's tenure at the newsweekly. Either way, his indulgences have become mighty tiresome. If Lee can somehow re-assess his priorities and devote himself to the intelligent, purposive criticism he seems capable of without resorting to the unnecessary witticisms which have unfortunately become his trademark, maybe he can help restore the Voice's declining reputation. Béla Tarr's The Man from London comes to the New York Film Festival on September 30th. Perhaps, if Lee can drag himself out of bed, catching up on the brilliant Hungarian's work would be a good place to start.

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