I love our society for its perfectionism. When a baseball player does not run out a groundball, he is booed mercilessly by the fans. If the doors of a department store are still locked one minute after its scheduled opening time, some righteous shopper starts knocking.
To my chagrin, we tolerate laziness and incompetence in writing more so than in other activities. Even prestigious publications regularly release utter garbage into the public domain. Let me share with you the highlights of a piece I recently read in the New Yorker: a film review of Black Swan – a movie I haven’t seen – composed by veteran scribe David Denby.
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a luridly beautiful farrago — a violent fantasia that mixes the tensions of preparing a new production of Swan Lake with sex, blood, and horror-film flourishes.
It’s immediately evident that Mr. Denby is a skilled wordsmith: production value here is quite high. However, fancy lingual choreography makes for a sparse garden of letters if it is not interwoven with a clear and consistent thinking process, ability to verbalize one’s findings and emotions, and knowledge of the subject.
Mr. Denby writes:
The film is often ridiculous, yet there are startlingly beautiful sequences; right at the beginning, Nina dances, under a spotlight, in a white tutu against a vibrant black background.
What does the critic have in mind when calling the film as a whole “often ridiculous” (whatever that means): the plot, the setting, the characters, the dialogue, or all of the above? Such sweeping judgments served without explanation are just name calling; they do not inform readers about the movie.
“The film is often ridiculous, yet there are startlingly beautiful sequences”: why are the ridiculous and the beautiful viewed as inherently conflicting? There can be much beauty in the absurd; this idea has been explored so much in the last century and a half of literature and art that it has become a cliché.
Off the dance floor, however, Black Swan is trashy and incoherent. Aronofsky, for all his gifts, is a gaudy maestro, opportunistic and insecure as an artist.
“Opportunistic as an artist”: what does this tell us? Artistry emanates from curiosity and hunger, so an artist is by definition opportunistic. This expression is either tautological or incoherent, and its negative connotation is puzzling.
Saying that Aronofsky is insecure as an artist while offering no basis for this claim is just “trashy”, to use one of Denby’s mots des critique. Presumably the next sentences in the review are meant to shed light on Mr. Denby's psychological prowess:
Almost every sequence is shot with a handheld camera, and poor Nina can’t go anywhere — not even down a corridor — without the camera stalking her. Aronofsky keeps us in a state of anxiety from beginning to end.
Heavy use of a handheld camera is not even a metaphor for a director’s personal insecurity as an artist – it is its indicator. It is absurd, and not beautiful.
Black Swan is a pompous, self-glorifying, and generally unpleasant interpretation of an artist’s task.
And Shakespeare's Macbeth, for example, is unassuming and self-effacing?!
Mr. Denby uses “general pleasantness” (whatever that means) as a criterion for aesthetic judgment. That's bad news for Goya and Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky and Kafka, Bach and Coltrane – to name a few almost universally admired artists.
Funny I mentioned Shakespeare:
The picture is too bizarre to be a desecration of Swan Lake, which is as indestructible as Macbeth.
Let me see if I got it. If only the picture were less bizarre (whatever that means), it would have succeeded as a desecration of Swan Lake, but not as its destruction.
Saying that one celebrated and relentlessly staged and re-staged classic - Swan Lake - is equally indestructible (whatever that means) as another - Macbeth is akin to saying that one cucumber is as friendly as another cucumber.
One phrase reveals the shocking aesthetic immaturity of its author: “This flick is too bizarre!” is a take one might expect from a sugar-frothed middle-schooler, but I had higher hopes for a person in one of the most coveted jobs available for a professional film critic.
Seeing new interpretations of classic productions as potentially desecrating and destructive bespeaks such a comprehensive lack of awareness of the art of the past two centuries that I can't help peeing into my figurative pants from righteous fury.
Mr. Denby's review of Black Swan is in turns meaningless and incoherent, and filthy rich in idiotic angles, all the while maintaining a high production value. It’s bad, bad, degenerate writing.
Unfortunately, this article in one of the most respected cultural publications in the US is not an exception from the norm. If you rarely notice laziness and logical contradictions, I invite you to challenge yourself to read and listen more actively and critically. Feel free to get as pissed at pretentious garbage published in your favorite magazine as you do when you favorite baseball player does not run down a groundball.