Being Anthony Lane

I want to be Anthony Lane, the film critic for The New Yorker. Not just have his life, but be him. Certainly, it would be nice to be a rostered member of The New Yorker literati, and to have one's own Facebook fan club would be something else (although I can't for the life of me understand why the "Anthony Lane Fan Club" has only 98 members.) I'll even admit to wishing I had a British accent, for as all Yankees know, an Oxbridge accent automatically adds 20 I.Q. points. No, what I want is to actually be Anthony Lane, to get inside his head, like John Cusack's character in Being John Malkovich.

Fans of the 1999 Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaborative brain-trip will recall the basic outlines of the story: Craig Schwartz (Cusack), an out-of-work puppeteer with high-minded aesthetic pretensions and supernaturally nimble fingers, settles for a filing job at LesterCorp, a business that occupies "Floor 7 ½"—that is, halfway between the seventh and eighth floors—where absurdly low ceilings invite more than one joke about the firm's "low overhead." After accidentally dropping a file behind a behemoth filing cabinet, Craig discovers a secret passageway that turns out to be a portal into actor John Malkovich's head. Tunnel-vision camerawork and muffled audio convey the subjective experience of "being" Malkovich, encountering the world through his eyes and ears. The portal also proves to be a lucrative business opportunity. Eager to be John Malkovich for fifteen minutes, desperate souls visit LesterCorp after hours; awkwardly hunched over, they line up down the office hallway and shell out $200 a pop—pure profit for Craig and his enterprising, emotionally ruthless coworker Maxine (Catherine Keener). Although the experience of being the actor for fifteen minutes is life-changing for the customers, Malkovich's interior life actually appears pretty banal; he eats very loud, crunchy toast for breakfast, orders towels out of a catalogue—even John Malkovich can't get his first-choice color ("periwinkle") and has to settle for "loden"—and checks his teeth in the mirror.

Jonze and Kaufman, whose film Adaptation (2002) also delights in the metacinematic, understand the mere mortal's desire to be close to brilliance, especially the brilliance of those most enigmatic of stars. (With a voice that registers slightly too high in pitch and an awkward, thick-limbed body, John Malkovich certainly seems an enigmatic choice for a leading man.) Being John Malkovich suggests that it's not enough to breath the same air or stand in the genius's penumbral aura; we want to get inside, become one with him or her—that is to say, experience a kind of intellectual and emotional intercourse. (I could keep going with this sexual conceit but for good manners and a fear of legal reprisals.)

Anthony LaneBut why, you may ask, is Anthony Lane the object of my obsession? For starters, no other critic comes close to Lane's deft control of the English language. His perfectly calibrated voice, wry humor, and nimble prose inspire in me envy and yearning. Apparently I'm not alone, either. As author and blogger Andy Crouch advises, "So, you want to be a writer? All right then, here are four easy steps. 1) Read every word written by Anthony Lane. 2) Marvel at his diction, his precision, his breadth. 3) Despair that you will never, ever write like this. 4) Read every word written by Anthony Lane." As Crouch's words indicate, Lane is a consummate stylist, but his genius goes well beyond the level of style. Almost without exception, he dispenses his judgments with accuracy and earned authority. "He's always right," my friend Chris Magyar said one night over drinks, a pronouncement that, at the time, struck me as off-the-mark, even a bit cavalier. How could an opinion be "right"? But the more I thought about it and revisited my favorite Lane reviews, the more convinced I was that Chris was right. Lane's opinions, supported by an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and a scimitar-sharp eye for aesthetics, are practically unassailable.

Sadly, Lane did not review Malkovich (Oh, that he had . . . . ), but he has graced us with other examples of fine writing over the years. Take, for instance, his review of Martin Scorsese's documentary Shine a Light about The Rolling Stones:

The sight of a director making preparations for the movie we are currently watching could easily give off a whiff of self-indulgence, yet these scenes come across as the most interesting of all, with their hint of a clash between the neat, persnickety approach of the filmmaker and the time-weathered whimsy of the act that he is striving to capture, not to mention the restricted shooting space around the stage. "It would be great to have a camera that moves," a plaintive Scorsese says, which is like Rembrandt asking if he could have a little bit of brown.

"A little bit of brown." Priceless.

And what would Rembrandt have thought about 3D filmmaking, an issue that continues to attract strong opinions on both sides? In his Critic At Large essay "Third Way: The Rise of 3-D" (March 8, 2010) Lane hints, at one point, that Hollywood might be becoming a bit 3D-happy, adapting even old films to the new technology. "If all goes according to plan," he writes, "'Twelve Angry Men' could be coming back. And they'll be angrier than ever." On that note, I leave you with an invitation to read this entertaining and deeply informed essay.

While I despair that I will never, ever write like Anthony Lane, I'm grateful The New Yorker lets me be him on an almost weekly basis.

One Comment

By olivia on April 30, 2011 at 1:22 PM

Even our heroes have heroes... good to know...

Is he really that good looking too? ("How YOU doin' ?")

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