Anthony Lane was educated at Cambridge, England. He began writing for the Independent in London in 1989 and was its Deputy Literary Editor—and from 1991, also its Sunday film critic. In 1993 he was recruited as The New Yorker‘s film critic by then-editor Tina Brown. Anthony Lane has recently published Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker. This 700-plus-page tome contains 140 of his New Yorker articles categorized into Movies, Books and Profiles. Anthony Lane lives in London with his wife (writer Allison Pearson, who is a weekly columnist for the London Evening Standard and a member of the BBC2’s Newsnight Review panel) and their two children.
-Osgood Fielding III, from “Some Like It Hot” and the epigraph from Anthony Lane’s new collections of writings from The New Yorker, Nobody’s Perfect
Robert Birnbaum: How does it feel to become grist for the critical mill?
Anthony Lane: (laughs) And it is a mill, isn’t it really? If you are referring to myself being reviewed, actually I haven’t read any reviews. I am completely in the dark on this.
RB: Will you?
AL: Probably not. It’s enough trouble writing the damn book. I have very little will to read about it as well. It’s odd, people here keep quoting me stuff, almost enticing me into responses or feuds or whatever. Which is so not my style. I do tend to agree with Francis Bacon, who said—he was asked by David Sylvester in the great series Bacon did with Sylvester, “Do you ever read reviews of your shows of your paintings?” And he said, “Only the obviously hostile ones. I find them much more constructive.” The only possible help you are going to get is from the hostile ones. If there were some cogently aggressive ones, I might read them. Nothing else.
RB: How will you know?
AL: People will leak these things to me.
RB: Can I leak one to you?
AL: Yeah, sure. As long as it’s not John Powers again. Which is one everyone keeps doing to me.
RB: You might have escaped this one since it’s from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The writer, Eric Hansen, compares anthologizing journalism and film reviews to “dumpster diving in a tony neighborhood”?
AL: Yeah, very good.
AL: See, I think it’s good. The question of anthologizing seems such a curious practice, doesn’t it? I took heart from the fact that I personally have always enjoyed anthologies of books and film reviews long after the things which they had covered had come and gone. Like yourself, I presume, I grew up reading Pauline Kael and her anthologies. Having that, it was not as good as reading Pauline Kael in The New Yorker, to get the full measure of her surrounded by the magazine…
RB: And at the time.
AL: And at the time. As I say in the book, you need to be on the spot when the movies are happening or much later casting a cold eye. What you go back for—and I hope people might eventually come back to this book for—is not just to find out what I thought of a movie, which is one of the less important things I have to do, but to try and recreate some of the landscape of that time. To try and summon the era in which these movies were being put out and received and watched. Forrest Gump is not a good movie, never was and never will be. Despite all the severed heads I got in the post telling me these things, telling me that I was wrong about it. The story of its success is an interesting cultural phenomenon. It was up against Pulp Fiction that year at the Oscars. And that itself feels like a clash worth remembering—how the country voted, in some ways. And it was a clean sweep for Forrest Gump. I like going back over them myself for the simple pleasure of disagreeing violently with myself. I haven’t rewritten anything in the book. I did take out a few repetitions. I didn’t want to try and rejiggle my thoughts on these things. The pleasure of going back to them and maintaining the impulse to throw the book across the room was too great.
RB: (laughs) Whose wonderful quote was it about throwing a book across the room?
AL: Oh yes. Something like, “This book should not be set aside lightly but hurled across the room with great force.”
RB: Who said it? Dorothy Parker?
AL: It may have been Thurber. Though it sounds more like her, doesn’t it? But it isn’t her. Most of the things we think are funny turn out not to be her. Oddly enough there is a piece on her in the movie and I kind of took her to task, partly to have some fun. Because I thought, “Right, I’m right in her territory. Let’s see what happens. Will I be lynched for treason here?” I didn’t get any comeback at all. It was very strange. You think, “Hey look, I’m saying I’m of two minds about Dorothy Parker, one of the patron saints…” Nobody really…it’s odd.
RB: Is it possible since not many people went to the movie they weren’t interested in reading about it?
AL: I don’t know. All monumental reputations like all monuments are worth walking around and inspecting the brick work, aren’t they? The movie itself was rather disappointing, but I used it to come out of the movie and talk about her. That’s one of the things we do. You get a chance to write about a Persuasion movie, not because it happened to be for once, a good Jane Austen movie, but here’s another chance to talk about a very great novel that some people might not know as well as the other ones. The whole book is trafficking back and forth between these different areas.
RB: Is this the sum total of your writing for the past decade?
AL: Oh god no. I’m afraid to say, despite it being this vast offensive weapon, this is only skimming the surface. It’s amazing how much, if you have a regular beat, as a critic or a columnist, how much you compile over the years.
RB: Who edited and selected?
AL: I did the selecting and then my editor at Knopf, Jordan Pavlin, and I fought over these things. She was trying to keep stuff in and I was trying to cut stuff out. I cut out a piece about Edward Steichen because there was too much about photography. It’s interesting having been on the road talking about these things there some pieces that nobody talks about and you think, “Maybe they shouldn’t have gone in?” On the other hand, maybe once they’ve had the book for a while and they have read all the pieces about the movies they saw and the authors they like, they might think, “Who is this guy, Jan Svankmajer?”
RB: Whose decision was the choice of title, Nobody’s Perfect [From Some Like it Hot]?
RB: You are aware that there is a biography of Billy Wilder coming out later in the year with the same title?
AL: I’m not surprised.
RB: It’s a wonderful title.
AL: It’s a good title. I’m glad I got there first. I’m sure there are many other great Wilder lines which you could use for a biography. Since I wrote the piece about him and before the book came out and he died…it’s odd, these things shouldn’t necessarily alter one’s view of him, but it generally did feel a sad occasion. It felt like someone had switched another light out. It was like when George Harrison died. People said, “Oh you are being mawkish because all the radio stations started Beatles.” But on the other hand, “No, it’s kind of a genuine emotion. It’s quite possible in 200 years time people will look back and the only thing people will remember about us is that we listened to the Beatles.” We are right to say that passing of George Harrison is a sad event. You have a catalogue in your mind of people you really want to write about, and if you hang around long enough the chance comes around. The Nabokov short stories will come out. There will be an Evelyn Waugh this or that. The Some Like It Hot book came out. I mean, I leapt on that, when I saw it. I had been waiting to write about Wilder and I didn’t want to wait until he died. I didn’t want to be a complete ambulance chaser. Which I occasionally do, do. I wrote about Alexander McKendrick when he died.
RB: I just watched The Sweet Smell of Success, just this last weekend.
AL: Doesn’t it hold up so well?
AL: Amazing. In fact, it seems some of the movies that are very acid about journalism and publicity—that movie throughout and lots of Citizen Kane look better and better, wiser and sharper with every passing year. Only the really acute filmmakers were able to prophetically imagine what was going to happen to the press. You shouldn’t have been able to imagine what it was going to be like, that the appetite would grow that much for the scandalous. McKendrick had been making comedies, wonderful, wonderful films but nothing in those prepared us for the film [The Sweet Smell of Success] that he would make here.
RB: Was there was much collaboration with Clifford Odets [screenwriter for The Sweet Smell of Success]?
AL: There must have been and with James Wong Howe, who photographed it. There wasn’t enough in the biography about that. Was James Wong Howe like his Greg Toland [cinemaphotographer on Citizen Kane]? He didn’t have to be told how to make a movie—but it may be the photographing of American interiors…didn’t Howe oil the walls to get a gleam? Something really wonderful like that.
RB: Though I love films, I started to read you seriously with the Bestseller column you did.
AL: A lot of people say that. That’s one piece for good or ill, just for whatever reason, you put down a marker. I grabbed that piece—I didn’t know it would turn into that sort of thing—it became a slight setting out of my stall. I did the “trashing classics” thing and I thought, “I do believe this.” And I still do believe that’s a good sustaining diet. To this day my bedside table will still have Elmore Leonard on it plus The Long Dead. I’m still very bad at reading very sensitive new novels. I think Elmore Leonard is sensitive to the patterns of American speech and if we all disappeared beneath the waves tomorrow and people dove down and found Leonard…
RB: Does anyone celebrate Leonard more than British writers? Martin Amis gives Leonard wildly enthusiastic reviews regularly.
AL: It may be the great years of Leonard are past, although I hear Tishmongo Blues is quite good. That thing that one does around college time—when one grows older you don’t physically have the time for—which is when you are discovering someone new and you are just ravenous and you do all of them. I did all of Leonard and then I had a Chandler kick and a Nabokov kick and then other people, some of whom I was told to read at college. The pleasure of being able to feast upon the writers you love, or the directors that you suddenly become obsessed by—that is probably harder in college now. When I was at Cambridge in England in the ‘80s they still had nice scratchy old prints of these things that were going around the college clubs and you would go to the art cinema and you would see triple bills of Berman and Renoir and Hawks and it was sometimes rather grim going—especially if it was Bergman—but you got the homework done, you started to populate the hinterland.
RB: I was struck in your introduction by your suggestion of what appears today to be a quaint concept, “cultural duty.”
AL: Remember that?
RB: What does it mean today?
AL: What was so quaint about it all was that at its best it didn’t feel like a duty. There is a piece about Matthew Arnold, and for him it really was a duty and you could sometimes find him straining to maintain pleasure in it. And it was interesting to find out that he wasn’t as solemn as his writings would suggest. Later on, when movies came along, it was one of the rare times when duty was a pleasure. It has to be if is to be commonly shared. The Arnoldian influence lasted a very long time right up to [F.R.] Leavis really. Leavis was probably the last person who thought you were not adequately equipped, not only to pronounce on life but to entangle yourself with life, to take life head on unless you were armed with all literature could teach you. That seems to many people now, absurd. Certainly delivered with some absurd prejudices and with an almost laughable lack of humor. And yet, like much of what seemed excessive, it’s worthy of some respect now…If you go back and read New Bearings in English Poetry, to him these things were events. It’s like reading Axel’s Castle, [Edmund] Wilson thought these things were general events which should matter to people and he thought they would alter the angle at which we looked upon the world and read the world. Talk about quaint, that must now seem…
RB: When I talked to Darin Strauss recently, he was somewhat shocked that some of his students didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was. This is a significant pop musician of the last 5 or 10 years.
AL: They already don’t know? The process of outdating is now moving quickly.
RB: When I spoke to Nick Tosches he opined that we were moving into a post-literate age like Ancient Egypt when only the high priests knew how to read.
AL: He would have us read Dante. Trying to purvey the Ezra Pound dictum, “Literature is news that stays news” is extremely hard. Movies should be one of the ways—maybe the only way—these things are, in which the gospel can be spread. I always find it curious that you go on the subway and people are sitting and reading The Great Gatsby, but if you go to the art house it’s mostly full of movie buffs. People ask me, “What’s the best thing playing at the moment?” in London, in New York, wherever. And I’m supposed to say, “Oh well you have to see the new Jim Carrey or you have to see the whatever.” I say, “To be absolutely honest if you want a great…” They say, “We don’t want anything heavy. I’ve been working hard. I want to go see a fun movie.” I say, “Fine. There’s a new print of The Apartment.” And they resist that. What is that? They are quite happy to read a book from that era but since when did movies, of all media, become this encrusted dusty scholarship.
RB: In Nobody’s Perfect‘s introduction you state that writing in America freed you of having to be a cheerleader for British Cinema. Besides Lindsay Anderson, please give me some reference points for what is British Cinema?
AL: What that? I never much…it’s never been one of my concerns. Television is our medium, really. Most of the great English directors, Hitchcock, notably above all…I love Hitchcock’s English films. They rise above the parochial. Thirty-Nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes hold up extremely well, I think.
RB: Hitchcock is an English director?
AL: Absolutely an English director. And yet when he came to America the movies became enriched. He lived this extremely orderly British life. Dined and ate well. Didn’t hike around the country. He learned his trade partly in Berlin, so for a very conservative man he was very outward looking. Even some one like Stephen Frears, who I think is an interesting director, came out of that generation making documentaries in England for the BBC and Granada in the ‘60s. I like some of his small films like The Snapper. Then he made Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters.
RB: The Grifters, what a great film!
AL: That seemed to me most like The Sweet Smell of Success in terms of an Englishman, or in McKendrick’s case like a Scotsman, coming and thinking it isn’t just the landscape…
RB: Same composer, Elmer Bernstein, for both films.
AL: The Grifters was one of the last great film scores. I am very disappointed in film scores most of the time now. One of the many things one misses is Max Steiner and Miklas Rosza. The Grifters has a great credit sequence. In the beginning I thought, “This looks like man who has found a great new field to plow.” I like Frears. He has a nice grouchy, patchy-eyed pessimism about him. No wonder he’s at home in film noir. As for great directors and small critics we have to look to America to open the world up for us. As all the great French critics did. What they did, of course, is what no one in England did, which is they looked at America. Truffaut, Renoir and Godard looked at America, loved the films there and ploughed that love and that knowledge back into French films. No one did that in England. They either got out of there which was a great English wish or they went back to making very English films. Having said which the three great English films—which I have always loved—David Lean’s Great Expectations, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Kind Hearts and Coronets. They are all about class. People say that the worst thing about England is the class structure. Maybe. But what you do with a subject, you use it. The English novel would be nothing without the class system—mainly as a kind of comic rigging. Those three films take class head on, the climbing and the falling. All three are quite Dickensian in that sense, or more Trollopean. Or in the case of Kind Hearts and Coronets, more Wildean. There should be more like that around.
RB: Did you find it odd that you were called upon to The New Yorker at 75 for that anniversary? You didn’t exactly have much seniority?
AL: That may be the reason I was asked. Just as Tina Brown brought me in—I don’t know of she was so smart, I can’t presume to read her mind—she may have looked around and said, “Oh my god, this is Pauline Kael land. What am I going to do? Get someone who isn’t going to be too cowed by all this. Go elsewhere and find someone.” That may have been her thinking, I don’t know. I worship Pauline Kael, I hadn’t grown up surrounded by her in the way that people here were. It made it easier, I guess. Similarly, who wants to write that thing. Nobody else has brought this up, I’m glad you brought this up. I never know what to write for those special issues anyway.
AL: Maybe they just thought, “Well, let’s try it.” Maybe there is something about using someone who isn’t absolutely born and bred to the system. Normally, I am quite lightly edited. I am quite lucky. I turn stuff in quite fast and it’s quite clean—because I came from newspapers. But that issue took a lot of work. I was praise-proof and suspicious of anything other than disapproval, really. But one of the really few moments of genuine satisfaction was when Roger Angell—who after all was really born to the magazine and a great hero of mine—sort of the opposite of me. Roger is 80 going on 21 and I am the other way around, he actually came up and said I had done well with a difficult job. I was gratified by that. They would have stopped me from making a fool of myself, obviously, They wouldn’t have printed anything that was embarrassing. Plus it was fun to go back and read through things. The number of books about the magazine and the history of it—in England nobody would think to write such books.
RB: It is fascinating that a magazine has become such a big topic. The last book I can recall was an extreme dissection of Tina Brown. Which then spawned pieces like Michel Wolff’s in New York magazine about how the author once bumped into a very disoriented Tina Brown.
AL: You can not imagine how happily I keep my distance from all that stuff.
RB: It’s disgusting. Very mean-spirited.
AL: It is mean-spirited. It’s disappointing because mainly I associate mean-spirited journalism with England. That’s what we do, that’s what we’re good at. Journalism in England is really foul at the moment.
RB: (laughs) Sorry to laugh.
AL: It’s vicious. It almost lives to be vicious, that almost is its point. It’s particularly scathing of anyone who has had the temerity to do well in any field. It presumes that the only possible consequence of success is to fail. The pleasure of getting out of British journalism can not be overstated.
RB: You live in London.
AL: I live there most of the time; I am in New York quite a lot.
RB: 150 transatlantic trips in 10 years?
AL: Well, it happens. I used to come once a month. Now I come slightly less. Sometimes I go to Paris, which is still a great movie going capitol for me. Some American directors show their stuff there first. The new Brian De Palma has been out there for months. The pattern of movie distribution will change quite a lot. Who knows with digital projection, in 10 years time things will probably open around the world at the same time.
RB: Your first viewing of a film will be in a theater?
AL: Absolutely. If in 10 years time the big studios will have thought the critics are a pain more than anything else and they say, “We’re not having critic’s screenings. You just go on Fridays.” Fine by me.
RB: What about tapes?
AL: I never review from tapes. I will get a screening tape if I have already seen the movie and I want to check something. I would never review from the tape. Which makes life easier.
RB: You made a bit about fact checking at The New Yorker—as does Adam Gopnik in his book—as a very American practice.
AL: In England if you start with facts that require checking it would be laughable. To me that’s one of the great pleasures of the fact-checking department is that it is full of very, very bright people.
RB: When I have pointed out errors to the magazine I found the responses amusing.
AL: The practice of wryness and open admissions of guilt and genial pedantry. I love all that. I think lots of English writers find it completely—some writers have written once for the magazine and never again. They find all the editorial attention and caution too much to bear. I can’t get enough of it. To me the fact checker is not someone who is making my life difficult but someone who is encouraging me to get things right in the first place.
RB: Do you foresee being at The New Yorker in 40 years? Would you want to write somewhere else?
AL: Oh no, I wouldn’t want to write somewhere else. They will almost certainly will tip me out soon.
RB: Oh please.
AL: There is nowhere else I would wish or be happy writing for. I’m extremely lucky. Obviously, at some point they will rumble me and as I say they will knock on my door and say, “Sorry we got the wrong guy. We’ve finally been through the files. You’re the wrong one.”
RB: You don’t really believe that.
AL: “So you’re out of here.” How long one should go on reviewing movies is, of course, an interesting matter. If I felt that movies were getting me down, I would stop.
RB: But you don’t only review movies.
AL: No. The book is exactly split half and half, to the page between movies and other stuff. I need both.
RB: Is there a book you want to write?
AL: No. No creative gift. I leave that to my wife. You can only have so much creativity in one family.
RB: I noticed in your piece on Walker Evans that you seemed to dismiss the photographs he took for Carlton Beals’ The Crime of Cuba. As someone who both appreciates Evans and has a deep interest in Cuba, I wonder why.
AL: I was probably wrong about that. They seemed to me to…I don’t know. I’d have to go back and read what I wrote about them.
RB: You were dismissive of them.
AL: If I went back, I should and would have probably rewritten that. I am interested in the things that I got wrong and the things I missed. They seemed to me at the time that they were—that it was a learning curve for him [Evans] rather then finished work. I thought he went there [Cuba] and came back refreshed but that that the real stuff was still ahead of him. I may well be wrong about that.
RB: I don’t see a big leap from the ’33 Cuba photographs to the FSA pictures or the work in the Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
AL: You may well be right. I need to go look at those again. Maybe it was to do with the layout at the Met.
RB: Have you seen the Getty book, Walker Evans: Cuba?
AL: No. I’ve certainly seen all the photos but not in the show.
RB: One last question. To quote the title from your wife’s novel, how do you do it?
AL: Round midnight. I wait till peace and quiet and write as I go. I don’t enjoy writing. I enjoy rewriting. I like editing myself down. It is journalism. I’m not sitting there waiting for the muse to descend. I’m lucky I have subjects. Nothing would terrify me more than sitting down and being told to write a novel, Chapter One. That would seem like naked self-exposure to me. Whereas I hope that most of these pieces are by way of being tributes, even if they’re sometimes disapproving tributes, to the efforts of other people. Which happens to suit me far more. I remain in nothing of awe for those that can start from scratch and build the monuments and all the outhouses by themselves.
RB: That reminds me of a Steve Martin joke, “Look what I did starting with just a blank sheet of paper and pencil.” So what we have to look forward to in the foreseeable future from you is more of the same?
AL: Keep up with the movies until movies themselves die. And then again, I haven’t gone through the back catalogue yet, all the things I want to write about. There is one big subject that I haven’t written about which I have been meaning to do for about 10 years now. I finally will do it probably at the beginning of next year.
RB: So there is a book coming?
AL: Not a book, just one big piece that I want to do. Which is about P.G. Wodehouse. When that finally comes out you’ll see, that in fact, I am the madman in the attic. You’ll find what level of lunacy a critic can descend to.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing