Dana Stevens and the Movie Club

Editor’s note: This is our first cameo appearance, from commenter Freddie deBoer, best known for his lacerating attacks on The American Scene and many friends of The American Scene. For the record, I think Dana Stevens ain’t that bad, but it’s long since been established that I can’t be trusted.

Like Peter, I’m a fan of both David Edelstein and Slate’s year-end movie club. I am not, sadly, a fan of Dana Stevens. Though I don’t always agree with Ross Douthat’s criticisms of her, I find her heavy-handed invocation of contemporary politics no less leaden, clumsy and aggravating than he does. Like many snarks, her reviews yaw wildly from scornful condemnation to embarrassingly overcooked praise (Children of Men is the movie of the millennium! Ratatouille moved me to tears!), ignoring the simple fact that the large majority of any art is neither pathetic nor great, but some combination of successful and flawed. This hyperbolic aesthetic would be okay, I suppose, if it didn’t emerge from the desire that any scorched-earth critic has to be noticed. That kind of thinking leads to the worst in criticism: self-regard, imprecise language, a failure to understand nuance, the inconsistent application of an aesthetic.

I could deal with these things, though, if Stevens would just allow herself to speak from her voice and develop her own authorial identity. Unfortunately, she seems to have suffered a great deal from following Edelstein, who in addition to being a gifted reviewer has a wordy and linguistically elaborate style, one that is unafraid to digress or involve thoughts and images outside of the scope of the particular film being reviewed. I’m afraid that his successor may feel an anxiety about her own wordiness, and attempt to engage in the same, without Edelstein’s skill. The result in Stevens has been some of the most comically overwrought prose this side of an undergraduate civics paper. Two posts by her in, and the Movie Club is the worse for wear. Any particular word or verbal construct is itself of neutral value; it has to derive its value from its context, from its position within a particular authorial voice and style. And, I’m sorry to say, Stevens doesn’t have the juice. Fortuitous rechristenings! Uncanny, almost mediumistic act of transformation! Derricks of blood! Rigorous formalism! Crushing greatness! Comic-histrionic codas! Crepuscular! Worst of all, this:

Isn’t the persistence of cultural memory, that Gatsby-like tendency to be borne back ceaselessly into the past even as the future roars in on us, something that’s inherent to the critical enterprise?

It’s January 3rd, folks, yet that may be the most inept attempt at a meaningful sentence I digest all year. Setting aside the wearying overuse of the green light as a symbol, I can’t see any particular way in which this reference makes sense besides Gatsby being about, you know, nostalgia, and junk. It’s rather plainly a particularly limp attempt at seeming literate, and at infusing a rather empty point with meaning.

The advent of a certain rhetorical style has to me been one of the most depressing facets of the middle-brow discourse in recent years: cutting, insulting, assured of its own wit, ostensibly concerned with art, and yet contemptuous of most actual attempts at artistic expression. Call it the Gawker voice, I suppose. I have long grown tired of this style, even when practiced by its most assured and talented writers. When it comes from someone like Stevens—when it is appropriated by someone who doesn’t quite have the writing talent to pull off the at times entertaining language of contempt— it’ss utterly tedious. I enjoyed Steven’s reviews of television, often enough, and I hope she quickly becomes comfortable enough to stop trying to ape a style she can’t. The Movie Club is a real pleasure, at its best an intelligent combination of probing analysis of movies and a conversational, personal style. Let’s hope that combination isn’t corrupted.