Riffing on a Riff

Is it too much to ask for, to have professional critics (i.e. they get a paycheck) who are actually knowledgeable about they things they write about? Apparently, it is.

Yes, everyone’s a critic, and everyone has an opinion. But if you want to separate yourself as a Critic from the Fools, informed opinion and critical thinking are what matters. And here is some criticism printed in today’s New York Times which is crippled by complete, uninformed foolishness. Alessandra Stanley begins her discussion of “Bored To Death,” which I’m looking forward (along with the return of “Curb Your Enthusiasm“), by writing about Raymond Chandler. The substance of the article is write-by-numbers anodyne dullness, but the Chandler premise is not only conveyed with profound ignorance of the man’s work, but it also turns out to have nothing to do with her own evaluations.

“It takes gall to riff on Raymond Chandler, which doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” Maybe it does take gall, but I agree it can be done; it can be done well like Ross MacDonald did or badly, like Robert P. Parker. For Stanley, though, the riff is all about Robert Altman’s version of “The Long Goodbye.” She thinks the movie is brilliant and then furthers her own riff by writing about . . . Bogart. This is a tell that she hasn’t read Chandler, or remembered what she has, but only seen movies based on Chandler books. “Altman shocked Bogart purists by casting Elliott Gould,” well, maybe he did. But that doesn’t have anything to do with Chandler, who wrote about Philip Marlowe, not Humphrey Bogart. Of the numerous films from Chandler, Bogart only played Marlowe once, in “The Big Sleep.” But, if you’ve only seen the movies, it’s easy to mistake the players for the play, I suppose, but it doesn’t mean you have any knowledge.

Another tell is her use of the word “purist” to implicitly dismiss her take that Altman’s movie is “brilliant.” I’m not a purist, and Altaman’s movie is a failure. That’s my opinion, but it is informed by the actual story and by knowledge Chandler’s work. Most of the movie is a genial variation on Chandler, perfectly acceptable but also rambling and a little dull. At the finale, however, Marlowe kills his friend Terry Lennox, which makes the movie a failure in two ways; it’s an action so unsupported by what Altman has spent time showing us that it makes no sense in terms of the movie, and it is a complete rejection of Chandler’s fundamental idea of Marlowe as a figure of moral action. The director is absolutely allowed to make his own riffs, but a bad riff is a bad riff, and his makes the movie a failure that he owns completely and which has nothing to do with Chandler, at all.

So, Alessandra, you’re no Raymond Chandler, nor even a qualified critic of Chandler. But you do seem to play one on TV. The review goes on to discuss “Bored To Death” in terms that have nothing at all to do with Chandler, which would earn this a failing grade in college; an ignorant premise which is then ignored in the rest of the article. Perhaps the Williamsburg millieu of the show has Stanley seeking some hipster credentials. Well, riffing may a hipster make, but Chandler is far too cool for hipster taste. Hopefully, the show will be more enjoyable then her imprimatur would indicate. And then a return of my beloved Man-Trash in another week. Who will she trot out for that review, Bukoswki?


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

One thought on “Riffing on a Riff”

  1. Were I not already married to you, this would make me want to marry you. ‘Tis my private contention that a critic — like a husband — had ought to meet Chandler’s own requirements for a hero.

    “He has a range of awareness that startles, but belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in. Such is my faith.”

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