Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A critic speaks

The New Yorker
magazine has mounted a tour of college campuses, and this week the show stops at the University of Wisconsin, here in Madison. Today I went to the arts critics event, which promised to be a panel discussion with David Denby (film), Nancy Franklin (TV) and Sasha Frere-Jones (pop music). But when I arrived, a young man with a clipboard told me that Franklin and Frere-Jones were still in New York, grounded by a blizzard, so the panel would be just Denby and James Baughman, director of UW's department of journalism and mass communications. I wasn't too disappointed: I enjoy Franklin and Frere-Jones, but I wanted mostly to see Denby, whose books American Sucker and Great Books I recently read and admired.

The Fredric March Play Circle in Memorial Union was full when the event got underway at noon. Buchanan began with a brief pr�cis of Denby's career, and then asked a series of questions, most of them relating not to film criticism as such but to the movies in general. Which was just fine: Denby knows a lot about the business and was thoughtful (and enjoyably cranky) in discussing it, especially the crassness of the studios' marketing techniques.

And he did say many interesting things about writing, as when he urged budding movie critics to "keep reading, to keep it fresh and keep yourself alive, and try to keep the copy alert." He also had funny insights into the world of The New Yorker ("They fact check everything, including the poems"), and he noted that he sometimes has more difficulty getting into screenings than do his competitors on television: "It's like the studios say, We're not going to let this overeducated pissant in New York--or an even better educated pissant in London, my colleague Anthony [Lane, The New Yorker's other film critic]--ruin this movie.'"

After 45 minutes or so, Denby took questions from audience members, who mostly wanted to know what he thought about this movie or that director ("There was a great critical debate about Brian De Palma"). I asked him about how he writes: does he always start writing with a lead? Does he procrastinate? He said that for movie reviews, he usually starts by simply typing impressions, more or less at random, and a review eventually emerges. As for procrastination, he said he procrastinates on books and long articles, but not movie reviews.

When I raised my hand, Baughman called on me as "the gentleman in the turtleneck." I'm so ashamed...

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