Thursday, May 14, 2009

Holy [your noun here]!

Having worked as a dance critic in the world of print journalism, I know that I never had the luxury of choosing my own headline; and I fondly remember one editor who seemed to enjoy the game of coming up with something that would make me wince (usually in a good-humored way). I suspect that editors for the few remaining print outlets in this country are having a field day (if not a last hurrah) coming up with headlines for reviews of the opening of Angels & Demons; but that is only fair when it seems as if the critics themselves are having a field day, too. It is as if the quality of critical writing has to rise the occasion of compensating for the mediocrity of the subject matter.

We thus have an interesting comparison between the treatment this film has received from The New York Times and SF Weekly. A. O. Scott was granted the honor of reviewing the film for the Times; and his editor decided to give him the headline, "Holy Mystery!" SF Weekly, on the other hand, true to their reputation as an "alternative" (read "free") newspaper felt that "Holy Crap" was more appropriate, although ironically this was not the headline that graced the Web-based version of their review. (This left me trying to remember what headline they had used for their review of El baño del Papa.) As far as the review itself was concerned, Ella Taylor decided to have fun with Robert Langdon (the role played by Tom Hanks), referring to him as "ace symbologist" and later trying to establish his reputation among those in the real world who know a thing or two about symbols:

The incumbent pope has died, his tongue has turned suspiciously black, and four of the extremely red cardinals most likely to succeed him have been abducted for medieval branding and/or burning by a wild-eyed predator named the Assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), whose most attractive quality is that, unlike the mad albino Paul Bettany in Da Vinci, he isn't into mortifying his own flesh. His rimless glasses bespeak a man of intellect, and Langdon, tossing off deconstructed signifiers like Roland Barthes on steroids, strongly suspects him of membership in the Illuminati, a secret society with Galileo among its past members, whose fondness for science has drawn the ire of the Catholic Church for hundreds of years.

Scott, however, is less interested in semiotics and more occupied with the plight of the audience. So he reserves his best language for addressing that plight:

The only people likely to be offended by “Angels & Demons” are those who persist in their adherence to the fading dogma that popular entertainment should earn its acclaim through excellence and originality.

All this persiflage reminds me of a recent post in which I quoted Vladimir Nabokov's description of reading Dostoevsky as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize." Whether or not Angels & Demons wins any prizes, it is clear that both Scott and Taylor (which happen to be parallel streets in San Francisco) both appreciate and enjoy Nabokov's "mischievous but very healthy please;" and the rest of us should enjoy their exercise of that pleasure at the expense of what Taylor called "the Dan Brown franchise!"

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