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And Now for a Few Pointed Words

New Yorker's Anthony Lane marks a decade of criticism with an anthology

September 23, 2002|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whatever gives people the idea that Anthony Lane is a senior citizen? The dashing movie critic for the New Yorker magazine turns 40 in December. But his reputation as a brainy expert with a writing style as graceful as Fred Astaire's dance steps has piled the years onto his image. He was lining up for tickets to the popcorn movie "Rollercoaster" during an age when "Chinatown" was making film history. But people still expect him to be a silver-haired literary lion.

"Maybe it's because they think you shouldn't make pronouncements unless you've lived a full and useful life," he says about the misconception. Just to prove them wrong, 10 years' worth of pronouncements pepper his new anthology, "Nobody's Perfect, Writings From the New Yorker" (Knopf).

The book brings together several hundred of Lane's essays and reviews on books and movies, literary figures, pop culture icons and film stars. (The Los Angeles Times praised Lane "for writing extraordinarily well and for wearing his erudition so lightly," the New York Times compared his movie reviews to "a tray of delicious candies.")

He turns his sharp intuition and comic wit toward everything from home cooking with Martha Stewart and Julia Child to the literary lives of T.S. Eliot and A.E. Housman. Not to mention the fame of Julia Roberts, as well as Buster Keaton. "I like to traffic back and forth between the movies' ability to represent the world and other ways there are to represent the world," he says. "It keeps me on my toes."

Born in England, educated at Cambridge University, Lane lives in London with his wife, newspaper columnist Allison Pearson, and their two children. He says he is a hopeless square who never hangs out with movie stars or spends more than a few hours at a time in Hollywood. "Taking a new route to my children's school in the morning makes it a wild and crazy day," he says.

In Los Angeles on his book tour, he began his first day by filing a movie review that was due to his editor before breakfast. That and jet lag could explain his pale complexion, but he blames it on his years spent in dark screening rooms.

Surprisingly crisp for a journalist, Lane's polished loafers and pressed navy jacket suggest that he may never fit the rumpled image of a writer. But, as he often points out in reviews, things are not usually as they appear.

He started his career as deputy literary editor for the London Independent and he reviewed books as well as movies there for several years before he joined the New Yorker in 1993. He still screens films in London at least as often as in New York. "Do you think most people know I live in London?" he wonders a bit uncomfortably. His British-ness does raise a question about whether a critic who lives on a separate continent can get a grip on American culture--the stuff U.S. movies are made of.

"I don't go into a movie review thinking of American culture," he says. "How do you even define such a thing? Hopefully, a review will suggest fresh ideas of what that culture might be."

Bumping into Harrison Ford, who was working on a movie across from Lane's Beverly Hills hotel, made him think not of Hollywood, but of France. "It's like waking up in Paris to see a man on a bicycle carrying croissants," he says. "It's just what you'd expect."

His reviews twist and turn in the same unpredictable way. When he wrote about a revival of "The Sound of Music" two years ago, he began his review outside the movie theater where ticket holders dressed as nuns were smoking cigarettes and others were outfitted as "brown paper packages tied up with string," inspired by the musical's lyrics.

In a graceful glide, he steered the piece into a serious essay about the unsettling effects of the movie by comparing "The Sound of Music," which was set during the World War II, with "Meet Me in St. Louis," which was made during that war. "Why does 'Meet Me in St. Louis' maintain the status of a nimble masterpiece while 'The Sound of Music' limps along behind?" he wrote. "Then again, how come Vincente Minnelli's ['St. Louis'] of 1944 was reckoned merely a success, while Robert Wise's ['Sound of Music'], made 20 years later, is a gold-plated phenomenon? The answer to both questions is the same: because Minnelli showed happiness to be the most fragile of possessions, whereas Wise backed it as a sure thing." Today and forever, he concluded of Wise's choice, "that is what moviegoers want to hear."

Like any critic worth reading, Lane always inserts himself into his writing, sometimes physically. When he reviewed a batch of cookbooks in a pre-Christmas roundup of 1995, he added a sketch of himself at home in the kitchen. There he was, making dinner for friends, "holding onto the sink, finishing off the Cote du Rhone that was supposed to go in the stew." Had he been following Martha Stewart's menu correctly, he confessed, he would have been handing around phyllo triangles with lobster filling by this point, not getting sloshed in the kitchen.

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