Critic and Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott is among this year’s PEN Literary Award winners. Wolcott won the PEN/Diamondstein-Spielvogel Award for his excellent decade-spanning collection “Critical Mass.” The collection includes pieces on television (his career-making essay on the Norman Mailer vs. Gore Vidal blowup on “The Dick Cavett Show”), music (Lou Reed), stand-up comedy (Johnny Carson), and film (tributes to Brian De Palma and Sam Peckinpah). Wolcott also includes some excellent pieces on critics, including the late Lester Bangs and Manny Farber.
Wolcott remains an vital and versatile critic, capable of writing incisively about seemingly any subject (though his “TV has surpassed the movies” essay “Prime Time’s Graduation,” included in “Critical Mass,” is enough to prompt some serious tooth-grinding). Wolcott’s recaps on the past season of “Mad Men” for Vanity Fair were among the best. Here’s an excerpt from his review of the penultimate episode of the half-season, “The Strategy”:
Last Sunday the estrangement between Don and Peggy dissolved in a slow dance to the musing drone of Frank Sinatra memorializing himself in “My Way,” preparing to mount Pegasus and soar into the moon. Peggy rested her head on Don’s shoulder and he affectionately, paternally pressed his lips against the top of her hair. It was one of Mad Men’s few gestures of tender gallantry over these many seasons of surly malice and floating angst that was unaccompanied by a thorn prick of irony or unease: a grace note in a season dominated so far by Ginsberg’s gift-boxed nipple. I can’t say I savored its sweetness as much as nearly everyone else going swoony in my Twitter timeline. I found Don’s “Shall we dance?” invitation and the mid-shot staging (the slow camera pullback at the fade) corny and contrived, worthy of Nora Ephron at her most catering, a sentimental cherry the scene didn’t need. Still, it was deeply satisfying to see Don and Peggy reunited in late-night, lunar-module, mind-combing collaborative partnership, casting us back to one of Mad Men’s richest episodes, “The Suitcase” (season four).*
Wolcott also gets a lifetime pass for this headline for the season’s second episode: “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Ad Men Are Awful, Especially Lou.” On a different note, Wolcott proves that it’s possible to both a) have new experiences later in life, and b) write well about them in “My Night at the Opera,” a recap of his first experience at the New York Metropolitan Opera. The link to the article’s single page seems to be broken, so for the full experience just go to the fourth article from the bottom here, but here’s a sample:
Like so many boomers, my familiarity with opera is almost completely a warped by-product of pop culture spoof — the sort of funhouse mirror sensibility that critic Wilfrid Sheed once summed up in the phrase, “No, but I saw the parody.” The Marx brothers in A Night at the Opera (“Either there are cops in Il Trovatore or the jig is up!”), Bugs Bunny’s “What’s Opera, Doc?,” the mock operettas in I Love Lucy, Bart and Homer Simpson bonding at a performance of Carmen (“Toreador, don’t spit on the floor/Use the cuspidor/That’s what it’s for”), Tony Randall’s Felix Unger of The Odd Couple with his scheme for “Great Moments in Opera” trading cards (“number 16: ‘Mimi gets a cough’”) — this is what happens when you start out in life having your meals on a TV tray in front of the set, cut off from civilization.
Technical know-how helps in the filmcrit racket — my faith in Dwight Macdonald was shaken when he confessed in On Movies that for forty years he thought a lap dissolve meant “holding the camera in the lap” — and a background in film theory may supply a useful trellis to provide your personal predispositions and prejudices a semblance of structural grid, but I personally wish film critics had more interest in fashion, interior design, and the organic mechanics of acting than they evince. I don’t get the impression that most film critics today have dipped their beaks into acting theory or seen enough theater to take in what actors are capable of when they’re not serving up flashcard closeups or being razored with edits. Too much film reviewing is boys’-club auteurship deciding whether the director is deserving of the winner’s belt this time out and can continue to the next championship round.