America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
By Elaine Kendall
29 January 2015
Where are the witty reviewers of yore; the Alexander Woollcotts, the Dorothy Parkers, the Walter Kerrs, and the rest of an erudite and often acerbic cohort? Gone to the internet or simply gone, every one. Now it hardly matters if the item at hand is a film, a play or a book, chances are the review will be a model of political correctness at best; an exaggerated rave at worst. Some clearly and unmistakably pejorative English words are emerging from a verbal rehab center as high praise, leading to disappointment, disdain, and in extreme cases, anger. Other less fortunate words, once entirely respectable and admiring, have come to be subtly derogatory.
Begin with ambitious. Until recently, an ambitious person was full of vigor and a desire to improve him or herself. Back then, ambitious was a word reserved for people; not books, films, plays or television series. To be ambitious, you had at least to be animate. Now, applied to the fine and lively arts, ambitious tends to mean that somewhere along the line the creators have overestimated their abilities and taken on more than they can manage. A proven natural process is reversed, and the butterfly regresses to its caterpillar stage. The informative and entertaining 300 page book turns into a redundant 800 page tome; a play that once filled a small theater becomes an extravaganza; an hour-long TV show lasts for years as the plot grows ever more preposterous. Paintings that could have hung comfortably in a living room now need an empty warehouse. While no one was noticing, ambitious has come to mean excessive. Tedious. Expensive. Huge. Robert Browning knew it; Mies van der Rohe popularized it, and even Chaucer alluded to it. Less is more.
Skip ahead to the Cs and Ds. They’re a large and closely related family. Courageous no longer implies bravery, just patience. Challenging? Hardly ever genuinely exciting, challenging has become merely difficult. Confrontational? The confrontational book, play or movie may run the gamut from disturbing to horrifying, often doing exactly that. A demanding work is hard to enjoy, though it may be flattering to be seen with one or in the audience attending it. The fraternal dys twins; dysfunctional and dystopic, often together, promise to depress anyone who meets them.
Innovative is a term over-qualified for inclusion in the code list. Last year, an otherwise fine novel began at the end when the characters were old, finishing with chapter one, when they were young; constantly switching their ages back and forth throughout the book. Mere flashbacks stopped being innovative a century ago. Is the next advance stories told sideways? Innovative can be grand for content, but exasperating for form. Illuminating is another “I” word to reexamine. Does the mention of bright light guarantee that the readers or viewers will understand something that confused them before? It might, if not often. Enlightening is the road not taken, perhaps because it has an academic connotation that might be off-putting.
Although a magisterial work has a great deal in common with an ambitious one, its true soul mate is definitive. A book or film advertised as either magisterial or definitive indicates that many books or films on the same subject have already been written or produced. The latest magisterial work will be far more detailed, possibly with photos never seen until now. Once the contents have been absorbed, the volume can be used as a booster seat for small children. The magisterial film? Best seen streaming at home, where it’s easy to get up, move around, and have access to the fridge.
Beach reads are an entire genre that hardly needs elaboration, only the tactful suggestion to pack them in the duffle with the damp towels and read them in the privacy of a boudoir. Though the words beach reads have no actual logographic history, they were once dismissed as bodice rippers. Now that all bodices are in shreds, there’s no real need for them anymore, especially for those described as unique. This year’s beach read will be exactly like last year’s, except for its location, which has moved far inland.
Once familiar with the new and fluctuating meanings of English words, we’ll all be able to decode the language of Reviewish for ourselves. The codes will also work for entertainments listed as memoires, a genre that was always reserved for the old and wise, but lately hijacked by the young and foolhardy. Is it pleasant to be mesmerized, riveted and stunned? Arrested? Check the original and literal meanings in the nearest dictionary, and never be unpleasantly astonished again.
An author, journalist and playwright, Elaine Kendall reviewed books weekly for the LA Times from 1980 to 1997. Her books of American cultural history are The Upper Hand; (changing roles of men & women) The Happy Mediocrity; (architecture, clothing, food) Peculiar Institutions; (the beginning of women’s colleges) & Seeing Europe Again (an anthology of travel pieces). The first three were published by Little, Brown & Putnam; the fourth by Capra Press. Her articles have appeared in many national magazines & newspapers, particularly the NY Times & LA Times.
She has written libretti and lyrics for An American Cantata, (based upon a book by John Sanford) Isadora! (the secret life of Isadora Duncan) The Would-be Diva, (Ganna Walska, the founder of Lotus Land) and Cole & Will: Together Again! (a meld of Cole Porter songs and brief Shakespearean scenes).
Non-musical dramas are The Nominee; (Supreme Court candidates) The Chameleon (the life of Judah P. Benjamin) Two Margarets (Margaret Sanger) and The Trial of Mata Hari) Comedies are The “I” Word; & Secrets of the Showroom. An American Cantata was published by Samuel French; The “I” Word by Art Age; and an excerpt from The Trial of Mata Hari by Smith & Kraus. The plays have been performed in various venues in the US.