Friday, May 15, 2009


I never saw the movie of The Da Vinci Code, tho I do regret the few hours I wasted reading the novel; & I think it's fair to say that I'll never, ever, ever open a copy of Angels & Demons. But there's a delicious, if somewhat trashy, thrill in reading the kind of savagery A. O. Scott dishes out for the new film version of Dan Brown's opus in today's New York Times. What's not to love in such sentences?:
I have not read the novel by Dan Brown on which this film (directed, like its predecessor, “The Da Vinci Code,” by Ron Howard) is based. I have come to believe that to do so would be a sin against my faith, not in the Church of Rome but in the English language, a noble and beleaguered institution against which Mr. Brown practices vile and unspeakable blasphemy.

Its preposterous narrative, efficiently rendered by the blue-chip screenwriting team of Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, unfolds with the locomotive elegance of a Tintin comic or an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.” Mr. Howard’s direction combines the visual charm of mass-produced postcards with the mental stimulation of an easy Monday crossword puzzle. It could be worse.

[T]he Harvard symbologist [sic]* Robert Langdon..., no favorite of the Holy See and long denied access to the Vatican archives, is summoned to Rome to assess, and then defuse, a deadly threat involving antimatter, papal succession and the ancient pro-science terrorist underground known as the Illuminati. You didn’t suspect the Illuminati? Nobody suspects the Illuminati. Except Robert Langdon of course.

The high-minded shop talk, half buttressed by real historical information, half floating in the ether of cocktail party nonsense, seems to be a crucial feature of a Robert Langdon adventure, and you can only be charmed when the symbologist says things like: “An obelisk! A kind of pyramid adopted by the Illuminati! If he’s going to kill, he’ll do it here.”
Why, I can't help wondering, aren't more poetry reviews this much fun?

*Like, where does Brown get the idea that there's an academic discipline of "symbology"? And where do I sign up?


Jonathan K. Cohen said...

I always thought Brown used "symbology" because he believed his readers would never be able to get their minds around "semiotics."

Vance Maverick said...

I enjoy Lane too, when (as here) the strain isn't showing. But I think his entertaining negative style relies on a sustained wink of collusion between writer and reader: sophisticates like you and me know what these fools will never grasp. And can that discourse situation really arise in the poetry world? Who would write, for what reader, of Billy Collins in the framework of a tacit shared admiration for Prynne?

(This in turn makes one wonder what reader turns in genuine curiosity to the New Yorker for reviews of Ron Howard.)

Mark Scroggins said...

"semiotics" may well have crossed Brown's radar screen, but I think what he means by "symbology" is something far more recognizable: good old-fashioned iconology. Langdon is a slim, handsome (and very goyish) Erwin Panofsky.

it's totally understandable that you mistake AO Scott's elegant negativity (in the Times) for Allen Lane's (in the New Yorker). It's a very Lane-ish piece, in that rather uncharacteristic for the Times. (More normal is, say, Lane's hilarious drubbing of the last Stars Wars prequel in the New Yorker -- not a movie that many New Yorker readers were planning to see anyway.)

This sort of review is, as you point out, a kind of cultural critique from the outside, an attack on a sort of cultural production that the reviewer wouldn't be caught dead actually investing in. More interesting is when critics attack works "of the sort" which they'd be expected to respect -- William Logan savaging Franz Wright, for instance. And *that* makes for interesting criticism, in the best sense. And so far as I'm concerned, there's a tremendous paucity of that sort of thing in the alt-poetry community.

Vance Maverick said...

Oops! How gracious of you to salvage something from a comment founded on such a careless misreading. Right, Scott's beat includes this sort of thing more naturally than Lane's.

undine said...

Thanks for this excerpt. I've plowed through some bad books in my time, but Da Vinci Code committed sins against the English language.

On the other hand, I hope that the New Yorker assigns the review of this movie to Anthony Lane, since he's hilarious when he hates a movie--and he hates most of them (except those with subtitles).

Vance Maverick said...

Also, can I ding you back, Mark, for calling Lane "Allen"?

Mark Scroggins said...

Woah, total Freudian slip: Allen Lane of course the founder of Penguin Books.

Odd, Undine, that one of the New Yorker's 2 big movie critics doesn't really seem to like movies much.

Joseph Donahue said...

OK. So maybe you can't ever study symbology at Harvard. Next best thing: your novel. A young Irwin Panofsky, bored by academic life, facing a life crisis, romantic in nature, perhaps a bit of substance abuse, your call, detects a coded message about a politicly charged international shenanigans with possible supernatural overtones in the depths of A22 . . .

undine said...

I could be wrong, but what I've observed is this: the "respectable" movies all get given to David Denby to review. Big popcorn movies and foreign films get reviewed by Lane.
Lane can be funny even when he doesn't absolutely hate something. I end up paying less attention to what he says about the movie than to the language he uses. He's one of their better humor columnists, though he doesn't get the buildup that "Shouts and Murmurs" does.

Anonymous said...

"Interesting criticism" for envious donothings, and neverwilldoanythings. FW