Monday, August 22, 2016

Time Film Critic Stephanie Zacharek's Voice and Eye

Criticism is a seemingly easy task that belies the hard work and talent that goes into it. Obviously, criticizing a film or book or meal is a natural tendency for all of us. However, to do so with an air of authority that doesn't seem pretentious and to do so with an eye that is as insightful as it is accessible requires quite a bit of sophistication and maturity. That standard is why I am such a fan of well-written criticism, and that's why the recent work of Time Magazine's Stephanie Zacharek has caught my eye. In perusing my most recent issue of Time, I was so impressed with the writing of one article - a review of Jeff Bridges Hell or High Water - that I took specific notice of the writer.

The performances here are uniformly and quietly terrific. Pine is particularly striking–his gait may appear laid-back and cool, but he lets us see the tension in every muscle. And then there’s Bridges’ Marcus, shaggy and worn but not yet played out. Marcus is on the cusp of retirement and unsure, as we are, how his constant stream of muttering and complaining will translate to life in the rocking chair. This is a man who wears his flaws boldly. He’s borderline racist–actually, he probably goes right over the border–in the way he ribs his long-suffering half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). But when one of the brother-robbers’ victims, a shy young clerk, apologizes for not knowing the make of their getaway car, Marcus teases helpful information out of her with a kind of craggy tenderness. And when the movie hits a tense turning point–one that’s likely to shake you even if you thought you saw it coming–Marcus responds with a strangled, anguished cry that seems to emerge less from his gut than from the earth itself. For Bridges, the old-coot handbook is old hat. He’d rather write new pages, dashing them off one by one with a grunt, a scowl and a flourish.

As I continued leafing through the magazine, I was struck by another story - a profile of documentary filmmaker and "poet-scientist" Werner Herzog. Once again, I noticed the byline of Stephanie Zacharek. She has the true eye of an artist and the pen of a poet, and her reviews of great works are almost as enjoyable as the works themselves. At the very least, she compels me to investigate the works and the people about which she writes. And that's about the best any critic can do.

Only a poet-scientist would care about how a piece of vintage computer equipment smells, and that’s the kind of detail Herzog, a true wack-bird genius, is so good at teasing out. Always off-camera but still intensely present, Herzog seeks out scientists and technicians who are busy perfecting driverless cars, pondering who will take the blame, humans or machines, when the inevitable accidents occur. He visits a group of people so sensitive to wireless signals that for their health and sanity, they’ve exiled themselves on a patch of land in West Virginia where wireless transmissions are restricted. He drops in on a grief-stricken family who became the victims of a cruel Internet prank, and learns about robots that could be programmed to counter nuclear disasters. Everywhere he goes, Herzog asks questions–smart ones, out-there ones–and the result is part celebration, part cautionary yellow light: Even Kleinrock, near the end of the film, laments that “computers and in some sense the Internet are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking.” And this is one of the guys who set the ball rolling.

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