Criticism of Critics: Richard Brody

Richard Brody, The New Yorker film critic, is one of the most mercurial critics you can come across of the aggregated writers on Rotten Tomatoes. Just take a look at his best of the decade or century lists if you don’t believe me; for the 2000s, he includes the rom-com “Knocked Up” and alongside Jean-Luc Godard’s “In Praise of Love” and the obscure French documentary “Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.” 

He doesn’t exclusively write “hot takes,” as much as he opines wholly original arguments. In this process, Brody is nearly always political; not in a red-state, blue-state sort of way (although, there is a fair dose of this as well), but political in the sense that he is concerned with human ideas of social goods — what we approve and disapprove of as a society. 

Damien Chazel, the director of the Hollywood kitsch “La La Land,” has probably never been accused of right-wing fetishism (albeit accidently), until Brody’s review of “First Man” came out, that is. Most critics adored “First Man,” the Neil Armstrong biopic, for rejecting a bold and patriotic planting of the American flag on the lunar surface. They assumed that this meant Chazelle had given a corrected, progressive version of the events of Apollo 11. Brody disagreed. “The work to which Neil is devoted, the mission to the moon, is unabashedly depicted as patriotic,” he wrote. Even stronger, refering to the cut-scene performance of the song “Whitey on the Moon,” Brody writes: 

“With this sequence, Chazelle openly mocks people who thought that the moon money was spent foolishly—those pesky intellectuals, blacks, and Hispanics who go on TV or into the street demanding “gimme” while the likes of Neil and his exclusively white, male colleagues uncomplainingly put their lives on the line to accomplish historic things in the interest of “mankind.” In its explicit content, and by artful omission, “First Man” subscribes to the misbegotten political premise that America used to be greater—and that the liberating and equalizing activism of the sixties ignored, dismissed, and even undermined that greatness.”

To me, this encapsulates what you’re in for in “The Front Row,” Brody’s column — takes that only he could write, whether they are “hot” or not. “First Man,” at a glance, gives a neo-liberal retelling vibe, so much so that the former Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz weighed in: “Really sad: Hollywood erases American flag from moon landing. This is wrong, and consistent with Leftists’ disrespecting the flag & denying American exceptionalism,” Cruz tweeted. If you read Brody as much as I do, you’ll learn that he doesn’t care much for these surface or popular readings. 

As creative and interesting as he is, sometimes Brody’s politics fall closer to eisegesis than exegesis. His review of “Booksmart,” Olivia Wilde’s debut, is one of these gestures. He opens the article, “Some films embody the Trump era, some confront it, and still others ignore its existence. ‘Booksmart,’ the first feature directed by Olivia Wilde, is in a stranger category: it’s a counterfactual comedy about a world minus Trumpism.” To corroborate his thesis, he writes about bumper stickers in the background, the near decade long script writing process, and its Manachiean tendencies. He never comes off as eager to jumpstart conversation, just as mistakenly reading his own politics into “Booksmart.” Ultimately, and even he would admit this (“minus-Trumpism”), the film just doesn’t care about that and should it be required to. 

This may be more than Brody reading too much into the film though. It also shows us the gold standard for a good Brody film: it’s political. Sure, he obviously prefers the politics you would expect from a New Yorker film critic, but he really just wants political films — Clint Eastwood, a more conservative leaning artist, also seemingly happens to be Brody’s second favorite director behind Godard. Writing about “15:17 to Paris,” one of Eastwood’s newer releases, Brody claims, “The mark of a classical artist is to meet expectations while defying them, and that’s what Clint Eastwood—eighty-seven years old, and the current American filmmaker whose firsthand links to classical movie traditions are strongest—does in ‘The 15:17 to Paris.’” 

And as any ‘good’ film critic does, Brody always keeps his eyes on film form. The form he cares about though, as you can expect, isn’t just form for form’s sake. In his review of “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” commenting on the opening scene of cross edits between Drew’s (Justin Theroux) real spy work and Audrey (Mila Kunis)’s amusement with a gun-based arcade game, he writes “But, for all its plain functionality, the sequence is staged and filmed with a brisk, spare, nearly choreographic vigor that distinguishes it from violent scenes created with the approximate and merely illustrative direction that marks, or mars, many movies (including ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’).”

But I would be doing a disservice to Brody if I only surveyed his political interests. His prose can also teach undergraduate students more than the style guide. Here is the opening paragraph to one of his best, and most famous, reviews, “What the Seven “Star Wars” Films Reveal About George Lucas”: 

“It’s nice to see George Lucas get a little love (as Bryan Curtis noted this week). Yet this retroactive recognition is nonetheless proof that a filmmaker can be both rich as Croesus and assured of a place in history while still remaining a misunderstood and unappreciated artist. Lucas’s great achievement isn’t the conception of the “Star Wars” saga, the inauguration of the franchise, or his consignment of it to Disney for cloning ad infinitum. Those are for the movie books, for the pundits who reduce movies to such sociological oxymorons as “collective imagination,” the cultural counterparts to industry analysts who talk only about box office. What endures for the critics and their lay associates, for aesthetes who live for the beauty and the pleasure of movies, is Lucas’s directing—of two films, “Attack of the Clones” and, especially, “Revenge of the Sith.” If Lucas had done nothing else in his life, he’d have an honored place in my personal pantheon for that work.”

Brody understands what many post-postmodern writers don’t: the sound of words is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s shed. “Personal pantheon,” “cloning ad infinitum,” and “retroactive recognition” — in these six sentences Brody taught me to pay attention to the sounds of words. (On a side note, this review is worth reading for the mere fact that Brody, persuasively, argues that “Attack of the Clones” is one of the most innovative works in the Star Wars canon). 

Because of how intrigued I am about Brody, I decided to start a blog series where I provide my own criticisms of important cultural, film, and book critics. If you have a critic you’d like me to review, drop a name below (The New York Times’ Ross Douthat is next, don’t worry). 

If you’re looking to dive into Brody, here are some of his more ineffable pieces, in my book: 

Review: The Disappointing Blandness of ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’”

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