This week, I’ve been worrying about what makes a good review, but I’ve been starting too deep. I’ve been assuming that all this anxiety about style and approach comes after the critic has experienced whatever it is that they’re criticising.
But as of yesterday, noted experimental arts critic Christopher Hart of the Daily Mail has floored my preconceptions with a review of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist that begins by admitting he hasn’t even seen the work he’s judging and goes on to to deconstruct the very journal he’s writing for. This is magical, post-modernist stuff – the kind of thing that could only be written by a true artist of the critical form, unburdened by the callow limitations of ethics and editorial responsibility.
The first major clue that this essay is really about itself rather than the film comes at the head of the fourth paragraph:
I haven’t seen it myself, nor shall I – and I speak as a broad-minded arts critic, strongly libertarian in tendency. But merely reading about Antichrist is stomach-turning, and enough to form a judgment.
A pro-censorship libertarian! A critic who hasn’t watched the film! The ironies are piled deliciously, teeteringly high, daringly alerting readers to the dangerously (yet covertly) subversive nature of the essay they are about to read.
Now, anyone could shrug off an invitation to Antichrist by saying “What? But Dancer In The Dark was unbearable. Why would I want to see more of this shit?” or “Doesn’t that just sound like torture porn for art house wankers who think they’re too good for Saw?” or “Hey! Doesn’t von Trier know we’ve all seen Don’t Look Now?” But Hart is simply using von Trier’s violence as a point of departure for his own brutal dismemberment of the Daily Mail world:
That section is worth looking at in detail, because the comic timing is so audacious, moving from an invocation of “jihadists” to asserting a link with the EU with Hart confesses he hasn’t confirmed, to knowingly asking the reader what they feel about his richly confected fiction. It’s a beautiful moment of connection between writer and audience, a wonderful nod to his faith in our ability to see through his games and into the paper’s conventions of fear, supposition, and fear-fuelled supposition.
As too is his so-feeble-it-must-be-deliberate brandishing of Shakespeare’s violence as an example of “dramatising the tragic universe we inhabit, human evil at its worst, and […] hidden moral process” before aggressively slamming the BBFC for being “blinded by their own cultural snobbery, swallowing the lie that Antichrist is Art.” The essay constantly threatens to fold under the weight of its own irony, but it somehow rolls intact to its climactic denunciation of “the hesitant, fumbling, comfortably cushioned, value-free Leftish elite who now govern us”.
It’s such a highly-wrought parody of Daily Mail paranoia and cultural suspicion, it’s no wonder that the editors have published it as though it were a simply-intentioned article. But the clinching evidence of Hart’s mischievous intent isn’t in anything you can see on the page: it’s in something he’s left out. Nowhere in the feature does he manage to incorporate gypsies into his fantastical cultural conspiracy – an omission so conspicuous in the Mail that it’s obvious something important must be up.
© Sarah Ditum, 2009