Hornswaggler | The culture, the humor, a bit of the sports, not so much the politics, and the workplace distraction

Hornswaggle is an alternate spelling of hornswoggle, an archaic word that means to bamboozle or hoodwink. I take my pronunciation from the late Harvey Korman in "Blazing Saddles" --

"I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, conmen, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists!"

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Tilting at windmills

Wonkette has been mocking "New Yorker" film critic David Denby mercilessly over his new book, "Snark," subtitled "It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation."

The site has been dogging Denby not only because the author decries Wonkette as a civilization-destroying parasite but also because Denby commits a couple not-insignificant factual errors while doing so.

Even if Denby hadn't named Wonkette in the book, they probably would have gone after him anyway, because the more one learns about Denby's premise and his vanishing definition of what "snark" is, the clearer it becomes that this was a horrible and horrifyingly square idea for a work of nonfiction. It is also perhaps the most tonedeaf cultural enterprise since Lee Siegel of The New Republic got flustered by negative comments on his blog, responded under a pseudonym in the comments -- calling himself "brave" and "wittier than (Jon Stewart) will ever be" -- got caught and suspended from the publication, and then wrote a polemic against Internet culture called "Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob."

I was nonplussed when I learned about "Snark" because I've never looked at Denby the same since he wrote a callous takedown of Ben Stiller in 2005, an appraisal of Stiller's work that gave him basically no credit for having ever done anything of value and which prompted Owen Wilson's semi-famous response in a brilliant letter to the editor.

Denby's piece on Stiller may not meet his own definition of snark, whatever that is, but it was as mean-spirited and gratuitous, though probably not as witty, as any of the examples he cites in his book, from what I can gather of them.

Not only was Denby's assessment of Stiller cruel, but it was wrong, so flagrantly off the mark that it irrevocably tainted his judgment, making me less inclined to read his reviews than I had been before.

Granted, Stiller was way overexposed at the time, with "Starsky and Hutch" (meh), "Dodgeball" (mostly forgettable) and "Meet the Fockers" (lost interest after 20 minutes) having come out in 2004, but that shouldn't have blinded him to Stiller's accomplishments -- as of Jan. 24, 2005, when the article was published -- which I'll quickly run down:

"There's Something About Mary" -- One of the three or four best comedies of the '90s.

"Reality Bites" -- I wasn't that into it, and haven't even seen it all the way through, but it was mostly well-received and culturally relevant.

"Meet the Parents" -- Not great, but good, and worth seeing at a minimum for the Puff the Magic Dragon and cat-milking bits.

"Flirting with Disaster" and "Zero Effect" -- Solid performances in two underrated movies.

"Happy Gilmore" -- Funny cameo as psychotic orderly at retirement home.

"Permanent Midnight" -- Decent dramatic role.

And then there's "The Ben Stiller Show," which Denby clearly never saw, but which was very funny, from the dandruff ad parody (sadly, couldn't find a clip, but this guy transcribed it) to "Yakov Smirnov's Last Stand" to the U2 mockumentary to the Grady's Oats ads.

Anyway, the point is, Denby went out of his way to attack Stiller (I'm probably missing something, but in the many years I've been reading the New Yorker, I don't recall having seen him write any other piece of criticism that singles out an individual performer, as opposed to focusing on a movie), and so it's strange that the man who described Stiller as "latest, and crudest, version of the urban Jewish male on the make" and an "odd-looking suitor" whose "face seems constructed by someone playing with the separate eyes, noses, and mouths of a children’s mix-and-match book" is so sensitive all of a sudden.

.: posted by hornswaggler 11:05 AM

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