Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Critic Critiqued: Mick LaSalle on GULLIVER'S TRAVELS

I haven't seen the new film version of Gulliver's Travels with Jack Black in the title role, and I have no plan to see it. I have no doubt that it's as weak as Mick LaSalle says it is. LaSalle is one of the leading syndicated movie reviewers, but as a book reviewer he may leave something to be desired. He indicts the new Gulliver movie as a degradation of Jonathan Swift's source material, citing one scene in particular as evidence.

Gulliver is known as 'The Beast' and is kept in chains until a fire rages and he's able to save the day by putting it out. Not with a hose, exactly. He has to improvise...Are we on the same page here? The sound you're hearing is Jonathan Swift trying to claw his way out of the grave, just so he can kill himself.

I don't hear anything, but Swift may be on his way to Mick LaSalle's office with a copy of Gulliver's Travels in hand, open to the following:

However, it was not long before I had an opportunity of doing his Majesty, at least as I then thought, a most signal service. I was alarmed at midnight with the cries of many hundred people at my door; by which, being suddenly awakened, I was in some kind of terror. I heard the word Burglum repeated incessantly; several of the emperor's court, making their way through the crowd, entreated me to come immediately to the palace, where her imperial majesty's apartment was on fire,...I found they had already applied ladders to the walls of the apartment, and were well provided with buckets, but the water was at some distance. These buckets were about the size of large thimbles, and the poor people supplied me with them as fast as they could: but the flame was so violent that they did little good. I might easily have stifled it with my coat, which I unfortunately left behind me in my haste, and came away only in my leathern jerkin. The case seemed wholly desperate and deplorable; and the whole magnificent palace would have infallibly been burnt down to the ground, if, by a presence of mind unusual to me, I had not suddenly thought of an expedient. I had, the evening before, drunk plentifully of a wine called glimgrim ... which is very diuretic. By the luckiest chance of the world I had not discharged myself of any part of it. The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by endeavoring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.

Swift was all about confronting allegedly refined readers with the reality of bodily functions, a fact drilled into my head during an undergraduate English course. I'm sure that Swift would find some reason to deplore the current interpretation of his story, but he'd probably welcome the moment LaSalle describes as sacrilege as a refreshing moment of near-fidelity to his original vision. The reviewer has never impressed me as the most incisive critic, and now he impresses me even less. Yet how many people depend on him or peers like Christy Lemire to learn whether a film is worth seeing or not? They might all be better off trusting their own instincts, and newspapers might be better off hiring writers who watch films and consult source materials more carefully.


VP81955 said...

Mick LaSalle is a wonderfully knowledgeable writer when it comes to classic Hollywood -- he arguably was the prime force in the pre-Code revival of the past two decades -- but I'm guessing he probably read a bowdlerized version of "Gulliver's Travels" in school. In other words, he likely was a victim of the literary equivalent of the Code. As Alanis Morrisette might say, isn't it ironic, doncha think?

Anonymous said...

I thought the pissing on the fire part of the story was pretty well known? Well, I guess not.

Samuel Wilson said...

I've been told that Ted Danson does the fire-extinguishing stunt in the TV miniseries version of the story. If so, then it's not as if this episode has been suppressed. It seems as if LaSalle jumped to a conclusion that any vulgarity must be a modern imposition. If he's been a champion of pre-code Hollywood in the past, as VP81955 writes, then more power to him. I just wonder how a 1932 Gulliver would have dealt with that fire, and what LaSalle would have thought about it.