The House on Mango Street – Book Review (Full)

I just want to tell a story, and if people listen, and if it stays with you, it’s a story. For me, a story’s a story if people want to hear it…there are different times of your life that a story may come to you…We may say, “Oh, that story didn’t do anything for me,” instead of saying, “I’m not ready for that story.” We blame the author or the story itself; but I really think that you have to hear a good story at the right time in your life.

-Sandra Cisneros

 

The House on Mango Street isn’t a very good story. It’s a novel, of sorts, (though it’s somewhat autobiographical) that’s broken-up into “vignettes” all of which are told from the perspective of Esperanza, a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago. There is a single narrative thread that runs through the entirety of the work, that of Esperanza’s desire to escape the poverty-laden Mango Street, but the focus is mainly on certain moments or memories that reflect Esperanza’s increasing awareness of the world and of herself. This premise in and of itself isn’t bad, but what is being critiqued here is the execution. Sandra Cisneros could have written a good novel; unfortunately, The House on Mango Street is what I would call a “nothing-book”: a work that deals with ideas but in the most rudimentary and superficial ways. As a result, once the book ends it slips out of the reader’s mind. A story survives via its ability to latch onto the reader, but The House on Mango Street contains nothing that can help procure its memory: no poetic lines, no memorable characters, no imagery, no great ideas or insight. It is the literary equivalent of potato chips: a comfort food that might displace a certain gap, temporarily, but does so without providing any substantial benefit.

So let’s get into why this particular story isn’t very good. To do this let’s first look at how Cisneros decides to open her book:

“We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. But what I remember most is the moving a lot. Each time it seemed there’d be one more of us. By the time we got to Mango Street we were six—Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki, my sister Nenny and me.

The house on Mango Street is ours, and we don’t have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn’t a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it’s not the house we’d thought we’d get.”

Not exactly riveting, is it? Originally I was going to provide a brief summary of the events of the book, but do I really need to? An astute reader, just from the above paragraphs, should be able to predict the overall trajectory of the book. Perhaps the specifics will be missed, by you should already be able to guess the overall course of things. Here is another paragraph from the same chapter:

“But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb. Out back is a small garage for the car we don’t own yet and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they’re ordinary hallway stairs, and the house had only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom—Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny.”

Okay, now you should be able to see what the novel’s going to look like: Esperanza is going to experience loneliness, she is going to interact with the other oddball characters in the neighborhood, she is going to feel shame for her poverty, she is going to find things about herself, etc. From reading the above it’s already pretty obvious what the author is trying to do and how she will touch upon these things in the succeeding chapters. Basically, if a computer were to write a novel about a young girl living in a poor neighborhood this is how it would choose to open. It’s that rote of a book. These paragraphs, at some point, should have been subverted in some way; alone, they are not only too shallow and hackneyed, but the reader already knows what to expect from the rest of the novel. There is nothing that really grabs or hooks the reader. Cisneros could have chosen a more poetic means to introduce the reader to Esperanza’s world, but she decided, instead, to do it in the most straightforward and obvious way.

One might argue that Cisneros is trying, with this opening, to reflect the diary of a young girl, but this is just excuse-making. It’s okay to use kid-speak, but the above demonstrates a bad author’s idea of how a child speaks and conceives things. Compare these paragraphs with the writing in Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy and Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Both works center on young characters growing-up poor, but they also capture a child’s perspective without sacrificing artistry, but look at the language Cisneros uses. There is no sense of poesy. The only real attempt at metaphor is of the windows being “so small you’d think they were holding their breath.” But what does that even mean? I don’t know about you, but when I hold my breath I tend to expand rather than shrink. There is only one real attempt at poetry in these three paragraphs and it completely fails. I imagine Cisneros thought it was how a child might describe the windows; however, does Esperanza’s age somehow justify this failure? Of course not. Bad writing is bad writing. But going beyond the sentence-level the entirety of the novel is simplistic to an extreme fault. Even children are capable of moments of depth and insight. Great authors are not only aware this but are able to cull such moments in both meaningful and novel ways.

Unfortunately, Cisneros is not a great author. Here is the ending of one of the book’s earliest vignettes entitled “Boys and Girls” which is supposed to emphasize Esperanza’s loneliness:

“Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.”

Again, even if this is something that a child, in those exact words, might think or write that doesn’t mean that those words should have been included, at least in this sequence and context. Underneath the child’s voice there still has to be the mature mind of the author using the child’s voice to get at deeper things. Mere replication isn’t enough; in fact, the above might demonstrate how it can be a hindrance. I mean, the symbolism of the red balloon? My God. Just because a child might think that doesn’t mean that it’s still not horrid or trite. To paraphrase critic Dan Schneider, writing about boredom is no excuse for boring writing. If one were to capture boredom in its full nature, the author cannot simply imitate boredom, for while the author would be recreating the surface-level, he would be failing to capture the actual substance of boredom; the author would be addressing simply the what instead of the how or why. It’s like attempting to capture someone’s life by pointing a camera at him while he’s sitting in a room reading. Yes, surface details are addressed, but that doesn’t mean that you are capturing anything more, let alone anything of actual depth about the man’s life. And, not only that, it would be fucking boring to watch. Everyone is aware of what boredom is in the same sense that everyone is aware of how a child sees and thinks about things. It’s kind of pointless and dull to just emulate; it’s about how such things are utilized. Basically, instead of mimicking a childlike voice the key is to use a childlike voice in a compelling way. Just like boredom, an artist can still get at a child’s world without letting the child’s world completely dominate. Art doesn’t just imitate reality, but it also uses reality in order to get at its core.

But there are times where Cisneros attempts to get at deeper things. One of the themes of the novel is feminism. Esperanza becomes increasingly aware of how women are treated and how gender roles are incubated and perpetuated. Here is from a chapter where she despairs at her Spanish name and how it sounds (another tired trope of Chicano Literature,) which leads to this (emphasis mine):

“It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse–which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female–but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.

Look at this shit. You can write about your culture, you can write about misogyny and gender roles, but you have to do so well. You shouldn’t just state the message of your book so bluntly or else the reader will feel like he’s being talked down to. As mentioned before, this isn’t a book of depth, but comfort food masquerading as an important work. Cisneros treats all her ideas similarly throughout the book, with the broadest of strokes. Here is also a moment in which Esperanza demonstrates her own brand of feminist rebellion:

“I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”

Yeah, take that patriarchy! Here are two excerpts from the chapter “Smart Cookie.” The first:

“I could’ve been somebody, you know? my mother says and sighs. She has lived in this city her whole life. She can speak two languages. She can sing an opera. She knows how to fix a T.V. But she doesn’t know which subway train to take to get downtown. I hold her hand very tight while we wait for the right train to arrive.”

Which is soon followed-by:

“Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly until she sighs and points the wooden spoon at me. I could’ve been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head.

Then out of nowhere:

Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.

Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

And that’s how the chapter ends, like the other chapters. One could justify this by suggesting how she is undermining any potential melodrama by cutting things short. However, I would argue that her approach might be too extreme: she castrates each vignette before something of depth can be reached in the name of capturing some sort of “poetic” or “significant” moment. However, as I pointed out, many of the moments that she hones in are banal yet the fact that she just focuses on them, giving them a weight, suggests that she wants us to believe that these moments, by themselves, represent something more. What they’re supposed to represent is obvious, but they fail to fulfill anything of substance. Here, we get a moment with Esperanza’s mother, but it’s rote and pallid. I could have seen the mother’s “reveal” miles away. The way this scene is structured makes whatever Cisneros is trying to do completely apparent. It ends up just coming across as a lesson from a storybook rather than a real scene between two fleshed-out characters. We get how the mother, in the simplest terms, could have been “something” but was too ashamed to go to school because she didn’t have nice clothes. Could you get more obvious? Actually, you can. There is one chapter where Cisneros shows Esperanza discovering the feminine power of high-heels and then rejecting that power when men start ogling at her. I’m not kidding you.

Okay, here’s another chunk on a different topic. This one is from “Those Who Don’t”:

“Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.

But we aren’t afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby’s Brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that’s Rosa’s Eddie V., and the big one that looks like a dumb grown man, he’s Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore nor a boy.

All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood or another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.”

And it goes and goes…From “Geraldo”:

“They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders are sent home, the currency exchange. How could they?

His name was Geraldo. And his home is in another country. The ones he left behind are far away, will wonder, shrug, remember. Geraldo—he went north…we never heard from him again.”

The problem with this particular excerpt, like the previous one, is that it goes about taking a rather superficial and predictable approach. Look at the limp way she attempts to show the dehumanization of the character of Geraldo as he is shown to be perceived as just some Mexican who was killed in a drive-by: “They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats…” Anyone could have written this. If someone is thinking about how to write dehumanization this is exactly the first tactic he would think of employing. “How could they?” is a narrative cliché if there ever was one.

If a writer wishes to communicate ideas, or bring awareness to the reader, the writer must not write in a way that deadens the narrative; this means avoiding predictability and cliché. Many a Cisneros apologist have argued that The House on Mango Street is telling the story of people who are neglected, invisible to society (even though we have numerous stories about similar people who are downtrodden, but whatever,) but here’s the ending to the chapter entitled “Marin,” where the titular character is an older, lonely girl that Esperanza knows:

“Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.”

This is, again, another ending that shows how Cisneros has no clue as to what constitutes as a lasting poetic image or idea that could help us define, or at least intuit, a particular character. We get narrative clichés (a character dancing underneath a streetlight) and clichés at the sentence-level (“a star to fall, someone to change her life.”) If she had just cut out that last paragraph the vignette would have ended as thus:

“…Marin is older than us in many ways, the boys who do pass by say stupid things like I am in love with those two green apples you call eyes, give them to me why don’t you. And Marin just looks at them without even blinking and is not afraid.”

Would this have been a good chapter ending? No, but at least it would have been more fitting and effective as we are left with something that actually encapsulates Marin rather than present empty maudlin. However, another reason I chose to emphasize this part is to refute the claims of her defenders: even as Cisneros attempts to “tell the story” of these people, she ends up stereotyping them and indulging in cliché. As I mentioned before, clichés deaden writing, making it difficult for the reader to give a shit about what’s happening.

If Cisneros wanted to do people like Marin and Geraldo justice she should have put more effort into the art itself. Instead, she decided to not even write characters at all, but stereotypes. The people within the book pop in and out, most for the purpose of demonstrating or representing whatever it is Cisneros wishes to comment on. In one chapter there’s a character whose only purpose is to feel homesick for Mexico as she scolds her son for speaking English. There are numerous female characters throughout that contain no inner-lives and are just there to be possessed and treated poorly by males, showcasing the wretched cycle of abuse as perpetuated by societal expectations when it comes to gender. In other chapters there are male characters whose sole function is to treat Esperanza like an object as they attempt to kiss and touch her. Some critics have declaimed The House on Mango Street as “man-hating,” but that accusation ignores something larger: the fact that all of the characters are barely and poorly written. This is the bigger crime.

This leads me to “The Monkey Garden”. This is one of the longest chapters in the book and easily the best one. This is because the symbolism isn’t that bad and we get interactions between characters that are somewhat realistic, unlike the other chapters where the characters behave in such a way to only showcase whatever point Cisneros is attempting to convey. And the symbolism contained is allowed to stand alone without Cisneros explicitly stating what is supposed to be represented. Here is how this particular chapter begins:

“The monkey doesn’t live there anymore. The monkey moved—to Kentucky—and took his people with him. And I was glad because I couldn’t listen anymore to his wild screaming at night, the twangy yakkety-yak of the people who owned him. The green metal cage, the porcelain table top, the family that spoke like guitars. Monkey, gamily, table. All gone.”

Not a brilliant opening, but compare it to the others I’ve quoted: the reader isn’t exactly cued into what is to be expected, at least not with as much blunt. As a result, the reader is more inclined to continue-on. Also, note how more natural sounding the narration is here; it’s much more organic in portraying how a child might speak and prioritize certain things. In other words, this vignette doesn’t seem like it’s going to become a simple-minded lecture, at least not yet.

What follows is some description which could have been parsed, but some of it isn’t bad, although not very good. However, we suddenly get some insight into what attracts Esperanza to the yard the “monkey and his people” left behind:

“We liked to think the garden could hide things for a thousand years. There beneath the roots of soggy flowers were the bones of murdered pirates and dinosaurs, the eye of a unicorn turned to coal.”

The above might actually be the best part of the book. Note both the image and musicality of that final phrase. Not amazing stuff, but just compare it to “a balloon tied to an anchor,” or the preciousness of “windows so small they’re holding their breath.” The garden then is revealed to be a place for Esperanza to hide from the rest of the world and to maintain her little bubble of innocence. In contrast, she describes another neighborhood girl, Sally, as being too distracted by a group of boys to play and run around in the forsaken yard. We find out about a game “[o]ne of the boys invented” where they toss each other Sally’s keys, and she, pretending to be annoyed, attempts to get them back though she is participating in her given role within the game. Yes, it’s obvious what Cisneros is trying to do: it’s another “insight” on how children are indoctrinated into gender roles and become willing participants, hence perpetuating the cycle, but at least there is some realism involved between the characters. The characters, at least in this instance, don’t become mere marionettes for Cisneros, but seemingly real people.

Esperanza gets mad at Sally and it’s implied that she is frustrated by the ease in which Sally has abandoned her innocence in favor of boys. Esperanza fears that she will easily fall to the same fate after one parent declines to intervene. We still get some triteness and, as mentioned before, the whole thing is still heavy-handed, but there is at least some artistic effort involved. This might be because Cisneros, with this vignette, decided to expand rather than let a tiny, banal moment stand in importance

Unfortunately, look at how she decides to follow this chapter:

“Sally, you lied. It wasn’t what you said at all. What he did. Where he touched me. I didn’t want it, Sally. The way they said it, the way it’s supposed to be, all the storybooks and movies, why did you lie to me?”

Completely unnecessary. Basically this chapter attempts to do what the previous did, making it sort of redundant.

“Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn’t you hear me when I called? Why didn’t you tell them to leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn’t let me go. He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine.”

Okay, maybe the accusations of “man-hating” aren’t completely unfounded; 90 percent of the males in this book are sickos emptied of nuance and humanity, but whatever. As I just said, “Monkey Garden” covers Sally and Esperanza’s relation with her much better than this utterly cliché of a chapter does. Can you count all of the clichés? Do I even need to mention the title of the vignette—“Red Clowns”—and the conflation, though not explicitly stated, of the boys and the red (or devilish) clowns? Oh wait, I just did. Moving-on.

Alright, here is how the whole thing ends (spoilers!):

“One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.

Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.”

Yes, this book truly is a piece of shit. Cisneros eventually did “go back” to Mango Street via this book for the ones who couldn’t escape like she did, but, as I’ve previously stated, she did not do them justice. She took the people that populated her memory and melted them down to a pool of nothingess. Characters pop in and out, barred from growing and taking shape; they are simply tools for dull-minded lessons. The only character that comes close to becoming “real” is Sally, but that’s because a few chapters are dedicated to her; however, she still ends up becoming a stereotype. There are tired symbols like “the four skinny trees” which Esperanza tells the reader represent strength. There is, of course, the house itself which Esperanza is, of course, ashamed of. And I didn’t even touch on the chapters where Cisneros denigrates the rich for disregarding the presence of the poor (how brave!) Despite claims to the contrary, Cisneros does not capture a world neglected by mainstream thought for she provides the reader no access to that world. She only gives us words: empty, accessible, comforting words.

But The House on Mango Street does have its place. It’s good for teachers who want to introduce children to the (very) basics of racism and misogyny. It’s good for grandma’s book club which thrives on limp and safe discussions on “deeper matters.” As literary comfort food it’s a substantial meal for someone who knows nothing but fast food and potato chips. But to say it’s a great work of art would be wrong and demonstrably so, regardless of whether you like the book or not. You might, for whatever reason, have a fondness for a one-legged chair, but that doesn’t mean that that chair fulfills its function well. In the same sense, a work of art is measured in how well it communicates, and to say The House on Mango Street communicates anything well is to expose one’s lack of artistic knowledge and instinct. “But, I really felt something when I was reading this book! I was engaged! That has to mean it’s doing something right!” Well, it means something; it either means you haven’t read a lot of books, or that you happen to be on the same wavelength as this particular novel. The worth of a piece of art is measured by its potential to affect without relying on individual biases. I personally hate The Doors, but I cannot objectively say they are a terrible band just because I’m not crazy about organ music or Jim Morrison’s singing style. Their music is effective; I may not be able to be receptive to this effectiveness, but I can still argue how someone who isn’t possessed by my biases could still be. However, if you are affected by something that is a piece of crap, chances are you are the one that is putting in the effort, not the work itself, whether you are aware of it or not. You are the one bringing your feelings to the work and rendering it something it’s not. People are affected by the rantings of a Donald Trump or an Anne Coulter—does that mean they are good communicators, or rather that their followers are allowing themselves to be effected by their stolid words? So, with this I say if you still are not convinced by my assessment put aside your feelings and wants (the things you bring to the words,) and just look at the words I’ve quoted above by themselves, and then ask yourself: do they stay?

Originally published on Cosmoetica

The House on Mango Street – Book Review

You can find a recent review I did on Cosmoetica, this one being on The House on Mango Street, the famous novel by Sandra Cisneros.

I may post the review in full on this site as well, but in the meantime here are some points that I make in regards to art that were, in the end, excised from the review due to length:

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The problem, however, is when people start to conflate the comfort Cisneros provides with things of actual depth. Despite its being considered Chicano Lit it doesn’t do much to expand the reader’s purview or understanding, opting instead to provide confirmation of certain views. Do we really need to be told that Mexican-Americans are human, or that societal expectations affect women for the ill? Instead of exploring the substance of bigotry and its origins Cisneros is fine with feeding the reader the answers he is already aware of and in ways that are accessible and easy to swallow. The reader’s feelings of comfort are mistaken with the consumption of something substantial for ideas contained in the novel are “important.” As a result, you have a book that you can hold-up and say “See, this book talks about important things! It must be good, and I’m a good person for advocating such tripe!” But if you want a story to survive you have to do more than cater to the reader’s feelings and expectations. You have to do more than mimic what people want to “hear.” More has to be done.

When Moby-Dick was first published hardly anyone wanted to read it. Yet, it has managed to survive and is, rightfully, considered a classic today. It did not serve the needs or desires of the people in Melville’s time, but greatness does more than act as a gentle service for an individual or population. One could argue that The House on Mango Street has “survived” and, therefore, is a great work, but that just makes it an exception. Mango Street is an example of “The Bukowski Effect.” Despite Charles Bukowski’s mediocrity he is still being read two decades after his death; however, this isn’t because he actually provides anything to the reader of artistic or philosophical worth, but rather because he provides an “image” that people like to latch onto. His poetry isn’t very good, but his work in conjunction with “the man” conjures up an attractive image, that of the rebellious and tragic drunkard. One might call Bukowski “an original,” and in some ways he was, but I bet that you, the reader, can write a poem in his style that is equal to some of his best with little to no effort. Now, attempt the same with the style of a Yeats or Rilke. Even if you manage to capture Rilke’s voice I doubt that you would be able to write something as great as “The Panther.” Bukowski, despite his originality, is far easier to emulate both stylistically and qualitatively. Just because he was “the first” doesn’t mean that he was good.

Now let’s look at Mango Street with the same lens. It was first published in the eighties but is still being read today. Classes, from middle school to college, are assigned this dreck largely because of what it represents rather than what it accomplishes. Sure, it might have been a “first,” in the sense that it was a flagship book for Chicano Lit, introducing the literary world to Mexican-American and Latino Literature, but let’s consider something: if Mango Street was never written, would Chicano Lit be in an entirely different place as it is now within the mainstream? Perhaps, though I have a feeling that if Mango Street was never around some other book would have taken its place. Like Bukowski’s poetry, Mango Street is completely replicable and replaceable, regardless of the quality of its sentiments or the things it represents.

The point is is that the lasting popularity of works like Mango Street is largely due to chance and people’s artificial prolonging of its legacy. And besides, will Mango Street still be read a hundred years from now? What about 500? The book’s popularity hinges on its subject matter and accessibility and the times we currently live in. I doubt the claims for its “novelty” and “importance” would be enough to save it from becoming negated by time. There is simply no reason for a person in the year 2525 to read this piece of shit (hell, there’s no reason to read it now.) However, there would still be reason to read Black Boy or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for greatness always has something to offer that goes beyond the ephemeral. A thousand years from now, notions of “blackness” or “whiteness” may have long been dissolved, but Black Boy would still be relevant for it gets at the core of not just racism, but certain aspects human nature that allow such prejudice to arise. This is because Richard Wright was a writer who put his art at the forefront. Maybe Sandra Cisneros really prioritized “the art” when writing her book, but regardless of intentions her book fails because she is a lousy artist, not because of its message or subject matter.

Alex Sheremet’s “Woody Allen: Reel to Real” – Book Review

Alex Sheremet’s Woody Allen: Reel to Real, a critique on the filmography of Woody Allen, is both good and, possibly, important as well. I say important for a number of reasons: first, there’s the fact that it’s an ebook published by Take2Publishing as a “DigiDialogue”; Sheremet encourages readers and critics to comment on the book’s content and the comments (at his discretion) shall become a part of later editions of the book. I’m not sure if this is particularly innovative, but it both utilizes the ebook format in order to, potentially, create a dialogue between the author and reader, and the reader gets more bang for his buck as the book automatically updates without the reader having to fork out any more cash (if you paid for the book you can receive a free subscription for future updates by registering on the book’s official website, you can also post your own comments on Sheremet’s website (http://alexsheremet.com/) which may be included in later updates.) Even better, these updates will also most likely include critiques of future Woody Allen films which is nice considering Woody Allen releases a new film every other week. Reel to Real serves as a possible model for future authors considering the possibilities of the ebook format.

Aside from the technical aspects, the book also proves its import by the way it approaches its subject: Sheremet chooses to focus on not Woody Allen the person, but rather Woody Allen as defined through his work. Much discussion regarding his films are often obscured by things unrelated to what’s actually on screen, specifically Allen’s relationship with women and the various scandals that he’s associated with. Sheremet, as a critic, realizes the importance of separating the creator from his work when assessing said work (and besides, in the long run, all that matters will be Woody Allen’s films, not the events of his life, thus Sheremet’s book is going to have greater longevity than other books that focus more on the gossip and scandals.) However, more importantly, Sheremet’s book is also a demonstration of a number of posits unspecific to Woody Allen and applicable to film and criticism in general. The major ones are thus:

  • Art can be looked at objectively, meaning that, while art is subjective in the sense one often has an emotional relationship to a film/poem/sculpture/etc., a piece of art is an object that also exists on its own outside of the viewer’s emotional purview. This establishes a distinction between liking/disliking a film and realizing that it is, on its own, good/bad, objectively.
  • As mentioned before, it’s important for one who wishes to give something a fair assessment of an object to not be influenced by what he thinks/believes of its creator.
  • An object, when one is critiquing it, has to judge it on its own terms. For example, it’ unfair to damn a slapstick comedy for not having a political thrust.
  • There is a difference between plot and narrative. A film may not have much in terms of plot, but what matters most is whether the narrative is good or not.

These are some of the basic posits that drive Sheremet’s critique on Woody Allen’s films and this is where the book establishes most of its import. Most people say that art is merely subjective (though, I would argue, that no one truly believes this regardless of what they say/think) meaning people often forget that it’s possible to like a film while recognizing its immanent crapiness. The Doors is one of the greatest bands ever, but I can’t stand them, and there is nothing wrong with this; it would be unfair, however, for me to say they suck just because I don’t like organ solos. People often forget that art is like rhetoric in that its ultimate goal is to express an idea/ideas. One may not like Christopher Hitchens’s positions or might disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean that they way he argues his positions is in anyway inadequate. And this is comparable to art for, like rhetoric, there are effective ways and ineffective ways to communicate certain ideas. The second posit is, perhaps, more pertinent to the subject of the book as people often judge Woody Allen’s works based on their personal opinions on Woody Allen, the man. This is also unfair for it doesn’t give the films themselves a chance.

Now, these posits may seem obvious, but they are often neglected, or dismissed. This is problematic because, if everyone truly thinks art is subjective, then everything becomes lowered. If one believes art is subjective than they must accept the implications, meaning, then, that every piece of art is qualitatively equal. This means that a painting by Monet is equal, in an objective sense, to fecal matter smeared across a canvas and it’s the viewer’s opinion, only, that renders their worth in contrast to the other. Sheremet’s book is important for it helps one realize that, yes, there are films that are better than others and that they should be recognized as such, regardless of what whether we like those particular films or not. Do we really want to exist in a world where Monet’s Waterlilies is objectively equal to Brown on White? However, not only is art subjective and objective, but one can, as Sheremet shows, able to see a film objectively and make a case for whether is succeeds or not in expressing its ideas.

While I’ve made the case for the book’s potential significance, both in regard to Woody Allen and art criticism in general, it’s not enough for a book to just be important; one also has to be able to do his ideas justice as well by effectively expressing them to the reader; fortunately, Sheremet manages to do such. The bulk of the book concerns the films of Woody Allen of which are critiqued individually (pretty much every film of his since the 60’s gets an essay); there are five sections, the first four focus on Allen the director with the fifth touching on films he’s merely acted or appeared in, not directed. The first section looks at Allen’s “early, funny ones” from 1965 to 1976, the second is Allen’s “Golden Age” which begins with Annie Hall, ending with Husbands and Wives; the third on his films from 1992 to 2004, and finally the fourth looks at his more recent work. While I’m no film expert, and certainly not one on Woody Allen, I have read plenty of movie criticism online and I can say that Sheremet’s essays easily rank above the majority of critiques out there. For example, here’s from his critique on Sleeper:

There are a number of memorable scenes, such as Luna (Diane Keaton) longing to be a poet, yet only being able to write trite , silly words (apparently, there is virtually no written history left of prior periods.) It’s an interesting little detail, for while it is all too often assumed that art moves in a direction all its own, with no logical way to ‘get’ at it, for ‘it’s all opinion, anyway,’ the fact is, art is always climbing in complexity, and is utterly dependent upon former models and antecedents. Thus, with culture gone, and life’s deeper concerns more or less eliminated, Luna has no choice but to be banal–down to her inability, at least at first, to make complex ethical choices. The film’s futuristic socialites are similarly banal, behaving with the same inanity one finds in Woody’s more mature ‘upper crust’ films, a comment, perhaps, that people are more or less wired for such a behavior…

This is just a few sentences from the critique, but these sentences cover much ground. For one thing, Sheremet makes an interesting comment on a detail (Luna’s terrible poetry) that is often overlooked by most critics then digs deeper, commentating not just on the film, but on the nature of art and how it’s reliant on the past in order to push upward, however he’s still within the film’s realm; note how he’s neither imbuing things that which are not there nor does he stray too far from the subject at hand. It’s a great observation, but one that the film itself is making, Sheremet is just pulling it into the reader’s attention, but this is what all good critics should do: make relevant and insightful observations on the film being critiqued. Sheremet also shows that a few of Allen’s “lighter” films, even if they aren’t particularly deep, sometimes contain a depth that even most “serious” and “high-minded” films lack.

There are a number of excellent (and convincing) critiques contain within, perhaps one of the most notable being his analysis of Manhattan which Sheremet argues that, while being rightfully praised, has still been misinterpreted by many critics. He states that “[o]ften, it’s been called a “love letter” to New York, or what’s worse, a “love poem,” but it’s really an excoriation of Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and the projection of his ideals, which are incongruently set against all that’s beautiful and lush.” This is not trite contrarianism for Sheremet actually provides evidence from the film and builds his case. Another one of the book’s highlights is his appraisal of Stardust Memories; despite the majority of critics panning the film, Sheremet sees it for what it is: one of the greatest films of all time. Sheremet addresses most of the common negative criticisms targeted at the film and, almost methodically, counters each of them whilst making the case for its greatness. For instance, he refutes the claim that the movie’s opening is a rip-off of the opening scene from Fellini’s 8 1/2. While the influence of Fellini is manifest, Sheremet, however, points out that Allen “not only changes the scene’s terms, but absolutely betters them,” citing how Allen’s opening is suffused with more and even greater symbolism. Here is how he describes the opening to Stardust Memories:

The opening shot of filmmaker Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) shows him stuck in a train full of unhappy people—or, perhaps, more accurately, ‘losers’—with another train full of upbeat, successful types blowing kisses at him. Realizing this, Sandy shows his ticket to the attendant, but while he speaks, as if explaining why he belongs on the other train, the whistle obscures even his voice, thus ‘blotting’ him out, not merely trapping him. As he tries to escape, there is a suitcase full of sand that slowly drips its contents on the floor, a wonderful little symbol of time and futility, which all ends with the train’s passengers on a beach, walking, as if making a pilgrimage, to a trash heap—perhaps of the bodies and belongings on the other train? This, too, might say something of ‘success’ and its perception, as Sandy is forced to confront his desires, and where they end.

Now, if Sheremet had merely followed the path of other critics he would have engaged in the same, rote dismissal of the opening as being a mere “rip-off.” However, he doesn’t let other critics impel his analysis and lets the scene speak for itself. Sheremet acknowledges some of the wonderful symbolism, such as the whistle, the suitcase full of sand and the trash-heap that encapsulates many of the film’s themes. But because Stardust Memories has been so poorly evaluated by critics blinded by their own biases they have also contributed to the neglect of a great work of art. Sheremet not only then makes the case for Stardust Memories, but for good criticism for criticism allows one to understand and appreciate works of art deserving of the time.

Sheremet defends other Woody Allen films that have been either neglected or are rarely seen and evaluated objectively such as Interiors, Celebrity, Cassandra’s Dream and Scoop. He also argues the inferiority of some critical favorites, such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris (though he still argues that the former has some great moments while its entirety being overrated.) What’s great about this book is not so much the originality of his assessments in contrast to the majority, but the reasoning he uses to construct those assessments. For example, Sheremet agrees with the consensus which lauds Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he comments on things that are not only missed by many critics, but are actually pertinent to why the film is so great:

Dolores is not only killed, but her utter shallowness is remembered by Judah, even after her death, wherein she confuses musical composers, or waxes poetic on the eyes being ‘windows to the soul,’ despite us knowing that her own eyes were empty, with neither definition nor identity when she was killed. Yet, for all this, it is Judah at the center of it all, and it’s Judah who, far more than being a mere symbol or plaything, is something far more real. He is just ‘another guy’…separated only by the style and the frequency of his rationalizations, while the fact that he is ultimately a “winner,” to use Dan Schneider’s word, affirms the Bible’s oft-ignored dictum: for whoever has, more shall be given, but whoever does not have, even that shall be taken away. This is ‘might’ as it begets might, and riches for Judah Rosenthals, but even as Judah argues at the film’s end, no fairy tales, nor happy endings.

Not only is this damn good writing, but it also deepens the reader’s appreciation for the film. But Sheremet’s analyses on some of Allen’s “lesser” films are also quite fruitful. His essay on September is partially a lesson on the difference between a film being great and one being merely good. He writes that while September is “a character study of a ‘damaged’ woman…there is still no defining moment where this is obvious, or really comes to the fore via great visuals, dialogue, or symbols…There is nothing, for instance, like Dorrie’s mental breakdown in Stardust Memories, fractured via edits, or Martin Landau’s ‘gaze into the unknown’ via the dead lover’s eyes in Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

It also helps that Sheremet is a pretty good writer. For instance, his review of another “lesser” film of Woody Allen’s, Alice, is written in a second-person narrative style that positions the reader as the director of the film. It’s an interesting approach that does a number of things: 1.) It makes an essay on a film that isn’t particularly deep a bit more interesting to read. 2.) It helps diversify the essays a bit stylistically. 3.) It further helps the reader divide Woody Allen, the person, from the film, demonstrating one of the book’s central posits as well, it stresses the importance of that posit. Critics, according to Sheremet, treated the film as “mere puffery” for it succeeded some of Allen’s greater works, yet if the film had been directorial debut by someone else then the film would have been praised.

However, this is not just a book of film criticism, but is also about film criticism itself as an entire section of the book deals with six major critics of Woody Allen—Roger Ebert, Dan Schneider, James Berardinelli, Pauline Kael, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ray Carney—with the first three belonging to the “pro-Woody” camp and the latter three being in the con. Sheremet dissects some of the critics’ arguments without relying on snark, nor does he ever nitpick; he takes their criticisms, like Allen’s films, head-on. For example, while he argues that Berardinelli often got Allen right, more so than a lot of other critics, he emphasizes that it’s not just enough have the right conclusions, but to be able to realize why such conclusions are correct and justify them (though he does point out that Berardinelli often comes up with good reasons to back up his claims.) But, perhaps, the most can be gained from this section is from Sheremet’s views of Allen’s detractors. Kael, Rosenbaum and Carney all seem to suffer from similar things: an inability to address a film on its own terms and an inability to separate the artist from the art. This section is ultimately a demonstration on what it means to be a critic and what all that entails. As a bonus, Sheremet includes a brief correspondence between him and Rosenbaum where Rosenbaum provides some rather bizarre views on Allen and the role of the critic (for example, Rosenbaum claims that the last thing a critic wants to do is evaluate yet, as Sheremet points out to him, that’s all Rosenbaum has ever done.)

Afterwards, Allen finally gets “his say” as Sheremet covers the director’s views regarding his contributions to film as well as his influences. In a sense, this essay can be lumped-in with the previous section for it regards Allen as a critic of his own work, though he’s a better critic of his work than his detractors (I doubt that Allen and his films are as obsessed with his Judaism as Pauline Kael is.) What’s good about this essay is that it hardly dwells on the minutia of Allen’s personal life for, at this point, it would be unnecessary to do so for there are tons of biographies on the man and such information would be largely superfluous in a book focused mostly on the films alone. What this essay shows is that Allen has often made insightful comments on his films, but is also somewhat unreliable when it comes to evaluating his own work (though, again, he seems to be better than most critics.) Allen often regards his films to be inferior to their influences even though, as Sheremet points out, that Allen often used his influences and bettered them as well. This essay also shows that artists sometimes can’t be trusted when they talk about their own work.

There are many passages that I could have quoted, but I’ll instead encourage you to seek out the book for yourself (and by seek out I mean clicking on a couple of buttons before you reach Amazon.com.) It’s not only a great book on Woody Allen, but on art and the art of criticism, which will serve as a great resource for those interested in the ways film operates.