I have struggled with some of the reviews I have read about HBO's “John Adams”. Both the NYT and the New Yorker reviews seem to miss the quality of the thing. They hang their reviews of the series on the material facts of its bits and pieces. I thought both Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney were brilliant when seen across the series (and casting Giamatti was an act of genius). And the full course of seven episodes serves up a life that is both inspiring and paints a clear picture of a man whose contribution seems uncertain at times; but a man who, near his end, reaches personal resolution in a field while looking at a flower.
This experience illuminates for me the trap that many critics fall into. Explication wipes out the feeling for the thing. Critics, myself included, get lost in the dry ingredients and miss the form of the moment.
Cathy Horyn is a very good critic at the NY Times and I still have a quote of hers from three years ago near me. Right in the middle of ticking away comments on a fashion show, she writes some of the best words on design and criticism- whether that criticism is of architecture, fashion or film - I have ever read,
“The trouble with fashion writing, and deadline writing in general, is that it automatically acts like a search engine in pursuit of a cliché: nautical stripes, androgyny. It doesn't capture the moment of consciousness (and it is only a moment in the best of shows) when the simple but emphatic line of the dress and the bleached-white crispness of wide cotton trousers worn high in the old manner on the waist with a natural linen halter suddenly offers an illumination of a true design principle.”
“You say: But can clothes do that? The dry ingredients of the MaxMara collection were striped cotton jersey shorts and T-shirts with bright appliqués of flowers at the hem; slouchy linen trousers and loose open-back blouses; long sack dresses; and a homey beige cardigan shrugged over a white cotton bodysuit, its halter neck gathered almost carelessly with a flat cotton tie. “
“That neckline was key to grasping the subtle modernity of the collection. Somebody at MaxMara - the company doesn't promote a single designer - knew how to use a simple design gesture to communicate the ideal of freedom.”
Horyn shows an amazing ability: grasping the importance of what is broadcast quietly by a simple element of design like a halter neck draped across a collar bone in the middle of a fashion show. The thing about "John Adams" for me was in that short film clip of man with a flower in a field in the midst of an international political drama.