Here’s my pal Malcolm Jones on Orson Welles’s forgotten masterpiece.
You guys know me as a P. Kael freak so you can imagine how honored I am to be able to reprint one of her reviews–of a fun movie too (Damn, I miss Raul Julia):
The movie is a confluence of fantasies, with a crime plot that often seems to be stalled, as if a projector had broken down. A good melodramatic structure should rhyme: we should hold our breath at the pacing as the pieces come together, and maybe smile at how neat the fit is. Here the pieces straggle, and by the end you’re probably ignoring the plot points. Raul Julia, who turns up as the Mexican Comandante Escalante, has a big, likable, rumbling presence; his role recalls the Leo Carrillo parts in movies like The Gay Desperado, with a new aplomb. And for a few seconds here and there Raul Julia takes over; he’s funny, and he detonates. (The character’s lack of moral conflicts gives his scenes a giddy high.) Then the film’s languor settles in again. An elaborate government sting operation waits while Mac and Escalante play Ping-Pong, and waits again while they sit in a boat and Mac talks drivel about bullfighting. (It’s the worst dialogue in the film; for sheer inappropriateness it’s matched only by Dave Grusin’s aggressive, out-to-slay-you score.)
Most of the dialogue is sprightly—it’s easy, everyday talk that actors can breathe to. But Towne’s directing is, surprisingly, better than his construction—maybe because when he plans to direct he leaves things loose. He says, “I make the character fit the actor, I don’t try to make the actor fit the character.” That sounds as if he’s highly variable, a modernist. But he isn’t. He likes bits from old movies, such as having the cops who are planning to surprise Mac be so dumb that they leave peanut shells wherever they’ve been posted. The difference between the way Towne handles the peanut shells and the way a director of the thirties would have (and did) is that he doesn’t sock the joke home; he glides over it. He wants the effect, yet he doesn’t want to be crude about it, so he half does it. Almost everything in the action scenes of the last three-quarters of an hour is half done. Often he gives you the preparation for action and no follow-through; sometimes the reverse.
Huge thanks to Kael’s daughter, Gina James, for giving me permission to share this with you.
About four months ago, I screened a beautiful 35mm print of the picture for my daughter and her friends. “Why do we keep watching this?” I suppose it’s [Joseph] Cotten and [Alida] Valli – that’s the emotional core of the picture. For instance, the scene where Holly Martins (Cotten) finally goes to her apartment. He’s a little drunk, and he tells her he loves her and he knows he doesn’t have a chance. That’s when she says, “The cat only liked Harry.” So that leads right into the great revelation of Harry Lime in the doorway with the cat – which is iconic. But it’s more than that – it’s one of the great epiphanies in movies: the cat turning the corner and nestling itself on those wing-tip shoes, and then Harry Lime being revealed when the light is turned on in the doorway and it shines in his face.
Remember Walker Percy’s great novel The Moviegoer? He refers to that moment in such a beautiful, special way. It became a moment internationally, a shared experience for a vast audience seeing that film. It’s not just a dramatic revelation – there’s something about Orson Welles’ smile at that point that shifts everything to another level, and it sustains no matter how many times you see it. Welles comes into the picture about halfway through. That’s the first time you actually see him, after you’ve spent so much time picturing him in your mind because everyone has been talking about him and thinking about him. So that might be the best revelation – or the best reveal, as they say – in all of cinema.
Once he’s ensconced in that ominous room at the Hotel Earle and charged by an inexplicably fawning studio exec with the task of churning out a script that will deliver “that Barton Fink feeling,” Barton embarks on a process so many writers experience, in miniature, every time we’re on deadline. The obdurate, set-in-stone first paragraph that will yield no further wisdom no matter how long we stare at it (and that, if we had the perspective our readers do, we would realize sounds suspiciously like the last opening we wrote). The importuning neighbor (John Goodman as the jolly yet obscurely menacing Charlie Meadows) who drops by for a friendly nip of hooch and winds up making off with our time, our inspiration and possibly — or so it’s suggested in “Barton Fink’s” violent third-act conflagration — our soul. The bitter acceptance of our own fraudulence, flowing in a continuously alternating current with the grandiloquent conviction that this time, by gum, we’ve broken the whole thing wide open.
There are films about writers — Jane Campion’s luminous Keats biopic “Bright Star” comes to mind — that capture the potential of literature to distill the essence of a human life (it helps when the writer’s words really are sublime, and as well used and understood by the filmmaker as Keats’s are by Campion). But “Barton Fink” is remarkable for just the opposite: its wicked, earthbound honesty about both the sinkhole of authorial self-obsession and the often sub-sublime results of those triumphant typing montages. The movie’s first, more realistic section is separated from its oneiric second half by a spectacular tracking shot that dives down the drain of a hotel sink, symbolizing the hero’s descent into damnation, madness or both. But my first thought every time I see that camera go down the drain is: Well, so much for that deadline.
Howard Hawks is a great example of a director who was rescued by film critics.
SARRIS: Well, by the French!
Could you talk about how that happened? Hawks was successful as a director in Hollywood, but not really known.
SARRIS: He was successful, but he wasn’t prestigious.
HASKELL: Wasn’t taken seriously.
SARRIS: I think he was only nominated for one Oscar, for Sergeant York. And he never won an Oscar, of course. The first time I heard about him was when my friend Eugene Archer, went to Paris in the 1950s on a Fulbright. He wrote me a letter and said, “Who the hell is Howard Hawks?” He had signed a contract for a book that he was going to do about six directors: Elia Kazan, John Ford, George Stevens, and so on. The Cahiers people said, “Ugh! What about Howard Hawks and Hitchcock?”
And so he wrote me this letter; it’s the first time I heard anybody being so high on Hawks. I had seen a lot of Hawks’s movies in revival houses, so I was really up on him. But I couldn’t quite get him, because he had so many different genres. And that’s what the French loved about him, precisely. Because for instance, Hitchcock would never do a western or a musical. And then Dan Talbot ran a Hawks festival at the New Yorker Theater, and I wrote something about it. And I was writing for little publications.
And you were reading the French critics on Hawks?
SARRIS: Yeah, in Cahiers. Truffaut and Godard were just crazy about Hawks. And especially at that time, Rio Bravo had just come out, and that was, to them, huge. And here, people just thought it was another western.
And another thing, it was sort of an accident of film history. Robert Warshow wrote “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” and he wrote about Little Caesar and The Public Enemy but he didn’t write about Scarface, because Scarface was not in general circulation for many years. It was a Howard Hawks picture, and the French had been on Scarface’s trail since ’32. So it was not just the Cahiers people. Even before Cahiers, Hawks was admired for Scarface. And all the other 1930s adventure films. But here in America, even Warshow didn’t know about Scarface. In fact, I hadn’t seen it when I was writing all these Hawks articles; it still wasn’t available. I only saw it very much later.
Steven Spielberg’s films have grossed approximately $1,500 million. He is 34, and well on his way to becoming the most effective popular artist of all time… What’s he got? How do you do it? Can I have some?
‘Super-intensity’ is Spielberg’s word for what he comes up with on the screen. His films beam down on an emotion and then subject it to two hours of muscular titillation. In Jaws the emotion was terror; in Close Encounters it was wonder; in Raiders of the Lost Ark it was exhilaration; in Poltergeist it was anxiety; and now in ET – which looks set to outdo them all – it is love.
Towards the end of ET, barely able to support my own grief and bewilderment, I turned and looked down the aisle at my fellow sufferers: executive, black dude, Japanese businessman, punk, hippie, mother, teenager, child. Each face was a mask of tears. Staggering out, through a tundra of sodden hankies, I felt drained, pooped, squeezed dry; I felt as though I had lived out a year-long love affair – complete with desire and despair, passion and prostration – in the space of 120 minutes.
From P. Kael:
Personal Best is a celebration of modern American women’s long-legged bodies. It’s also a coming-of-age movie that shows what most us go through–the painful experiences that later on we like to see as comedy. The surprise of this film–written, produced, and directed by the celebrated screenwriter Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo)–is that most of the story is told non-verbally, and character is revealed in movement. This is perhaps the first directing debut by a writer that buries motivation and minimizes the importance of words. Towne may have had to cut a couple of strings off his fiddle, but he plays a great lush, romantic tune. He bears down only on sensory experience, and he uses the actors, who are in fact athletes, as dancers. He presents a physical world that few of us know much about–the world of women athletes–and when he shows the adolescent Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) preparing for the start of a race by hammering a block into the ground it’s like Melville doing a how-to-chapter. This is a very smart and super-subtle movie, in which the authenticity of the details draws us in (as it does in Melville); Towne cares enough tot get them right, and he cares about the physical world in a reverent, fanatic way. When he shows Chris and the other heroine arm-wrestling, he concentrates on their throbbing veins and their sinews and how the muscles play off one another. He breaks down athletic events into specific details; you watch the athletes’ calves or some other part of them, and you get an exact sense of how their bodies work–it’s sensual and sexual, and it’s informative, too. This film celebrates women’s bodies without turning them into objects; it turns them into bodies. There’s an undercurrent of flabbergasted awe. Everything in the movie is physically charged…Watching this movie, you feel that you really can learn something essential about girls from looking at their thighs.
Feb 22, 1982
I can’t bear to watch movies directed by Baz Luhrmann. They are frenetic and dizzying and unpleasant. David Denby, reviewing Luhrmann’s new version of The Great Gatsby in this week’s New Yorker, says “Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste.” Denby also notes that “when Luhrmann calms down, however, and concentrates on the characters, he demonstrates an ability with actors that he hasn’t shown in the past.”
Leonardo DiCaprio looks like a good fit for Gatsby, doesn’t he? I’m curious to see his performance but I don’t know if I could sit through the rest of it.
Will young audiences go for this movie, with its few good scenes and its discordant messiness? Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that “The Great Gatsby” should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies. Fitzgerald’s illusions were not very different from Gatsby’s, but his illusionless book resists destruction even from the most aggressive and powerful despoilers.
For more on Gatsby check out this post by the late Roger Ebert.
Our pal Pete Richmond remembers Roger Ebert:
Unlike many of my social-media colleagues who were lucky enough to meet Roger Ebert, I never did. I only knew him a while back as a guy on a TV show, with another guy in the other chair, presuming to tell me whether a movie was good or not. He and Gene Siskel’s relationship had a comforting vibe, but I, a bristly pseudo-artist-critic from the City of New York, home of the Yankees uptown and birthplace of Damn Yankees downtown, with Woody’s Manhattan somewhere in between, I always felt as if I were being ever-so-slightly lectured by an ever-so-slightly professor about a subject far too subjective to be bandied about by a couple of Midwestern white guys. (On top of which, the thumbs-up, thumbs-down thing creeped me out: flashes of the emperor in his Coliseum luxury box deciding the fate of a gladiator, on a whim.)
Truth is, I never decided whether to go to a movie because of what Roger Ebert said about it. What could a guy for the plodding Trib know about the essence of a film, its nuance, its art? Real movies only aimed to capture the hearts and minds of we sophisticates on the East Coast (the Philistines who made them out in Lemming Angeles? As if.) But Carl Sandburg’s big-shouldered meatpacking town telling me whether Terrence Malick and David Lynch were frauds or geniuses? Please. Canby! Kael! Real salon-sambuca-sipping Critics! The Second City could teach me a lot about architecture…but movies?
Then I grew older, and the world grew snarkier, and Siskel died, which was sad-making, but still, if their pairing had made for such immortal TV, why go on with the show with a replacement? Roger and the other guy lost me for good.
And then, in 2010, a few years ago, apparently long out of the loop, I read about Ebert’s health. About how thyroid cancer had left him with no jaw, and after three reconstructive surgeries had failed, leaving him looking grotesque, he refused to try any more, because, in his own words, “This is what I look like.” He said he thought that as a culture we are very bad at dealing with sickness, and, in one fell swoop, he did a whole lot to change that.
And then I read that he was a master chef, even though he could not taste – indeed, took nutrition through a tube. And that while he couldn’t talk, he had a text-to-message program that allowed him to give interviews. And I started paying more attention to his movie reviews, He saw 306 movies last year.
And no, he wasn’t the best movie critic out there, not by any means. He was not Anthony Lane (although he was better than Denby, if I have to flash my prejudices.) But he wasn’t mean. He wasn’t attitudinal. He never let his ego get in the way of his criticism.
And when he announced yesterday that he was taking a Leave of Presence, because cancer had reappeared, but he announced about 11 different other things that he was going to be backing, I thought: Man, you did it. Ill, you’ve aged gracefully. Here comes a third act that the rest of us will admire, and enjoy: Selfless Roger Ebert projects all over the place: an arsenal of artistic sanity in a world gone angry.
Then he died. And I instantly knew what was up with that prolific message that had offered 24 hours earlier so much hope for the future: He was subtextually telling us: “This is the possibility of the future of what I have envisioned, but won’t see. A day or so from now, I’ll be gone. I hope you guys will take some of the good I hoped to create, express and exemplify, carry on.” Unlike any other writer (except for Updike), he didn’t even hint that he was on his way out. No one has ever died with more grace. We owe him this: to look at the insane good fortune with which we’ve been blessed, and to go to the movies.
Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, dig this piece on Pauline Kael by Ricard Kramer:
Pauline Kael herself opened the door to her apartment and it was the first of many doors she would open for me, over many years. Standing there in the hallway, I had yet to reach my full height, but she still had to look up to see me. I was amazed. She was tiny? How could that be? She was huge on the page, an empress!
“Oh shit,” she said. “You’re just a baby. Come on in.”
She laughed. The first time I would hear that laugh — musical, rangy, a broad’s laugh, a laugh that welcomed you even as it warned you that once you stepped through that door, you were expected to join her in her merry fuck-you to all bullshit, bluster, and begging-for-Oscars “worthiness.”
I followed her through her rooms. They were white, and the floors looked like someone had polished them with honey. The ceilings were high, and in every room books climbed from the floorboards all the way to the top. She led me to a table, and as she got me a soda, a large man emerged from the bathroom, tucking in his shirt. He nodded to me, didn’t offer a hand.
“Oh, fuck you, Bob,” she said. “You can shake hands with him. He’s not going to take a job from you.” “Bob” obeyed. “This man,” she told me then, “is our Next Great American Director, honey. And so far, I’m the only one who knows it. But that’ll change.” Next Great, etc. (yes, Robert Altman) left us and she told me about the movie he’d just finished, a comedy about the Korean War that was so good and so fresh the studio was talking about not releasing it — that before I arrived, he had been in tears.
“Peckinpah is a crybaby, too,” she said. “The tough guys always are. I don’t know about John Ford, but I’m not sure I want to know about John Ford.” (Thirty-five years later I sat across the aisle from Altman on a plane. He slept the whole way, so it wasn’t until we were both at baggage claim that I got up the nerve to introduce myself and share the scene of that long-ago afternoon. He thought for a moment, mumbled something, and then, adjusting his expensive suede cowboy hat, said, “Pauline Kael … Pauline Kael … Oh. Right. That’s the cunt who destroyed me.” And that is why one should never approach one’s idols at baggage claim. I’m convinced that Pauline would have laughed at that, though. She did love her bad boys.)