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Million Dollar Movie

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Here’s a cool 2008 Museum of the Moving Image interview with Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris about Howard Hawks.

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.

Million Dollar Movie

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

Million Dollar Movie

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.)

 

Million Dollar Movie

Over at Variety our good pal Jon Weisman celebrates “Diner”.

Check it out:

Though studio execs had their own vision problems for the film 30 years ago, Levinson’s audition process had laid solid groundwork. Given how dependent the pic was on naturalistic chatter, he had to look not only at how the actors would play the part, but how they would play against each other.

“Ellen Barkin, oddly enough, is the only person I met for (the role of) Beth,” Levinson says. “She came in, I met her, that was it. Five or six hundred guys, one person for Beth.”

Rourke, who was coming off a memorable supporting turn in “Body Heat,” probably had the highest profile at the time, but future “Mad About You” star Reiser wound up playing a key role as well, even though his was the smallest part among the guys and his casting was fairly accidental.

Reiser came to the auditions not in hopes of a part but just to keep a friend company. Levinson says that casting director Ellen Chenowith noticed Reiser in the hallway and called him in. Arguably as much as anyone, Reiser raised everyone’s game.

“When we got to the improv-y stuff, we had a professional comic in our midst who was going to eat us alive if we didn’t stay on our toes, Stern says. “There was a line that Reiser had. Somebody said, ‘You think she’ll go down for the count?’ Reiser, out of nowhere, said, ‘No, but I heard she blew the prince.’

“We had to stop shooting that day, because we got so hysterical. Tried for half an hour, and they finally shut us down.”

I first watched “Diner” on VHS when I was in junior high. I loved it and the next day I was told my mom about it at breakfast. My step father said, “It’s just a boring movie about a bunch of jerks sitting around wasting time.” I was convinced that my step father would never understand me.

The Other Woman

Nice piece by Sarah Weinman over at Slate on Penelope Gilliatt:

In her first few years at The New Yorker Gilliatt wrote, as sharply as she ever had, on films as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. She’d always made the case for comedy as an art form, helping to revive the reputation of the “poetic widower” Buster Keaton with a crucial 1964 profile in the Observer. In The New Yorker that advocacy continued. “Maybe all funniness has a tendency to throw settled things into doubt,” she wrote in The New Yorker about a Jacques Tati revival. “Where most people will automatically complete an action, a great comedian will stop in the middle to have a think about that point of it, and the point will often vanish before our eyes.” Even when Gilliatt got things wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, she did so with panache. (On the “Gynecological Gothic” 1968 Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby: “Why on earth does a major film-maker feel seduced by a piece of boo-in-the-night like this story?”)

Gilliatt also thrived, at first, on the half-year schedule of reviewing films in New York and writing for page and screen in London. Her screenplay for 1971’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday garnered an Oscar nomination—as well as [Pauline] Kael’s approval—for its sensitive portrayal of a love triangle between a divorced working woman, a well-off Jewish doctor, and the man they both fall for. (Triangles figured prominently in Gilliatt’s fiction, from her 1965 debut novel One by One to the playlet Property, a devastating portrayal of a woman caught, like chattel, between her first two husbands.)* Her strongest short-story collection, Nobody’s Business (1972), featured charming, off-kilter, dialogue-driven portraits of those looking for “grace of mortal order” in a chaotic world. (One prescient story looks at the relationship between a cyberneticist and his creation, FRANK, for “Family Robot Adapted to the Needs of Kinship.”)

Million Dollar Movie

From the collection “When The Lights Go Down,” here is Pauline Kael on Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

Nicholson is an actor who knows how to play an audience; he knows how to get us to share in a character. In The Last Detail, his sweet-sadastic alternating current kept us watching him, and we followed his lowlifer’s spoor through Chinatown. Nicholson is no flower-child nice guy; he’s got that half smile–the calculated insult that alerts audiences to how close to the surface his hostility is. He’s the people’s freak of the new stars.

…Since Nicholson doesn’t score when he plays unmagnetic characters–and he must it by now–the danger in Cuckoo’s Nest is that he’ll take over: that he’ll use his boyish shark’s grin, the familiar preening, brutal one-upsmanship. He’s won the audience with his cocky freaks, and this is the big one–the bull goose loony. Nicholson can be too knowing about the audience, and the part he plays here is pure temptation. Before Kesey went to Stanford to study writing, he’d gone to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming an actor, and role-playing is built into McMurphy’s character: he’s swept up by the men’s desire for him to be their savior. Except for the red-haired-giant externals, the authority-hating hero of the book is so much of a Nicholson role that the actor may not seem to be getting a chance to do much new in it. But Nicholson doesn’t use the glinting, funny-malign eyes this time; he has a different look–McMurphy’s eyes are father away, muggy, veiled even from himself. The role-playing is still there, in the grandstanding that McMurphy does when he returns to the ward after shock treatment; it has to be there, or there’s no way of accounting for why he’s sacrificed. But Nicholson tones it down. As McMurphy, he doesn’t keep a piece of himself out of the character, guarding it and making the audience aware that he’s got his control center and can turn on the juice. He actually looks relaxed at times, punchy, almost helpless–you can forget it’s Nicholson. McMurphy is a tired, baffled man, and with his character more unresolved he gains depth. [Director, Milos] Forman hasn’t let the McMurphy character run away with the picture, and it’s Nicholson’s best performance.

And from the same book:

Despite his excessive dynamism (and maybe partly because of it), this satirical actor has probably gone further into the tragicomedy of hardhat macho than any other actor. He exposes cracks in the barroom-character armor and makes those cracks funny, in a low-down, grungy way. With his horny leers and his little-boy cockiness and one-upmanship, he illuminates the sources of male bravado. His whole acting style is based on the little guy coming on strong, because being a tough guy is the only ideal he’s ever aspired to. This little guy doesn’t make it, of course; Nicholson is the macho loser-hero. (In an earlier era, Nicholson would probably have played big guys.)

Million Dollar Movie

Roger Ebert on “The Thin Man”:

Nick Charles drinks steadily throughout the movie, with the kind of capacity and wit that real drunks fondly hope to master. When we first see him, he’s teaching a bartender how to mix drinks (“Have rhythm in your shaking … a dry martini, you always shake to waltz time”). Nora enters and he hands her a drink. She asks how much he’s had. “This will make six martinis,” he says. She orders five more, to keep up.

Powell plays the character with a lyrical alcoholic slur that waxes and wanes but never topples either way into inebriation or sobriety. The drinks are the lubricant for dialogue of elegant wit and wicked timing, used by a character who is decadent on the surface but fundamentally brave and brilliant. After Nick and Nora face down an armed intruder in their apartment one night, they read about it in the morning papers. “I was shot twice in the Tribune,” Nick observes. “I read you were shot five times in the tabloids,” says Nora. “It’s not true,” says Nick. “He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

And Pauline Kael’s blurb:

Directed by the whirl-wind W.S. Van Dyke, the Dashiell Hammett detective novel took only 16 days to film, and the result was one of the most popular pictures of its era. New audiences aren’t likely to find it as sparkling as the public did then, because new audiences aren’t fed up, as that public was, with what the picture broke away from. It started a new cycle in screen entertainment (as well as a Thin Man series, and later, a TV series and countless TV imitations) by demonstrating that a murder mystery could also be a sophisticated screwball comedy. And it turned several decades of movies upside down by showing a suave man of the world (William Powell) who made love to his own rich, funny, and good-humored wife (Myrna Loy); as Nick and Nora Charles, Powell and Loy startled and delighted the country by their heavy drinking (without remorse) and unconventional diversions. In one scene Nick takes the air-gun his complaisant wife has just given him for Christmas and shoots the baubles off the Christmas tree. (In the ’70s Lillian Hellman, who by then had written about her long relationship with Hammett, reported that Nora was based on her.) A married couple, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, wrote the script; James Wong Howe was the cinematographer. The cast includes the lovely Maureen O’Sullivan (not wildly talented here), the thoroughly depressing Minna Gombell (her nagging voice always hangs in the air), and Cesar Romero, Porter Hall, Harold Huber, Edward Brophy, Nat Pendleton, Edward Ellis (in the title role), and a famous wirehaired terrier, called Asta here. Warning: There’s a lot of plot exposition and by modern standards the storytelling is very leisurely. Produced by Hunt Stromberg, for MGM.

It’s the most cheerful drinking movie ever and one that is still a pure joy.

Million Dollar Movie

Adaptations…

From The Age of Movies, here’s Pauline Kael on The Iceman Cometh (1973):

The Iceman Cometh is a great, heavy, simplistic, mechanical, beautiful play. It is not the Eugene O’Neill masterpiece that Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the finest work of the American theater, is, but it is masterpiece enough–perhaps the greatest thesis play of the American theater–and it has been given a straightforward, faithful production in handsome dark-toned color in the subscription series called the American Film Theatre. A filmed play like this doesn’t offer the sensual excitement that movies can offer, but you don’t go to it for that. You go to it for O’Neill’s crude, prosaic virtuosity, which is also pure American poetry, and, as with most filmed dramas, if you miss the “presence” of the actors, you gain from seeing it performed by the sort of cast that rarely gathers in a theater. John Frankenheimer directly fluently and unobtrusively, without destroying the conventions of the play. The dialogue is like a ball being passed from one actor to the next; whenever possible (when the speakers are not too far apart), the camera pans smoothly from one to another. We lose some of the ensemble work we’d get from a live performance, but we gain a closeup view that allows us to see and grasp each detail. The play here is less broad than it would be on the stage, and Frankenheimer wisely doesn’t aim for laughs at the characters’ expense (even though that O’Neill may have intended), because the people are close to us. The actors become close to us in another way. Actors who have been starved for a good part get a chance to stretch and renew themselves. In some cases, we’ve been seeing them for years doing the little thing passes for acting on TV and in bad movies, and their performances here are a revelation; in a sense, the actors who go straight for the occasion give the lie to the play’s demonstration that bums who live on guilt for what they don’t do can’t go back and do it.

And The Dead (1987):

The announcement that John Huston was making a movie of James Joyce’s “The Dead” raised the question “Why? What could images do that Joyce’s words hadn’t? And wasn’t Huston pitting himself against a master who, though he was only twenty-five when he wrote the story, had given it full form? (Or nearly full–Joyce’s language gains from being read aloud.) It turns out that those who love the story needn’t have worried. Huston directed teh movie, at eighty, from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator; most the time, he had to watch the actors on a video monitor outside the set and use a microphone to speak to the crew. Yet he went into dramatic areas that he’d never gone into before–funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range. He seems to have brought the understanding of Joyce’s ribald humor which he gained from his knowledge of Ulysses into his earlier work; the minor characters who are shadowy on the page now have a Joycean vividness. Huston has knocked the academicism out of them and developed the undeveloped parts of the story. He’s given it a marvelous filigree that enriches the social life. And he’s done it all in a mood of tranquil exuberance, as if moviemaking had become natural to him, easier than breathing.

Million Dollar Movie

From “The Age of Movies,” here’s P. Kael on History of the World, Part I:

When I saw History, there were hisses and walkouts during this number, and the film has been attacked as a disgrace by reviewers in the press and on TV. I bet nobody hissed or walked out on Candide. When Prince and Bernstein do it, it’s culture; when Brooks does it, there’s a chorus of voices saying, “He has gone too far this time.” Earlier in the film, the dancer Gregory Hines, who makes a breezy film debut as Comicus’ Ethiopian pal, Josephus, tries to convince the slavers who are sending him to the circus to be eaten by lions that he’s not a Christian but a Jew. With his loose-limbed body–his legs seem to be on hinges–he does a mock-Jewish dance, and then a shim-sham, and the racial humor didn’t appear to bother the audience. But during the Inquisition, when nuns toss off their habits, and a giant torture wheel to which pious Jews are attached is spun in a game of chance, there were mutterings of disapproval. Yet it’s Brooks’s audacity–his treating cruelty and pain as a crazy joke, and doing it in a low-comedy context–that gives History the kick that was missing from his last few films. The Inquisition is presented as a paranoid fantasy, with Jews as the only victims, and when Torquemada whacks the knees of gray-bearded old men imprisoned in stocks–using them as a xylophone–you may gasp. But either you get stuck thinking about the “bad taste” or you let yourself laugh at the obscenity in the humor, as you do at Bunuel’s perverse dirty jokes. The offensive material is a springboard to a less sentimental kind of comedy.

If Mel Brooks doesn’t go “too far,” he’s nowhere–he’s mild and mushy. It’s his maniacal, exuberant compulsion to flaunt show-biz Jewishness that makes him an uncontrollable original. At his best, he is to being Jewish what Richard Pryor is to being black: wildly in love with the joke of it, obsessed and inspired by the joke of it. What History needs is more musical numbers with the show-biz surreal satire of the Inquistion section; it’s the kind of satire that makes the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup a classic farce. Brooks goes wrong when he pulls back to innocuous loveability–when he has Gregory Hines say to him, “You’re the first white man I even considered liking.” (Now, if that had been “the first Jews…”) Hines’ dancing–the movie could have used more of it–deserves better than a suck-up line.

When Brooks has a hot streak on a TV talk show, you can see his mental process at work, and amazing things just pop out of his mouth. He can’t get that rhythm going on the screen with prepared gags. Some movie directors can give their material that surprise. Altman has often done it, and in Hi, Mom! DePalma did it, with a highly inflammatory race-relations subject. But Brooks isn’t a great director–far from it. He’s a great personality though, and he moves wonderfully; his dancing in his Torquemada robes is right up there with Groucho’s lope. Wearing a little mustache and with his lips puckered, Brooks as Louis XVI bears a startling resemblance to Chaplin in his Monsieur Verdoux period. I kept waiting for him to do something with this resemblance, but he didn’t. Was he unaware of it? Lecherous Louis did, however, make me understand why women at the French court wore those panniers that puffed out the sides of their skirts; we see those ballooning bottoms through his eyes. (Brooks may be wasting his talent by not appearing in other directors’ movies while he’s preparing his own.) As a director-star, he has the chance to go on pushing out the boundaries of screen comedy, because, despite the disapproving voices in the press and on TV, he can probably get away with it. Like Pryor, he’s a cutie.

Too bad for us, Mel’s movies never got better, but he sure did score a hit with the play version of The Producers.

Million Dollar Movie

More P. Kael from “The Age of Movies. ”

From the essay, “Fear of Movies” (September 25, 1978):

In his new book The Films in My Life, Francois Truffaut writes, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” Truffaut’s dictum may exclude films that some of us enjoy. You couldn’t claim that National Lampoon’s Animal House expresses either the joy or the agony of making cinema. It’s like the deliberately dumb college-football comedies of the thirties–the ones with Joan Davis or Martha Ray–only more so; it’s a growly, rambunctious cartoon, and its id anarchy triumphs over the wet-fuse pacing, the botchy lighting, and the many other ineptitudes. In its own half-flubbed way, it has a style. And you don’t go to a film like Animal House for cinema, you go for roughhousing disreputability; it makes you laugh by restoring you to the slobby infant in yourself. (If it were more artistic, it couldn’t do that.)

But that sort of movie is a special case. Essentially, I agree with Truffaut. I can enjoy movies that don’t have that moviemaking fever in them, but it’s enjoyment on a different level, without the special aphrodisia of movies–the kinetic responsiveness, the all-out submission to pleasure. That “pulse” leaves you with all your senses quickened. When you see a movie such as Convoy, which has this vibrancy and yet doesn’t hold together, you still feel clearheaded. But when you’ve seen a series of movies without it, whether proficient soft-core porn like The Deep or klutzburgers like Grease, you feel poleaxed by apathy. If a movie doesn’t “pulse”–if the director isn’t talented, and if he doesn’t become fervently obsessed with the possibilities that subject offers him to explore moviemaking itself–it’s dead and it deadens you. Your heart goes cold. The world is a dishrag. (Isn’t the same thing true for a novel, a piece of music, a painting?)

The pressing against the bounds of the medium doesn’t necessarily result in a good movie (John Boorman’s debauch Exorcist II: The Heretic is proof of that), but it generally results in a live one–a movie there’s some reason to see–and it’s the only way great movies get made…there’s enough visual magic in [Exorcist II] for a dozen good movies; what the picture lacks is judgment–the first casualty of the moviemaking obsession.

…There’s no way I could make the case that Animal House is a better picture than Heaven Can Wait, yet on some sort of emotional-aesthetic level I prefer it. One returns you to the slobbiness of infancy, the other to the security of childhood, and I’d rather stand with the slobs.

I love this.

Million Dollar Movie

From “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” here’s Kael on Robert De Niro.

First, in Mean Streets:

While an actor like Jeff Bridges in The Last American Hero hits the true note, De Niro here hits the far-out, flamboyant one and makes his own truth. He’s a bravura actor, and those who have registered him only as the grinning, tobacco-chewing dolt of that hunk of inept whimsey Bang the Drum Slowly will be unprepared for his volatile performance. De Niro does something like what Dustin Hoffman was doing in Midnight Cowboy, but wilder; this kid doesn’t just act–he takes off into the vapors. De Niro is so intensely appealing that it might be easy to overlook Harvey Keitel’s work as Charlie. But Keitel makes De Niro’s triumph possible; Johnny Boy can bounce off Charlie’s anxious, furious admiration.

The Godfather Part II:

Brando is not on the screen this time, but he persists in his sons, Fredo and Michael, and Brando’s character is exteneded by our seeing how it was formed. As Vito, Robert De Niro amply convinces one that he has it in him to become the old man that Brando was. It’s not that he looks exactly like Brando but he has Brando’s wary woul, and so we can easily imagine the body changing with the years. It is much like seeing a photograph of one’s own dead father when he was a strapping young man; the burning spirit we see in his face spooks us, because of our knowledge of what he was at the end. In De Niro’s case, the young man’s face is fired by a secret pride. His gesture as he refuses the gift of a box of groceries is beautifully expressive and has the added wonder of suggesting Brando, and not from the outside but from the inside. When De Niro closes his eyes to blot out something insupportable, the reflex is like a presentiment of the old man’s reflexes. There is such a continuity of soul between the child on the ship, De Niro’s slight, ironic smile as a coward landlord tries to appease him, and Brando, the old man who died happy in the sun, that although Vito is a subsidiary character in terms of actual time on the screen, this second film, like the first, is imbued with his presence.

…De Niro’s performance is so subtle that when he speaks in the Sicilian dialect he learned for the role he speaks easily, but he is cautious in English and speaks very clearly and precisely. For a man of Vito’s character who doesn’t know the language well, precision is important–sloppy talk would be unthinkable. Like Brando’s Vito, De Niro’s has a reserve that can never be breached.

Taxi Driver:

Robert De Niro is in almost every frame: thin-faced, as handsome as Robert Taylor one moment and cagey, ferrety, like Cagney, the next–and not just looking at the people he’s talking to but spying on them. As Travis, De Niro has none of the pleasant courtliness of his Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Vito held himself proudly, in control of his violence; he was a leader. Travis is danger in a different, cumulative way. His tense face folds in a yokel’s grin and he looks almost like an idiot. Or he sits in his room vacantly watching the bright-eyed young faces on the TV and with his foot he slowly rocks the set back and then over. The exacerbation of his desire for vengeance shows in his numbness, yet part of the horror implicit in this movie is how easily he passes. The anonymity of the city soaks up one more invisible man; he could be legion.

…Some actors are said to be empty vessels who are filled by the roles they play, but that’s not what appears to be happening here with De Niro. He’s gone the other way. He’s used his emptiness–he’s reached down into his own anomie. Only Brando has done this kind of plunging, and De Niro’s performance has something of the undistanced intensity that Brando’s had in Last Tango. In its own way, this movie, too, has an erotic aura. There is practically no sex in it, but no sex can be as disturbing as sex. And that’s what it’s about: the absence of sex–bottled-up, impacted energy and emotion, with a blood-splattering release. The fact that we experience Travis’s need for an explosion viscerally, and that the explosion itself has the quality of consummation, makes Taxi Driver one of the few truly modern horror films.

And Raging Bull:

As Jake La Motta, the former middleweight boxing champ, in Raging Bull, Robert De Niro wears scar tissue and a big, bent nose that deform his face. It’s a miracle that he didn’t grown them–he grew everything else. He developed a thick-muscled neck and a fighter’s body, for the scenes of the broken, drunken La Motta he put on so much weight that he seems to have sunk in the fat with hardly a trace of himself left. What De Niro does in this picture isn’t acting, exactly. I’m not sure what it is. Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable. De Niro seems to have emptied himself out to become the part he’s playing and then not got enough material to refill himself with: his La Motta is a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside, and some semi-religious, semi-abstract concepts of guilt. He has so little expressive spark that what I found myself thinking about wasn’t La Motta or the movie but the metamorphosis of De Niro. His appearance–with his head flattened out and widened by fat–is far more shocking that if he were artificially padded.

Raging Bull isn’t just a biography of a genre; it’s also about movies and about violence, it’s about gritty visual rhythm, it’s about Brando, it’s about the two Godfather pictures–it’s about Scorsese and De Niro’s trying to top what they’ve done and what everybody else has done. When De Niro and Liza Minnelli began to argue in Scorsese’s New York, New York, you knew they were going to go from yelling to hitting, because they had no other way to escalate the tension. Here we get more of these actors’ battles; they’re between Jake and Joey, and between Jake and Vickie. Listening to Jake and Joey go at each other, like the macho clowns in Cassavetes movies, I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb fuck,” and Joey says, “You dumb fuck,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb fucks?

 

Bronx Banter Interview: Sanford Schwartz

“The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” edited by Sanford Schwartz is a new release from the Library of America and it’s been getting a lot of press along with Brian Kellow’s Kael biography. I’m going to blog about P. Kael, who is one of my favorite writers, all week and will include all the links fit to click.

For starters, here’s a recent conversation I had with Sanford Schwartz.

Check it out:

Bronx Banter: What was your approach in selecting the material for this book? My first impression was that it seemed thin, but then I checked and it is almost 800 pages, anything but thin. Then again, I grew up reading Kael and have all of her books. Is the ideal reader for this book someone who is unfamiliar with her work?

Sanford Schwartz: My first aim in selecting Pauline Kael pieces was to give the range of her thinking and sensibility. As a kid of shadow story, I wanted the selections to give a rough sense of movie history during the years she wrote. I wanted there to be representative pieces on the actors and directors who meant most to her. So there are a number of reviews on Altman, Godard, Scorsese, and so forth. I hoped that the anthology would engage people who already knew her—but unlike you didn’t collect all her books over the years—and also people who, in their twenties and thirties, don’t know who she is. It is always a surprise to run into people who have never heard of her, and I have found that most young people haven’t.

BB. Kael was close to fifty when she started reviewing movies for the New Yorker though she’d been writing for some time. How do you think this influenced her voice as a writer, as opposed to other critics who get their start much earlier?

SS: I’m not sure that it meant a lot. Her having waited so long and absorbed so many movies along the way obviously couldn’t have hurt when it came to writing with authority and conviction. But that certainty was evident in her letters from the late 1930s and early 1940s, when she was in her early twenties—except that her subject was still unclear to her. And it was fortuitous, her coming into the field when she did—an art form was being revitalized.

BB: What did Kael bring to movie criticism in the 1960s and ’70s that set her apart from her contemporaries?

SS: Kael made reading movie reviews a more intimate and personal experience than it had ever been before. Little criticism of any kind conveyed a comparable sense of there being such a powerful, funny, opinionated, scarily shrewd, and common sensical voice there, talking to you. You wanted to know what she thought about everything. You don’t feel this with most journalists, whether they are reviewing an art of doing a political column.

BB: One of the quirks that Kael was famous for was only watching a movie once. She’s been criticized for that over the years, that it suggests a lack of reflection or the possibility that a work of art can change for you. What is it about watching a movie only one time that informed the way she wrote about it?

SS: First off, it should be noted that there were times when she saw a movie more than once. I saw a number of movies with her when it was her second time. But then it was usually because she was checking something. I think she joked about falling asleep during Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” both times she saw it. How many times she saw a movie was conditioned, actually, by her generally tight writing schedule; she usually didn’t have the time to see a movie twice. But the deeper point with this issue concerns the importance of instinct for her. She believed our truest response to a movie (or any art) was our first one, and she wanted to catch that. It was also a matter of temperament. She had on-the-spot judgments about many things. That was how she operated. Movies for her, even the great, complex ones, were about the senses in a way that books were not, and in seeing a movie once and trying to recapture its immediate impact she was, in her thinking, being true to the experience it offered.

BB. Did you re-watch any of the movies whose reviews you included in the collection?

SS: I saw some again, and initially I thought it would be good to re-see many of them. But my sense if that going back to films I loved years ago is hazardous. You re-see Truffaut, Satyajit Ray, or “The Leopard” and part of you must confront ways that the movie, and you, have changed—and altogether the event is more about time than the movie. How movies age is an interesting topic. Kael talked about it in “Movies and Television.”

BB: You’ve included her most famous reviews, ones she was chided about for over-praising like “The Last Tango in Paris,” “Nashville,” and to a lesser extent, “Casualties of War.” How do you think her takes on those movies stand up?

SS: I can’t say how her reviews of those movies hold up because I haven’t seen them recently. My hunch is that she did go overboard on them. I probably felt that then. But of course the reviews had to be in any anthology of her work. They were major pieces for her. They are statements of her belief.

BB: Kael has been ridiculed for her enthusiasm for those movies, but her take on other “classics” of that time period, particularly two “Godfather” movies or “Mean Streets” or “Shampoo” seem spot on. Are there any particular movies that she loved where you feel that her writing is especially sharp?

SS: I wasn’t that interested in whether she was, as you say about some of her reviews, “spot on.” In reviewing an art, reasoning and descriptions count for much more than opinion. As to what I think she was especially sharp on, I hope “The Age of Movies” provides an answer. Are there many more pieces that might have gone in? For sure.

BB: I like that you’ve included her major essays like “Trash, Art and the Movies,” “Why Are Movies So Bad? or The Numbers,” and the long one on Cary Grant, “The Man From Dream City.” And especially an early on, “Movies, the Desperate Art.” But you did not include her celebrated essay on “Citizen Kane.” Is that because it was just too long or because you feel it doesn’t hold up as representative of her talent?

SS: No, the Kane article, as I say in the Introduction, is too long to be included.

BB: One of Kael’s first memorable articles was “Circles and Squares,” a harsh take on fellow critic Andrew Sarris’ ideas about the auteur theory. Why did you not include that one?

SS: I didn’t include the Sarris essay because it is too long for the points it makes. It would have hogged space from livelier writing—writing that meant more to Kael. There are good words in it on what criticism meant for her. If I had excerpts in the anthology I probably would have excerpted those passages. I felt also that readers for whom “auteur” issues mater would already know Kael’s piece, whereas for the wider audience that she wrote for at The New Yorker, and for whom “The Age of Movies” is intended, her deflating this theory—it is really a set of opinions—is not a very engaging issue. And while I think she nails Sarris and the whole approach, she doesn’t do it in a way that opens up the topic to the general reader. Unless you are already familiar with the auteur line, her essay is rather confusing, especially at the beginning. It isn’t an essay that had much long-term meaning for her; she never could take that stuff seriously.

BB: Kael’s review of the documentary, “Shoah,” was famous because she panned it but it’s not here.

SS: I didn’t have a powerful reason to skip the “Shoah” review. Probably, it was a matter of space and also the sense that the reasoning and attitude on display there was already clear from other articles. It is certainly a strong one, though.

BB: During the ’70s, Kael shared her position writing “The Current Cinema” at the New Yorker with Penelope Gilliatt. As a result, there are some classics from that time that she never reviewed properly like “Annie Hall,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (though she does mention this one in a notes column), and maybe especially, “Apocalypse Now.” Were there any movies that you missed her reviewing?

SS: Even with her half-year schedule in the beginning, I believe she managed to encompass the major films of her era (but a movie historian might have another view of this). If a movie was taken seriously or touched hot issues for people—and it came out when she was off—she generally managed to find a way to her her verdict in somewhere. The long articles she periodically wrote during the time she was off let her do just that. She used a piece ostensibly about actors to acknowledge “Jaws” and she let people know where she stood on “2001” in “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

BB: Kael had her favorites—Peckinpah and DePalma, to name just two—and those who she was famous for blasting, like Kubrick and Woody Allen. But she actually took each movie as it came, and I like that you’ve included “Lolita,” which she adored and as well as “A Clockwork Orange,” which she hated. Same goes for the early Scorsese hits, “Mean Streets,” and “Taxi Driver,” again, which she loved, and “Raging Bull,” which was the first in a long line of his movies that turned her off. Even though she was famous for her prejudices do you feel that she always gave a new movie an equal chance?

SS: Oh, yes. That is one reason I included her review of Bergman’s “Shame.” The piece shows her wrestling with the fact that a director with whom she was often at odds made a movie she had to call a masterpiece. She could always say when someone she admired—Altman, Godard, Bertolucci, Huston, even Renoir—came out flat. Her subject was the film at hand, not someone’s reputation or the credit they might have built up. She didn’t much like Robert Duvall, but after she saw “The Apostle,” which he directed and wrote as well as starred in, she said something like, “You’ve got to hand it to the bastard.”

BB: Kael once said that she never wrote a memoir because, “I think I have” in her reviews. She brought her life’s experience to her reviews, from what she knew about music and books and the theater, but also from what she knew about being a mother, having her heart broken in relationships, everything. Do you think you the story of her life can be found in her work?

SS: Yes, if the story of her life is constituted by her awareness and judgments. I don’t think she was the kind of artist whose life experience mirror or can be seen as a counterpoint to their work. For Agee and Farber, yes; their movie reviews tell us things about each man’s total contribution that we might not know otherwise. Kael, though, put most of what counted in her life in her reviews.

BB: She also once said “In movies, judgment is often not so important in a critic as responsiveness to what a movie feels like, and where it’s heading and what its vision is.” She was very tuned in to the reaction movies had on audiences, especially during her heyday in the early ’70s. Was there any other critic during that time, or any other time, that was as invested in how movies were received by popular culture and what it all meant?

SS: I believe you need a movie historian to answer this one. My feeling is that she got more of the ramifications of movies—their relation to the wider culture and society in general—than most film writers.

BB: This collection is spare toward the last 10 years of her career. Is that because the cultural moment of the movies had passed by the mid ’80s or because you were running out of room? Even though the pieces in her final two collections, “Hooked,” and particularly, “Movie Love,” are terse compared with her earlier writing, I think they had a lovely, compact quality. Were there any reviews that were hard for you not to include?

SS: Kael herself said that her strongest collections were those that covered the films of the 1970s. The movies were richer then. They brought out more of her. And she was first luxuriating in all the space The New Yorker gave her. It is possible that if she had first started reviewing in 1980 her pieces might have been longer and more nuances—even considering the quality of the movies. As it was, by the mid-1980s she had already put forth in some detail her aesthetic and social positions. I agree with you, though, about the “lovely, compact quality” of her reviews of the eighties.

BB: I recall Kael once writing with admiration for the discipline it took Altman to achieve a style that appeared casual and loose. I often think about that when I consider her writing—it is conversational but don’t you think it must have taken a lot of discipline to achieve that effect?

SS: Kael was almost always writing with a deadline, so the words had to come fast, and by nature she was suited to spilling her feelings. But she had to do a lot of work to get the reviews in shape. She could be making substantive changes right to the last minute.

“The Age of Movies” is out now and you can order it here.

 

As a follow-up to my conversation with Schwartz, I dipped into my library for more Kael and found this in “Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael,” by Francis Davis:

Well, the auteur theory originally meant something quite different from what people understand it be mean now. What it originally said was that a director conferred value upon a film—that if a director was an auteur, all of his films were great. I think the public never understood that, and neither did most of the press. It was an untenable theory, and it fell from sight. It’s now taken to mean that we should pay attention to who directed a movie, because a director is vital to a film, and of course this is true. But it’s something that everybody has always known. I mean, everybody knew that Howard Hawks was terrific. We went to see “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” the day they opened, and there was an excitement in the theater, because we all knew that these movies were special. They were smart, and we loved the work of smart directors, because lots of movies were so dumb…But the auteurists considered all of his movies to be wonderful by definition, because he was an auteur. It reached a point where they were acclaiming the later movies of directors who had ceased doing good work years earlier. Hitchcock’s later movies were acclaimed, and they were stinkers—terrible movies. And many routine action movies were praised because they were the work of certain directors.

It’s sometimes discouraging to see of a director’s movies, because there’s so much repetition. The auteurists took this to be a sign of a director’s artistry, that you could recognize his movies. But for all of a director’s movies to be alike in some essential way can also be a sign that he’s a hack.

And this on Andrew Sarris:

We both loved movies. We had that in common, and I enjoy reading him as I enjoy reading very few critics. He has genuine reactions to movies, and many critics don’t. He picks things up and points things out…The big difference between us is that our taste in movies is so radically different. He really likes romantic, classically structured movies. He had very conservative tastes in movies; he didn’t love the farout stuff that I loved. He’s a man who likes movies like “Waterloo Bridge,” movies that drive me crazy with impatience. It’s funny that he should have been at the Voice, and the voice of an underground paper. I think I would have been much more suitable to the Voice, yet for years I got dumped on brutally by the paper. That always amazed me, because I thought, I’m praising movies you should love, so what’s going on here? He and I were at the wrong places—it’s one of those flukes of movie history.

Also this on eroticism in movies and not being able to review “Deep Throat” for the New Yorker:

It wasn’t a good movie. But I very badly wanted to write about it, because for all that was being written about it, nobody was really dealing with what was on the screen. I think half of the reason that people become interested in movies in the first place is sex and dating and everything connected with eroticism on the screen. And I felt that not to deal with all of that in its most naked form was to shirk part of what’s involved in being a movie critic.

I’d love to have written about more eroticism in the movies. I think it’s a great subject, and I dealt with it a little bit in my reviews of “Last Tango in Paris,” “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” and a few other movies. Bertrand Blier I loved writing about, because he dealt so much in sexual areas. But it was tough to write about it all with [New Yorker editor, William] Shawn. I had a real tough time with him when I wrote about “Tales of Ordinary Madness,” The Marco Ferreri version of Charles Bukowski, about a girl who’s virtually a mermaid, with Ben Gazzara as the Bukowski, more or less. It’s an amazing movie, with some scenes that are quite erotic. I had to put up a terrible fight to get it in. Shawn wanted to know if the critics for other magazines were covering it. I said that shouldn’t be our standard for what we covered at The New Yorker. But it was hard to convince Shawn that I wasn’t pulling some sort of swindle by sneaking material into the magazine that he felt didn’t belong there. He felt he was holding the line against barbarians, and to some degree I was a barbarian.

He made it very hard to write about certain aspects of movies. Nobody, really, has done a very good job of writing on a sustained level about the way movies affect people erotically, and about the fact that they became popular because they’re a dating game. People love movies that reason, because they excite them sexually. They go to them on dates, and they go to learn more about how to behave. I never got a real crack at writing about that.

Another terrific volume for Kael nerds is “Conversations with Pauline Kael”.

From an interview with Sam Staggs in Mandate (May 1983):

Mandate: Why do you hit so many nerves among the common readers? Why do you stir up such antagonism as well as such passionate devotion?

Kael: In my writing, I was trying to get at what I actually responded to at the movies, and I couldn’t do in formal, scholarly language. I worked to loosen my style—to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice. I began, for example, to interject remarks—interrupting a train of thought, just as we do when we talk, and then picking it up again. And when I began to feel the freedom to write as easily as I spoke, the writing itself became pleasurable.

Maybe part of the resentment I stir up among critics who suffer when they write is that they can tell I’m having a good time. My guess is that just as my slangy colloquial style appeals to some readers because it is sometimes enables me to get right at what I think the emotional substance of a movie is, it turns off other readers, who prefer more literary, distanced criticism. For example, I’m frequently disparaged as ‘opinionated’—I think what this comes down to is that often I don’t share in the consensus that builds up on certain movies. Sometimes, it builds up even before the critics have seen a picture, as it did on “Sophie’s Choice”—I suspect that a lot of readers are snowed by big themes and advance articles in the New York Times. And then, if they read me making fun of the picture, they’re outraged and think I’m irresponsible, and especially so because I don’t couch my review in the language that has come to be equated with ‘objectivity.’

photo by Chris Carroll

And from a Q&A by Marc Smirnoff in the Oxford American (Spring 1992) after Kael had retired from the New Yorker:

Q: Is a person lucky to be a movie critic?

Kael: It is really a wonderfully exciting field to write about when the movies are good. When they’re not good, it’s to despair. The really bad movies you can write about with some passion and anger. It’s the mediocre ones that wear you down. They’re disgusting to write about because you can feel yourself slipping into the same mediocrity and stupidity. And you feel you’re boring the readers and yourself. When you starting falling asleep while you’re writing a review, you know how dull the movie is. The danger for criticism is that people will want to become critics in order to become television celebrities, rather than enjoying the pleasure of writing and the excitement of trying to define and describe what you’ve seen.

Q: Do you miss writing reviews?

Kael: Yes, but I know I’ve got to adjust to it. That’s part of adapting to getting older. You’ve got to recognize that the time for certain things has passed and, I’m not an idiot, I know I would not write at my best if I went on. You know, you start repeating yourself—you write the same phrase, you write the same descriptions. I’ve already had the problem of working on a paragraph that I thought was pretty good and looking up what I said about that director’s work the last time I wrote about him and finding out it was almost exactly the same paragraph. Well, you know, it’s time to quit.

 

Million Dollar Movie

Two weeks ago, I went to a panel discussion at Lincoln Center to celebrate two new books on the late, great Pauline Kael–a biography, and a new compilation. Camille Paglia was one of the panelists. She was smart and funny. I e-mailed her a question about P. Kael and  she was kind enough to respond.

Dig it:

Kael is sometimes criticized as being anti-intellectual,when in fact she was often anti-academia. She trusted her responsiveness to things and understood that those responses exist beyond logic. Why is this such a valuable quality for a critic to have? Can you talk about why Kael’s writing is still vital and relevant today?

Camille Paglia: One of the things I most loved in Brian Kellow’s terrific new biography of Pauline Kael was her open contempt for professors of English and film studies! Although she was very well-read, before and after her college years at Berkeley, she rightly detested pretension and pomposity. It was a revelation to me, thanks to Kellow’s ace research, that Kael (who had been born on a chicken farm in Petaluma) emerged from a bohemian San Francisco milieu suffused with Beat radicalism.

As I told Kellow on a recent panel on Kael at the New York Film Festival, this helped explain for me Kael’s emphatic use of the colloquial American voice—which I have also striven to do in my writing on popular culture. I despise the phony, fancy-pants rhetoric of professors aping jargon-filled European locutions—which have blighted academic film criticism for over 30 years. Kael socialized with poets in San Francisco. On the same panel, film critic David Edelstein called Kael’s writing “jazzy”—which is exactly right. It must be remembered that the Beats were heavily influenced by be-bop and cool jazz. Kael often uses abrupt, surprising syncopations in her writing that I would classify as Beat. I remain stubbornly attached to the Beat movement, which hugely influenced me in college. It’s one reason I ruffled so many feathers (to continue the chicken-farm trope) by my book on poetry, Break, Blow, Burn, which promoted the Beat style and rejected the cringingly artificial, pseudo-philosophical meanderings of grossly over-praised contemporary poets like John Ashbery.

Browsing through the Library of America’s massive new collection of her writing (called The Age of Movies), I was stunned at Kael’s range and power. Her voice, shaped by the American idiom, is still utterly fresh and dynamic. She is a superb role model for young writers. She has a keen eye for crisp detail and a lust for both attack and celebration. This is a perfect moment for the release of the Kellow and Library of America books. Cultural criticism is in the dumps. Nothing important is coming out of academe, and the “serious” general magazines are insular and verbose. Film criticism has waned, and the Web is overrun with gassy, sniggering, solipsistic snark.

As I said at the panel, the two new Kael books struck me with special force because I have just completed over four years of work on a book on the visual arts for Pantheon. In the process of my research, I was horrified by the degeneration of arts criticism in the past four decades. What excited me anew about Kael’s work is that, even though she was writing solely about movies, she was constantly inventing fascinating paradigms and templates for talking about the creative process as well as the audience’s imaginative experience of performance. Because most of my career in the classroom has been at art schools (beginning at Bennington in the 1970s), I am hyper-aware of the often grotesque disconnect between commentary on the arts and the actual practice or production of the arts. Kael had phenomenal intuition and gut instinct about so many things—the inner lives of directors and actors, the tangible world of a given film, the energy of film editing.

I find Kael stimulating and provocative even when I disagree with her. That’s the entire point of good writing!—to force the reader to think independently. For example, I loved the decadent European art films that she mocked—above all, La Dolce Vita. But her scathing satire of those films was hilarious and persuasive in its own way. I am also very fond of Rich and Famous, George Cukor’s last film, over which Kael got in big trouble because gay activists thought her review homophobic. Preparing for the panel, I viewed that film again via Netflix and was startled to see that YES, there is indeed a glaring male-hustler moment in there that makes no sense whatever in heterosexual terms. So Kael was right about that. But I can’t understand why she failed to appreciate how well Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen work together as a quarreling comic duo. They are fabulous!

And then there is Kael’s hostility to Alfred Hitchcock, which seems inexplicable in a major film critic—particularly since she was so enthusiastic about Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, which is a Hitchcock tribute. Because Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors (I wrote a book on The Birds for the British Film Institute’s Film Classics Series), I have always been mystified by Kael’s attitude. When I raised this issue at the Film Festival, it led, I think, to a breakthrough. On the panel, director and screenwriter James Toback replied that Kael loved De Palma’s active camera and that she tended not to like static, long-held shots, such as Hitchcock was known for. Eureka! One of the main reasons I am so drawn to Hitchcock is that he planned his shots way in advance on story-boards, which he designed like classic paintings (he was an art connoisseur). It’s why he found shooting on set boring—because he had already composed the film in his head.

Then at the Film Festival dinner afterward, David Edelstein, who like Toback was a close friend of Kael’s, told me in passing how he had often tried to get her to appreciate Mahler and Bruckner, whom she actively disliked. (Kellow describes how her memorial service ended with her favorite Baroque music.) Second eureka of the night! I instantly said to Edelstein that this must be another reason Kael disliked Hitchcock—because of Bernard Herrmann’s lush, insistent, immersive, Mahler-like scores, which I adore and would describe as ecstatic and visionary. Edelstein remarked that, in general, Kael was not interested in the transcendent. This is just one example of the exhilarating train of associations triggered by a daring, opinionated, and sometimes cantankerous writer like Kael. We are in desperate need of original minds and voices like hers!

Million Dollar Movie

Here is Pauline Kael’s 1966 essay on Brando for The Atlantic:

Brando represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security. As a protagonist, the Brando of the early fifties had no code, only his instincts. He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocial because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong enough not to take the crap. (In England it was thought that The Wild One would incite adolescents to violence.)

There was a sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids. There was humor in it–swagger and arrogance that were vain and childish, and somehow seemed very American. He was explosively dangerous without being “serious” in the sense of having ideas. There was no theory, no cant in his leadership. He didn’t care about social position or a job or respectability, and because he didn’t care he was a big man; for what is less attractive, what makes a man smaller, than his worrying about his status? Brando represented a contemporary version of the free American.

Because he had no code, except an aesthetic one–a commitment to a style of life–he was easily betrayed by those he trusted. There he was, the new primitive, a Byronic Dead-End Kid, with his quality of vulnerability. His acting was so physical–so exploratory, tentative, wary–that we could sense with him, feel him pull back at the slightest hint of rebuff. We in the audience felt protective: we knew how lonely he must be in his assertiveness. Who even in hell wants to be an outsider? And he was no intellectual who could rationalize it, learn somehow to accept it, to live with it. He could only feel it, act it out, be “The Wild One”–and God knows how many kids felt, “That’s the story of my life.”

A few years after this essay was published, Kael praised Brando’s “comeback” in movies like “The Godfather” and, especially, “The Last Tango in Paris.”

Million Dollar Movie

Here’s Pauline Kael:

In 1928 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page, the greatest newspaper comedy of them all; Howard Hawks directed this version of it — a spastic explosion of dialogue, adapted by Charles Lederer, and starring Cary Grant as the domineering editor Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy Johnson, the unscrupulous crime reporter with printer’s ink in her veins. (In the play Hildy Johnson is a man.) Overlapping dialogue carries the movie along at breakneck speed; word gags take the place of the sight gags of silent comedy, as this race of brittle, cynical, childish people rush around on corrupt errands. Russell is at her comedy peak here — she wears a striped suit, uses her long-legged body for ungainly, unladylike effects, and rasps out her lines. And, as Walter Burns, Grant raises mugging to a joyful art. Burns’ callousness and unscrupulousness are expressed in some of the best farce lines ever written in this country, and Grant hits those lines with a smack. He uses the same stiff-neck cocked-head stance that he did in Gunga Din: it’s his position for all-out, unstuble farce. He snorts and whoops. His Burns is a strong-arm performance, defiantly self-centered and funny. The reporters — a fine crew — are Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, Regis Toomey; also with Gene Lockhart as the sheriff, Billy Gilbert as the messenger, John Qualen, Helen Mack, and Ralph Bellamy as chief stooge — a respectable businessman — and Alma Kruger as his mother.

The Front Page was made into a movie in 1931 and then remade as His Girl Friday. It’s about as good as American movie comedy gets. It’ll leave you dizzy.

Million Dollar Movie

 

Pauline Kael on Woody’s first trip into heaviosity, Interiors:

The people in Woody Allen’s Interiors are destroyed by the repressiveness of good taste, and so is the picture. Interiors is a puzzle movie, constructed like a well-made play from the American past, and given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, without, however the eroticism of Bergman.

Interiors looks so much like a masterpiece, and has such a super-banal metaphysical theme (death versus life) that it’s easy to see why many regard it as a masterpiece: it’s deep on the surface. Interiors has moviemaking fever, all right, but in a screwed-up form — which is possibly what the movie is all about.

The movie is so unfunny it’s not even funny. Actually, it’s so unfunny that it’s funny, which is funny because the last thing it wants to be is funny.

Million Dollar Movie

Pauline Kael on “Dog Day Afternoon” (from “When The Lights Go Down”):

In “Dog Day Afternoon,” we don’t want any explanation of how it is that Sonny (Al Pacino) lives in both heterosexual and homosexual marriages. We accept the idea because we dont really believe in patterns of behavior anymore–only in behavior. Sonny, who is trapped in the middle of robbing a bank, with a crowd gathering in the street outside, is a working-class man who got into this mess by trying to raise money for Leon (Chris Sarandon) to have a sex-change operation, ye the audience doesn’t laugh. The most touching element in the film is Sonny’s inability to handle all the responsibilities he has assumed. Though he is half-crazed by his situation, he is trying to do the right thing by everybody–his wife and children, the suicidal Leon, the hostages in the bank. In the sequence in which Sonny dictates his will, we can see that inside this ludicrous bungling robber there’s a complicatedly unhappy man, operating out of a sense of noblesse oblige.

The structure of “Dog Day Afternoon” loosens in the last three-quarters of an hour, but that was the part I particularly cared for. This picture is one of the most satisfying of all the movies starring New York City because the director, Sidney Lumet, and the screenwriter, Frank Pierson, having established that Sonny’s grandstanding gets the street crowd on his side against the cops, and that even the tellers are on his side, let us move into the dark, confused areas of Sonny’s frustrations and don’t explain everything to us. They trust us to feel without our being told how to feel. They prepare us for a confrontation scene between Sonny and Leon, and it never comes, but even that is all right, because of the way that Pacino and Sarandon handle their contact by telephone; Sonny’s anxiety and Leon’s distress are so pure that there’s no appeal for sympathy–no star kitsch to separate us from the nakedness of the feelings on the screen.

Million Dollar Movie

Over at NYRB, Larry McMurty reviews a trio of new books on Marilyn Monroe:

In film Marilyn’s talent shows most strongly in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, Some Like It Hot, Bus Stop, and The Misfits. The director Billy Wilder quarreled with her on Some Like It Hot—but Wilder was no dummy and had this to say about her: “I think she was the best light comedienne we have in films today, and anyone will tell you that the toughest of acting styles is light comedy.”

She was almost always photographed smiling, her lips slightly parted, her skin aglow with an aura all its own, and yet there was usually a curl of sadness in her smile: sadness that just managed to fight through; sadness that was always considerable and sometimes intense.

In a review of “Marilyn,” by Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael wrote:

Monroe used her lack of an actress’s skills to amuse the public. She had the wit or crassness or desperation to turn cheesecake into acting–and vice versa; she did what others had the “good taste” not to do, like Mailer, who puts in what other writers have been educated to leave out. She would bat her Bambi eyelashes, lick her messy suggestive open mouth, wiggle that pert and tempting bottom, and use her hushed voice to caress us with dizzying innuendos.

…Her mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cuddly drugged sexiness seemed to get to just about every male; she turned on even homosexual men. And women couldn’t take her seriously enough to be indignant; she was funny and impulsive in a way that made people feel protective. She was a little knocked out; her face looked as if, when nobody was paying attention to her, it would go utterly slack–as if she died between wolf calls.

She seemed to have become a camp siren out of confusion and ineptitude; her comedy was self-satire, and apologetic–conscious parody that had begun unconsciously…The mystique of Monroe–which accounts for the book Marilyn–is that she became spiritual as she fell apart. But as an actress she had no way of expressing what was deeper in her except moodiness and weakness. When she was “sensitive” she was drab.

Million Dollar Movie

I watched horror movies as a kid–respectable ones like “Carrie,” and “The Shining,” “The Exorcist,” and “The Omen,” as well as “Halloween,” and “Friday the 13th.” I also saw a bunch of low-budget horror classics like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “I Spit on Your Grave.” But it was a phase that didn’t last. Horror movies were never my thing, and the older I got the less interested I was in being scared.

I was also just as likely to be scared by an action movie like “The Road Warrior” or “Aliens” or a thriller like “Fatal Attraction” than I was by a horror movie. Horror movies were just iller, with all the blood and guts gore.

I got to thinking about scary movies over the weekend cause of Halloween and you know which one stands out? “Taxi Driver.”

It’s not a horror movie, strictly speaking, but it is a nightmare vision of New York and one that was easy to identify with–the isolation and danger, the fear and violence.

Scorsese once told an interviewer:

It was crucial to Travis Bickle’s character that he had experience life and death around him every second when he was in south-east Asia. That way it becomes more heightened when he comes back; the image of the street at night reflected in the dirty gutter becomes more threatening. I think that’s something a guy going through a war, any war, would experience when he comes back to what is supposedly ‘civilization’. He’d be more paranoid.

Pauline Kael gave it a rave in the New Yorker:

In its own way, this movie, too has an erotic aura. There is practically no sex in it, but no sex can be as disturbing as sex. And that’s what it’s about: the absence of sex–bottled-up, impacted energy and emotion, with a blood-splattering release. The fact that we experience Travis’s need for an explosion viscerally, and that the explosion itself has the quality of consummation, makes “Taxi Driver” one of the few truly modern horror films.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, this scene featuring Martin Scorsese himself, really freaked me out…just, so…tense:

Million Dollar Movie

One worth seeing…and I bet Matt B will agree with me on this one.

From Pauline Kael:

Melvin and Howard (1980) – This lyrical comedy, directed by Jonathan Demme, from a script by Bo Goldman, is an almost flawless act of sympathetic imagination. Demme and Goldman have entered into the soul of American blue-collar suckerdom; they have taken for their hero a chucklehead who is hooked on TV game shows, and they have made us understand how it was that when something big – something legendary – touched his life, nobody could believe it. Paul Le Mat plays big, beefy Melvin Dummar, a sometime milkman, sometime worker at a magnesium plant, sometime gas-station operator, and hopeful songwriter – the representative debt-ridden American for whom game shows were created. Jason Robards plays Howard Hughes, who is lying in the freezing desert at night when Melvin spots him – a pile of rags and bones, with a dirty beard and scraggly long gray hair. Melvin, thinking him a desert rat, helps him into his pickup truck but is bothered by his mean expression; in order to cheer him up (and give himself some company), he insists that the old geezer sing with him or get out and walk. When Robards’ Howard Hughes responds to Melvin’s amiable prodding and begins to enjoy himself on a simple level and sings “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” it’s a great moment. Hughes’ eyes are an old man’s eyes – faded into the past, shiny and glazed by recollections – yet intense. You feel that his grungy paranoia has melted away, that he has been healed. With Mary Steenburgen, who has a pearly aura as Melvin’s go-go-dancer wife, Lynda; Pamela Reed as Melvin’s down-to-earth second wife; Elizabeth Cheshire as the child Darcy; Jack Kehoe as the dairy foreman; and the real Melvin Dummar as the lunch counterman at the Reno bus depot. This picture has the same beautiful dippy warmth of its characters; it’s what might have happened if Jean Renoir had directed a comedy script by Preston Sturges. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Universal, color.

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