What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2019)

What She Said The Art of Pauline Kael

People don’t tend to like a good critic. They tend to hate your guts. Film critic Pauline Kael had an unimaginable influence in the world of thumbs up, thumbs down reviewing and accumulated acolytes and rivals as she cultivated what she believed was an expressive art form. She was a failed playwright from California who moved to New York City, had an illegitimate daughter by experimental filmmaker James Broughton and returned to Berkeley where she started talking about movies on a radio show. What she failed at in her theatre writing she achieved in reviewing. Something just clicked, as one interviewee recalls. She loved Shoeshine, damned Limelight and got herself in print with a book called I Lost it at the Movies which made her a name. And that title underwrites everything about a woman who regarded every movie as a date. She worked at McCalls’ until she was asked to leave because she did not sit on the fence and was not in tune with the mainstream. She crucified some films, like Hiroshima, mon amour and Lawrence of Arabia. She deplored American cinema at the time. Bonnie and Clyde is the review that made her famous in the wake of Bosley Crowther’s famously damning criticism. Her review was rejected by The New Republic and when The New Yorker published it it was a sensation and she got a job there on a six-month on, six-month off contract.  Robert Towne, who consulted on the film, describes how it helped the film. She loved movies and famously wrote Trash, Art and the Movies where she delineates the difference between the good and the bad as she saw it. She experienced sexism, as she stated on a 1973 TV show:  It is very difficult for men to accept that women can argue reasonably. She had her favourites – Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Warren Beatty among them. Camille Paglia shudders and says she can’t understand why she went to the mat for Last Tango in Paris:  she bought her own ticket at the New York Film Festival and stole the march on her rivals, giving it a rave that weekend. Mean Streets she loved and Scorsese was one filmmaker who benefitted from her cheerleading. She crucified films she thought were phony – she described Shoah as having a lack of moral complexity and summed up Apocalypse Now as white man – he devil. She would not be intimidated. She hated horror movies – she lived in New York City and said she had a hard enough time living in such a scary place without having to contend with The Exorcist and its ilk. There’s an excerpt of a TV interview with author William Peter Blatty saying that Kael’s reviews are full of personal poison. She got herself a great big house in Massachusetts and would spend a week at a time in New York at screenings. She enhanced some careers,  damaged others. She had her camp followers and encouraged Paulettes like Paul Schrader who would take on a job on the LA Weekly and then jump on the bandwagon for a particular film at her request. She had a rivalry with auteurist critic Andrew Sarris whom she castigates in her essay Circles and Squares. His widow Molly Haskell says of Kael, No male critic had as much testosterone as Pauline. While this is quite good on context it never really nails the nitty gritty of what it is to be a journalist and to go out on a limb giving the only viciously – and presumptively – perceptive account of a film that other critics are afraid to give what she would call a con. Her famous book about Citizen Kane‘s authorship rehabilitated the reputation of forgotten screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his role in creating that masterpiece.  But just as Beatty sought to keep her quiet by giving her a job in Hollywood it showed she had blind spots and was perhaps rather naive:  she had come to believe her own publicity much as she professed to scorn the studios’: She was a virgin who was very willing to be seduced. Those six months made her bid a hasty retreat to the rather safer confines of critcism. When she loved something, you knew it:  she came out in a big way for Casualties of War. After 24 years and suffering from Parkinson’s she retired from The New Yorker. Readings from letters and telegrams that celebrities wrote to her capture some of the devastation she wrought including one from Gregory Peck:  You may have cost me good roles in the most productive phase of my career. Her review of Blade Runner was so damaging that director Ridley Scott hasn’t read a review since. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg wrote, 1000 reviews later you are the only writer who really understood Jaws.  It is interesting  – and impossible to credit in the democratised, non-edited non-hierarchical space and era of social media and the internet in which nobody has any particular importance – that one critic could have held such sway over popular opinion in a world where limited opening dominated. For Pauline Kael everything was a conversation. There are a lot of interviews here but their content feels circumstantial rather than deep or meaningful. It’s something of an irony. Written and directed by Rob Garver.  The movies needed her

 

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Come Back to the Five and Dime

It is real. It’s just deceiving to the eye, that’s all. On 30 September 1975 to commemorate James Dean’s death, the former members of The Disciples of James Dean gather in the small Texas town at the Woolworth’s store where twenty years earlier they formed a fan club after Giant was filming in the nearby town of Marfa. Juanita (Sudie Bond) prepares for another day on the job and calls for Jimmy Dean by name. One of the Disciples, Sissy (Cher) comes in late after helping out at the truck stop.  Another two Disciples, Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and Edna Louise (Marta Heflin) make their way to the five-and-dime, bringing a red jacket that the club used to wear. Mona (Sandy Dennis) joins them and explains that the bus she was riding on broke down and had to be repaired. She’s worried about her son Jimmy Dean whom she has always said was fathered by the star. A window shopper, Joanne (Karen Black) driving in a Porsche sports car has arrived in McCarthy thanks to an old highway sign promoting Dean’s son at the store and there’s something about her that makes Mona think she knows her but can’t quite figure it out …Unlike apparently all of you, I have undergone a change. Ed Graczyk adapted his own play for director Robert Altman who spent the Eighties directing stage plays for the screen following the grandiose flop Popeye and he applies his usually imaginative technique to this single-set production. He uses a mottled old mirror as a means to transport the action to twenty years earlier, a device which not only brings the underlying tenets of the story to life but also functions as an uncanny reflection and a means of transmitting the distorting tricks of memory. Dean’s death (which features in a broadcast announcement in a flashback) creates a bereavement trigger, making the frenemies confront their inadequacies, deceptions and delusions. The performances are startling and true:  Dennis (recreating her stage role) is her usual nervy self and plays the mother of James Dean’s son to the hilt, the (expected) revelation about the fathering stunningly revealed;  Black is a joy as the person nobody can quite recognise, with more than one shocking story to tell; Cher has to confront her own demons. Bates is a ball of energy and Bond makes for a very sceptical proprietor. Worth seeing for the lively, powerhouse performances by a wonderful collection of actresses at the top of their game, treated wonderfully well by a sympathetic director. The first of five Altman films to have Canadian cinematographer Pierre Mignot as DoP. Catch the documentary Children of Giant if you can as it makes for a great companion piece. We can make them change. Jimmy Dean has shown us how

Happy 70th Birthday Shelley Duvall 7th July 2019!

That wonderful, singular actress Shelley Duvall celebrates her 70th year today. Some performers remain in our consciousness for the overwhelming character they project, others inhabit their roles with such power they are just legends for a kind of inimitable genius. While Duvall belongs to the latter category she possesses a kind of eccentric consistency that means she is out on her own, beyond conventional representation.  She was not only the muse of Robert Altman so for me she is always the mysterious Millie of 3 Women; she also became the most important actress in the world of Stanley Kubrick when he terrorised her on our behalf in The Shining. I will always love her in Joan Micklin Silver’s F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation, Bernice Bobs Her Hair. More than an actress, singer and even set decorator, she became a highly successful TV producer with Faerie Tale Theater.  We are not worthy. Many happy returns.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Long Goodbye cat poster.jpg

I love Elliott Gould. Have done since first laying eyes on him when I was, oh, probably, nine years old. And I love cats. So even if I didn’t love this movie, I’d love the poster (there are several but this is my 500th blog entry so I chose my favourite). And this has inhabited my mental landscape since that age. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s an amazingly daring adaptation of Chandler, whose books I adore, it’s done by the great Leigh Brackett (and I was so happy to discover this was a woman) and Robert Altman (who took up the offer to direct when both Hawks and Bogdanovich turned it down. The fools). The title song, which I had presumed was an old movie song, was composed for this by John Williams and Johnny Mercer and reappears in many guises as commentary in the narrative. It’s updated to the Seventies and set in Los Angeles, a city that I love. It’s about Hollywood. It’s about a suicidal alcoholic  writer whose resemblance to Hemingway is overwhelming.  He’s played by controversial actor Sterling Hayden, who was off his rocker throughout shooting. And he’s married to Nina Van Pallandt of Nina & Frederik fame (look them up). The scenes at their beachside home were shot at Altman’s place in Malibu. It’s also about a crazy violent guy played by director Mark Rydell. And it’s about what you find yourself doing when your friend double-crosses you. And it’s about a private eye who needs to find food for his cat late at night. It was completely misunderstood upon initial release, withdrawn and re-released months later with the second poster (below):  ah, said the critics! Now we get it!  Or some of them did. It looks beautiful, like California always ought to look, thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond. It’s one of the reasons I love movies. Everyone has their own Philip Marlowe. This is mine. MM#500

The Long Goodbye Mad Jack Davis poster.jpg

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)

Buffalo Bill and the Indians poster.jpg

This was hardly what a mainstream audience expected of a western released in the year of the Bicentennial, but then Robert Altman’s certain tendency towards revisionism was an altogether acknowledged thread throughout his work and this film co-written with Alan Rudolph (adapted from a play by Arthur Kopit) was no exception. Essentially a deconstruction of the myth of the making of the west, it declares itself in the title sequence, with Paul Newman credited as ‘The Star’ and Burt Lancaster as ‘Legend Maker.’ There are nice supporting performances from Altman regulars like Shelley Duvall and Geraldine Chaplin (who would star in Rudolph’s own Remember My Name) as well as Kevin McCarthy and Harvey Keitel but sometimes you yearn for the clear(er) lines of Shane because this is, sometimes, fatally dull.