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

 

Used Cars (1980)

Used Cars

Fifty bucks never killed anybody! Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) is an unscrupulous car salesman who aspires to become a State Senator for Arizona. In the meantime he works for the nice but ineffective old dealer Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden) with a dodgy ticker selling bangers that die once they leave the lot. When Luke dies in mysterious circumstances, Rudy takes over the business, but he faces stiff competition from his rival across the street, the scheming Roy L. Fuchs – pronounced ‘fewks’ – (also Warden) who wants his brother’s business for himself because he’s paying off the Mayor to put the interstate freeway through the property. Rudy needs to get hold of $10,000 to launch his political campaign. In order to get more customers, Rudy and Roy each devise ever more ridiculous promotions to gain the upper hand. Now it’s every salesman for himself! Then Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon) shows up just when there’s a televised Presidential address to disrupt They are the lowest form of scum on the face of this earth and I urge you to stay away from them! John Milius gave the idea for the script to Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale and lo! comedy gold was born in this outrageous tale of oneupmanship, rivalry and sheer chutzpah, a parody of hucksters and a satire about the USA at the tail end of the 70s. Russell and Warden are fantastic. This country’s going to the dogs. Used to be, when you bought a politician the son of a bitch stayed bought! Gerrit Graham, David L. Lander, Frank McRae and Michael McKean are among the brilliant cast where everyone has an angle, even Toby the dog. Screamingly funny, this is one of the best bad taste comedies ever made and simply hurtles to its riotous conclusion taking absolutely everybody prisoner on its mercilessly outrageous joyride. Executive produced by Milius and Steven Spielberg. Nothing sells a car better than a car itself. Now remember this, you have to get their confidence, get their friendship, get their trust. Then get their money

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001)

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With commentary from Hollywood stars and narrated by Tom Cruise, who starred in Eyes Wide Shut, over outtakes from his movies and footage from his childhood in a happy New York family, this documentary looks at cinema master Stanley Kubrick’s life and films in 15-minute segments. Director Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and long-time assistant, interviews heavyweights like Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen and Sydney Pollack, who discuss his output from his debut Fear and Desire onward and explain the influence of acknowledged classics like Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and how he absorbed visual clues from disposable culture such as television commercials. It’s a marvellous biographical and personal account with information previously unavailable and funny, telling home movies. Not so much about the working process but with sufficient on-set detail to satisfy the neophyte to his work and tantalising insights about his home life and interests. Born to a doctor father who liked making home movies the young Stanley hated school where he was clearly gifted but bored. He started taking photographs as a teenager and was only 16 when he sold a photo to Look magazine of a street vendor’s reaction to President Roosevelt’s death. He hustled chess games and sold more pictures, sometimes of movie stars like Montgomery Clift.

Perhaps the most intelligent person I ever met:  Arthur C. Clarke, writer of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  

There’s still a part of Stanley that’s a great mystery to me:  Steven Spielberg, director of A.I.

Day of the Fight (1950) A boxing documentary that came from his love of taking photographs of boxers and led to his father funding his debut fiction feature after cashing in a life insurance policy. Fear and Desire (1953) He knew nothing about acting. It’s the intensity that impressed me:  Paul Mazursky. Killer’s Kiss (1955) was made while he was on unemployment cheques and brought him to the attention of producer James Harris and they set up a company, Harris-Kubrick.  The Killing (1956) Marie Windsor describes Kubrick’s tremendous confidence. He employed legendary cinematographer Lucien Ballard and when Ballard ignored Kubrick’s precise lens and framing orders on the first day Kubrick threatened to fire him. Ballard stayed and never disobeyed him again:  Kubrick knew his cameras. Paths of Glory (1957) You cannot see it without weeping:  Martin Scorsese on the masterpiece Kubrick made when he was just 28 years old. Spielberg says Kubrick did the opposite to other filmmakers, painting obvious ideas in big brush strokes but then his attention to detail was meticulous beyond anyone else’s. It was on this production that Kubrick met Christiane (who sings the song to the troops) who moved to Hollywood with him, became his wife and the mother of his children. Spartacus (1960) He inherited it from Anthony Mann and was working again with star Kirk Douglas. The script for this epic production had no battle scenes. The film had to be re-cast. He had an extraordinary ability to see what is important: Christiane Kubrick. To make a film like without Jesus but with Kubrick is already an achievement [for Kirk Douglas]: Peter Ustinov. The narration then informs us, The process had taught him he had to have full control over his films. He moved to England and obtained the rights to a controversial book that he loved,  Lolita (1962) which Spielberg declares is much more about the human condition than the novel ever was. It had to be re-cut for release.  Dr Strangelove (1964) Everything wonderful about that movie is because of the way it was directed:  Woody Allen. 2001 (1968) After working for Stanley on 2001 I swore I would never work for anybody again… I think probably he had a hard time keeping up with his intellect:  Gary Trumbull. 241 people walked out of the first exhibitors screening. Kubrick was devastated and Christiane couldn’t find him to let him know the great reviews a few people were giving it.  It was one of the few times in life I realised the artist was much ahead of me:  Woody Allen who had to watch it three times before he could acknowledge its greatness. And the Napoleon project that remained forever unmade? Stanley was fascinated by the idea that somebody so intelligent and so talented made so many mistakes. With the failure of Waterloo, Warner Brothers didn’t want to fund a loss-maker.  A Clockwork Orange (1971) I never know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want, Kubrick told Malcolm McDowell.  He exploited these extreme subjects that you sometimes recoil from:  Sydney Pollack. Alex Cox now describes him as a film director who’s given up being influenced by others. The devastating impact that the negative press coverage had on the Kubrick family led the director to withdraw it after 61 weeks on release. Warner Brothers agreed, Terry Semel says, because globally 2001 was the second greatest moneymaker in their history after My Fair Lady. Having Stanley under contract for the rest of his life was more important to Warner Brothers. It was a unique relationship in the film business and although he took time over his films, they were low cost – when you walked onto a Kubrick set there was nobody hanging around eating donuts. There was only ever a handful of crew. Barry Lyndon (1975) I knew it was a costume picture … I hoped he was going to take it somewhere else. He took it back in time:  Scorsese. Critics were looking for something that wasn’t in the move:  Richard Schickel. Whatever movies Stanley made, what I love about them is that they are completely conscious:  Jack Nicholson. The Shining (1980) He recounts a very different experience of collaboration than that of Shelley Duvall with on-set footage of Kubrick shouting at her that makes for unpleasant viewing. There are things in The Shining that still wake me up at night:  John Calley.  When he was away from home for a couple of weeks he left one 15-page document alone on how to care for his cats. Anthony Frewin says, He was kind of the ultimate Jewish mother. He was never happier than being at home with wife, daughter, friends, animals. British journalists labelled him a weirdo and it bothered him but he didn’t engage with the press following the Clockwork Orange experience. He returned to filmmaking with Full Metal Jacket (1987) which he’d been working on for 7 years during which time several Vietnam movies had been released and he’d been overtaken. It seems so still and removed, comments writer Michael Herr. He doesn’t deal with traditional dramatic structure, which is good.  He keeps experimenting:  Scorsese.  He welcomed everyone’s ideas on the set. He’d try anything. There were many ways in which he was not controlling. He was fascinated by World War 2 and Goebbels and the Holocaust and was preparing to make The Aryan Papers from Louis Begley’s book but when Spielberg announced Schindler’s List he gave up. His wife was pleased, describing him as very depressed throughout the prep. He approached Spielberg to make A.I. from a Brian Aldiss story because I think this movie is closer to your sensibility than mine. He wanted to postpone production to wait for technology to keep up with the film’s ideas and of course Spielberg eventually made it (commenting elsewhere that everyone got it wrong, believing that Kubrick’s ideas were his and vice versa, again proving that critics know nothing). Eyes Wide Shut (1999) starred fabled husband and wife team Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and she says the great luxury that Kubrick had and gave them was time. His understanding of humans is that we are very bittersweet. The whole process of the film was a discovery.  It’s about relationships and it’s about New York but it’s about a dream of these subjects, shot in London, close to home in Hertfordshire. Who among us would be anything but envious about the way he set up his life:  Schickel. One thing people have a hard time with in the cinema is ambiguity. Ambiguity is great but in the cinema it’s almost verboten:  Alex Cox. He never gave an inch on anything: Sydney Pollack, whom Kubrick cast in the film and agreed he was done in two takes yet Pollack was still shooting his scene three weeks later. The film screened to a good reception in New York on 1 March 1999 and his wife said it had taken a toll, as though it had become a part of his physicality. He died 6 days later, aged 70. It was one man’s vision, and no one interfered with that vision:  Alan Parker.

Either you can or you don’t:  Stanley Kubrick. Respect.

The Goonies (1985)

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Kids suck.  A band of adventurous kids from the Goon Docks in Astoria Oregon take on the might of a property developing company which plans to destroy their home to build a country club. When the children discover an old pirate map in the attic of Mikey (Sean Astin) and Brandon (Josh Brolin) Walsh, the brothers and their friends Mouth (Corey Feldman), Data (Ke Huy Quan) and Chunk (Josh Cohen) follow it into an underground cavern in search of lost treasure but come up against plenty of dangerous obstacles along the way as a dangerous gang of criminals, the Fratellis, Mama (Anne Ramsay) and her sons (Robert Davi and Joey Pantoliano) have the treasure in their sights You’re in the clouds – we are in a basement.  Steven Spielberg wrote the story and produced, Chris Columbus did the screenplay and Richard (Superman) Donner directed. You want pirates? Treasure? Storytelling? And kids trying to save their home? Here it is. The classic 80s kiddie film gets a re-release and if it has all these great things it also has flaws, principally the screamfest style that irritated me in the first place. Will they ever just … shut up?! There are too many kids too but if there were any fewer we wouldn’t have the girls and no awkward and possibly inappropriate romantic moments. Ramsay is her hatchet-faced best as the crooked mama and there is even a guy who looks like Stephen King (Keith Walker) cast as the father of Brolin and Astin because if there’s something this resembles in an homage assemblage it’s It – but also the Our Gang movies, Ealing comedy and Spielberg’s own oeuvre, particularly the Indiana Jones films (and Quan is a veteran of Temple of Doom) and kids on bikes, single moms and absent dads. The score by the prolific Dave Grusin (whom I more or less just about tolerate by and large) actually manages Steineresque heights in the piratey last sequences (there’s a clip from Captain Blood on the TV) and there is terrific production design by J. Michael Riva, the late grandson of screen goddess Marlene Dietrich. When Astin finally meets One-Eyed Willy – well, it works for me. It’s notable for a performance by NFL star John Matuszak as the Fratelli’s deformed brother who Cohen befriends. All well and good  – but does everyone absolutely positively have to be so loud?! I mean you, Josh Cohen! He’s just like his father

The Grim Reaper (1962)

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Aka La commarre secca/The Skinny Gossip. Don’t you know you fool, there are no limits to love.  When a prostitute is murdered in a Roman park a series of male suspects are brought in by the police for questioning … Based on a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini, to whom he had recently been apprenticed, Bernardo Bertolucci made his directing debut aged 21 and he and Sergio Citti wrote this crime drama which has some striking cinematography. The film follows the men, one of whom is a petty thief who follows lovers to steal their radios while they’re otherwise engaged. Teodoro a soldier (Allen Midgette) provides information that leads to another man, and so on. This is typical Pasolini in a sense in its concern with young men making their way in the world – but it also has distinctive structural touches owing perhaps a little of its idea to Rashomon and some visual flourishes that make it distinctive. One shot in particular – a reverse track through a tunnel while Teodoro squats in the rain, laughing, watched by whores, is memorable. The men are all shot pitilessly in harsh light against a white background lending their testimony an air of desperation and underlining the brutality of the murder.  Over the course of the film a narrative is created around them and the fate of the dead woman, lying on the banks of the River Tiber, spiralling towards a desperate conclusion.

Before the Revolution (1964)

Before the Revolution

What do you think you’re up to ?  Revolution?  Parma, 1962. Student Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) struggles to reconcile his communist beliefs with his lifestyle. After his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) drowns, he breaks up with the nice middle class girl Clelia (Cristina Pariset) he’s been dating. When his parents invite his mother’s younger sister Gina (Adriana Asti) to stay they have a passionate affair … What David Thomson describes as a film characterised by romantic disenchantment was Bernardo Bertolucci’s audacious sophomore outing. Shot when he was just 22 and directly after his apprenticeship to Pasolini, it’s a striking piece of work, conjoining sex and politics directly and unapologetically. Bertolucci’s screenplay confronts the difficulties of post-war life in Italy in a loose adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and examines the legacy of fascism while Fabrizio considers the merits and issues within the Italian Communist Party.  Distinguished by Vittorio Storaro’s black and white cinematography and a score by Ennio Morricone, this is an astonishingly assured piece of work, announcing the director’s philosophical intent with a quote from Talleyrand as the narration begins in a film which has its roots in the Nouvelle Vague style, bristling with ideas and a signature that’s already fully formed.

Me and You (2012)

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Aka Io & Te. You have nine lives like a cat. Introverted Italian teenager Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) tells his parents he’s going on a skiing holiday but instead hides out for a week in the unused basement of their home, a conflict-free zone, spending part of the time with his 25-year old arty half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) whose fragility and jitteriness are revealed to be the consequence of a drug addiction.  She starts to help him see the world differently … Me and you, if we didn’t have our own point of view, we’d be the same, right? Without a point of view, we’d stop fighting each other, and accept reality for what it is, without judging it. Undoubtedly Bertolucci’s ill-health contributed to his return to Italian-language cinema with this chamber piece.  It was his last film and bears his immense sympathy for the teenage condition, out of step with family and the wider world.  The relationship between brother and sister is nicely teased out, working out the best way to negotiate a way back into society. His relationships and exchanges with his mother (Sonia Bergamasco) and grandmother (Veronica Lazar) add mordant humour to the situation. It’s a small scale – even claustrophobic – drama of formal challenges, intimately reminding us of the great director’s concerns over the decades but pivoting to the psychological rather than the sexual. The screenplay is by Bertolucci with Niccolò Ammaniti, Francesca Marciano and Umberto Contarello, from the YA novel by Ammaniti. Nobody can hurt you when you’re high

Nicolas Roeg 15th August 1928 – 23rd November 2018

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I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography. I was very glad later when I was directing that I wasn’t in the hands of a cinematographer and hoping that he would do it well. I would know what he was doing, and we could discuss how that scene would look. It was just lucky in a way that I didn’t go to film school and just learned all this on the floor.

My proudest moment was one afternoon in Nic Roeg’s study when he patted me on the shoulder and said, Very good. Very good! He was referring to my screenplay, a script for a short film which I had persuaded my producer Roeg should direct. He was my favourite director, after all, if you removed Alain Resnais from the equation (I treasure a lovely letter Resnais wrote to me explaining he couldn’t meet me because he was shooting a film. I completely understood). I had written my film for a certain actor and this was my second, exhausted tilt at the windmill. And Roeg had agreed. I was stunned. It was a work which needed someone who understood imagery but wouldn’t be hamstrung by it, liked a fluid camera and was comfortable dealing with humorously dark erotic drama. Who else? He had learned his craft working on some of the most beautiful films of the Sixties as cinematographer, including Doctor Zhivago (which he quit because he needed more freedom than Lean would allow), Casino Royale, Far From the Madding Crowd and perhaps crucially, Petulia, which is a kaleidoscope of visual and narrative montage honed to a smooth entirety. I took a look at all the walls lined with books (an entire shelf on the Kabbalah, courtesy of Eureka), many photos of his ex-wife and muse Theresa Russell (although I wasn’t sure that they had divorced), and of their sons, one of whom was about to model for Harper’s Bazaar.  His current reading included The Sexual Life of Catherine M. It was on top of a stack of books on his desk which looked down onto the street – Miranda Richardson (who went on to star in Puffball) lived opposite.  He had recently met with a former colleague of mine to discuss making a feature script based on Ivanhoe – that company had had two different takes on the material but the boss wanted the lesser of them. Roeg shared my very low opinion of both the project and this bottom of the barrel individual (who was fronting for a very famous director) so we had even more ground in common as well as a shared love of the original novel. When my producer showed him some artwork for my prospective film he dismissed it and just pointed at the script, and said, It’s all there. The greatest compliment I could ever receive. I had grown up watching Walkabout and The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now (very late at night) and I read about Bad Timing for years before I could see it:  that film alone shaped my view of cinema and a lot more besides: I was completely obsessed by it and was amazed to discover I wasn’t the only one (see the video clip below of critic Mark Cousins when he introduced it on BBC2’s Moviedrome). His AIDS public service ads voiced by John Hurt terrorised my generation as kids. His films swamped my brain: I adored his gleeful wit, his painterly freedom and his narrative ease, which belied complex character and depth-charged psychology. These mosaics of memory and meaning dominated my own psyche. Roeg’s son wanted a huge amount of money upfront for his father, the producer went nuts, my film never got made for reasons never made clear to me and my leading man is currently playacting in a jungle. I weep at the thought of all the talentless goons churning out dross over the past twenty years while Roeg struggled for finance to make any project that matched his majesty. What a remarkable, transgressive, fascinating filmmaker he was. I just worshipped this man who fell to earth. I am devastated by his loss.

 

MM#2100

Spellbound (1945)

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If there’s anything I hate, it’s a smug woman. Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at Green Manors, a Vermont mental hospital, to replace the outgoing hospital director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll).  Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst, discovers he is an impostor. The man confesses that the real Dr. Edwardes is dead and he believes he might have killed him, but cannot recall anything. Dr. Peterson, however is convinced he is innocent and joins him on a quest to unravel his amnesia through psychoanalysis…That Freud stuff’s a bunch of hooey/Oh, you are a fine one to talk! You have a guilt complex and amnesia and you don’t know if you are coming or going from somewhere, but Freud is hooey! *This* you know! Hmph! Wiseguy.  Adapted by Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (with uncredited contributions from David O. Selznick’s psychiatrist May Romm!) from the 1927 novel The House of Dr Edwardes by Hilary Saint George Saunders and John Palmer, this is the Hitchcock film that brought Salvador Dali to Hollywood and those dream sequences (only 2 of the original 20 minutes remain) are a fascinating component of a film that also boasts notable theremin work in the score by Miklós Rózsa. Peck and Bergman are quite wonderful in a story that has a solidly suspenseful plot with many surprises. It’s a mad film that isn’t so much directed as orchestrated and the melodramatic flourishes are perfectly pitched. A brilliant synthesis of talents and ideas that were all aswirl as Freudianism gripped America, awash with dream symbolism and nutty psychoanalysis, it is also fascinating to see Michael (Mikhail) Chekhov, the acting coach who famously trained talents as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and Jack Nicholson, in the role of Dr Alex Brulov, Constance’s mentor. Hitchcock regular Carroll is good as the inscrutable head of the hospital, while Rhonda Fleming has a nice supporting role as a patient.  Good night and sweet dreams… which we’ll analyze at breakfast