Tag Archives: kael

A Kommendable Kael Kakophany

I should apologise for the paucity of posts, and film-related posts in particular, of late. The irony is that a big part of the reason is film-related thesis work (it will be a shame when I lose that all-purpose, reasonable-sounding excuse for not writing more often.)

I did want to briefly break my silence, however, to highlight the slew of good writing that has been appearing online about Pauline Kael. The publication this week of a new anthology of Kael’s work (The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael) as well as a new biography (Brian Kellow’s A Life in the Dark) has lead to a flood of re-evaluatiuons of the critic. The first I saw was this one by Nathan Heller at the New Yorker, but then followed Camille Paglia and Jim Emerson and Frank Rich and Dan Callahan and Armond White and “The Siren” and Andrew O’Hehir and Matt Soller Zeits.

It’s an embarassment of riches, and the there is, predictably, a lot of overlap in these pieces. Nevertheless, I urge you to have a look at them if you are at all interested in film criticism. I wrote my own piece on Kael a few years ago – here – and not having read the two new books don’t have much to add to what I wrote back then. And most of what I would add has been said better somewhere else by one or other of these writers. (It is hard, however, to imagine that the new anthology is better than the incredible For Keeps, published back in 1996).

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Gratifying and Infuriating All at Once

Update:Ain’t it Cool have now posted the full Spielberg interview referred to in this post: it’s here and well worth a read for Jaws fans.

Ain’t it Cool have released some snippets of a forthcoming interview with Steven Spielberg that are at once infuriating and gratifying.

Gratifying, in that Spielberg confirms that the Blu-Ray of Jaws (forthcoming at an undisclosed date) will have no Star Wars Special Edition-style alterations. Spielberg, it should be remembered, practically invented the modern craze for re-cutting movies with his “Special Edition” of Close Encounters in 1980. That movies’ muddied history shows both the best and worst of this kind of thing. The cut he eventually came up with the second time he revisited the film, in 1998, is in my view the best version of the film. Yet between 1980 and 1998 he managed to keep the original version out of circulation, prompting Pauline Kael’s memorable complaint that “…when you remember something in a movie with pleasure and its gone, you feel as if your memories had been mugged.” George Lucas’ butchering of Star Wars has become the key example of this kind of chicanery, although Spielberg’s recut E.T. is very nearly as bad.

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Picking the Classics

Jaime J. Weinman has touched on a topic that fascinates me: trying to pick the movies that will be classics of the future. He has two posts on the topic: one looking at wannabe classics that turn out not to be (here), and one about the process of trying to pick what will hold up later on (here).

This is a topic that interests me a lot; too much, in fact to do it justice right now. But I thought I’d post a couple of quick thoughts in reaction to Weinman’s pieces, since otherwise who knows when I’d get around to it. (For long-time readers, I warn right now that I am going to be repeating all sorts of things I’ve said before that are scattered through the site.)

Weinman has noted the obvious category of movies that don’t age well: Oscar-baiting issues pieces, or middlebrow art films. This is a longstanding observation and complaint and I couldn’t put it better than Pauline Kael who in her landmark 1969 essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” complained about critics praising “ghastly ‘tour-de-force’ performances, movies based on ‘distinguished’ stage successes or prize-winning novels, or movies that are ‘worthwhile,’ that make a ‘contribution’ – ‘serious’ messagy movies.”

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“It’s Not Called the Temple of Roses: It’s Called the Temple of Doom.”

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984)

In the lead-up to the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a longstanding argument was revived. Which is the second best Indiana Jones film: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The two films split fans of the series down the middle; they are so different, and the qualities people value in each are so different, that there is no room for agreement. (It’s one of those arguments where both sides are surprised that the other could even pose such a question.) About the only thing that unites everyone is the unstated assumption that, of course, Raiders of the Lost Ark is the untouchable, streets-ahead best of the series. I, too, love that film: I can’t fault so much as a single shot, line-reading, or camera angle. It’s funny and exciting. Harrison Ford is awesome as Indiana Jones, and the supporting cast are all fantastic. A number of sequences – the flying wing fight, in particular – are amongst the most skilfully mounted in Spielberg’s extraordinary oeuvre. But here’s my dirty little secret… as time has gone by, I think I have come to love Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom even more than Raiders.

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When Stanley Met Arthur

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

The popular remembrance of the reception to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is of a generation of hip, pot-addled college students letting the sound and light show wash over them, and then arguing long into the night about the film’s meaning. In 1969 the veteran science fiction writer Harlan Ellison sarcastically complained about acquaintances boring him at 3am with lengthy treatises on the film’s commentary on “the philosophy of the Vedantist movement, and the incredibly brilliant tour de force of Nietzsche-esque subplotting Kubrick pulled off.” Critics’ reviews at the time alternated between those hailing a masterpiece and those deriding the film as a pretentious con.

As much as it would have been fun to have been part of that initial wave of appreciation, looking back it’s hard to see what was so puzzling about 2001. While the film has never quite shaken its reputation for inscrutability, watching it today there’s nothing so mysterious about it. Not only have there been many more genuinely obtuse science fiction films since (starting with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in 1972), but the basic themes and devices of Kubrick’s film have been so absorbed into the genre that they now seem like familiar standards. Yet 2001 hasn’t been reduced by this process: if anything, that increasing comfort with its message and approach has defused the criticism of those who would dismiss it as a pretentious think-piece. And when we no longer characterise it as a giant-budget art film, it’s easier to appreciate its grandeur on its own terms and also to discern its lasting impact on a wider front.

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Western Art

McCabe & Mrs Miller (Robert Altman), 1971)

When Robert Altman made McCabe & Mrs Miller, he wasn’t the stereotypical New Hollywood director. In his mid forties, with many years in the industry (obscure B-pictures in the fifties, and television throughout the sixties), he was an emerging talent but still a product of the system. Yet McCabe & Mrs Miller is nevertheless classic New Hollywood: it takes an established Hollywood genre and deconstructs it; it focuses on amoral (or at least non-heroic) protagonists; it’s downbeat; and it’s photographed and constructed more like a European art film than American genre films typically had been until that point. You can see why canon-building critics like Pauline Kael, eager to welcome in a new wave of filmmakers, flipped for it. Kael wasn’t wrong – it is a great film. Yet I think it’s worth another look because the response to it is very telling about the way audiences and critics respond to the collision of art and genre.

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I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or a film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.

Pauline Kael, KPFA Broadcast, 1963

There aren’t many critics who could get away with a statement like that. They generally lack the cachet: criticism isn’t held in high esteem because it is seen as a by-product of art, rather than an expressive pursuit in itself. There is some justice in this, as even the best critics are there to serve the appreciation of the medium they are talking about, making it difficult to justify the consideration of their criticism as a piece of creative work with its own worth. As a result, critics are held in contempt by many, and writing about or discussing the quality of a critic’s work in any depth can be seen as a self-defeating exercise. What could be more of a redundant exercise than criticising critics, and thus putting yourself a level even further down in the hierarchy? To the extent they are thought about at all, then, critics tend to be seen as the bottom feeders of the artistic establishment. The general quality of film criticism has done little to change this perception: many media outlets take the view that basically anyone can review a movie, meaning that even the professional film reviewing sector has a very poor base standard. While the public’s interest in cinema ensures an audience for film criticism, most readers undoubtedly feel that if they were given the job they could write as good or better reviews themselves, and frequently they would be right. Against such a background, only a very assured and confident film critic could try to argue that criticism is an art in itself, rather than a subsidary pursuit. Yet if anyone could ever make such a claim, it was Pauline Kael.

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Better than Ever

Jim Schembri, the film critic for the EG section in The Age, published an interesting piece in that paper on Friday about Hollywood films. After apparently having an exceptionally unpleasant time with Mr & Mrs Smith – a movie I chose not to inflict on myself – he was moved to write a long piece on how Hollywood films really suck these days. (For the next few days it will be available here, although registration may be required.) The basic argument is that big “event” movies like Mr & Mrs Smith don’t actually need to be good: they open to enormous business based upon saturation marketing, and turn a profit before word gets out that they suck. The marketing media machine is, essentially, making quality irrelevant and thus making both Hollywood movies and their audiences dumber:

The intent is to blitz the eyes, rattle the ears and provide plenty of close-ups of those big, expensive stars. Pummel the audience with the package. Overwhelm them with starpower and firepower.

That’s what audiences are being sold now – not films, but deals.

This dumbing down of movies – it’s still very hard to believe that Miss Congeniality 2 actually does exist – has been accompanied by a dumbing down of audiences.

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