Monday, June 15, 2009
Kael on Epics (and Huston vs. Lean)
[The paint isn’t dry on the first discussion of Pauline Kael Week; keep that going. But here's another small sampling to broaden the discussion. Please read and react in the comments section.]
The following is excerpted from “Epics – The Bible,” by Pauline Kael, originally published in The New Republic, October 22, 1966. It has been anthologized in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, pages 91-94. (In some cases, paragraph breaks and ellipsis have been added. All other punctuation is faithful to For Keeps.)
When the announcement was made that Norman Mailer’s An American Dream was to be made into a movie, my reaction was that John Huston was the only man who could do it. And what a script it could be for him! But Huston was working on The Bible … If, in making The Treasure of the Sierra Madre he risked comparison with Greed, and if with The Red Badge of Courage, he risked comparison with The Birth of a Nation, The Bible risks comparison with Intolerance. It is a huge sprawling epic – an attempt to use the medium to its fullest, to overwhelm the senses and feelings, for gigantic mythmaking, for a poetry of size and scope.
In recent years the spectacle form has become so vulgarized that probably most educated moviegoers have just about given up. They don’t think of movies in those terms anymore because in general the only way for artists to work in the medium is frugally. Though there might occasionally be great sequences in big pictures, like the retreat from Russia in King Vidor’s War and Peace, those who knew the novel had probably left by then. If, however, you will admit that you went to see Lawrence of Arabia under the delusion that it was going to be about T. E. Lawrence, but you stayed to enjoy the vastness of the desert and the pleasures of the senses that a huge movie epic can provide – the pleasures of largeness and distances – then you may be willing to override your prejudices and too-narrow theories about what the art of film is, and go to see The Bible.
For John Huston is an infinitely more complex screen artist than David Lean. He can be far worse than Lean because he’s careless and sloppy and doesn’t have all those safety nets of solid craftsmanship spread under him. What makes a David Lean spectacle uninteresting finally is that it’s in such goddamn good taste. It’s all so ploddingly intelligent and controlled, so "distinguished." The hero may stick his arm in blood up to the elbow but you can be assured that the composition will be academically, impeccably composed. Lean plays the mad game of superspectacles like the sane man. Huston (like Mailer) tests himself, plays the crazy game crazy – to beat it, to win.
The worst problem of recent movie epics is that they usually start with an epic in another form and so the director must try to make a masterpiece to compete with an already existing one. This is enough to petrify most directors but it probably delights Huston. What more perverse challenge than to test himself against the Book? It’s a flashy demonic gesture, like Nimrod shooting his arrow into God’s heaven.