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.


Jason Bellamy said...

I thought I'd toss this in today because Kael's knock against Lean is similar to the one she lobs at Kubrick, as mentioned in comments here. Any other reactions to this snippet?

Joel Bocko said...

Well, I hope the paint's not dry on the last one, since I jumped in kind of late!

As for this, I haven't seen The Bible. Lawrence, however, is one of my favorites and one I generally consider a great movie, one of the masterpieces of the cinema. Both Kael and Sarris missed the boat on that one, though at least she gives it credit for its visual appeal.

This allows me to bring up a tangential point, but one I've wanted to make since you first announced this series. Quite often, Kael is dismissed as a good writer, but one who "got it wrong" increasingly throughout the 70s; with examples of her overpraise for big musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and Funny Girl cited as examples. Sometimes, this is contrasted with Sarris whose auteurist leanings seemed to be verified in the 70s.

But in fact, it was Kael who "got" so many 70s masterpieces which Sarris dismissed as commercial fluff or seemed relatively uninterested in as he continued to revel in pre-60s Hollywood. Didn't Sarris declare Manhattan the only great film of the 70s? Kael, meanwhile, was celebrating Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg often in quite astute terms, terms which many intellectuals did not seem to be comfortable with.

She did get Lean, and Lawrence, wrong (though her comments apply to some of his other works, they don't really hold for the genuinely bizarre and thrilling Lawrence), but at least she was open to New Hollywood in a way that Sarris, I think, was not.

Jason, I know you are using For Keeps as your guide...until recently, it was pretty much the only Kael I was familiar with. However, I recently read her piece on the making of Sidney Lumet's "The Group" (which appeared in her collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and if you can get your hands on it, it's really worth discussing!

Joshua said...

Although I don't have as much derision for Lean's work I have to agree with her, at least to a point, I find Huston's willingness to be sloppy and unconventional is much more appealing than the more compositionally safe work of Lean and his contemporaries.

Joel Bocko said...

Interesting to that she's so willing to defend Huston, since Sarris, Truffaut, and other auteurists tended to shit all over him and his work. In fact, I think this was a major sticking point which led her to unleash "Circles and Squares"...

The Film Doctor said...

Has anyone seen The Bible? Most of the Huston movies I've watched go back to 1951 (The African Queen) or before, while I recently enjoyed Lawrence of Arabia. So if Kael is trying to change around the canon in regards to epic spectacle films, it seems she has not succeeded here.

Jason Bellamy said...

Obviously The Bible has not held up like Lawrence of Arabia, though I understand and respect the contrast that Kael is trying to execute here, even if I don't agree with it.

MovieMan says it well: Some of the criticisms of Lean seem appropriate, but not really for Lawrence.

Beyond that, there's this contradiction: The reason Lawrence isn't a straight biopic about Lawrence (thus seeming to disappoint Kael) is because it's "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." It's interesting that she doesn't see that.

The Film Doctor said...

T. E. Lawrence is such an odd character, I had no trouble with him at the center of the movie. As played by Peter O'Toole, Lawrence is flaky, heroic, and slightly goofy all at once. His characterization nicely contrasts with all of Lean's expert controlled compositions.

Edward Copeland said...

While I love Lawrence of Arabia, I've always felt that Lean was much better when he was on a smaller scale and all of his other epics were disappointments. On a somewhat unrelated tangent, why does it seem that in most epic biopics they feel the need to show us how the main character dies in the beginning. I knew next to nothing about Lawrence when I saw the film for the first time, so any suspense was lost since I knew from the outset he'd survive everything only to die in a motorcycle wreck.

Jason Bellamy said...

EC: Just wait for the David Carradine biopic.

Sorry. That was tasteless. But I couldn't resist.

It's a good question. In some cases it might be that filmmakers are intentionally trying to end the suspense of 'how it will end' to get us to focus on the character. More often than that, however, it's probably just lazy, cookie-cutter writing, the same way all articles about movie stars have to begin by mentioning the restaurant where the author met the celeb and what the celeb is wearing and eating, as if that moment -- only happening because of the interview -- is a window into the celeb's true self. It cracks me up, because you never read a sports article that begins by talking about a player standing at his locker, wrapped in a towel and spitting chew into a cup.

But now I'm on a tangent.

Joel Bocko said...

I like the beginning of Lawrence because it's so relatively mundane - it allows the film to grow into its epic stature instead of attaining it right away. Not sure if that was what was intended, but I like it nonetheless.

Craig said...

I agree with Ed that "starting at the end" has become an empty cliche. I think it works in "Lawrence," though, because it emphasizes his inherent unknowability -- how not even those closest to him really knew the man. (And sets up echoes and ironies like the man proud enough to have shaken his hand, only to have unwittingly slapped him in a prior encounter.) By telling us this at the outset, it turns a potential narrative problem -- the enigma that was T.E. Lawrence -- into a strength.

But, yeah, most of the time it's old hat. Makes me appreciate the linear-ness of "Patton" (which Kael, as I recall, disliked for it's "God's-eye" perspective on its subject).

James Hansen said...

This is another great case of Kael not being such a fan of Film Art (relation to Kubrick here) but an enormous lover of film art. The pretty, perfectly composed works that seem to display the photographic over the filmic (in all its forms) are always lesser works to her. Its consistent, I think. I don't agree with her as much here as far as pure agreement goes (I like LAWRENCE a lot although I've grown less fond of the second half each time I've seen it) but it goes to show what she really thinks film is all about - and its not just pretty pictures, which is why she sort of mocks people for staying to look at vast landscapes in a biopic. One thing is thrown out the window in favor of another. Kael wants both all the time.

Ed Howard said...

I think if you're looking for a definition of Kael's aesthetic, you need look no further than here:

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".

That's a pretty consistent line throughout all her work, an appreciation for the wild artist who risks failure rather than the solid visual craftsman who plays it safe and makes empty but attractive pictures. I always loved that attitude about her, even when I don't agree with her evaluations of particular films or filmmakers. It's almost a punk attitude, a punk aesthetic that she seems to praise, a sensibility of risk and failure and emotional sloppiness similar to the films maudit so beloved of the French critics of the Cahiers set.

IA said...

My primary reason for wanting to see Huston's The Bible has always been Kael's advocacy of it. But the film is still unavailable for home viewing, which makes it harder to ppraise Huston's work to see if his dismissal as an auteur was unjustified.

Part of Kael's unease with Lawrence of Arabia was her strong attachment to T.E. Lawrence's writing--you can her discuss the issue at greater length than she did in print by listening to the audio file hosted at Tom Sutpen's blog:

Richard Bellamy said...

Being a lover of epic films at a young age, I saw The Bible at the movies in 1966.

It's memorable visually but not emotionally. I remember Michael Parks plays Adam and all I remember about Eve is that she was nearly naked. Richard Harris portrays raw torment as Cain. In a brief but epic sequence with a cast of thousands, Stephen Boyd as Nimrod orders the building of the Tower of Babel and then shoots an arrow at the heavens and all hell breaks loose. Huston himself plays Noah and goes for the comic. Lots of pairs of animals - real. The flood is amazing - hordes of sinners swallowed up by water that is not CGI. I remember very vividly Peter O'Toole as Angel Gabriel - or some angel - sent to warn Lot that Sodom and Gormorrah are going to be nuked. In the lighting, you mostly just see O'Toole's dazzlingly blue eyes. Then George C. Scott ponderously plays Abraham who wants a son but nothing seems to work and then he slays a bunch of Philistines. It was a fun movie.

But - by 1966, when I was only 14, I had already seen Lawrence of Arabia, and no naked Eve, no flood, no cast of thousands, no cute pairs of animals, nothing could have altered my opinion of the vast superiority of Lawrence - which had a much more powerful impact on me visually and emotionally. And it wasn't just me - but many viewers at that time would have agreed that Lean's epic is not completely "controlled" or "in good taste." Some viewers considered it sadistic. It certainly wasn't "uninteresting."

I see what Kael is saying and I agree - but about other films - especially about more recent films. I wish more directors would take risks today to make edgier epics. Back in 1962, Lawrence was edgy.