Saturday, June 20, 2009


[To close out postings for Pauline Kael Week (consider the discussions ongoing), here are some scrumptious Kael morsels.]

Full reviews of the following films can be found in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies.

Last Tango in Paris
This is a movie people will be arguing about, I think, for as long as there are movies. They’ll argue about how it was intended, as they argue again now about The Dance of Death. It is a movie you can’t get out of your system, and I think it will make some people very angry and disgust others. I don’t believe that there’s anyone whose feelings can be totally resolved about the sex scenes and the social attitudes in this film.

The Godfather – Part II
Throughout the three hours and twenty minutes of Part II, there are so many moments of epiphany – mysterious, reverberant images, such as the small Vito singing in his cell – that one scarcely has the emotional resources to deal with the experience of this film. Twice, I almost cried out at acts of violence that De Niro’s Vito committed. I didn’t look away from the images, as I sometimes do at routine action pictures. I wanted to see the worst; there is a powerful need to see it.

Is there such a thing as an orgy for movie-lovers – but an orgy without excess? At Robert Altman’s new, almost three-hour film, Nashville, you don’t get drunk on images, you’re not overpowered – you get elated. I’ve never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way: I sat there smiling at the screen, in complete happiness. It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over; you take it with you.

Taxi Driver
No other film has ever dramatized urban indifference so powerfully; at first, here, it’s horrifyingly funny, and then just horrifying. … The violence in this movie is so threatening precisely because it’s cathartic for Travis. I imagine that some people who are angered by the film will say that it advocates violence as a cure for frustration. But to acknowledge hat when a psychopath’s blood boils over he may cool down is not the same as justifying the eruption.

The Deer Hunter
He [Robert De Niro] fails conspicuously in only one sequence – when he’s required to grab Nick’s bloody head and shake it. You don’t shake someone who’s bleeding, and De Niro can’t rise above the stupidity of this conception; even his weeping doesn’t move us. We have come to expect a lot from De Niro: miracles. And he delivers them – he brings a bronze statue almost to life. He takes the Pathfinder-Deerslayer role and gives it every flourish he can dream up. He does improvisations on nothing, and his sea-to-shining-sea muscularity is impulsive. But Michael, the transcendent hero, is a hollow figure. There is never a moment when we feel, Oh my God, I know that man, I am that man.

Return of the Jedi
If a filmmaker wants backing for a new project, there’d better be a video game in it. Producers are putting so much action and so little character or point into their movies that there’s nothing for a viewer to latch on to. The battle between good and evil, which is the theme of just about every big fantasy adventure film, has become a flabby excuse for a lot of dumb tricks and noise. It has got to the point where some of us might be happy to see good and evil quit fighting and become friends.

Top Gun
What is this commercial selling? It’s just selling, because that’s what the producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and the director Tony (Make It Glow) Scott, know how to do. Selling is what they think moviemaking is about. The result is a new “art” form: the self-referential commercial. Top Gun is a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.

Blue Velvet
The film’s kinkiness isn’t alienating – it’s naïveté keeps it from that. And its vision isn’t alienating: this is American darkness – darkness in color, darkness with a happy ending. Lynch might turn out to be the first populist surrealist – a Frank Capra of dream logic.

I know that Platoon is being acclaimed for its realism, and I expect to be chastised for being a woman finding fault with a war film. But I’ve probably seen as much combat as most of the men saying, “This is how war is.”

Full Metal Jacket
It’s very likely that Kubrick has become so wrapped up in his “craft” – which is often called his “genius” – that he doesn’t recognize he’s cut off not only from America and the effects the war had on it but from any sort of connection to people. (The only memorable character in the his films of the past twenty years is Hal the computer.) What happened to the Kubrick who used to slip in sly, subtle jokes and little editing tricks? This may be his worst movie. He probably believes he’s numbing us by the power of his vision, but he’s actually numbing us by its emptiness. Like a star child, Kubrick floats above the characters of Full Metal Jacket, the story, the audience. Moviemaking carried to a technical extreme – to the reach for supreme control of his material – seems to have turned Kubrick into a machine.

Casualties of War
The movie about war and rape – De Palma’s nineteenth film – is the culmination of his best work. In essence, it’s feminist. I think that in his earlier movies De Palma was always involved in examining (and sometimes satirizing) victimization, but he was often accused of being a victimizer. Some moviegoers (women, especially) were offended by his thrillers; they thought there was something reprehensibly sadistic in his cleverness. He was clever. When people talk about their sex fantasies, their descriptions almost always sound like movies, and De Palma headed right for that linkage: he teased the audience about how susceptible it was to romantic manipulation. Carrie and Dressed to Kill are like lulling erotic reveries that keep getting broken into by scary jokes. He let you know that he was jerking you around and that it was for your amused, childish delight, but a lot of highly vocal people expressed shock. This time, De Palma touches on raw places in people’s reaction to his earlier movies; he gets at the reality that may have made some moviegoers too fearful to enjoy themselves. He goes to the heart of sexual victimization, and he does it with a new authority. The way he makes movies now, it’s as if he were saying, “What is getting older if it isn’t learning more ways that you’re vulnerable?”

Born on the Fourth of July
Oliver Stone has a taste for blood and fire, and for the anguish and disillusionment that follow. Everything is in capital letters. He flatters the audience with the myth that we believed in the war and then we woke up; like Ron Kovic, we’re turned into generic Eagle Scouts.

The filmmaking process becomes the subject of the movie. All you want to talk about is the glorious whizzing camera, the freeze-frames and jump cuts. That may be why young film enthusiasts are so turned on by Scorsese’s work: they don’t just respond to his films, they want to be him. When Orson Welles made Touch of Evil, the filmmaking process just about took over – that movie was one flourish after another. But that was 1958, and making a thriller about your own wallowing love of the film medium was a thrilling stunt.

Dances With Wolves
There’s nothing affected about Costner’s acting or directing. You hear his laid-back, surfer accent; you see his deliberate goofy faints and falls, and all the closeups of his handsomeness. This epic was made by a bland megalomaniac. (The Indians should have named him Plays with Camera.)


Richard Bellamy said...

I love her takes on Jedi and Dances With Wolves. I totally agree.

She says so much about Taxi Driver in that brief passage. Good take on Goodfellas too.

Her assessment of Michael in The Deer Hunter is fair, but I think I "know him" better than she does.

She's way to emotional about The Godfather - Part II. Much of that movie is bland to me - sorry, fans. (Also, Kael rarely gets emotional - as it seems from your posts of her articles during this past week.)

I must force myself to watch Nashville again. Wow! She loves that movie! It doesn't work for me.

She pegged Top Gun, but that was an easy one.

The passage on Last Tango is her poorest piece of writing posted this week.

Thanks a lot for Kael Week! It was thought-provoking and very instructive.

The Film Doctor said...

I like the way some of these quotes reply or raise questions in relation to early points raised in this blogathon. For instance, is there something wrong with Goodfellas because the film techniques are so obvious, or can she appreciate it anyway? I found that I could enjoy Goodfellas more piecemeal on the VCR, with breaks between scenes, because it proves overwhelming otherwise. That film has held up well, and I tend to like movies that use razzle-dazzle technique, such as Children of Men.

What is the distinction between the "feminist" rape scenes in Casualties of War and those in A Clockwork Orange?

I agree with Kael about Full Metal Jacket. I wonder if part of the problem with that film may lie in Kubrick's refusal to leave England while shooting scenes in "Vietnam." It would be interesting to compare Jacket with Paths of Glory.

Yes, thanks for your opportunity to discuss Kael's work. I recommend her review of Breathless called "The Daisy Miller Doll," for the way she ridicules other critical responses. Also, her review of Bonnie and Clyde, and "The Man from Dream City," her profile of Cary Grant.

John MacDougall said...

I think the funniest line in Kael’s “Deer Hunter” review comes when she describes Michael’s lack of sexual passion for Linda after he returns from Vietnam. She notes, “He never even kisses her – would that be too personal?” And then she adds this quick, quintessential Kaelism: “He was hotter for the deer.” Kael was not only a great critic; she was a great writer. I would love to see someone do a critical analysis of her writing purely as writing.

Joel Bocko said...

From her in-depth behind the scenes look at Sidney Lumet's "The Group" which led to a brutal skewering:

"I had asked [Lumet] during one of our first talks why he had given up acting and he had begun a long explanation about how acting was a faggot's career and how he knew that if he was ever going to give a woman a real human relationship, etc., and I had simply jotted down 'too short for acting career.'"

Joel Bocko said...

"Top Gun is a recruiting poster that isn’t concerned with recruiting but with being a poster."

This absolutely nails the drift of advertising techniques into filmmaking over the past 20 years - to the point where the aesthetics of the two mediums became virtually indistinguishable.

Craig said...

This is a vivid cross-section of both Kael's laser insights and blind spots. And these quotes prompt memories of other notable remarks from the same reviews. I agreed then and now with her assessment that Platoon, while having moments of power, also "crowds doesn't give you room to have an honest emotion." Yet she also called The Deer Hunter "a small-minded movie with greatness in it," also a fairly astute observation, I think, yet one that prompted another critic (John Powers, maybe?) to retort, "As if great movies can come from small minds."

Her "prose orgasm" -- as someone else once called it -- regarding Last Tango in Paris (I don't believe there's a "The" in the title) is cringeworthy and laughable today. And I've tried like hell to get into Casualties of War, but I just don't see the greatness. I do, however, see the difference in its rape scene compared to the one in Clockwork Orange. Casualties has an audience surrogate; it's subjective and up-close (which she approves of), not emotionally distant (which she despises). Personally, I think it's harder to justify the physical and mental abuse and overall slapping around of Isabella Rosellini in Blue Velvet, "naivete" or no. I know there's some disagreement on this, but these excerpts still make pretty clear to me how she could turn off the laser-insight when it didn't serve her agenda.

Mostly, though, these snippets remind me of how inadequate a snippet can be in capturing a full multilayered Kael opinion. (There's a story Quentin Tarantino told about Terry Gilliam complaining that Kael trashed Brazil, when it wasn't a trashing at all. She just said it had some problems, while also acknowledging that "Gilliam's vision is an organic thing on the screen -- and that's a considerable achievement.")

That said, my favorite Pauline Kael quote may be the one at the end of her Rambo II review, where she hilariously deigns to mention the "novelization" of the movie and that it includes an advertisement for purchasing the weapons in the film. "I can hardy wait for my set to arrive," she quipped.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Good catch on Tango. I fixed it.

I'm glad people are digging these smaller excerpts. Indeed, they seem to fold into the longer pieces posted earlier in the week, though I didn't select them for that reason alone.

Though Kael was sometimes a little too gleefully venomous, one of the things I like best about her reviews is that it's rare to see an all-out love fest. Few movies are flawless; even to the casual eye. Kael loved movies. She always wanted them to be as good as they could be. (And, yeah, she delighted in pointing out when they failed to clear the bar.)

Joel Bocko said...

I never got why everyone ragged on her so much for the Last Tango review. As Jason says, the all-out love fest was rare on her part, and while Last Tango has not turned out to be quite as seminal as she thought it would be, it's still considered a classic and something of an epoch-marker.

The Film Doctor said...

Here's a quote:

"What sneaks up on you in Breathless is that the engagingly coy young hood with his loose, random grace and the impervious, passively butch American girl are as shallow and empty as the shiny young faces you see in sports cars and in suburban supermarkets, and in newspapers after unmotivated, pointless crimes. And you're left with the horrible suspicion that this is a new race, bred in chaos, accepting chaos as natural, and not caring one way or another.... The characters of Breathless are casual, carefree moral idiots. . . . If you hold up the Chronicle's review of Breathless up to the light, you may see H-E-L-P shining through it. [After the critic's quote,] The hero understand all that he wants to, but the critic isn't cynical enough to see the basic fact about these characters: they just don't give a damn."

Kevin Wolf said...

Thanks for the Kael Fest. Haven't had time to read all of it, so I keep coming back.

One of my favorite Kael zingers was in her review of Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People. I haven't got her book handy and don't see the review online but the line went something like this:

Every shot looks like the cover of a record album you'd never want to play.

Kevin Wolf said...

Damn, knew I'd find it after posting my comment! Kael re Cat People (1982):

"Working with his team-the visual consultant Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the cinematographer John Bailey, and the composer Giorgio Moroder-the director Paul Schrader is perfecting an apocalyptic swank. Each shot looks like an album cover for records you don't ever want to play. The picture (it's set in New Orleans) is meant to be poetic and 'legendary.'"