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From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson, IFC.com
The Pearls of Pauline
(Kael, That Is)
The little film critic who could — sort of

"If you're goin' up to the city, you better learn to shout.
If you don't stand up and holler, you're gonna be left out."

— Mose Allison

What can you say about a woman like Pauline Kael? Well, for one thing, she was a midget, less than five feet tall, although she always liked to claim the full sixty inches.
Life is tough for a midget. People pat you on the head and pass you by. And for the first forty-odd years of her life, Pauline Kael was passed by. She spent her twenties and thirties leading la vie de Bohème in San Francisco with damned little to show for it other than heartaches, busted marriages, and unperformed plays. But in the mid-sixties Pauline finally got some luck. A collection of her movie reviews and essays, written over more than a decade, were pulled together under the title I Lost It at the Movies and for the first time in her life Pauline had some decent spending money. Then, in late 1967, her New Yorker review of Bonnie and Clyde made her the hottest public intellectual in America.
Reading I Lost It at the Movies today is a fascinating exercise in intellectual paleontology, an encounter with the strange beasts of the past that once roamed North America — fat-bellied sloths like Bosley Crowther, shaggy, great-horned existentialists like Hemingway, herd-like Cold-War Liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Patrician WASPs like Dwight MacDonald, and, slavering with rage at them all, Smilodon the Saber-Tooth, Pauline herself, ready to sink her great fangs in the flabby, complacent flesh of the Post-War American Intellectual.
Oh, the stupidity! The stupidity! The pathetic blithering! The weak, sick longing for anything "uplifting," "moral," "decent," "healthy," "wholesome," "responsible," "constructive," and "sane"! Anything to shut out the howling wind of truth, the stabbing fear that life might not be quite so cozy, predictable, and friendly as Mr. Bosley Crowther liked to believe! Anything to deny that selfishness might be strength, that sin might be more charming than virtue, and perversity a kind of wisdom!
Kael was one of a band of struggling bohemians and home-grown existentialists — writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Paul Goodman, 1 and Norman Mailer — who mostly did not know or like each other very much — who provided much of the intellectual content of the youth explosion now known as "the Sixties." Linear advocates of non-linear thinking, they discarded the prissy intellectualism of the T. S. Eliot/W. H. Auden crowd, which had pretty much prissified themselves out of existence, the tendentious theorizing of the Marxists, whose arguments didn't make much sense to a generation raised in the wealthiest society civilization had ever known, along with the anal-retentive good taste of fifties liberalism, which simply could not get past the New Deal.
Kael today is known as an advocate for American movies — "movie movies" — whose visceral appeal is pre-moral and pre-intellectual. So it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that I Lost It at the Movies contains a rave review of precisely one American film — Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. When Kael does write favorable reviews (which isn't often), she can sound like the most shameless art-house groupie, swooning over foreign esoterica, secure in the knowledge that "they" (America) wouldn't get it:
Perhaps only those of us who truly love this film [Renoir's The Golden Coach] will feel that [Italian actress Anna] Magnani, with the deep sense of the ridiculous in herself and others, Magnani with her roots in the earth so strong that she can pull them out, shake them in the face of pretension and convention, and sink them down again stronger than ever — the actress who has come to be the embodiment of human experience, the most "real" of actresses — is the miraculous choice that gives this film its gusto and its piercing beauty.2
Kael was a compulsive loner and contrarian. She had to be ahead of the pack and apart from it. The classic Pauline Kael review in the early years begins with a round-up of the usual suspects — Time magazine, Bosley Crowther,3 Dwight MacDonald in Esquire — who are then given the merciless thumping they deserve. If Pauline still has some excess energy — and she usually does — she goes further afield, picking up Judith Crist at the New York Herald Tribune, Penelope Gilliatt (described thoughtfully by Pauline as "the most erratically brilliant of modern film critics" but always quoted with derision), the Atlantic, Harper's, the London Times, Sight and Sound, anywhere, really, that stupidity lurks.4
When she was done beating on the published critics, Pauline went after the poor schmucks unwise enough to express an aesthetic opinion in her presence. "I have premonitions of the beginning of the end when a man who seems charming or at least remotely possible starts talking about movies," she remarks, at the start of her demolition of West Side Story (mostly deserved, let it be said).5 She begins her review of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita by trashing her "friends" (all of them, apparently) who either read the book and didn't get it (of course) or have heard so much about the book that they feel they don't have to read it and thus don't have time for the movie either.
Pauline loved Lolita because everyone else either hated it or "missed" it. Nothing made her madder than being late to the party, having to say "yes, you're right, it is a good film." She ties herself into knots trying to deal with the enormous critical and financial success of On the Waterfront, starring her hero, Marlon Brando. She points out, accurately, that the film is an unlikely, good guys win in the end melodrama — going to the extreme of "proving" that the film is inaccurate, that the docks haven't been cleaned up. But the "great" American films she'd praised in the past — like Casablanca and To Have And Have Not — were melodramas as well. And since when does "art" have to be "true to life"? 6
Kael's great strengths were her intelligence and her energy. She knew that people didn't respond to films for either high-flown aesthetic reasons or "moral" ones, and she waged endless war on critics who claimed they did. But she could display a remarkable affinity for the sins of the enemy. In "The Come-Dressed-As-The-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties," one of her best pieces from the early sixties, she takes the critical knife to La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, and La Dolce Vita, ridiculing all the "big thoughts" about modern decadence. Then in her favorable review of Godard's Breathless, she sounds equally trivial, describing the leads (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, above right) 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 about it or anything else."
But Belmondo's "big" crime, murdering a policeman (the classic young man's fantasy, but a very bad idea, even worse in France than in the U.S.) isn't "pointless." He's a professional thief and he doesn't want to go to jail. The "shiny, young faces you see in sports cars and in suburban supermarkets" aren't all that "shallow and empty." You just resent them because they're young and don't have to think about money and you do. And seeing a movie that excites you doesn't prove that we're about to be overtaken by a "new race, bred in chaos, accepting chaos as natural."7
All her life Kael wrote as a brilliant schoolgirl, straining for "insights" and exulting over "nuances" that no one else noticed (because they weren't there). She had to be deeper, more profound, and more shocking than anyone else, which led her into the same sort of pretentiousness she ridiculed in others. She had a particular weakness for the hoariest and falsest of all journalistic clichés, the "trend." In piece after piece, she strings together quotations from idiot reviewers, idiot producers, and idiot bystanders, commentary on various films she's seen, and her own musings to somehow prove that we're all going to hell and that poor Pauline is left as the only decent human being on the face of the planet!8
Kael fills out and finishes off I Lost It at the Movies with a three-chapter assault on Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film.9 Like all disputes between film "theorists," this is like watching a fight between two alley cats — you can't tell which is which and you don't care who wins.
Remarkably, Kael was able to use the success of I Lost It at the Movies to wrangle a steady job reviewing films for McCall's, a now-defunct women's magazine — probably the biggest filmic mismatch before Ovitz met Eisner. McCall's used to bill itself as the magazine of "togetherness," and if there was anything Pauline Kael was not about, it was togetherness.
Kael's reviews for McCall's, together with a hodge-podge of articles she wrote for other magazines, appear in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a line Kael says she got off an Italian movie poster.10 Reading these reviews, it's a wonder that Kael became a hero to the sixties generation. She hates everything! She hates foreign films, she hates American films, most of all, she hates kids! Those damned, lazy, good-for-nothing kids!
A few years ago a young man informed me that he was going to "give up" poetry and avant-garde film (which couldn't have been much of a sacrifice as he hadn't done anything more than talk about them) and devote himself to writing and "art songs." I remember asking, "Do you read music?" and not being especially surprised to hear that he didn't. I knew from other young men that the term "art" used as an adjective meant that they were bypassing even the most rudimentary knowledge of the field.11
Kael was remembering her own long years of poverty and frustration, trying to do something "creative" — working on the fringes of experimental film and writing plays that were never produced — efforts that never paid off and in which she took no pride. And it was particularly galling to hear this lazy, self-congratulatory blather from kids loafing their way through college and grad school on their parents' dime.
Luckily for Pauline, American films got better, much better, probably, than she could have imagined. Her review of Bonnie and Clyde, which made her seriously famous, shows her at both her best and her worst. She praises the film for letting audiences enjoy Bonnie and Clyde's anti-social behavior without letting them off the hook morally. Clyde isn't a misunderstood kid like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. He's a cheap crook. Bonnie and Clyde commit their crimes, not because they have to, but because they want to.
Kael's discussion of the film's violence is quite acute, and she makes the nice distinction that a film that is a work of art (though "flawed") can use violence effectively, while a cheap, fraudulent film like The Dirty Dozen can use violence offensively (though neither should be banned).12
Kael being Kael, she can't quite leave well enough alone. She has a few scores to settle, and a few "trends" to spot. Pauline loved Stanley Kubrick's work with Lolita, but Dr. Strangelove infuriated her. The flick, released in 1964, was the hippest American film of all time. The problem was, everybody knew it. Pauline Kael does not get in line behind Time magazine. She accuses the film of "concealing its liberal pieties" — a lie, because it had none, the lone liberal, President Muffley (Peter Sellers) being shown as an ineffectual loser — and then goes on to say that "A new generation enjoyed seeing the world as insane; they literally learned to stop worrying and love the bomb."
In fact, the kids of my generation who loved Dr. Strangelove had precisely the opposite reaction; they became aggressively anti-military. They didn't love the bomb; they hated it, and wanted to ban it. Their views were exactly the opposite of those Kael attributes to them, and Pauline's hunger for a sweeping phrase leads her dangerously close to resuming her old fogy role of denouncing these damned, good for nothing kids who don't give a damn about anything.13
Luckily for Pauline, people picked up on her energy and not her specifics. More than that, Bonnie and Clyde took off like a rocket, generating enormous profits and fame for everyone involved. And seldom if ever had a review from a "highbrow" critic been so closely associated with a hit film.
The success of Kael's piece transformed her from feisty outsider to courted insider. For decades, Manhattan, and the New Yorker in particular, had pictured Hollywood as Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah all rolled into one, the place where writers went to sell out, where literature was turned into soap opera, and truth into lies. Now, all of a sudden, pictures had an intellectual glamour, praised because they were popular instead of being reviled for it. They had a special muscle and heat that made novels and plays look like old maids sipping weak tea and nibbling stale petit fours. The screen had a power that no other medium could match.
Pauline was the gatekeeper, and her gate swung both ways. She could give Hollywood access to the intellectual prestige that it had always wanted. Any review that she wrote would instantly be Topic A for every film critic north of Rona Barrett.14 At the same time, she could give desperate screenwriter/director/critic wannabes access to Hollywood.15 She was connected. She knew people. She wasn't reading about drinks at the Algonquin any more. She was having them.
And the hits kept coming — The Wild Bunch, M*A*S*H, Easy Rider, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 2001, Straw Dogs, The Godfather, Chinatown, Cabaret — films that Kael did not always like, but which, she acknowledged, would have seemed "impossible" as late as 1966, and which would have been impossible without the success of Bonnie and Clyde.
Most gratifying of all personally for Kael, she found herself being courted by "hot" directors of her own age group and gin ‘n' cynicism temperament — men like Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman. The bad boys she'd always dreamed of were knocking on her door!
Like most (all?) influential critics, Kael was happy to take advantage of the perks coming her way. In her famous review of Bonnie and Clyde, Kael remarked that "The scene that shows the gnomish gang member called C. W. sleeping in the same room with Bonnie and Clyde suggests other possibilities [about Clyde's sexuality], perhaps discarded, as does C.W.'s reference to Bonnie's liking his tattoo." Kael is showing off here without bothering to mention that she was relying on inside information rather than critical insight — scriptwriters David Newman and Robert Benton had told her about the earlier drafts.
Newman and Benton may have introduced Kael to the path of sin, but Robert Towne,16 billed as "special consultant" on Bonnie and Clyde, was perhaps her most constant companion. According to Robert Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures, Kael got in the habit of reviewing scripts and making suggestions and then reviewing the films she'd worked on. It's (very) easy to believe that Kael had a hand in such films as The Late Show (written and directed by Benton) and Shampoo, Personal Best, and Tequila Sunrise (all written by Towne), or at least liked to believe she did. She went into classically Kaelian raptures over Shampoo — "Shampoo may be put down as frivolous just because it really isn't"17 and went on to praise both Towne's looks ("tall, his long face dark bearded") and his aesthetic: "Towne may be a great new screenwriter in a structured tradition — a flaky classicist."
I suspect that Kael was also involved in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, a (very) little film to which she devoted a long, rambling, adulatory review. But her greatest breach of professionalism occurred in her "preview" of Nashville, which she praised hysterically ("I've never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way") while Altman was still working on it. This was one film that Pauline Kael would discover, not Time magazine.
Sam Peckinpah was Pauline's most problematic beau. Peckinpah's Hemingwayesque machismo reached self-parodistic levels and beyond — he dressed like a drugstore matador — but for Pauline he was the very figure of what a man should be. The problem was his movies! Although constantly hailing him as a "great" director, she couldn't help gagging on the films he actually made. Straw Dogs she labeled a "fascist work of art." 18 The Getaway she took as a personal betrayal, largely because she hated that damned, stuck-up, prissy-faced Ali McGraw.19 She somehow convinced herself that the pathetic Convoy was "a prankish road dance" and found meaning in the lamer than lame Killer Elite. The things you do for love!
While Pauline was selling out at the top, she was also selling out at the bottom. In the early days of the psychedelic era, Kael was a definite skeptic, claiming that no one had ever bothered to show that "consciousness-expanding drugs" actually did the job.20 In her reviews of both Help! and The Yellow Submarine she remarked with mock distress that it was so sad that the Beatles had been domesticated. But if she wanted to keep her expanded, post-Bonnie and Clyde audience, she had to change her tune.
And change it she did, giving ridiculous praise to films as bad as Billy Jack. 21 She also developed an "expanded" vocabulary — everything became "zonked-out," "freaked-out," or "wigged-out." As a very conscious stylist, Kael was appreciative of terms that allowed her to be complimentary without actually committing her to anything.
Fortunately for her reputation, Kael took time out from the swinging seventies to write what was surely her best piece of writing, "Raising Kane," an extended exploration of the genesis of Citizen Kane.22 Freed from the burden of scoring points, Kael could lose herself in the golden age of Hollywood, when wisecracking scribes with nothing more than a typewriter and a line could earn a grand or two a week, hobnob with the stars, and thumb their noses at the suits.
Writing about the flamboyant characters she loved, Kael reveled in the period detail, and if she never actually proved her thesis — that Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, wrote the script for Citizen Kane — who cares? 23 It was the ride, not the destination, that counted.
The notion of a Golden Age was dear to Kael, and she was happy — all too happy — to promote the notion that we were living in a new one, in a series of famously over-the-top reviews for films like Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, and The Godfather, Part II. Kael wasn't much of a hustler in real life, but she liked to feel it was her duty to manipulate her readers, if necessary, to see films they ought to want to see — an effective review, not an objective one!24
A constant high isn't good for your equilibrium, of course, and Pauline suffered from frequent mood swing, sneering at artistic pretension and praising "American" films in "Trash, Art, and the Movies" (1969) but demanding that "we" smash the damned cash nexus that binds great creative artists to the vulgar Hollywood money men in "On the Future of Movies" (1975).
Poor Pauline got herself into serious trouble in her next big think piece, "Fear of Movies" (1978), when she took a poke at Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait. Warren had probably been laying for Pauline ever since she gave Robert Towne all the credit for Shampoo, but when Pauline called him "an elfin little Jesus" and described his new film as "image-conscious celebrity moviemaking,"25 the stud from Alexandria VA decided it was time to take out the bitch. It seems that a mutual buddy, James Toback, was having "creative" problems with his film Love and Money. Could Pauline give him a hand?
Somehow, it didn't occur to Pauline that she was being cut off at the knees. All her clout came from her position as film critic at the New Yorker. Whatever her title, and her paycheck, out in Hollywood, she would be just another flunky.
Her actual fate was as about as cruel as one could imagine — she ended up reporting to Don Simpson, quite possibly the biggest bottom-feeding slug in the entire Hollywood shark tank.26 After six months, she came crawling back to New Yorker.27
Even though Kael should have known that the job would be a disaster, it's hard to blame her for looking for something new. Ten years of weekly reviews leaves any writer with nothing to say. Her attempt to follow up on the success of "Raising Kane," a portrait of Cary Grant called "The Man from Dream City," was an awkward misfire. If Pauline had given us a biographical sketch of Cary and then concentrated on his screen persona, the piece might have worked. But she wrote as a fan instead of a critic, determined to believe that the Cary she saw on the screen was the real Cary, presenting him as a heterosexual god instead of a, well, homo. Cary a queer! It couldn't be!28
As one might imagine, "Pauline Kael, the Sequel," was longer, louder, and less interesting than the original. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are the real villains, of course, creating the movie as amusement park ride that o'erwhelms us today. 29 As any huckster can tell you, when the quality goes down, the hype goes up. Pauline's crushes on performers, notably Barbra Streisand and John Travolta, became ever more shameless. When she did give her favorites bad reviews — as she did to Streisand for A Star Is Born and to Travolta for Stayin' Alive — she did so with the howl of a betrayed lover: "You lied to me!"
At her best, Kael could write with wonderful enthusiasm and intelligence, but her work was marred by intellectual laziness of the most primitive kind. She was constantly inventing "friends" who would make stupid remarks, so that she could score them off and make herself look good.30 Her reports on audience reactions were almost always false, invented to set up whatever particular spin she wanted to deliver on a film or "trend." When writing for the New Yorker, she would frequently say "Some people may be bothered by this" and go on to invent what "they" "may" have been thinking, or "probably" were thinking, or "must have been" thinking — thoughts invented to show that other people simply lacked the guts to see life steadily and see it whole — that they were no Pauline Kael.
When she first started reviewing films for the New Yorker, Kael took the opportunity to explain her aesthetic in the curiously unsatisfying "Art, Trash, and the Movies." The article rambles over films from the late sixties, but says surprisingly little about the ways people respond to movies. The reasons she gives for going to movies that aren't "art"31 — "an actor's scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face" — are remarkably inane. Why sit through two hours of boredom for the sake of a "small subversive gesture"?32 Kael sounds like she's back in high school, where "freedom" is making some smart remark the teacher doesn't hear.
When Kael talks about going to the movies as a child — "All week we longed for Saturday afternoon and sanctuary — the anonymity and impersonality of sitting in a theatre, just enjoying ourselves, not having to be responsible, not having to be "good" — she indicates something that was very important to her about going to the movies. It was a chance — her only chance — to be like everyone else. Going to the movies wasn't an escape from life for Pauline. It was a substitute for life. As she almost tells us, she lost it at the movies because she couldn't lose it anywhere else. Because what, after all, does life give us? It gives us nothing. Does life give you an inch? No, it does not. You might want to be an inch taller — just one inch! — but life won't give it to you. But the movies give you everything. For two hours, at least, you don't have to be short and dumpy. You can be impossibly tall and elegant, like Katherine Hepburn in Alice Adams, so beautiful and perfect in last year's dress, but alone at the party, because she isn't rich. So alone and ignored, even though she's so special and so much better than everyone else, just like you! You know how she feels! You know exactly how she feels! Because you're just like her. That's you there, up on the screen.
Notes

1. Paul Goodman is not terribly well known now (with good reason), but his Growing Up Absurd was one of the bibles of the first wave of Sixties rebels, particularly those who tended to rebel through lifestyle rather than politics.

2. Anyone going to see The Golden Coach in hopes of seeing Magnani waving her roots in the face of pretension will be profoundly disappointed. It's probably Renoir's worst film (I certainly hope it is), a compendium of the dreariest possible European clichés about "life." Magnani plays "woman," "the people," "France," "Marianne." She takes a succession of lovers, all claiming to be "big" men, but of course none of them are, none are worthy. Poor Marianne! Always betrayed, yet ever hopeful.

3. Crowther wrote for the New York Times in the fifties and sixties. He was endlessly reviled by everyone with the least pretension to intelligence. Liking Bosley Crowther was tantamount to saying "I am a fat suburban matron whose idea of heaven is eating a hot fudge sundae at Schraft's."

4. Also the San Francisco Chronicle, the Catholic Legion of Decency, The Nation, the New Republic, the New Statesman, Show, Show Business Illustrated … the list is fucking endless!

5. Pauline liked to present herself as a hard-drinking, wise-cracking Bette Davis gadabout, making the scene nitely in one of a dozen little black dresses. In fact, when you are a diminutive, plain-faced, middle-aged blue-stocking who does nothing but blab compulsively about the movies, your chances of scoring with even a "remotely promising" man, let alone a "charming" one, are pretty slim.

6. The argument that Kael never quite makes is that Terry Malloy is "too real" to be only a melodramatic hero — that the film combines the emotional honesty of tragedy with the contrivances and easy answers of melodrama. But coming up with a properly "tragic" conclusion for On the Waterfront isn't easy, and, as Kael tells us, the people who made On the Waterfront believed in big wins because they'd had them. Besides, they wanted to sell tickets. They weren't art-house fairies.

7. Kael, like many reviewers, lets herself be suckered by Godard. We're supposed to be impressed by Belmondo because he's spontaneous, amoral, and without pretence — he finds Renoir a bore and he'd rather have nothing than grief. But he "dies for love" (hanging around Seberg when he should get out of town) and falls asleep listening to Mozart's clarinet quintet. His dad was a clarinetist and used to play it all the time! The real message of Breathless is that women are cunts, not a particularly original or profound sentiment. (Yet in Une femme est une femme Godard finds feminine duplicity essential. If chicks didn't lie to guys, nothing would get done. Go figure!)

8. Part of the problem was economic. Because Kael could not get a job as a regular reviewer, she was forced to write "think" pieces that gave the "big picture." But she never really got tired of silhouetting herself against the stupidity of others.

9. She seems to have gotten a Guggenheim to do this (she thanks the foundation up front) — surely not the best ROI on a Guggenheim, but probably not the worst either.

10. Yes, yes, in an earlier piece I said she got it off a Japanese movie poster. So I'm not perfect! Excuse the fuck out of me!

11. Up front, Kael says that it's wrong for the older generation to just dump on the kids, but once she gets going she can't help presenting herself as always right, the wise head continually stunned by the sheer dopiness of the young.

12. Kael goes too far, however, in denying the charge that the film romanticizes crime and violence when she claims that the Barrow gang is "horrified by [violence] and ultimately destroyed by it." After the shootout in Joplin, which resulted in the death of three cops, the gang reads its press notices with delight. They only complain when they get shot. In fact, the film does romanticize violence and barely retrieves itself by showing the bloody end of Bonnie and Clyde.

13. Kael was always careful to state her political beliefs negatively rather than positively, with good reason, because they were quite conventional. Basically, she wanted people to shut up and do their jobs, so that she could spend all of her time going to the movies. She was very suspicious of political idealism, and particularly detested the "Popular Front" art of the thirties and forties, though she much preferred to present herself as anti-fascist than anti-communist. One of her first published works, and one of her best, is her deliciously scrupulous demolition of Salt of the Earth (1953), a classic piece of revolutionary kitsch. The film, recently given a revival here in DC, was naturally given a rapturous review in the Washington Post, hailing it as a suppressed masterpiece. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, eh? (Loosely, "crap never dies.")

14. Rona baby delivered hilariously coy inside scoops from Tinsel Town with a platinum perm and a Noo Yawk accent to die for. Compared to Rona, Access Hollywood sounds like an audio edition of the New York Review of Books. Rona always claimed to be the first to report weekly film grosses. Well, cash was her specialty.

15. Of course, it helped to be a good-looking young man, but, hey, that always helps.

16. Robert Towne will no doubt go down in history as Warren Beatty's boyfriend.

17. A young woman I knew back in the day (we weren't screwing, alas) described the film as "just Warren Beatty riding his motorcycle" — a bit tart, perhaps, but closer to the mark than Pauline's drivel.

18. I wouldn't call Straw Dogs either "fascist" (though it does come close) or a work of art. It definitely is "different," and not all bad, but as soon as you see that "man trap" (a giant trap more or less designed to cut a man in half) you know exactly where the film is going to go.

19. Kael never let herself tumble to the fact that Peckinpah put Ali in the picture because she was his idea of "class."

20. Of course not. They were too stoned!

21. Tom McLaughlin, producer and star of Billy Jack, made a pile on the film, which he then used to finance The Trial of Billy Jack. Pauline gave the film the pounding it deserved, but never noticed that BJ2 was exactly the same tripe as the first film, only ten times louder.

22. In Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Kael reprints 280 short pieces she wrote on classic films when she was running a theater in San Francisco. Writing about films she loves (for the most part), Kael lets her enthusiasm do the selling and skips all the self-promotion.

23. Who, indeed! Particularly, if you're like me and think that 1) Citizen Kane isn't a great movie and 2) Orson Welles' only real genius was that of self-promotion.

24. "If I have reservations about a film I think is marvelous and that people should see, I don't discuss those reservations in a review," Kael told Phillip Lopate. Lopate's article, "The Passion of Pauline Kael," appears in his book, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically.

25. It was also a piece of shit.

26. Simpson's story is excellently told in Charles Fleming's book, High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess. Simpson helped produce such uber-kitsch classics as The Karate Kid and Flashdance, but ultimately devolved into a self-destructive monster who literally ate himself to death, pigging out on gluttonous meals that he would then "balance" with hundreds of diet pills. His house was essentially a giant medicine cabinet — "sort of like Dennis Hopper's idea of heaven," said one coroner's assistant, shortly before being swallowed up by the earth.

27. It's said that Pauline had her "revenge" in a piece called "Why Are Movies So Bad?" But she'd written the same piece for the New Yorker twice before, as "The Future of Movies" and "Fear of Movies." In fact, the first piece in I Lost It at the Movies, "Zeitgeist and Poltergeist," makes exactly the same points. Hollywood is all about the money. Who knew?

28. Was Cary a queer? Pretty queer? Semi-queer? Semi-bi? Who knows? A new biography by Marc Eliot tells you everything Pauline didn't want you to know. In any event, "The Man from Dream City" was not the first New Yorker piece, and not the last, to kiss up to the stars. The Old Lady of West Forty-Third Street has a hard time believing that show folk aren't as witty and pretty off-stage as they are on.

29. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the big, fat American public, which went to their films in droves.

30. There is a sort of compulsive one-upsmanship that runs through Kael's work. In her early reviews, she will talk about going to the movies with an "artist friend" or an "English professor." (An English professor? No you didn't!) When she wrote for the New Yorker, she would talk about "being out with some of my young writer friends" — never, strangely, was she ever "out with some of my old insurance claims adjuster friends."

31. She says nothing about films that she considers to be "art" — like Renoir's Rules of the Game.

32. And what is a "small subversive gesture" anyway? Giving the audience the finger? Scratching yourself? Grabbing the leading lady's boob? Winking at a pretty boy?

November 2004 | Issue 46

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