Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 30, 2020 8:56 pm 
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Why she is important

Even though it's twenty-nine years since she retired from The New Yorker and nineteen years since her death, Pauline Kael is still the preeminent American film critic and likely to remain so. This you can appreciate at least if, like me, you have always subscribed to The New Yorker and Kael's time there was my own heyday, when I was most alert, probably, though I didn't have the access to movies that I have now. In depicting Kael's career, her style and personality, this documentary by Rob Garver does a pretty good job. It's the best thing we have, though not by any means brilliant or flawless. It's welcome, and recommended for film buffs.

Though there are other provocative critics and intelligent ones that write well (though not enough), Kael has had no equal. This is because of many things. She loved movies from the moment, as she tells it, when she was taken as a child to one and sat on a parent's lap and said "this is for me." She acquired an incestuous familiarity with cinema history and retained a photographic memory of every image in films she'd first seen forty years earlier, as shown when she saw a new edit of Welles's Touch of Evil. She was passionate and provocative in her opinions and fearless in expressing them.

Above all, she had balls. Her daughter says she had a "lack of self-awareness" that she "turned into a triumph." It made her not worry about what others would think.

And here's the one additional essential thing: along with all that, she also wrote extremely well. This film cites numerous passages that show her epigrammatic, keen observations, not to mention the way she could grab you with the first sentence.

There is a picture here of her influence in the business, the "Paulettes" or "Paulistas," those she championed, and called on for support when she found a film that she thought needed a boost. These include Michael Sragow, David Edelstein, heard from here. She got Paul Schrader a reviewing job. With movies like Bonnie and Clyde, she turned the tide, this film reports. The sheer length of her piece on it underlined its importance. All the other critics were panning, indeed damning it. Her long essay, which The New Yorker published when The New Republic had rejected it, led to the magazine's hiring her on as a reviewer, when she was forty-eight. She had a similar effect on Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. Her long essay on Citizen Kane was taken as a smear on Orson Welles; she meant it rather as recognition of Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

The film shows a series of friendly notes from Elia Kazan, Woody Allen, Ray Bradbury, Garrison Keillor, Gene Wilder, Jonathan Demme, Paul Mazursky, John Huston, Carol Burnett, and Jessica Lange. Spielberg wrote her "You are the only writer who understood Jaws." There are hate notes too, of course. George Roy Hill begins his, "Listen, you miserable bitch"; Gregory Peck accuses her of costing him "good roles." She panned Lawrence of Arabia, saying she had long read T.E. Lawrence's writing with pleasure and admiration and that the film turned "a great leader and a great writer" into "a narcissist with a Christ complex."

She also encountered David Lean, and he reports that he was so hurt and filled with self-doubt by her criticisms that he stopped making films for a while. She was brutal in her critique of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and he was so deeply stung he never read another review of his work after that one.

She despised Chaplin's sentimental Limelight, which she called "Slimelight," and also the "sugarcoated" Sound of Music. A notable later pan and real sign of her balls was of Claude Lanzmann's highly praised (but not so much seen) nine-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah, which she called "exhausting," saying some of its talking heads appeared to be "village idiots." She insisted that "a movie's subject matter doesn't make it sacrosanct" or "above criticism."

If you don't have her kind of courage, she says, there is just "publicity." And if publicity reigns in the movie world, then there is nothing to keep them from deteriorating in quality year after year. Which is pretty much what we see.

As this film points out, the world of movie reviews has both grown and diminished. Newspaper critics are being laid off or not replaced when they retire. Everybody with an internet connection can play critic, and the world of criticism has gone mushy. In today's pluralistic world, no one critic can ever have the importance of Pauline Kael, or for that matter, even of Siskel and Ebert, though their medium was a relatively debased one anyway. It's also the case that most of these internet critics simply can't write.

They lack editors too, and this film describes Kael's mutually admiring but combative relationship with The New Yorker's still very traditional then editor, William Shawn, whose frequent marginal objections to Kael's vivid, vernacular, frank language are shown to us.

Kael's reviews alternated through most of her tenure at The New Yorker every other week with relatively rambling, offbeat ones by Penelope Gilliatt, who wrote the screenplay of one marvelous movie, Sunday Bloody Sunday. This gave you time to rest up, and when you opened a New Yorker with a Pauline Kael review, you knew it would probably be dynamite. For a film buff it was the best conversation about contemporary movies you could ever possibly have, a gift.

That effect I somewhat achieved for a while picking up the free weeklies that had reviews by Armond White in them. And White was a kind of fringe Pauline follower. But the emphasis is on "fringe."

This film points out that the biweekly alternation allowed her to spend half her time at the big house she bought in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which she occupied with her only child and executor, Gina James, who's frequently heard from here. While young Gina learned to type, because Pauline always wrote only in longhand, and she needed a reliable typist, and, of course, an early consultant.

What's surprising, because The New Yorker had the reputation of paying well, is that this film reports more than once that what she got writing the reviews there was barely a living wage and she had to supplement it with paid lectures and other writing.

Pauline Kael came from Petaluma, California, where her family had a poultry farm. She came to Berkeley and was temporarily married to a man with whom she ran a double movie theater that presented repertory films. Luckily, this documentary gives us at least a taste of her radio interviews of that time. She left KPFA because she'd decided it was time to "turn professional," and she would only go back if they started to pay her. We also learn from people who attended them about Kael's Berkeley movie parties, with dancing, at her house.

If you weren't around for her reviews, you can still read a lot of them in her fourteen books. In fact, if you have a subscription to the magazine, you could theoretically read all twenty-four years of those reviews archived, online. The trouble is, so many of the films are forgotten now. Better to seek out her major pieces and go to the reviews of the films and directors she championed.

She was lucky. She thought American movies in the sixties had become awful, but after a couple of years on the magazine, the seventies rebirth came with directors she championed like Altman, Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, and DePalma. As the film points out, though she had opposed Andrew Sarris's championing of "Auteur Theory," she became a de facto auteurist herself.

In a brief segment on The Godfather and Brando's character Don Vito Kael says - I love this - that the role gets at those "old monsters" who "can remember minute details of old business deals when they can no longer tie their shoelaces."

I'm impressed by the early admiration of Quentin Tarantino. He shares here how at age fifteen, he saw her on Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" debunking Snyder's opposition of her praise for the new Body Snatchers with panache. He went to a chain bookstore and, in successive sessions while waiting for a movie he was going to see, read his way thorough her latest book which she'd spoken of on Tom Snyder: When the Lights Go Down. If anybody can appreciate really good knowledge of movies, it's Tarantino. He says he read her description of Godard's Bande à part and said, "That's the kind of movie I want to make!"

Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times calls Garber's documentary "a numbing torrent of largely unidentified film clips and poorly labeled commentary," and "at times barely coherent.' It's true: not a bad idea perhaps to use a lot of short film clips, but they're used too freely and randomly here. They are relevant when referring to an observation of Kael's but are often merely and needlessly cute. All Garber has to deal with, though it's plenty to encompass in an hour and a half, is: Pauline's life, her personality,her career, her ideas, her enemies, her friends, and her lasting effect. Those things could fall into place with more clarity. Nonetheless I'm grateful for this well-informed tribute.

In this somewhat overstuffed film we also hear notably from David O. Russell, John Boorman, Camille Paglia, Molly Haskell, Alec Baldwin, Greil Marcus, John Guare and Joe Morgenstern, among others. Sarah Jessica Parker voices Pauline in quotes.

I haven't mentioned - but this film does - Kael's "infamous" piece, "The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties: La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita." As always she sounded authoritative there, and those films could be made fun of. But this reflects a blind spot she had, rather than the truth.

It is not that Pauline Kael was "right." I often disagreed with her and she seems wrong, now as then, in her opinions. But they were exciting writing, as entertaining as they were plain-spoken. Her knowledge commanded attention, and they provoked debate and made one excited about movies. Can any film critic do more than that?

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, 98 mins., debuted at Telluride, and was included in 22 other festivals including DOC NYC, Miami, and Vancouver. It opened in the US Christmas 2019, and is scheduled for DVD release in June 2020. It is now available on Film Forum's virtual theater for $12, and it was screened that way for this review. Metascore 68%.

Watch the film HERE.

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