Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1963; 35 minutes), one of the most maddeningly sexy movies ever made, isn’t just queer because the person on the other end, as it were, of the titular sex act was allegedly Willard Maas, but also (maybe primarily) because Warhol rejects the phallocentric logic of conventional pornography by training his camera on a face rather than on a genital organ—in other words, by getting us to re-think what we even mean when we use words like “sexy” or “pornographic” to describe a film.
The first of Eric Rohmer’s “six moral tales,” The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962; 23 minutes) is a sour lemon drop of a movie, a seemingly blithe little comedy about a horny French student and the women after whom he lusts that ends with a bitter twist. It would make a nice (short) double bill with Agnes Varda’s masterpiece Le Bonheur (1965) as French New Wave films about men for whom women are interchangeable placeholders, easily won, easily replaced.
Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959; 26 minutes) is probably only remembered today for featuring Alan Ginsberg and having been narrated and “written” by Jack Kerouac (though there’s no writing in the film in any real sense—only Kerouac free-associating in voice-over). A cheekily off-hand document of Beat-generation hijinks, it’s more of a novelty, a curio, than a real avant-garde classic from roughly the same period such as Christopher Maclaine’s The End (1953). But Todd Haynes was really onto something when he cast David Cross as Ginsberg in I’m Not There (2007), right?
The ending of Albert Lamorisse's The Red Balloon (1956; 34 minutes)--in which a flock of balloons comes to the rescue of little Pascal, carrying him away over the Paris skyline--is joyous, exultant, because of its simplicity. There is no explanation for it. The film, made for children, operates according to kids' logic. Theorizing it ("the balloons are a metaphor for Pascal's longing to escape bourgeois repression...", etc.) becomes self-defeating. The genius of The Red Balloon lies in its transparency, its blithe straight-forwardness (for a more sinuous take on this material, see Hao Hsiao-Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon ). Just as a balloon signifies nothing more than an appealing form, something that is pleasurable simply because it is brightly colored and perfectly shaped, the film's ending means nothing more than a child's desire to be engulfed by dozens of shapes and colors, to be caught up in them, and to fly.
The tension in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is nearly unbearable, and it unfolds within the realm of kitchen-sink realism—in a man’s increasingly irrational behavior toward his family, his co-workers, even toward his own mind and body. It’s about a construction worker plagued by traumatic dreams in which birds gather in eerie formations and the rain turns viscous and muddy. Has he inherited his mother’s paranoid schizophrenia, or are these premonitions of the end of the world? Stoic and strong-willed, he tries to hide his mounting panic from his wife and young daughter; he doesn’t want to burden or worry them. But his paranoia increases, and he begins to make preparations for an apocalypse that he realizes may only exist inside his head. When his wife comes home to find him installing a state-of-the-art storm cellar—more like a fallout shelter, really—in the backyard, he realizes that he has some explaining to do.
"The only visitor to the [German death camps] now is a camera." Though Alain Resnais' documentary Night and Fog (1955; 32 minutes) may seem on the face of it to be the opposite of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1988; 503 minutes)--the former distinguished by its chilling succinctness, the latter by its epic length and obsessive repetition--the two are related in their shared insistence on turning the eye of the movie camera on the Holocaust; in their sheer determination to use the camera's "objective," unflinching gaze to document its horrors, to find some meaning or truth in it by looking it in the face, albeit after the fact; and in their simultaneous understanding that the Holocaust remains defiantly incomprehensible, a subject that even the truth of the camera cannot penetrate.
Filmed in Italy in 1943, John Huston’s documentary short The Battle of San Pietro (1945; 32 minutes) plays like a prelude to Italian neo-realism—it could even be considered an “honorary” Italian neo-realist film, improbably made by one of the most iconically American directors (and an Irish-American at that). Huston’s war footage is, of course, startling, but some of the most affecting moments of the film come at the end, when we see the Italian peasants beginning the process of re-making their lives in a town ravaged by war. Watching ragged, haunted-looking children smile at Huston’s camera, it’s difficult not to think about all of the unforgettable children’s faces soon to be immortalized by neo-realist cinema—the beggars in Rossellini’s Paisan (1946), the schoolboys in Open City (1945), the orphans of de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946).
Is Tabard (Gérard de Bédarieux) one of the screen’s first queer heroes? Petite and girlish, fondled by his lecherous teacher, waved off as a “sissy” by his classmates, he nevertheless leads his fellow schoolboys in the charge against their dictatorial masters at the end of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933; 44 minutes). (When I first saw him on-screen, I thought he was a tomboy who had invaded the boarding school in disguise.) In Vigo’s cheerfully anarchist masterpiece, everything is turned topsy-turvy, in the spirit of what Mikhail Bahktin has called the “carnivalesque” (as Michael Temple notes in his commentary track for the film): the powerless become powerful, children discipline adults, a sissy leads the revolution.
“Some movies—Grand Illusion and Shoeshine come to mind, and the two Godfathers and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Night of the Shooting Stars—can affect us in more direct, emotional ways than simple entertainment movies. They have more imagination, more poetry, more intensity than the usual fare; they have large themes, and a vision. They can leave us feeling simultaneously elated and wiped out. […] Casualties of War has this kind of purity. […] This new film is the kind that makes you feel protective. When you leave the theatre, you’ll probably find that you’re not ready to talk about it. You may also find it hard to talk lightly about anything.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1989
Kael’s eight-page review of Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), one of the last films that elicited a truly ecstatic response before she retired from The New Yorker, is also one of her most baffling (the film is affecting and well-made, to be sure, but does it rank with Grand Illusion?). It’s also some of her most emotionally naked writing. She writes candidly not only about how deeply the film affected her, but about how it conjured up her own memories of having to witness innocent people in positions of helplessness, such as when she witnessed a child being abused on the streets of New York as a young woman. (Set during the Vietnam War, Casualties is about a platoon of U.S. soldiers who kidnap and repeatedly rape a Vietnamese civilian.) “I hear that baby’s cries after almost fifty years,” she writes. I don’t want to suggest that Kael was getting soft in her old age—by all accounts her mind was sharp right up until her death in 2001—but one feels a deeper sense of empathy than in her earlier writings, with their snappy bravado. There’s a sincerity and a mournfulness here that feels almost shocking. (Would her reaction have been as strong twenty years earlier? It's impossible to say.)
“It isn’t just the echoing moments that keep you absorbed. It’s those reverberant dreamland settings and Leone’s majestic, billowing sense of film movement; the images seem to come at you in waves of feeling. Despite the film’s miscasting and its craziness, Leone sustains the moods for an almost incredible three hours and forty-seven minutes—most of it unusually quiet. The movie has a pulse; it’s alive. But not now. It’s alive in some golden-brown past of the imagination.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1985
As with The Way We Were, I chose to watch Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) in conjunction with reading Pauline Kael’s review as a way of taking a random sample of her work. I hadn’t read this review before, and to be honest it’s not a particularly memorable or incendiary one. But just as a lesser work can sometimes illuminate the genius of a particular artist in ways that a masterpiece cannot, these reviews offer counterpoints to her best-known reviews of films like Nashville, Last Tango in Paris, and Shoah.
Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is a welcome antidote to so many of this year’s safe, bloodless audience-pleasers. It is strange, unsettling, angry, and bitterly funny. The story of a mother’s antagonistic relationship with her son (who ends up orchestrating a high-school killing spree), its roots are in the horror genre—in films like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, which take troubling questions about motherhood and child-rearing (what is this being growing inside my body? what if I don’t love it? how, as a woman, am I expected to feel about a male child?) and run wild with them. Like those films, Kevin is defiantly anti-realist. It isn’t interested in pathologizing or explaining. It doesn’t offer any easy answers to the question that’s most often asked in the wake of disasters like the Columbine massacre, “why?” Rather, it's a kind of nightmarish fantasia on the violence of children and the related violence of maternity, on the nagging, sometimes intricately paranoid fears that go along with the business of raising children, particularly mothers raising sons. And it succeeds beautifully.
Recently Michael Phillips, writing about the year in film, hailed The Tree of Life and Melancholia as “films made by filmmakers, not guns for hire or directors who don’t think cinematically. Directors who don’t think cinematically sadly account for most of the movies we see all year.” I agree. So I was disheartened to hear him go on to praise Moneyball’s “remarkable subtlety and grace,” along with A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi), which might best be described as the hot new film from Iran. It’s a well-made but finally dull moral dilemma film about a husband who hires a caregiver to watch over his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father after his discontented wife moves out of the house. A heated altercation leads to a complicated legal battle between the caregiver’s family and the husband’s: the adults pass the blame back and forth between one another, while their daughters look on, wide-eyed, quickly wising up to their parents’ lies and frailties.
“Pennies from Heaven is the most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen. It’s a stylized mythology of the Depression which uses the popular songs of the period as expressions of people’s deepest longings—for sex, for romance, for money, for a high good time. When the characters can’t say how they feel, they evoke the songs: they open their mouths, and the voices of hit records come out of them. And as they lip-sync the lyrics their obsessed eyes are burning bright. Their souls are in those voices, and they see themselves dancing just like the stars in movie musicals.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1981
So begins Kael’s laudatory review for Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven (1981), a kind of Brechtian tragicomedy about the power that popular music held during Depression-era America. It’s one of her most famous reviews, noteworthy mainly because she was the only one who really saw much in the film, an example of how sometimes her enthusiasm was too particular, and didn’t catch on. (Her confounding review of Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War is another such example.) Reading it, we see how excited she could get about a movie that spoke to her—sometimes only to her. I found Pennies from Heaven’s lip-syncing gimmick tiresome, and its tone seemed too off-beat, as if it couldn’t decide how it wanted to depict its strange, dreamy characters or the world they live in, itself some kind of dark dream of the ’30s. It struck me as only a middling film. Reading one of Kael’s rave reviews of a film that you just didn’t “get” is a strange experience. There’s so much energy in her writing that even when you don’t agree with her, you wish you did.
“Because of the sordid injustices to the blacklisted, and their suffering, it’s easy for new generations to get the idea that what they stood for politically was an intelligent and moral position. This movie doesn’t actually say that, but it’s the impression that the audience may come away with, because there appears to be nothing between Communist commitment and smug indifference. Hubbell makes valid points against Katie’s blind faith in Stalin’s policies, but since he represents polite cynicism and defeatism, her allegiance to those policies seems to be the only form of activism. (Implicitly, the movie accepts the line the Communist Party took—that it was the only group doing anything, so if you cared about peace or social injustice you had to join up.)” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1973
I had never seen Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973) until this week, and though I knew to expect a three-hankie romance starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, with Marvin Hamlisch’s piano tinkling away in the background, I certainly hadn’t known to expect a political movie, too. It starts in the 1930s, with student activist Katie (Streisand) handing out anti-Franco pamphlets and ends with her handing out ban-the-bomb pamphlets in the early ’50s, and in between there’s a lot of stuff about Roosevelt and McCarthy’s purges in Hollywood. Nor had I read Pauline Kael’s review before; I wanted to write about a film and a review that were both new to me, chosen almost blindly, on the chance that doing so would reveal something about Kael almost at random. Lo and behold, her reluctantly positive review of the film actually links up with her comments about Salt of the Earth written nearly twenty years earlier, because one of her problems with The Way We Were wasn’t so much its schmaltz as its simplistic endorsement of leftist politics.
“West Side Story begins with a blast of stereophonic music that had me clutching my head. Is the audience so impressed by science and technique, and by the highly advertised new developments that they accept this jolting series of distorted sounds gratefully—on the assumption, perhaps, that because it’s so unlike ordinary sound, it must be better? Everything about West Side Story is supposed to stun you with its newness, its size, the wonders of its photography, editing, choreography, music. It’s nothing so simple as a musical, it’s a piece of cinematic technology.” - Pauline Kael, Film Quarterly, 1962
Kael’s most energetic and best writing can be found in her rave reviews, but some of her most vigorous arguments—and the best examples of her cutting humor—are in her pans of films like West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961), big-budget Oscar bait extravaganzas that other critics fawned over. (She was also fond of quoting from other critics’ reviews in her own writing; her contention of Stanley Kauffmann’s praise for the film led Kauffmann to issue a defense of his position.) Tracing Kael’s thoughts on a particular type of film or a particular genre is revealing. Soon, for instance, I’ll be looking at her review for Dennis Potter’s musical Pennies from Heaven (1981), which she adored. “I love musicals,” she insists at the beginning of her review of West Side Story, and her takedown of that film says a lot about what she loved about her favorite musicals—Singin’ in the Rain and the 1930s Astaire/Rogers vehicles. These earlier films were simple, virtuosic without being epic or showy. “If there is anything great in the American musical tradition—and I think there is—it’s in the light satire, the high spirits, the giddy romance, the low comedy, and the unpretentiously stylized dancing of men like Fred Astaire and the younger Gene Kelly,” she insisted. She objected to West Side Story’s straining for greatness; in her eyes, it was trying to improve upon a genre that had already achieved perfection.
Although Moneyball is directed by Bennett Miller, it’s really an Aaron Sorkin picture (Sorkin wrote the screenplay with Steven Zaillian). To those familiar with Sorkin’s writing in The West Wing or The Social Network, his approach here will be familiar. Moneyball is a film drunk on fast-paced business-speak, on how insiders wheel and deal, and how systems—companies, networks, baseball teams—work. The representative scene of the film is one in which Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), General Manager of the Oakland A’s, makes a series of phone calls in an attempt to trade players, with some help from his brainy stats-whiz consultant (played solidly by Jonah Hill). It’s dizzying to watch these men in action, as it is perhaps always exhilarating to watch smart people work. But this scene, which showcases Sorkin’s strengths as a writer, also says everything about his limitations. Sorkin only gets outside of his own head in order to enter into someone else’s; for him, compelling cinema is about watching people solve problems doggedly but calculatedly. He’s a rationalist wordsmith working in a medium that lends itself better to images—to the language of dreams rather than formulas.
“When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, ‘Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.’ I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel? […] Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.” - Pauline Kael, KPFA broadcast, 1961
Pauline Kael’s review of Vittorio de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) is one of her best-known and most oft-quoted pieces, because it serves as a good example of how passionate her writing could be when a movie excited her—and also how powerfully rhetorical she could be in voicing her opinions. Her passion for a movie like Shoeshine is so deep, and her contempt for those who don’t share it so harsh, that you’re almost afraid to disagree with her. (Many people complained throughout her career that Kael’s tone was too bullying, too divisive.) She’s probably right to lash out at that college girl, who by her account sounds like an airhead. But she could also make you feel like an airhead, too, if you didn’t love a movie as deeply as she did. The personal touch she displays here was also crucial to her appeal, and a radical departure from the humorless newspaperman’s style of a Bosley Crowther. It was rare in those days for critics to write in the first person, let alone mention personal anecdotes such as a lover’s quarrel.
Roman Polanski’s new film Carnage is founded on a simple, one-note premise—two affluent New York couples meet to talk about an altercation at their children’s playground and end up at loggerheads—but it’s so fleet and well acted that it almost comes off. Based on a play by Yasmina Reza, it runs a scant 79 minutes (with credits) and takes place completely within a Brooklyn apartment where the couples (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly; Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) brawl over espresso and apple-pear cobbler. The play was originally written in French and has been translated and adapted by Reza, Polanski, and Christopher Hampton; in its American milieu, it becomes a cheerfully nasty—if somewhat easy—satire of New York parenting, liberalism, and home décor (Foster and Reilly’s apartment, tastefully appointed with rare coffee table books, imported tulips and Pottery Barn-style chotchkies, literally gets vomited on over the course of the film).
I can remember the first Pauline Kael review I ever read—for Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973), probably the film that made the strongest impression on me as a teenage film enthusiast. Kael was lukewarm about the film, but even her relatively polite criticisms took me aback. My own response to a film had never really been challenged in such a way before; it was unsettling, and the forcefulness of her points put me on the defensive. It wasn’t until later, after I’d matured considerably as a film watcher and as a person, that I came around to her. I got a copy of For Keeps as a Christmas present my senior year in high school and I’ve been a die-hard “Paulette” ever since.
For over thirty years now, David Cronenberg has been one of cinema’s foremost surrealists, a master of the grotesque. His formidable intelligence has helped keep his movies from becoming schlocky; his films are brilliant and disturbing because he knows how to play on the edge of attraction and repulsion, and he understands the ways in which sex and violence can so often bleed into one another. For him to make a movie about Freudian psychoanalysis seemed ideal; I thrilled at the thought of Cronenberg dressing up his scenes of abjection in period costume.
So what if it played on HBO instead of at the cineplex? Todd Haynes’ five-hour miniseries Mildred Pierce (which aired back in March and is now available on DVD) is one of the finest filmic achievements of the year, a sprawling, intricately detailed, compulsively watchable weepie that deserves to be ranked with his masterpieces Poison, Safe, and Far From Heaven. It’s also destined to go down as one of Kate Winslet’s most staggering performances: as the title character, she more than fills the shoes of Joan Crawford, who originated the role in Michael Curtiz’s much looser 1942 adaptation of the James M. Cain novel.
How could I have written a whole series of posts this fall on psychotronic film without ever having seen the essential Reefer Madness (dir. Louis Gasnier, 1936)? It’s the quintessential drug scare film; I particularly liked its suggestion that, when high, you may be driven to play classical piano at a maniacal speed (see above).
Michel Havanicius’ The Artist has been raking in accolades ever since it premiered at Cannes last May—it’s currently a front-runner in the Oscar race, and it’s being described with words like “charming” (Melissa Anderson) and “dazzling” (A. O. Scott). It is, indeed, a lovely, charming film, a winsome homage to 1920s Hollywood. Filmed in black-and-white with almost no spoken dialogue, it jauntily replicates the conventions of silent comedy (with a few modern touches applied with a wink).
I wrote several weeks ago about how Die Hard revises and updates the Western genre’s east/west binarism. Watching Death Wish (dir. Michael Winner, 1974), I was again struck by the extent to which the action thriller engages with the archetypes, associations, and symbolic relations of the Western, often overtly. Set in 1970s New York, Death Wish understands the fantasies of the Western genre and their incompatibility with reality. (Its attitude toward this incompatibility is also difficult to determine. Does it lament the death of the Western’s myths? Or does it simply recognize their pervasiveness, their indestructibility and timelessness?)
The premise of this well-known action film is familiar to many. So-called “bleeding-heart liberal” real estate developer Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) becomes a vigilante killer after his wife and daughter are attacked by thugs. Kersey’s vigilantism, tellingly, is set into motion by a trip to Tucson, where a business associate wearing a ten-gallon hat takes him to a Western movie set and a shooting range, and sends him back east with a .32. (Interestingly, these scenes also point to the increasing development and commercialism of the West that will be complete by the time of Die Hard, where the West no longer even signifies as the arena of frontier justice.) Kersey returns to New York and begins fashioning himself as a latter-day gunslinger, purging the streets of its muggers and gang-bangers. Like a Western outlaw, he becomes a kind of folk hero, inspiring other seemingly mild-mannered New Yorkers to defend themselves against attackers. Kersey’s vigilantism also becomes a way of sticking it to the New York cops, whose attempts to fight crime are hampered by the circuitous legality of the justice system. In the world of the Western, the law is always suspect: only a lone man, acting outside of its confines, can hope to effect any real change.
Death Wish is a film about nostalgia for the West, for frontier justice, and for America’s pioneer days, before the filth and grime of the modern city (Kersey’s Tucson colleague calls New York City a “toilet”). But it’s perhaps inaccurate to say that Death Wish itself harbors that nostalgia, because it recognizes such nostalgic fantasies as fantasies, most clearly in the scene where Kersey watches the filming of a Western movie showdown, riveted (below). Death Wish understands the power of such fantasies, and how they have driven American culture, particularly American masculinity. (My father has often cited his love of Westerns as his inspiration to become a police officer.) Death Wish, which is a fascinating and troubling film, cannot be dismissed as easily as hard-line liberal film critics might like to do (Time Out calls it “objectionable…trash”). Like Ms.45, which it clearly inspired, Death Wish is an example of how exploitation films are smarter than they’re usually given credit for—how they often understand things about fantasy and desire, sex and violence, that mainstream movies can’t, and how their politics are often more complicated than we might like to assume.
I had long heard about Roberto Rossellini’s classic Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1954) but had never seen it, mainly because it’s never really been given a proper Region 1 DVD release. I recently was able to access a region-free Korean version (in English, with removable Korean subtitles, thankfully), and while the film is really deserving of a full treatment from Criterion, it afforded me the opportunity to finally see this great film, in which George Sanders and Rossellini’s then-wife Ingrid Bergman (identified on the back of the DVD as “George Sandera” and “Inglrid Bergman”) play a married couple whose relationship teeters on the verge of disintegration during a trip to settle some property near Naples.
Of all the writing that’s been done on pornography, few people are as successful in discussing its political implications alongside its cinematic properties as Susie Bright (Linda Williams is the other obvious example). A feminist activist, pornography connoisseur, and self-proclaimed “film nerd,” Susie approaches sex on film with passion, intelligence, and eminent sanity. The first of two volumes of her collected reviews, interviews, and essays, The Erotic Screen: The Golden Hardcore and Shimmering Dyke-Core, is newly available as an e-book from Smashwords.com. With a few notable exceptions, such as a 1995 essay on the on-going debates over porn among feminists, the pieces are short, and if there’s anything to complain about regarding this collection, it’s simply that the brevity of its contents leaves us wanting more—Susie in long-form. (Most of the pieces collected here ran as a column for Penthouse Forum in the late 1980s, in which she alerted readers to new and notable adult videos.)
I’ve been thinking lately about two films this year that riff on the same theme: the wife who has the audacity first to have an extramarital affair, then to fall ill and die, leaving her bereaved but also humiliated husband to care for their teenage daughter, herself in the process of entering the world of sex and whose purity becomes even more a source of anxiety for her father than it normally would be, haunted as it is by the specter of female promiscuity. The films are Contagion and The Descendants. (Spoilers for both ahead.)