Come On, Pauline: "Casualties of War" (1989)

“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.) 

I bring up aging, though, because for Kael the movie also showed a deepening and maturity in Brian De Palma, whose films she had lauded since the mid-1970s.  De Palma had often been accused of misogyny and of a certain cheekiness about movie violence; here, “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?’”  Reading this, It’s hard not to think of Kael’s own failing health; she would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s by the end of the year.  In the end, it doesn’t matter that virtually no other critic shared her response to Casualties of War, or that I don’t connect with the film in the way that perhaps only she could—the review stands as her last great attempt to communicate her passion for a film that had touched her profoundly before she signed off. 

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