Sunday, January 6, 2013

Pauline Kael: Some of her Funniest Lines

Searching online for webpages about Pauline Kael, you can find plenty of articles criticising her reviewing style. They say she was inconsistent, egotistical, unfairly dismissive of films without good reason. Well, of course she was! So what? She’s panned loads of films I’ve loved (and recommended many I’ve hated too) but that doesn’t stop me from loving the way she writes. I think these people who complain about her really don’t get the point. She was a comedian, a wit, a master of the bon mot. She was one of the most widely-read reviewers ever chiefly because she was so damned funny. Often you have to take her opinions with a pinch of salt, especially if she gets into a lather whilst trashing a film, because she was performing in her reviews, entertaining her readers. You should no more get upset if she says a film you loved is horrible than you would if your favourite star gets skewered at a comedy roast.

That’s not to say she didn’t also have many fine perceptions about movie-making. (For more on that, see Pauline Kael: Some Classic Film Criticism). In any case, serious film fans can prefer more academic critics like Manny Farber if they like, but they’ll never have as much fun as the average Kael reader does, and here are some examples of that famous wit of hers. I got them all from this brilliant site- kael reviews - which has hundreds of short Kael reviews. I’m guessing they must all come from her book ‘5001 Nights at The Movies’, which collects her capsule reviews from the New Yorker.

If you like these check back again later because I’ll add more examples as I gradually go through every page on this site in the coming months.

The Abdication (UK, 1974)
This Warners picture about Queen Christina's stepping down from the Swedish throne, in 1654, is embalmed in such reverence for its own cultural elevation that it loses all contact with the audience. Liv Ullmann is the virgin queen who becomes a Catholic hoping to find ecstasy in God, and Peter Finch is the cardinal who examines her motives. Anthony Harvey directed, on his knees.

Act of the Heart (Canada, 1970)
Genevieve Bujold, in one of those passionate, spiritual jobs about a girl who is "different." The heroine sings the solo with the church choir; she suffers while singing in a nightclub; she even-God help us-makes love with an Augustinian monk… After hours of fire symbolism, she finally pours kerosene on herself to create a new sacrifice for a world that has forgotten Jesus; by then you're ready to toss her a match.

The All-American Boy (US, 1973)
Jon Voight is a prizefighter suffering from a type of working-class alienation that is indistinguishable from bellyache. He mopes through the picture looking puffy, like a rain cloud about to spritz. Charles Eastman wrote and directed this disgracefully condescending view of America as a wasteland populated by grotesques, stupes, and sons of bitches; they are incapable of love and have false values-and to prove it Eastman sets Voight to walking the Antonioni walk. This is probably the only movie on record in which you can watch boxers working out in a gym while you hear a Gregorian chant.

America at the Movies (US, 1976)
An anxiously inspirational compilation film put together by the American Film Institute for the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration; you can't just enjoy the clips as reminders of the 83 movies they're from, because the whole enterprise has such an official, high moral tone. You feel as if you're supposed to go out determined to do better on your next report card.

The Blue Lagoon (US, 1980)
The central and virtually the only characters are two little cousins; shipwrecked, they grow up alone together on a South Seas island, and turn into Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins….Watching them is about as exciting as looking into a fishbowl waiting for guppies to mate. It's Disney nature porn. The cinematography, by Nestor Almendros, is so inexpressive that we seem to be looking at the scenic wonders of a vacation spa in a travelogue.

The Blue Max (US, 1966)
Addicts of flying movies swear by this one, but for others, the monoplanes and biplanes can't smash or burn fast enough.

Dishonored (US, 1931)
The dullest of the Marlene Dietrich films directed by Josef von Sternberg. He wrote the story (which was a mistake) and then the scenario was prepared by Daniel Rubin (another mistake). Dietrich plays a "woman of the streets" who is given the chance of spiritual redemption by serving her country; she becomes the glamorous spy X-27, but falls in love with an enemy agent (Victor McLaglen). McLaglen is the really hopeless mistake. He's meant to be dashing, but he lacks style and physical grace-he's a grinning buffoon, with zero sex appeal. Dietrich goes through her repertory of teases, lowering her eyelids demurely and raising them amusingly; she's charming, but she's playing all alone. (At times she might as well be doing eye exercises.)

Eclipse/L'Eclisse (France-Italy, 1962)
Some like it cold. Michelangelo Antonioni on alienation, this time with Alain Delon and, of course, Monica Vitti. Even she looks as if she has given up in this one.

Edge of the City (US, 1957)
The music is by Leonard Rosenman; when he completed the score, he must have cut another notch on his gun-he's certainly out to slaughter the audience.

Endless Love (US, 1981)
A predictable fiasco-still it's considerably worse than you might have expected.

The Green Light (US, 1937) 
An inspirational movie, based on a Lloyd C. Douglas novel. As a man of God, Cedric Hardwicke wears white hair and pious expressions; he dominates the film by the sheer awfulness of his performance.

Hands Across the Table (US, 1935)
You can see the jokes being set up; when the payoff comes, you're already tired.

Harold Robbins' The Betsy (US, 1978)
The director, Daniel Petrie, aims low and misses his target-maybe through taste and halfheartedness as much as ineptitude…As the superabundantly sexed patriarch of the family, Laurence Olivier keeps on acting after everyone else has given up. He must be doing it for himself-for the sheer love of testing himself as an actor.

Humoresque (US, 1946) 
In this second version of Fannie Hurst's hokey weeper, the heroine (Joan Crawford) is myopic, dipsomaniacal, dissatisfied with her husband (Paul Cavanagh), older than her ghetto-born violinist lover (John Garfield), and given to brooding heavily about the futility of a life devoid of everything but sables, limousines, Napoleon brandy, town houses, seashore estates, and enough liquid assets to make a Morgan partner's eyes widen. She bears her burdens gallantly, and when she realizes that her career as a social butterfly has not prepared her adequately to be the helpmate of her violinist she bravely wades out into the ocean and gurgles to her doom, wreathed in seaweed and clamshells. (The music that accompanies her demise is the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde.) Clifford Odets worked on the update, and some of the dialogue is sharp-witted, but with frequent interruptions for big yeasty passages on the meaning of life and art.

The King of Marvin Gardens (US, 1972)
This is an unqualified disaster of the type that only talented people have; the producer-director, Bob Rafelson, and the script-writer, Jacob Brackman, seem to be saying "Let them eat metaphors."

Same Time, Next Year (US, 1978) 
If someone you make the mistake of caring about insists on your going to this movie, take a small flashlight and a book.

The Sandpiper (US, 1965)
………If that isn't enough, there's Charles Bronson playing a sculptor (posing for him, (Elizabeth) Taylor demurely cups her breasts with her hands--though they seem inadequate to the task).

The Savage Is Loose (US, 1974)
George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, and John David Carson, as their son, are shipwrecked on a jungle island, and so is the audience. Agonizing.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria (US, 1969)
Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani are Italo Bombolini and his wife, Rosa; he's the town drunkard and buffoon, and she's a virago, rolling pin in hand. If you want to know more, you deserve everything you get--even the cast of thousands of hairy, warty, wine-loving peasants, waving their funny Italian arms, in the way they do only in American movies. When the director is Stanley Kramer they make their funny Italian sounds extra loud.

Semi-Tough (US, 1977)
The film ambles along in a sunshiny, woozy, hit-or-miss way. Ritchie has an offhand visual slapstick sense, and he supplies about 20 minutes of funny bits that you catch out of the corner of your eye; with that and Reynolds' polished good-ol'-boy Cary Grant performance, the movie is like a low-grade fever--you slip in and out of it painlessly.

The Seventh Veil (UK, 1945)
In the mid-40s, when the New York critics said a film was for "adult minds" they were referring to something like THE SEVENTH VEIL--a rich, portentous mixture of Beethoven, Chopin, kitsch, and Freud.

The Shanghai Gesture (US, 1941)
Hilariously, awesomely terrible. Pressure groups were so strong at the time that the moviemakers had to clean up John Colton's old melodrama about night-life depravities in Shanghai; Mother Goddam became Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson), and her establishment became nothing more disreputable than a gambling den. Josef von Sternberg proceeded to pack the orgiastic, smoky atmosphere with crowds of coolies, diplomats, roulette players, and "bird-cage" girls, and in the foreground he put one of the most ridiculous casts ever assembled. Victor Mature, in a burnous, as the languid Dr. Omar--his eyes welling with mysterious passions--is worth the price of admission, and when you throw in Gene Tierney, as Poppy, a rich girl going to the dogs (Tierney acts as if she's having a tantrum in Schrafft's over the fudge sauce), you've got a gorgeous travesty. Some of this effect is probably intentional, but the total effect couldn't have been.

Three Daring Daughters (US, 1948)
Joe Pasternak had a monstrous gift for producing relentlessly perky films for the whole family; sometimes, the damned things got to you--all those toothy smiles made you smile back. This one, though, can make you feel your jaw is wired shut.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (US, 1969)
Ideology on horseback. The writer-director Abraham Polonsky has taken a Western story about an Indian, Willie (Robert Blake), who, in 1909, kills another Indian, the father of his girl (Katharine Ross), and grafted onto it enough schematic Marxism and Freudianism and New Left guerrilla Existentialism and late-60s American self-hatred so that every damned line of dialogue becomes "meaningful."

The Terminal Man (US, 1974)
One of those errors-of-science thrillers; it's an even worse error of moviemaking.

Teorema (Italy, 1968)
Some people profess to find spiritual sustenance in this movie; others break up on lines such as "You came to destroy me" and "I was living in a void," and they find Pasolini's platitudes and riddles and the is-this-man-Christ-or-a-devil game intolerably silly.

Young Sherlock Holmes (US, 1985)
…It falls apart when it starts turning Holmes into an action-adventure hero, and it lets you down with a thump when it rips off INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. Levinson's temple of doom (where a fanatic religious sect offers up human sacrifices) has a choir chanting solemnly; the pomposity of this music is lethal--it's like a High Mass for a dead mouse.

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