Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tears for Fears (War Horse and Melancholia)

Most of the cinephiles I know really love Steven Spielberg, which surprises me, because the more movies I see (often from their own recommendations), the flimsier his work becomes. Yet even the lot of them are straining to praise War Horse, one of Spielberg's flimsiest films to date, along the bottom middle rung of his oeuvre. A case could be made that it's his John Ford movie: a yarn about a young Irish Englishman (Jeremy Irvine) who trains a horse to plow his father's farm, then follows the steed, named Joey, into the hell of the First World War. Adapted from a children's book by Michael Morpurgo (and previously an acclaimed stage play), War Horse has an episodic narrative that's fairly unconventional and daring and might have developed into something interesting, had the filmmakers realized who their protagonist really is.

Our putative hero - for the front and back halves of the movie, at least - is Albert Narracott. Unformed and untested, yet brave and resilient in the googly-eyed Ethan Hawke manner from Dead Poets Society, Albert gets a crash course in the school of hard knocks after his essentially decent yet stubborn alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) purchases Joey at a village auction, outbidding his villainous landlord (David Thewlis, wasting his talent) with an absurd sum. We know the landlord is a monster because he dresses in fancy clothes, wants to be paid his monthly rent, and scoffs when Albert trains Joey to plow a fallow field. So incredible is this last development that all the villagers, with apparently way too much time on their hands, gather round to gape at the sorry spectacle - until it starts raining and Albert and Joey finally succeed at their task (because nothing says victory like soggy trousers). This is Spielberg at his vintage-worst, piling on the obstacles rather than trusting the inherent drama to suffice. (Lest we think rain is the farmer's friend, a subsequent storm comes soon after to flood their crops.)

Just as things seem to be veering into the miserablist territory of Frank McCourt - with Emily Watson (as Albert's patient, suffering mom) ready to lead the way - good news arrives: It's war! Sadly, Albert is still too young to serve, but Joey isn't, and Papa Narracott gets out of debt by selling him to the Irish cavalry. The horse, I mean, not his son. The narrative picks up a bit as Joey comes under the ownership of kindly Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris, and his Zelda this time out is friend and commanding officer Maj. Stewart (the sonorously voiced Benedict Cumberbatch, from the terrific BBC series Sherlock and on his way to becoming a big star). In the movie's best sequence, Nicholls and Stewart lead a Light-Brigadish charge against a German garrison, and Joey and his equine companion, the beautiful black Topthorn, are captured by the enemy.

I won't recount my year-old post on my issues with Spielberg, except to revise a statement that couldn't have been more wrongheaded. "Spielberg is a unique enough stylist to avoid obvious homages," I wrote. "You don't think of anybody else's movies while watching his." Having invested a fair amount of time this year to furthering my knowledge of the history of cinema I know this to be untrue, and as War Horse began to split into a series of vignettes I thought of not only the works of John Ford but also contemporary westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales. The difference is those films have a clear and consistent point-of-view, whereas Spielberg and his screenwriters (Lee Hall and Richard Curtis), after leaving Albert for nearly the entire middle of the movie, won't commit themselves to their obvious choice of protagonist. What makes Carroll Ballard such a great director of "animal movies" (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home, Duma) is he never anthropomorphizes them; he takes them on their own thrillingly mysterious terms. Spielberg makes a few feints toward depicting events from Joey's point-of-view (mostly overly expressive closeups of the horse's eyes that look suspiciously like half-assed CGI) but drops the idea every time it's raised, his insecurities as usual getting the better of him.

What's left then? A series of aimless episodes featuring a gallery of barely sketched-in German, French, and English characters. (Ford usually made his supporting players colorful.) Spielberg makes a heartening effort to humanize the Jerries this time - his disinterest in taking sides admirable - but having all the characters speak English gets confusing (not to mention ultimately Anglocentric for all the generous dispersal of empathy), and leads to botching what should be the film's highlight. Joey gets trapped in the barbed-wire mesh of No-Man's-Land, an English soldier leaves his trench to retrieve him, and a German soldier follows from his side of the battlefield to assist. Not trusting the power of the image, Spielberg has the two engage in enough Richard Curtis-y banter to anticipate Hugh Grant popping up through the gaseous mist. ("I-I-I say, th-that's qu-quite a horse you've g-g-got there. Tally-ho. Pip-pip!") By this time Albert has reappeared, serving his country with honor, yet blinded right before a climactic reunion that's a variation on the emotional climax of A Little Princess.

"Climactic" of course is a relative term, because the Fates must conspire yet again to keep Albert and Joey apart for as long as possible. There's another interminable auction, a forgotten character emerges to outbid Albert for the horse, then, after spending a windfall, comes the thrilling denouement: "Never mind." After thanking Mr. Deus ex Machina, and receiving not only his beloved four-legged friend but also his father's sash from the Boer War (which makes its rounds through the narrative like Vin Diesel's unlucky letter in Saving Private Ryan), Albert returns to the Narracott farm with Natalie Wood Joey in tow, a gorgeous sunset in the distance. I didn't care much for War Horse, but I did like the tentative handshake Albert's father offers to welcome him home. It's the kind of simple gesture filled with emotional heft that Spielberg has largely abandoned. Encouraging as it is to see him return to classical filmmaking, following an overlong stretch of brutalist showmanship, he's still stuck creatively between these poles, a remarkable director tangled in mesh.

Lars von Trier's Melancholia suggests that the end of the world is preferable to the values our world holds dear: following that premise to its audacious conclusion, he's become an optimist. I make that claim somewhat facetiously and completely hesitantly, this being the first von Trier film I've watched from start to finish. I've seen parts of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville and found them fascinating, yet to be perfectly honest, they're the work of a filmmaker who scares me a little. Making me afraid is a talent I respect; I still haven't screwed up the courage to see Antichrist, yet Melancholia is a relatively accessible depiction of the apocalypse. Unlike Spielberg during the latter half of his career, von Trier isn't working against his gifts. He's elevating his art into a stark clarity reminiscent of how Kael characterized late-period Luis Bunuel: growing almost fond of his characters' foibles.

Robert Altman also springs to mind, as Melancholia begins with the most scabrous nuptials since A Wedding. It's funnier than Altman's vision too, albeit mordantly so, making random observations of bad behavior on the fly rather than rubbing our noses in it. Kicking off with the perfect image of a stretch limo struggling to navigate the sharp turns of a long road leading to a country estate, von Trier casually introduces a patently eclectic ensemble through the eyes of bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst): her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), her sister/hostess Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), brother-in-law and estate-owner John (Kiefer Sutherland), young nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr), her unscrupulous boss (Stellan Skarsgard), and her estranged father and mother (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling). I think I surrendered to von Trier's vision the moment I saw Rampling appear at the swanky dinner reception wearing a casual t-shirt, offering a toast where she declares herself vehemently opposed to marriage. The first cracks in Justine's smiling facade begin to emerge - Dunst's sunny screen persona has never been put to more effective use - and gradually she goes out of her way to lose her job and husband over the course of the evening.

This, it turns out, is only the prelude, as the second act switches to Claire's point of view with the dire news of a planet - the titular Melancholia - approaching Earth. A fine actress, Gainsbourg nonetheless seems miscast, and not just because she and Dunst aren't physically convincing as sisters. Claire, we learn during the wedding sequence from her and Justine's mother, "seems bewitched" by her opulent lifestyle, and Gainsbourg doesn't do bewitchment. She's a clear-eyed pessimist - von Trier's stand-in - and her mounting sense of doom about the world's end comes too naturally to her. Dunst, however, is sensationally good as Justine comes to accept her fate more readily than she did her marriage. Melancholia is described as a "friendly" looking planet, and funnily enough it is, its luminousness a reflection of Dunst's own.

I've neglected to mention other pleasures, some significant (the acclaimed overture of not-quite-still surreal tableaux foreshadowing events to come), others incidental (John Hurt teasing a waiter by stealing spoons at the reception), yet all coming together in as impeccably structured a narrative as I've seen all year. Like Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, another modestly-scaled (if conceptually very different) vision of the end times, Von Trier keeps his scope small while managing to pull off startling effects: a rain of hail on Claire and her son, for example, as she attempts a getaway. To where? is the critical question, for it becomes clear that there is nowhere to hide...except there sort of is. Accessibility and friendliness notwithstanding, Melancholia becomes a unnervingly haunting and unsettling experience. As Justine and Claire struggle to hold it together, so too does the movie. Like a number of great films, Melancholia comes very close to being a bad one: watching von Trier navigate that line is part of the thrill.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

High and Low (The Descendants, Bridesmaids, and Horrible Bosses)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

This weekend
I saw three 2011 comedies - one a new theatrical release, two recent to DVD - all of which address, with varying degrees of seriousness and success, the effects of our lingering economic recession and/or the consequences of privilege. The summer blockbuster Bridesmaids pivots around a battle royale between Kristen Wiig's financially struggling maid-of-honor and Rose Byrne's obscenely wealthy usurper of the bride-to-be's affections, whereas the surprise hit Horrible Bosses follows a trio of desperate friends (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Andy Sudeikis) in an increasingly convoluted scheme to kill their misery-inflicting employers (Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell). Meanwhile, off the mainland, Alexander Payne's The Descendants spends a few hectic days in the life of a Honolulu attorney (George Clooney) following a tragic accident that leaves his wife in a coma as he's about to lead a contingent of cousins into a lucrative land deal. Clooney's Hawaiian-shirt clad, flipflop-wearing Matt King is untouched by economic woes - in an early voiceover, Matt informs us, as we watch him in business meetings, that "the wealthiest, most powerful people in Hawaii dress like beach bums." Yet as he learns of his soon-to-be-late wife's adultery while trying to help his two young daughters hold it together, we learn that even Matt is far from unscathed.

Our premier satirist of contemporary American life, Payne - as any satirist worth his salt should - continues to receive (amid high praise) brickbats from some quarters accusing him of hating or condescending to his characters. A pair of questions arise immediately in response to this: A) Is this true?; and B) So what if it is? All of his films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and the "14e arrondissement" segment of Paris Je T'aime) walk a fine line between snarkiness and sentiment, and The Descendants is no exception. One seemingly minor scene in the film, a monologue by Matt's eldest daughter's spaced-out, semi-callous hipster friend Sid (Nick Krause), may crudely underline Payne's worldview: "Sometimes I watch old people or retarded people crossing the street, and they're so slow, and I get so impatient. And then I feel bad." I'm not suggesting Payne seconds that emotion, rather that he's ballsy enough to articulate its existence.

Complexity of feeling lies at the heart of The Descendants, even as Matt indulges in occasional slapstick shtick in tracking down his wife's lover. Clooney is very amusing while running in flipflops or peering behind bushes, yet he's never a cartoon. A slight crudity of execution was found even in Payne's best previous efforts, but his camera-sense and editing have improved by leaps and bounds in the seven years since his last movie (either that, or he's getting better cameramen and editors). This time there's a richness in Payne's visual palette to match the depth of his content, and the narrative rhythms (with impeccably timed dissolves and fade-outs) are lyrically in tune with the swaying Hawaiian music on the soundtrack. The Descendants doesn't ask us to feel sorry for rich people, but accomplishes something trickier. It's a glowing melancholy comedy about the roots between even the most estranged of family members, between ourselves and our ancestors, and between people and the land they inhabit.

Judd Apatow's apparent answer to those of us asking why the creator of Freaks and Geeks has repeatedly refused to create a female film character with the dimensions of that show's protagonist Lindsay Weir, Bridesmaids (produced by Apatow and directed by F&G co-creator Paul Feig) doesn't exactly take women on their own terms: it suggests that they can be as dirty-minded as men. That's progress of a sort, if not exactly news, I suppose. The movie is foremost a vehicle for Kristen Wiig, who plays Annie Walker, the aforementioned maid-of-honor and best friend to Lillian (Maya Rudolph). Lillian's engagement comes as Annie is still reeling from opening a high-quality yet unsuccessful bakery; unable to pay the rent, much less meet the responsibilities her role in the wedding party require, Annie finds her friendship threatened by Rose Byrne's affluent Helen Harris. Some of the funniest bits involve Helen's attempts to one-up Annie: a mailed invitation to a bridal shower is opened to reveal a fluttering butterfly; the shower itself is held at Helen's estate, with a long driveway interrupted by a butler offering tall glasses of pink lemonade.

Bridesmaids being an Apatow joint, the script (co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo) is extended upon to allow for plenty of ad-libbing. This showcases the gifts of comediennes like Wiig and Melissa McCarthy (who garnered the best reviews as Megan, the straight-shooting, libido-led member of the wedding party) but more often than not leads to a lot of dead air: the movie's already infamous pants-shitting, food-poisoning centerpiece was undoubtedly funnier with a packed audience than at home. Raunchy sentiment is by now an Apatovian specialty, and to Wiig's credit she finds a hint of pathos to go with her gift for occupying demented interior spaces. It's heartening to see her working with a full comic ensemble, even connecting semi-romantically with an impossibly likable police officer (Chris O'Dowd), and living in something like the real world. Bridesmaids is a mixed bag, but I have to give points to an underdog comedy that's shrewd enough to set itself in that biggest underdog of all cities (and home of my alma mater) Milwaukee. The interiors are phony (actually shot in California) but the exteriors are largely real - not unlike the emotional life of the movie itself.

Whereas Bridesmaids embodies the occasionally inspired, often deadweight improvisatory feel of contemporary comedy, Horrible Bosses attempts to be a classically intricate machine, and it's more clever and amusing than you might expect. Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis achieve a likeable, believably spontaneous rapport, yet the director (Seth Gordon) and the screenwriters (Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein) keep driving the narrative forward, with unexpected pleasures along the way. For every few jokes that go thud are a couple that are inspired: I laughed hardest at a running gag/deus ex machina featuring an automated GPS voice named Gregory (but really Atmanand) and the sublime explanation for the imprisonment of hit-man/murder-adviser Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx). Unlike most modern comedies, the second half of Horrible Bosses is stronger than the first: the movie doesn't have laughs exactly (other than the aforementioned examples), but rather builds a comic momentum mainly due to the expanding psychotic dimensions of Spacey's corporate sociopath. As a randy dentist going to jaw-dropping lengths to create an uncomfortable work environment, Aniston takes a page from the Sarah Michelle Gellar playbook, which is to say she wants to be seen as "daring" without really doing anything that truly bold actresses do to earn the title. On the other hand, Farrell is delightful (and all too brief) as a ne'er-do-well cokehead son who inherits a family business. Horrible Bosses weaves its disparate plot strands just enough to draw attention to the fact that it could have been a vulgar classic instead of a lively near-miss.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Dream in the Middle of the Day (Hugo)

Last week a friend took her two young daughters to the premiere of Happy Feet Two and described their reaction, by the eighth or ninth musical number, as equivalent to Kramer's involuntary seizures whenever he heard Mary Hart's voice on Seinfeld. (She didn't actually put it in those terms; I'm taking creative license with her ordeal.) To the small crowd of parents and children at the screening of Hugo attended by yours truly: I salute you. The best family films -- the ones capable of stirring a child's imagination -- are invariably ignored, so merely showing up for a Martin Scorsese kiddie flick is admirable enough. Yet as the movie unfolded, I became distracted by the fact that nobody was distracting me. No fidgeting, running up and down the aisles, asking loudly if the movie's over yet, or other instances of acting-out when a film ostensibly made for kids fails to hold their attention. Just rows of mesmerized faces gazing up quietly at the screen. Arguably more than any other movie on his resume (and this is saying plenty), Scorsese made Hugo for himself. Yet it's the most generous personal filmmaking imaginable, the kind of open-hearted work that lets everyone in.

His achievement was nowhere near apparent from the trailers, which slapped together unrelated moments from the film in such a haphazard manner that the joke going around (which I shared in) was that Hugo looked like Scorsese's "Chris Columbus movie" (just as The Aviator was his "Ron Howard movie," as Steven Santos would put it). I'm not sure if misplaced expectations are what lured in the audience, and I'm half-expecting an irate moviegoer somewhere across the land to file a lawsuit against the movie for "not being like Harry Potter," just as one great intellect is currently suing Drive for "not being The Fast and the Furious." Among all movie audiences, the "family film" crowd may be the worst, because their unvarying taste for stultifying, milquetoast crap is stunting the next generation's concept of what movies can be. Parents like these are killing movies for the sake of two hours of silence, except that -- they never learn -- children get vocal and restless when they're having a bad time. Whether the Hugo audience are fans of the book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick) or if they got suckered in by a film that ended up being something quite other than the bad time the previews promised, they were clearly engaged by a kind of magic considerably less literal than the wizards and Dark Lords and Quidditch matches to which they're accustomed. I enjoyed the last handful of the Potter series, but Hugo offers a very different -- and more substantial -- form of enchantment.

Similarly Scorsese himself once said, "I love Steven's (Spielberg's) movies, but I don't think everyone should have to make them." With Hugo, Scorsese hasn't made a Spielberg movie any more than he's crafted a Chris Columbus joint, but he's learned a few things from his friend and employs a few classic Spielbergian touches. The story is told almost entirely from young orphan Hugo's (Asa Butterfield's) point-of-view, and as he and his new gal-pal Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) jaunt through the 1930s-era train station where the majority of the action takes place, the camera keeps up from behind at eye-level, with most of the grown-ups depicted like many of the adult characters in E.T. -- only as high as their torsos. Visually, Scorsese makes the train-station a potentially threatening place, yet the atmosphere is never oppresive. Between the clocks that Hugo, living secretly within the walls, surreptitiously keeps running to the toy and flower shops to the coming-and-going locomotives themselves, Scorsese makes the real seem magical, rather than trying to persuade us that magic is real.

Much of this is accomplished via 3-D, and while Hugo is only the third movie I've seen to use the extra dimension, it is easily the most effective. Avatar was an entertaining 3-D "experience" that barely disguised a mediocre movie, a mask quickly removed once the movie came to DVD; whereas Cave of Forgotten Dreams found justifiable use for the technology in a documentary that made cave paintings tactile, seemingly touchable. The only problematic moments in that film were when Herzog moved the camera up and down the mountainside, and Scorsese's technique occasionally encounters the same obstacle. Always a purveyor of restless, roving camerawork, Scorsese stumbles a bit whenever Sacha Baron Cohen's station inspector gives chase to Hugo. The image gets fleetingly blurry. In frenetic scenes like these the 3-D can't keep up with Scorsese's energy; it's better at drawing out the details of static framing (which makes me think Kubrick would have been a master at it). For the most part, Scorsese seems to realize this. Whenever Hugo stops running, the imagery opens up around him -- as when pieces of paper with artistic sketches float around a room -- and when he ventures into the snow-dappled Parisian streets (actually a set, but an evocative one) the movie looks breathtaking.

Scorsese has always done unsung work with child actors, and while I wouldn't rate Butterfield and Moretz's performances on par with Jodie Foster's in Taxi Driver, Christopher Serrone's as young Henry Hill in Goodfellas, or Gyurme Tethong's in Kundun, each comes through in crucial roles. I suspect I may even be underrating Butterfield, who has to carry the movie and manages to play an orphaned boy who has lost his parents without a trace of self-pity. Moretz, having already made an impression before turning fourteen in Let Me In and Kick-Ass, seems to be putting a precocious Hermione Granger spin on her lines, but she connects with Butterfield, and has a lovely scene when Hugo takes her to see her first movie. A movie, Hugo explains, quoting his late father, "is like a dream in the middle of the day," and the rapt expression on Moretz's face mirrors the visages on the kids looking up at her in the audience.

John Logan's screenplay has a pleasing symmetry, and Scorsese, demonstrating an imaginative agility he hasn't shown in ages, finds visual rhymes that echo throughout the film. The famous Harold Lloyd clock scene finds its double with Hugo later, as does a recreation of the Lumiere brothers's silent film depicting a train arriving at a station (a sequence that causes members of its initial 1895 audience to jump out of the way). He also attentively brings a few key adult characters into play, a quartet of station employees with parallel thwarted love affairs. In one, Richard Griffiths's shambling advances on Frances de la Tour are impeded by her protective yapping long-haired dauchshund; in the other, Emily Mortimer's flower saleswoman attracts the attention of Cohen's inspector, impeded by his own self-consciousness regarding a leg damaged in the First World War. Sacha Baron Cohen walks a tricky line in Hugo. In the previews, he looked like he auditioning for the next Pink Panther movie, and early on some of his slapstick antics fall flat. Yet the movie needs his energy, and eventually Cohen's mediocre Peter Sellers imitation turns into a good one, the type of Sellers performance that weaves pathos into farcical physical shtick. His train inspector is an adversary but ultimately not a villain, much to our relief. He owns a dog too, an aggressive (and expressive) doberman pinscher. Yes, this is a Scorsese movie with doggie reaction shots, but they're funny doggie reaction shots, namely one that underscores how much Cohen and the doberman resemble one another.

Pauline Kael believed that, unless your name was Luis Bunuel, filmmakers got worse as they grew older. Later she would make exceptions for Robert Altman and John Huston, but Scorsese's work largely fell out of her favor after she was one of his staunchest champions early in his career. "After Taxi Driver," I once heard him say in person, receiving an award, "she never liked anything I ever did afterward -- other than The Last Waltz, Life Lessons, and The Last Temptation of Christ." That's a pretty big "other than," but it's true that for the most part Kael went cold. She missed his collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio over the last decade but that's probably for the best. Of the four to date, I found two of them frustrating (Gangs of New York, Shutter Island), one mediocre (The Aviator), and a fourth watchable (The Departed) only because Leo didn't have to shoulder the load. (Distracting us in that film were a lively performance from Mark Wahlberg and an embarrassing one from Jack Nicholson.) When Ben Kingsley, late in Shutter Island, turns into Exposition Man and breaks the fake gun in half, I groaned at Scorsese's contempt for the material and the audience. He seemed to have given up drawing from anything resembling actual life experience; he was lost in Movieland.

Hugo is even more of an artificial world than Shutter Island -- and Kingsley's performance as Georges Melies, like all of his work, I find, hits the wrong notes -- but Scorsese puts his lifeblood into it so that it feels like everything he's wanted to say about what cinema means to him. The movie is a joyous reconciliation of life and art, a demonstration of how technology can enable us to live -- or, for the neglected and forgotten, to live again. Years ago Terrence Rafferty, in his review of The Player, hailed the then 67-year-old Altman as "the youngest filmmaker in America." Martin Scorsese, who turned 69 last week, has now staked that claim.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Kael Biography...and Cherry-Picking Pauline

I don't know why I never thought to send Pauline Kael samples of my work, but it was probably for the best. My initial foray into film criticism was for The Moina, my sophomore-year high school newspaper. To this day I'm still not sure what the hell a "moina" is, I only recall my faculty-editor asking me to cobble together a year-end Top-10 list of movies, the only student on staff to have seen at least seven. Witness, the 1985 Peter Weir/Harrison Ford Amish thriller, I ranked numero uno. I still love that movie, still think it one of Weir's and Ford's best. What makes me wince is the memory of my closing sentence: "Oscars for everyone, the year's best film!"

Kael would have justifiably rolled her eyes at that line even if she had liked the film. A year or two later, in the form of a birthday present, I discovered she hadn't.
State of the Art, the latest anthology of her New Yorker reviews from circa. 1983-1985, was given to me by my latest newspaper editor-supervisor (an actual publication this time, my having briefly gone pro). Not having written about movies since my ballyhooed debut didn't keep me from talking incessantly about them, so my boss probably hoped to engage my mind with a different perspective than I had encountered in my adolescent sojourns from the American Southwest to the Midwest to then taking up residence in a not-quite-Deep-South city that would provide the name for one of Kael's favorite movies. In that respect
State of the Art certainly succeeded: Kael was sharp, fearless, and often very funny. (I still crack up at the closing paragraph of her review for Rambo: First Blood Part II, which oddly detours into a mention that the novelization of the movie features an advertisement for ordering the weaponry fetishized in the movie, before offering the kicker: "I can hardly wait for my set to arrive.") On more than a few occasions, though, she came across as a crank. Her
Witness review, for example, made a big fuss out of a understated moment where the Amish family says grace at the dinner table -- a scene clearly meant to emphasize (like every other scene in the movie) the Ford character's isolation, an astute observation of behavior that Kael seemed to bizarrely interpret as endorsement.

That State of the Art
wasn't the best introduction to Kael's stuff may be attributable -- as Brian Kellow suggests in his avidly-discussed new biography: Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark -- to the gradual decline of both author and subject.
I didn't know it at the time but Kael, by then close to seventy and plagued with health problems, was nearing the end of her career. Concurrently the state of American cinema was also on the downswing. A mortified through-your-fingers glance at some of the titles in the collection (Flashdance, Staying Alive, Sudden Impact, Blame It On Rio, Against All Odds, Swing Shift, Unfaithfully Yours, Falling in Love, Stick, A View to a Kill) helps you sympathize with her oft-repeated complaint that reviewing movies in that era "wasn't fun anymore." Oddly, I don't recall Kellow repeating that quote in his bio; he does, however, echo Kael's introductory explanation for the departure from her "usual sexually tinged book title... (Kael wrote) 'I hope that State of the Art will sound ominous and sweeping and just slightly clinical.'" Indeed it did. And while there's always something to be said for accuracy, it didn't foreshadow much fun.

I discovered in my twenties that the euphoria came earlier. Now with instant access to a university library, I backtracked through Kael's previous tomes (I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Deeper into Movies, etc.) and delved into the capsules in 5001 Nights at the Movies, taking greater pleasure in her writing even while still thinking some of her assessments were as inexplicable as those in her later work. Reading Roger Ebert had already given me a pretty good introduction to the remarkable run of American films from the 1960s and 1970s. I saw The French Connection and Deliverance before I hit my teens (take the possible traumatizing effects of that for what you will); Dirty Harry, The Exorcist, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and The Godfather pictures soon after. All rather violent, all heavy weather. Employing a keen balance of logic and feeling that in most instances struck me as consistent and sensible, Ebert praised all of these movies with near-equal enthusiasm. Yet exactly why Kael loved a few of these films while not just disliked, but outright condemned many of the others -- inadvertently making you feel like an asshole for admiring them in the first place -- rested on seemingly arbitrary distinctions that I couldn't fathom, no matter how deeply I pored through her prose.

The greatest accomplishment of A Life in the Dark may well be how the author makes sense of apparent nonsense. Much of this he achieves through depicting the lengthy "opening act" of Kael's life: native Californian; daughter of chicken ranchers; child of the Great Depression; college non-graduate (six credits shy); San Francisco bohemian; secular Jew; frustrated companion (and occasional lover) of gay men; single mother; holder of odd jobs before stumbling into film criticism by lucky accident. Kellow doesn't psychoanalyze Kael, nor does he approach his subject with wide-eyed disingenuousness. He simply shows how Kael arrived in the spotlight fully formed in all the contradictions of her character.

She was a brainiac who scoffed at intellectualism, a survivor of hardships who deplored victimization,
a subversive who distrusted radicalism,
a singularly independent woman who disdained feminism, a fervent admirer of machismo appalled by mindless violence and fascistic thought. Kellow's skillful breakdown of Kael's traits and nuances help bring some of her more controversial pans (Antonioni, Kubrick, Shoah) into focus. Even more impressive may be the underlying explanation for how Kael's upbringing -- which, growing up in Phoenix, I can relate somewhat to my own -- predisposed her against the John Ford/George Stevens' romantic, sentimental depiction of the American West. ("She didn't buy the male fantasy of the mythical past that the Western sold to the public," Kellow writes, "and she hated the treatment of Indians as monsters more appropriate to a horror movie.") That said, I do wish Kellow hadn't presented wholesale the conjecture that Kael's "vilification of Eastwood revealed a certain attraction to him." It smacks of the same gender assumptions found in Gregory Peck's narcissistic speculation for why she didn't like his acting chops ("I know that you were at Berkeley in the late was I. Was there something between us that I don't remember?") and demurs from a deeper study of the differences between what Kael regarded as Eastwood's humorless, ham-fisted fascism and Peckinpah's wittier, more artful variety. (Moreover, Kael wasn't shy about her enthusiasms. If she'd had a thing for Clint's squint, it seems likely she would have come out and said so.)

Perhaps like all passions, the loves of Kael's moviegoing life are frequently harder to peg or justify. She liked to be seduced (De Palma) rather than worked over (Friedkin), preferred freewheeling spontaneity (Altman) to steel-traps (Hitchcock). Yet unlike, say, the mind-numbing methodology of her disciple Armond White (Spielberg "better than" Soderbergh, ad naueseam), Kael's likes and dislikes never settled into a predictable or easy paradigm. On the whole, Kael may have "hated" Ford, Kubrick, and Hitchcock, but that didn't keep her from praising Stagecoach, Lolita, and Strangers on a Train. She "loved" De Palma, Peckinpah, and Lynch, yet still panned Body Double, The Getaway, and Wild at Heart.
Like others, I used to regard her skepticism for the auteur theory as hypocritical, seemingly being something of an auteurist herself. Yet if Kellow shows how that skepticism led to the worst ethical lapse of her career (the "Raising Kane" fiasco, in which Kael stole research from UCLA professor Howard Suber, then published the findings as her own without testing their veracity), he also persuades that she genuinely did regard each movie, regardless of the director, as something new.

I have my own issues with auteurism, mainly a personal antipathy toward boring reverence. (That may be a common misunderstanding of the theory, but is that misunderstanding perpetuated by its critics or some of its practitioners?) So it may be only natural that I prefer Kael's sincere compliment to Robert Altman for "batting an astonishing 50 percent" (even if Kellow indicates that for a while, in her view, it was really higher than that). Taking movies one at a time, along with often assessing each movie with more than one opinion of its quality (an unusual approach then or now), has left Kael's reviews vulnerable to cherry-picking. I've read claims that Kael hated Taxi Driver because she took issue with Bernard Herrmann's score and a famous scene where Scorsese's camera does "an Antonioni pirouette," even though she adored the picture overall. Google "Kael," "Spielberg," and "1941" and you'll pull up a quote commonly attributed to Kael stating that 1941 was like "having your head stuck inside a pinball machine for two hours"; only Kael didn't state that, she quoted a friend as saying it (quoting friends becoming over her career an annoying affectation), and went on to herald Spielberg's biggest flop as a great entertainment.

Her excesses can be disparaged with greater accuracy, though even there I've read plenty of instances of misattribution. Both Tom Carson (who is one of my favorite critics) and Richard Brody (who isn't) had a high time recently mocking Kael's comparison of Altman's Nashville with Joyce's Ulysses. What Kellow quotes her as actually stating is a bit more subdued and observant:
"'Altman, from a Catholic background, has what Joyce had: a love of the supreme juices of everyday life. He can put unhappy characters on the screen...and you don't wish you didn't have to watch them; you accept their unhappiness as a piece of the day, as you do in Ulysses.'" Taking issue with Kael's ethics in reviewing a rough cut of Altman's work has more validity, though her critics are always careful not to add that there remain many folks today who agree with her assessment that it's an American classic.

A Life in the Dark offers a startling reminder that for more than a decade the most powerful film critic in America worked only half of each year, alternating with Penelope Gilliatt at The New Yorker in six-month rotations. (Gilliatt, Kellow also reminds us, was a talented author of short stories and screenplays - including the Oscar-nominated Sunday, Bloody Sunday [which Kael admired] - whose problems with alcoholism and accusations of plagiarism led to her ousting from the magazine in 1979.) Working part-time provided Kael with the impetus for reviewing Nashville early (before it fell to Gilliatt), as well as the necessity to find additional funds as a guest lecturer at UCLA and elsewhere. Despite her distaste for higher learning,
Kael would have made a great academic. With her energetic devotion to young people and her cunning establishments of networks and alliances, she would have played the game better than anyone.

Academia, of course, is where I've ended up, following a path littered with obstacles and detours and blind alleys. Kael might have been surprised to learn that behind the fusty stereotypes lies in some quarters a remarkable dynamism. One of my professors, affectionally dubbed "Dr. Z," created quite a cult of personality over three decades of teaching, as Kael did with the Paulettes. (One of Dr. Z's former students, the late Chris Farley, mimicked him during a sketch on Saturday Night Live.) In Kellow's book, my parallel appears to have been Ray Sawhill, "the one in (Kael's) circle who often wouldn't do what she told him to." Occasionally, like the Paulettes, I crossed over into slavish imitation. When Dr. Z heard that I was imitating his teaching style too closely in the classroom, he urged me to find my own. Later, when it became clear that I wouldn't be following in his footsteps as a history professor, he seemed, for a time, as wounded as Kael when Sawhill and Paul Schrader and others went astray. This may have been more my perception than reality: Dr. Z, like Pauline Kael, had a way of cutting people down that stayed with them more than it did with him. And it meant a lot when, a couple years ago, we split a bottle of bourbon out on his lawn, laughed our asses off, and he told me he was proud of me.

Other than a couple of essays for The Chronicle Review in the late 90s, and a few pieces for The House Next Door over the years since, film criticism has remained a side interest of mine -- important to me, but along the periphery nonetheless. Although, like Kael in her 40s, I feel increasingly, as Kellow puts it, "a driving urgency to make (my) entrance and get on with the best part of the play," I feel lucky to now work in an environment where I can fold my passions into my vocation.

(This is where I was going to offer the disclaimer that while the Lilly Library houses Pauline Kael's papers, as Kellow has graciously noted, I have never had personal contact with the author. It was a surprise, then, to see my name listed in the "Acknowledgments" at the end of his book. Rattling around in my brainpan is a vague yet nagging memory of possibly assisting an off-site researcher, who may have mentioned working on a Kael biography, with the James Broughton papers during the years when I worked at Kent State [Broughton being the father of Kael's daughter]. Unless Kellow is acknowledging a different Craig entirely. So I find myself in an awkward position: I may have assisted with some research for this book, but I'm not sure.)

Kael's passion for her work is clearly what sustained her for so long, and even when it stopped being fun she never stopped watching movies, talking about movies, asking everyone she met if they'd seen anything good lately. She isn't the most important film critic in my life; Roger Ebert, whom I have met and exchanged a fitful correspondence with, still occupies that position. She fulfills a key role along the periphery -- questioning me, challenging me, enlightening me, infuriating me, nagging me with enough patter to have gotten her booted out of the Alamo Drafthouse. At the least giving her reader something to think about, at the most attaining something like grace.