David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: pauline kael

Matthew Wilder on Renata Adler on Pauline Kael

Absolutely the best moment of the dustup when Renata Adler nitpicked Pauline Kael to death (or at least to boredom).

February 5, 1981

To the Editors:

I am writing to protest in the strongest possible terms your decision to publish Renata Adler’s depressing, vengeful, ceaseless tirade against that brilliant critic Pauline Kael. Adler’s criticism in The New Yorker was mediocre, mushy. How dare she lash out at Kael for using masturbatory slang and “we” or “you” for “I”? Can’t the little viper see the beauty, poetry, hilarity, and straight-forwardness in Kael’s critiques? Oops. I’m using “Kaeline” rhetorical questions! What a crime! You’d think I or she killed Kennedy or something!

Oh—while R.A.’s at contradictions,…she berates Kael for demanding punishment and crying guilt of her unfavored movie folk when she herself acts as if Kael knifed Gary Coleman—oops! I used a “violent” and “sadistic” metaphor! Okay, heat up the electric chair! So “line for line, When the Lights Go Down is worthless,” eh? What about the titles of her critiques of Seven Beauties and Carrie? I cracked up just reading them. And how about her punchy opening and closing lines, especially her closing line of her critique of Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder?

Adler’s “review” is bathed in bitterness. The final irony is that about half as many people will read “Perils of Pauline” as will read “Master Spy, Master Seducer”—by Pauline Kael.

Please print this!

Matthew Wilder

A loyal P. Kael fan, age 13

Des Planes, Illinois

(And no, I am far too young to have written this, thank you.)

Reviews of Two Fan Fictions

Auden and Tolkien wrote about the skills of inventing “secondary worlds.” Ms. Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from “Star Wars” to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper. Toni Morrison pointed out that clichés endure because they represent truths. Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing.

A.S. Byatt

Blood-soaked and piled high with deformity, the film is commercialized Surrealism. El Topo has been called a Zen Buddhist Western, but in terms of its derivations it’s a spaghetti Western in the style of Luis Bunuel, and tinsel all the way. The avant-garde devices that once fascinated a small bohemian group because they seemed a direct pipeline to the occult and “the marvelous” now reach the new mass bohemianism of youth. But the marvelous has become a bag of old Surrealist tricks: the acid-Western style is synthesized from devices of the once avant-garde–especially L’Age d’Or and the whole lifework of Bunuel, with choice lifts from Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, too.

The movie may seem bewildering, however, because the narrative is overlaid with a clutter of symbols and ideas. Jodorowsky employs anything that can give the audience a charge, even if the charges are drawn from different systems of thought that are–as thought–incompatible…. Well, of course, you don’t need erudition to draw on matters religious and philosophical that way–any dabbler can do it. All you need is a theatrical instinct and a talent for (a word I once promised myself never to use) frisson. Jodorowsky is, it is true, a director for whom ideas are sensuous entities–sensuous toys, really, to be played with. By piling onto the Western man-with-no-name righteous-avenger form elements from Eastern fables, Catholic symbolism, and so on, Jodorowsky achieves a kind of comic-strip mythology. And when you play with ideas this way, promiscuously–with thoughts and enigmas and with symbols of human suffering–the resonances get so thick and confused that the game may seem not just theatre but labyrinthine, ‘deep’: a masterpiece.

Pauline Kael

Jean Eustache: The Mother and the Whore

The Mother and the Whore is 3.5 hours long, and feels it. Unlike Peter Greenaway’s six-hour The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom, or any number of Kurosawa movies, it does not have an accordion-like structure that can easily accomodate extended length with entertaining digressions and amusements, nor was it intended to have one. This puts it in danger of falling in with such endurance defiers as Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, Theo Angelopoulos’s Ulysses Gaze, and Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite. (I’ve linked to positive reviews of all three on the grounds that the descriptions alone should be enough to turn people off of these horrors.)

When dealing with something whose duration has been stretched beyond common proportion, you have to come to terms with the decreased attention that’s paid to content and structure. It reminds me of a famous Morton Feldman quote:

My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy – just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece – it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they’re like evolving things.

There are few directors who were masters at this kind of scale: Tarkovsky, Melville, and, I grudgingly admit, Eustache. He puts together a film that by the end of its time has achieved something that could not have been done in less time, even though individual scenes could have been swapped out or significantly changed to little overall effect. As Feldman suggests, this is an achievement in scale.

Just to give an idea of how stretched the scale is, here’s the plot summary from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review:

The movie recounts the activities over a few days of a dandyish French intellectual in his late 20s named Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), who’s living with and supported by his lover, Marie (Bernadette Lafont); she’s in her mid-30s and runs a small boutique. In the first scene he borrows a neighbor’s car and tracks down a former girlfriend, Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), who’s just started a new semester at the Sorbonne, and tries to persuade her to marry him, only to discover that she’s just agreed to marry someone else. (We and Alexandre briefly glimpse Gilberte with her husband, played by Eustache, toward the end of the film, in the liquor section of a department store.) After hanging out with an equally idle friend (Jacques Renard) at the Deux Magots cafe, Alexandre follows a young woman after she leaves a nearby table, asks for her phone number, and scores; the remainder of the film is devoted to his courting of her.

Her name is Veronika (Francoise Lebrun). She works as a hospital nurse, lives in a small room in the nurses’ quarters, goes to a lot of nightclubs, and is as compulsive about her promiscuity as Alexandre is about his idleness.

I have my problems with the film. The tale of a shallow bourgeois layabout, the older woman he leeches off of, and the promiscuous girl he falls for is sometimes insufferable and far from “deep.” The characters are exactly who they appear to be, and when an epiphany is forced into the girl’s mouth at the very end of the film, it’s acutely uncomfortable; the structure (or lack thereof) makes it seem unearned. This gives two alternatives: first (as Pauline Kael observed), that Veronica is speaking for the director and her epiphany is revealed truth; second, that like so much else in the film, it is shallow bullshit piped out by the characters.

It is only due to the scale that the second option even becomes possible. In any other reasonably-sized film, Veronika’s explosive speech would be a climax and a revelation, but coming as it does three-plus hours into this seemingly structureless film, it is more tired than it is climactic. The emotions are so violent that it could only feel as tired as it does had the audience lived with the characters long enough to grow comfortable with them, and beyond that, to grow tired of them. Perhaps Eustache is implying that it takes three hours just to exhaust–and to be exhausted by–such simple characters as these, and that any more complex characters could not be so fully exposed in such a short period of time. As with Proust’s The Guermantes Way, the film seeks to give the viewer an experience of the characters that is more than a voyeuristic gaze through a hazy window for a brief time. Proust used a massive canvas for some fairly shallow society types. Eustache only has three hours, so he narrows his scope considerably.

He is helped immeasurably by the actors. Leaud was born to play Alexandre, and Veronika in particular seems to display her shallow soul at all times, never hiding a thing. Neither ever goes against the grain of their character. Both give the impression that there is nothing to their physical and mental being beyond what is displayed about their characters in the film, and this is crucial to its effect.

I return to the word exhaustion. What Eustache shares with Proust (and even Beckett) is the ability to exhaust the possibilities of his material, such that at the end the exhaustion that the viewer feels is not that of boredom or frustration, but the sense that there is nothing left, such that even an emotional epiphany reveals nothing more than has already been presented. This is a major achievement, and it requires (“justifies” may be too strong a word) the duration that Eustache uses. Yes, Bresson achieves something of this, but he bypasses the realm of internal experience altogether to focus on surfaces. Maybe Melville is the closest approximation, with carefully circumscribed characters whose motivations are simple yet everpresent. Maybe this makes The Mother and the Whore the film that took the French new wave and treated it as an exhaustible genre.

The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo

Of all the articles I’ve seen dissecting the decision of the Pentagon to show Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers as a primer in urban warfare by an insurgent indigenous population, none have addressed what I always thought was most interesting, the portrayal of the the triumph of the resistance as unavoidable destiny. The film’s politics are not ludicrous because of factual inaccuracies or one-dimensionally propagandist speeches, but because it’s all played as a game of dialectical materialism, in which a certain outcome will inexorably result.

The Slate article summarizes the movie, but it gives the film too much moral depth. When I watch The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo’s attitude is that all the actions of resistance are necessary, particularly the violent ones. The outcome is predetermined, as Colonel Mathieu implies: the proles will rise up against the oppresors, and they will win. Pontecorvo never rejects the idea of “sustained and bloody insurrection.”

(This sort of thing was popular in the 60s, and Pontecorvo is better at it than most. It’s far more politically engaging than Godard’s insane Weekend, which drags two garbagemen out in front of the camera in the middle of the picture to talk about what wonderful progress the revolution is making.)

The movie is still brilliantly effective because it is extremely rare for a movie to portray pawns of historical (Marxist) inevitability with such dignity. Viewers identify with these scared, nervous agitators, who hardly understand their own Hegelian destinies, because they slot into the role of the noble revolutionaries in Pontecorvo’s dialectical framework. They’re made noble by their role in the historical process. It’s not until after the movie finishes that you realize that you’ve bought into Frantz Fanon without even realizing it. Pauline Kael said:

The Battle of Algiers is probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people–perhaps because Pontecorvo made it a tragic necessity…It’s practically rape of the doubting intelligence.

The sentiment is right, but I think she was slightly off the mark. Middle-class people would never sincerely believe in the need for their own self-destruction, but Pontecorvo does a good job of tricking them into sympathizing with their enemies. It’s less the tragedy that gets them than the sheer manipulation with which Pontecorvo plays up the revolutionaries and alienates viewers from the middle-classes of the film. Yet he does it in the context of macrohistorical forces, which is an amazing trick.

You have to wonder how effective it was on the Pentagon employees who watched it–probably not at all. But the real irony here, the huge irony, is that the Pentagon would air a movie that privileges ideology over facts, where the straitjacket of Marxist progression is tightly fitted over the messy (and less noble) Algerian resistance, in which the outcome is determined before the action even starts. No matter what the doubts of the individuals carrying out their historic tasks, says Pontecorvo, there was never a chance that Algiers would not be freed from French rule; first principles dictated it. There is no need for pragmatism or realism, nor for compromise, only for a decisive, inevitable show of force, destined to succeed. The distance between that vision and what actually happened in Algeria–decades more of authoritarian rule and poverty–is the real lesson the Pentagon (and the DoD, and Fox News, and the Weekly Standard, etc.) should take from the film.

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