Amid the 9/11 memorials, another salute is needed. This Saturday, September 3, marks a decade since Pauline Kael died at 82.
She retired in 1991, ending 24 years as movie critic of The New Yorker. Her long illness, Parkinson’s, was finally merciful in one way — it spared her by eight days the awful vision (worse than any possible movie) of the towers falling in Manhattan.
She was a small woman (barely five feet tall) who found her breathy but incisive voice on Bay Area radio, then in print. Kael was past 40 when she first made a living as a critic. But her approach was always youthful, and she happily slaughtered cant in all directions.
A Kael review X-rayed the film, the cultural moment, and herself. No critic went deeper into actors, violence, the sensuality of a film, or how movies reveal trends, moods, social truths, moral squirms, private dreams. She found consensus-thinking gutless and would have been appalled by the philistinism that has turned so much film coverage into a shallow echo of publicity.
Kael could falter, as when she scolded the liberating Cold War effect of Dr. Strangelove. She had some pet favorites, such as her glandular enthusiasm for Brian De Palma’s work. But while championing Woody Allen, Francis Coppola, Bette Midler, Richard Pryor, Sam Peckinpah, and Robert Altman, she also had the integrity to note their failures.
I knew Pauline, and our humor clicked. If you didn’t hem-and-haw or get pompous, she was welcoming and often very funny. I never saw the point to joining the satellite circle of devotees whom disparagers called Paulettes. It is hard to criticize anything if you write in the shadow of another critic. Criticism is, by nature, a lonely trade.
Kael’s enemies tended to be rather academic and in 1980 were thrilled by critic Renata Adler’s long, pedantic broadside against her. But Adler never engaged the real deal, the woman who always had a trump card: she was our best writer on movies. Here is a sampler from Pauline Kael’s great compendium For Keeps:
“Wayne has a beautiful horse in this one, but when he’s hoisted onto it and you hear the thud, you don’t know whether to feel sorrier for man or beast.” — El Dorado, 1967
“The ‘message’ of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl is that talent is beauty. And that isn’t some comforting message for plain people, it’s what show business is all about.” — Funny Girl, 1968
“The Thomas Crown Affair is pretty good trash, but we shouldn’t convert what we enjoy it for into false terms derived from our study of the other arts. That’s being false to what we enjoy. If it was priggish for an older generation of reviewers to be ashamed of what they enjoyed, and to feel that they had to be contemptuous of popular entertainment, it’s even more priggish for a new movie generation to be so proud of what they enjoy that they use their education to place trash within the acceptable academic tradition.” — “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” 1969
“Even if you’re prepared for dirndls and roguish smiles, you’re not likely to be ready for the distorted sound, the pasty-pudgy faces, and the bewildering use of dance as if it were mood music.... The movie is of an unbelievable badness; it brings back clichés you didn’t know you knew [and] seems to have been made by trolls.” — Song of Norway, 1970
“There is a sweet, naïve feeling to the movie even when it’s violent and melodramatic and atrocious.... This may be the first movie in which a rape victim talks about what happened to her in terms of a specific feminine anger at her violation. Delores Taylor speaks haltingly in a sing-song monotone, and by normal dramatic standards the scene is a drag. Yet it stays with you.” — Billy Jack, 1971
“[Brando] doesn’t play for statuesque nobility. The light, cracked voice comes out of a twisted mouth and clenched teeth; he has the battered face of a devious, combative old man, and a pugnacious thrust to his jaw. [He] interiorizes Don Vito’s power, makes him less physically threatening and deeper, hidden within himself.” — The Godfather, 1972
“For adults, it’s like seeing pieces of your life, and so, of course, you can’t resolve your feelings about it — our feelings about life are never resolved.” — Last Tango in Paris, 1972
“It is probably the best American movie ever made that almost didn’t open in New York. Audiences may have felt they’d already had it with Elliott Gould. The young men who looked like him in 1971 have gotten cleaned up and barbered and turned into Mark Spitz. But it actually adds poignancy to the film that Gould himself is already an anachronism.” — The Long Goodbye, 1973
“[Director William] Friedkin, beloved of studio heads for such statements as ‘I’m not a thinker,’ [said that the novel] took hold of him and made him physically ill. That’s the problem with moviemakers who aren’t thinkers; they’re mentally unprotected. A book like Blatty’s makes them sick, and they think this means they should make everybody sick.” — The Exorcist, 1974
“Dirty Harry is still the urban garbage man, cleaning up after us. His implicit justification is, ‘You in the audience don’t have the guts to do what I do, so don’t criticize me.’ He says he does our dirty work for us, and so he invokes our guilt, and we in the audience don’t raise the question: Who asked you to?” — Magnum Force, 1974
“[Ricardo] Montalban’s performance doesn’t show a trace of Fantasy Island. It’s all panache; if he isn’t wearing feathers in his hair you see them there anyway. You know how you always want to laugh at the flourishes that punctuate the end of a flamenco dance, and the dancers don’t let you? Montalban does. His bravado is grandly comic.” — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982
“I was 16 when Alice Adams was first shown, and during the slapstick dinner-party scene, when Alice was undergoing agonies of comic humiliation, I started up the aisle to leave the theatre and was almost out of the doors before I snapped to my senses, and rushed back and sat down. Something similar happened to me a few days ago, watching Maggie Smith’s performance.” — The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, 1987
“Our emotions rise to meet the force coming from the screen...there’s something there that goes deeper than connoisseurship or taste. It’s a fusion of art and love.” — Upon retiring, 1991.
Derived from a 2007 Israeli film, The Debt is like a Cold War thriller working hard to be modern. The double-track story turns on cruel, violent choices and was directed with a heavy wallop by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love).
In 1997, retired Israeli agents Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), and David (Ciarán Hinds) are revered heroes. In 1965, in East Berlin, they caught Dieter Vogel, the notorious Nazi “surgeon of Birkenau.” But the scheme led to a rotten secret, as we learn by following the young versions of Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stefan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington). The scenes in a Berlin flat, rancid from fear, bad air, and bad food, have some grip, notably from the fine work of Chastain and Csokas.
Worthington is dull beef from the Avatar meat-locker, boring next to Jesper Christensen’s Vogel, the most magnetic Nazi swine since Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. Dr. Vogel’s gynecological exams with Chastain are gems of sick tension. After evoking the Holocaust, the story opts for a brutal finish, and the crude climax falls on Mirren’s small, creaking frame.
The finish is a mistake. Some guilt is best left asleep. By waking up a big one, The Debt flops into the most absurd showdown with a Nazi since frenzied Dobermans tore into Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brazil. That was hilariously awful; this is just obvious.
Reviewed in the movie capsules: Anita, Bellflower, Columbiana, Seven Days in Utopia, and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.