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À mon chevet: 'Pauline Kael'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
With all of the enthusiasm New Yorkers showed for the movies, it wasn't surprising that the activities of the New York Film Critics Circle were more frequently reported than they had been in years. Pauline was, by 1970, an integral member, having been admitted in 1968, following her appointment at The New Yorker. When it was founded in 1935, the NYFCC had been composed of newspaper critics only, but over time, the membership restrictions had been relaxed to include prominent magazine reviewers as well. From its inception the NYFCC had earned a reputation for going its own way, its members being less susceptible to a movie's box-office standing than were the voting members of the Motion Picture Academy. As far back as the 1940s, the NYFCC sometimes awarded top prizes to performers not even nominated in that year's Oscar race -- Ida Lupino in The Hard Way, Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat. Pauline believed it was important to uphold the integrity of the group, as she believed that a good critic's review was the only genuine truth on which moviegoers could depend: Everything else, she was fond of saying, was nothing but advertising in one form or another.

-- Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, p. 143
That problem has only gotten worse, in my opinion, as blogs and tweets from performers, performance organizations, actors, studios, and so on have become part of a massive PR assault on listeners of music and viewers of movies. These resources can be entertaining reads, of course, and I read many of them, but I am uncomfortable with what they represent, as they can have a powerful influence on the opinion of the very public to whom they are hoping to sell their products.
"At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don't have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact desensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. [...] There seems to be an assumption that if you're offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. [...] Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it's eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?"

-- Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, p. 178
Kellow took that quotation from Pauline Kael's review of A Clockwork Orange, published in 1971, but almost everything that she said in that review is still true, and the violence portrayed in film and television has become many times more disgusting. Kael was one of the few critics of the time who did not heap praise on A Clockwork Orange, a film I have always found gruesome and unrewarding -- worse, unenlightening -- to watch. Kael did not care for Terrence Malick's Badlands either, and she had to stand firm to get her opinion into the pages of The New Yorker:
[Pauline] was bored, however, by Badlands, which she judged to be yet another oppressively sour film about the dead end of American life, with no ray of light and not much humor. She found this study of two killers named Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek) in flight through the Plains states "an intellectualized movie -- shrewd and artful, carefully styled to sustain its low-key view of dissociation. Kit and Holly are kept at a distance, doing things for no explained purpose; it's as if the director had taped gauze over their characters, so that we wouldn't be able to take a reading on them." Badlands wasn't playful enough for Pauline; the violence had no comic edge to it, and she was bound to tire of Holly's "poetic" voice-over narration.

Her review, however, caused her unexpected difficulties with William Shawn. When he read her March 8, 1974, column while it was in production, he cornered her in The New Yorker offices. Terrence Malick was a Harvard friend of Shawn's son, Wallace. Shawn said, "I guess you didn't know that Terry is like a son to me."

"Tough shit, Bill," Pauline answered.

-- Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, pp. 212-13
That is a critic with balls.

Nathan Heller, What She Said: The Doings and Undoings of Pauline Kael (The New Yorker, October 24, 2011)

1 comment:

Martin said...

Wonderful Malick detail. Seems out of character for Shawn.