December 24, 2012

8 Yearend Odds and Ends

Pauline Kael
I just finished reading the 2011 biography of Pauline Kael, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow. Kael was one of the first critics I read regularly when I first started getting interested in films and film criticism, and I can still recall which films she liked and which she didn't, and remember many pungent turns of phrase from her reviews and capsule reviews in The New Yorker. I found the book an easy read. It's thoroughly researched, reads like a narrative, and focuses especially on her opinions and reviews from the 1960s through the early 1980s, when her influence and the power of her writing were at their height.

One of the most interesting things about the book was how much Kael's writing seemed to reflect her personality. She wasn't a terrible person, but she couldn't exactly be described as nice either. Her self-centeredness, her highly opinionated nature, her lack of consideration of the feelings of others when expressing her opinions, and her tendency to overstate her opinions (if she didn't like a thing, she loathed it; there seemed little room in her nature for ambivalence or a moderate opinion) were all reflected in her writing. But even if her opinions of individual films eventually became quirky and lost much of their power to influence critics and audiences, she forever changed the way people write about movies.

It's hard to believe that she constantly had to fight New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn to be allowed to write her reviews the way she wanted to. The things she fought Shawn about—things like injecting herself into the review rather than purporting to have some kind of objectivity, using colloquial and even scatological language, writing until she had had her say rather than writing to a set word count—are today found in just about every full-length film review published in the magazine. Kael made the centerpiece of her style of criticism not some form of detached aesthetic judgment, but her own examined reaction to a film.

She was fiercely anti-dogmatic and anti-academic in all aspects of her life, and this part of her temperament is one of the reasons she rejected auteurism or any other comprehensive philosophy of cinema. Even if she carried her dislike of formal film theory to extremes, often rejecting the good ideas along with the half-baked, I think she had the right idea. I've always been suspicious of dogma myself, looking upon it as a strait-jacket to independent thinking. At some point it seems to become a crutch, a convenient template to try to squeeze everything into, and if it can't be made to fit reject it. And don't get me started on the formal, theoretical, academic approach to writing about film or anything else. Yuck!

Still, Kael had many shortcomings as a person, and these are covered in the book. There's no question that she was self-centered, alternately generous and narrowly judgmental, and often insensitive of others, even her own daughter, with whom she created a strangely co-dependent relationship (strange given her absolute independence in all areas of thought). As Owen Gleiberman (film reviewer at Entertainment Weekly), a one-time protégé who later broke with her, says  "She was a great, fascinating woman who had her dark side." Although she was at times rather tactless in her relations with others,  I saw nothing to indicate that she was ever intentionally mean to anyone, either in life or in print.

Read practically anyone writing about film today—in newspapers, magazines, on the internet—and you will at some point see her influence. I've also been reading Andrew Sarris's "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet" recently, and although I don't agree with either of them 100% of the time, I can say without hesitation who in my judgment was the better writer and who I would rather read for the sheer, contagious enthusiasm of the writing: Kael.

Most interesting bit of trivia in the book: One of the jobs of the highly respected fact-checking department at The New Yorker was to go to movies and take notes on them to check factual details in the film reviews published at the magazine. Since Kael claimed that she never watched a movie more than once (some dispute the accuracy of this), and because she tended to take copious notes while watching (not only on the film but also on the response of the audience), she must have kept the fact checkers busy. Thank God that today we have IMDb!

Magic Mike
Because I've read some good things about Magic Mike and because it was directed by Steven Soderbergh, I grabbed it off the DVD carousel at the library last week. It had just arrived that day. After watching it, I felt as if I'd watched a slick two-hour long commercial for a fantasy lifestyle. The words "shallow" and "superficial" don't even begin to describe the film's lack of substance. There is nothing in the movie that I found real, and even taken as a puerile male fantasy, the film is unconvincing.

Soderbergh's attempts to inflate the importance of the story by painting Matthew McConaughey's character as an entrepreneurial visionary and Channing Tatum's as an uninhibited lost soul never ring true. (This is seriously hampered by Tatum's limited acting range and inability to suggest there's anything much going on in his character's mind or emotions.) The onstage gyrations of the strippers are about as unerotic as you can imagine. And Tatum, People magazine's current Sexiest Man Alive (McConaughey got this title a few years ago), looks decidedly unappealing in many shots. With his bland facial features, bull neck, and gym-created designer torso, he's an action-figure caricature of masculinity. Between his night job stripping, his day job as a construction worker, and regular partying, it's not clear how or when he manages to keep in this kind of shape, just one of many practical details the film ignores.

I once considered Soderbergh a great director. He created the indie film with Sex, Lies, and Videotape then went on to show that he was equally adept at multi-layered drama (Traffic), straightforward narrative (Erin Brokovich), and wild experimentalism (Schizopolis). My favorite film of his is The Limey, in which he seemed to fuse all these approaches. All I can say is that beginning with all those Ocean's movies, he began squandering his talent. As an example of the lamentable decline of a once promising film personality of the 1990s, he's matched only by Johnny Depp.

The Year at The Movie Projector
This was the year of the blogathon at The Movie Projector. During 2012 I participated in eleven blogathons, beginning on New Year's Day with the Month of VERTIGO at The Lady Eve's Reel Life. I also participated in two mammoth countdowns at Wonders in the Dark, one on musicals and the other, just finished, on the greatest comedies of all time. In all, six of my posts were published at WitD for the two countdowns. For some of the blogathons I chose obscure films that I thought others wouldn't be writing about. For others I ended up doing the kind of well-known and frequently reviewed film that ordinarily I try to avoid.

My biggest problem at The Movie Projector these days has been finding suitable films to write on—ones that I feel enough enthusiasm for to inspire me but that haven't been extensively covered elsewhere. That's one of the reasons my posts have become a bit less frequent this year.  Looking back, though, I appreciate the opportunity some of the blogathons gave me to revisit and write on well-known films that normally I would have hesitated to write about. The posts I wrote on those movies are some of the ones I ended up being most pleased with. My biggest disappointment this year continues to be that the posts I write on foreign language films consistently tend to generate less interest in terms of pageviews and comments than the English language films I write on. Come on, people—let's get hip to the classics of foreign film. These ruled the 1950s and 1960s.

The biggest news in the blogathon department was, of course, the William Wyler Blogathon, the first blogathon ever hosted by The Movie Projector, which ran June 24-29. Twenty-five bloggers wrote on all the major films of Wyler, from Hell's Heroes (1930) to Funny Girl (1968). The enthusiasm of the writers and the quality of the writing was stupendous. And to top it all off, right after the blogathon ended I received an e-mail from the Wyler family saying how much they had liked and appreciated the blogathon.

Film Watching in 2012
I wouldn't say that 2012 was marked by the discovery of a startling number of good new films, but I did see for the first time a number that left a good impression on me.
  • Swashbucklers. This has never been one of my favorite genres, but after reading Rick's post on the genre at The Classic Film & TV Cafe a few months back, I started watching more films of this kind and encountered several I quite enjoyed. The 1934 version of The Count of Monte Cristo starring Robert Donat was tremendously entertaining, with Donat proving again why he was so admired in the 1930s. In The Mark of Zorro (1940) Tyrone Power was a delight with his dual turn as foppish nobleman and daring adventurer, and Rouben Mamoulian's direction was his best in years. I also liked the rousing MGM version of The Three Musketeers (1948) with Gene Kelly giving a very physical but subtly shaded performance as D'Artagnan in what is now my favorite of his non-musical roles. Finally, a rewatching of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) resulted in its being elevated to my Hall of Fame.
  • Crime. I love classic crime movies. Some of the most interesting I saw for the first time this year: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), a high-tension thriller about the hijacking of a subway train with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in peak form as the hero and villain (respectively, of course). The low-budget Monogram picture Dillinger (1945) harks back to the gangster films of the 1930s, with an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Philip Yordan and a knockout performance by Lawrence Tierney in the title role. New York Confidential (1955) was hardly "the Citizen Kane of film noir" as the DVD case proclaimed, but it was a solid, unpretentious mob noir, with Broderick Crawford as the mob boss under siege from all sides, the young Anne Bancroft as his alienated Mafia Princess daughter, and noir stalwart Richard Conte as a treacherous hit man.
  • Foreign films. Even after my concentration on these during the last few years, I still managed to find a few masterpieces that I hadn't got around to yet: Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring (1949). The first time I tried to watch this a couple of years ago the disc was defective, and I never got back to it until this year. It's one of Ozu's greatest films, with one of the best performances of all time by an actress, the great Setsuko Hara. Shoeshine (1946), Vittorio de Sica's essential neorealist classic, the first of a run of masterpieces he directed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Partie de Campagne (1936), Jean Renoir's atmospheric 40-minute long film—sly, funny, touching, one of a kind. Not quite masterpieces but still excellent were Ingmar Bergman's early film about an ill-suited young couple, Summer with Monika (1953), Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons (1978), Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), and another Russian film I hope to review before long, Letter Never Sent (1960).
  • The most disappointing films I saw this year: Woman on the Beach (1947). It's hard to believe that the great Jean Renoir directed this turgid dud. Tunnel of Love (1958). This Gene Kelly-directed comedy was unbelievably lame, although it was interesting to see Richard Widmark in a comedy role. He wasn't bad, but the movie sure was. Charly (1968). Cliff Robertson's earnest performance in the title role inexplicably got him the Oscar for best actor over Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter. Even as allegorical science fiction, the film was never for a moment believable, and the direction by Ralph Nelson, a former television director, made the film seem dated by its late-sixties style. The Iron Petticoat (1956). I wanted to see how the unlikely pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope fared. The answer: not too well. They might have been acting in different movies, so little rapport did they appear to have and so mismatched were their acting styles.
  • Pleasant surprises. Speaking of Bob Hope, I got hold of a DVD collection of his early films and found the mystery-comedies The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940) most amusing. Better still, I thought, was Nothing But the Truth (1941), with Hope and Willie Best playing at Jack Benny and Rochester, and Best giving a knowing, scene-stealing performance. Also pleasing: Kay Francis showing an unexpected flair for comedy (and reminding me of both Margaret Sullavan and Irene Dunne in the process) in First Lady (1937), a sparkling domestic/political comedy based on a play co-written by George S. Kaufman. At the moment it's my favorite Kay Francis performance. Lady Killer (1933), in which James Cagney stars as a gangster put out of business by the end of Prohibition who goes to California and becomes a movie actor. Another energetic early Cagney performance, and despite the title it's actually a comedy that pokes fun at Hollywood, gangster movies, and Cagney's own screen image. Of all the vaunted pre-Code movies, the ones from Warner Bros. are the only ones that consistently satisfy me (although Paramount during this period was pretty reliable too). A Scandal in Paris (1946). George Sanders has a field day playing the 19th-century French scoundrel and wit Eugène Vidocq—no one surpassed Sanders at the offhand delivery of bons mots—in this modestly budgeted period picture directed by Douglas Sirk that reminded me at times of Lubitsch and Ophüls. A treat all the way.
What Next?
In July 2013 The Movie Projector will observe its fifth birthday. Another blogathon is in the works, possibly for mid-March or early April 2013. Check back after the new year for more information.

Final Words
My sincerest thanks to everyone who took the time to leave a comment this year at The Movie Projector. Happy holidays to everyone, and best wishes for a prosperous and happy New Year 2013.


  1. I wish Kael was still reviewing, I'd love to see the reaction of fanboys to her negative reviews of Hollywood dross. They'd probably call her a troll.

  2. "She wasn't a terrible person, but she couldn't exactly be described as nice either. Her self-centeredness, her highly opinionated nature, her lack of consideration of the feelings of others when expressing her opinions, and her tendency to overstate her opinions (if she didn't like a thing, she loathed it; there seemed little room in her nature for ambivalence or a moderate opinion) were all reflected in her writing. But even if her opinions of individual films eventually became quirky and lost much of their power to influence critics and audiences, she forever changed the way people write about movies."

    How true R.D. I own the book as well, and have re-read a number of reviews I encountered originally back in the day. She remains for me a larger-than-life critical personality, simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. I never forget what she said about Bergman's THE NAKED NIGHT (SAWDUST AND TINSEL.) "THE NAKED NIGHT is powerful all right.....powerfully awful." I always say here as one of the greatest American critics with Kauffmann, Dwight McDonald and Sarris. But she was always high maintenance as you rightly assert here.

    You have been a mountain of support, positive energy and
    exceptionally scholarship over the past year. The letter you received from the Wyler family was hands down the greatest honor a film blogger has ever received, and your stupendous work on that blogothon was a model of its kind. What you did for the two WitD countdowns was incomparable, a resilient investment of time, and as always each and every contribution loaded with insights and wonderful writing.

    Yep, MAGIC MIKE would rate as one of the worst films I've sen this past year, and your review hits the bulls-eye!

    And yes, your foreign film reviews this year were fabulous in every sense, and a joy to read. This was quite a year for new viewings and various discoveries.

    I wish you and yours my friend, a great year in 2013. Your friendship and support has been invaluable!

  3. "Magic Mike" - "a slick two-hour long commercial for a fantasy lifestyle." Pardon my English, but ain't that the truth. One of the worst of the year, and the young lady in the film, Cody Horn, gave one of the most amateurish performances I saw in a major film this year. Odd that someone of Soderberg's stature would allow that.

    You are one of my favorite bloggers, and your foreign film posts have been invaluable to me in helping navigate a field I should be more familiar with. I may not comment, but I read with great interest.

    For a better Richard Widmark comedy role, check out "My Pal Gus", a charming film that is hard to find. With all these MOD discs coming out, I hope it sees its way to this format.

    Best wishes, R.D, for a happy and prosperous 2013. I look forward to your posts with great anticipation.

  4. R.D., I found your review of Pauline Kael's biography quite intriguing. I typically read two kinds of film reviews: (1) those by critics that somewhat share my taste (Vincent Canby and I often agreed...though he never knew it!); (2) those reviewers with a rare gift to provide insight on a film without spoiling the experience of watching it for the first time (that's a toughie...but Richard Schickel and Francois Truffaut could do it). As for the paucity of classic foreign language film reviews (and comments), I couldn't agree more. "Classic" means so much more than the Golden Age of Hollywood and MUST include the pivotal works of Renoir, Lang, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, and many other great international filmmakers. Looking forward to continuing my regular visits to The Movie Projector in the upcoming year.

  5. It was great fun reading your year-end lists and having you sum up your past 12 months in film viewing and blogging. I know it was certainly a high point of my year to have discovered your site and to read your very thoughtful and informative reviews. You really stand out as more than just a film fan, you really love lively writing and have a broad appreciation for a wide variety of films and genres.
    Reflective of your comments on Brian Kellow's book on Pauline Kael, I too found the book fascinating and very enlightening. A fan of film criticism since my high school days, I have collections of Kael's books as well as those of John Simon and Stanley Kauffman. Keal has always been my favorite, but I love the writing of all three. Even when I disagreed with them vehemently, they never once bored me. And I can say the same of you. All the best in 2013!
    Oh, and even with my nose for delectable trash "Magic Mike" looked like a bad bet!

  6. A very interesting year-end review, R.D.

    I've been aware of the Kael bio, but haven't read it (I'm about 3 feet deep in books waiting to be read). She was a must-read in my early days of following film criticism. At some point, though, I must've drifted away from criticism and lost track of Kael, Kauffman and others.

    I've also been (sort of) aware of "Magic Mike" - though I didn't know it was Soderbergh. I did see Channing Tatum (whose name sounds as if dreamed up by agent Henry Wilson who concocted Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, etc.) in a movie on TV. Didn't seem like there was much going on with him - acting or appeal-wise. I will skip "MM," thank you.

    I love foreign films but fear I have been among those who have missed some of your posts on these films. I hope you will continue on (and I will keep an eye out). I have been hoping to write on Wong Kar-wai's 1960s trilogy at some point...

    I would like to thank you for so beautifully kicking off the "Vertigo" blog event (how quickly the year has passed) and congratulate you on your William Wyler blogathon (a wonderful subject, so many superb posts, and very well executed organizationally - not an easy job).

    Wishing you a wonderful 2013!

  7. Wishing you all the very best for the new year, R.D! I'm intrigued to hear that you have another blogathon coming up, and will be interested to hear what topic you choose - the Wyler one this year was very rewarding and you did a great job of running it. I for one certainly feel it has enlarged my appreciation of his films.

    Must shamefacedly admit I haven't read any Kael (I don't think her reviews are all that well-known in the UK) but I will aim to put that right in 2013, and also to catch up with some of the films you recommend here. I wish you another great year of blogging.

  8. R.D.
    That is a lot of Blogathons you participated in. We had some great ones this past year for sure. And like you, they always give me a chance to visit a film that I might have overlooked or not taken the time to dive in to. I'm keeping fingers crossed that there will be a spot for me in your next one. Looking forward to the topic you choose.

    I did see Magic Mike. It was okay but the MM film that made an impact on me was Killer Joe. I haven't been that shocked or uncomfortable watching a film since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. (I didn't know McConaughey had it in him.)

    Like you, I'm a big fan of crime/dramas and when a film is based on true crime that's even better. Also, your choices for your Swashbuckler Palooza were perfect. : ) (Somewhere our Becky must be all smiles)

    Hoping I haven't forgotten anything I wanted to comment about but if so, I'll just come back.

    Wishing you the very best in 2013, R.D. and Congrats on your 5 year birthday here at your wonderful and always entertaining blog.