If the average person who cares about such things were asked to choose a greatest American film critic, but for some outliers stumping for Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, or (if particularly nettlesome) James Agee, they would generally go with Pauline Kael. She wielded criticism like a weapon and praise like a benediction. She flouted the received wisdoms of the day and demanded that while the great arthouse auteurs receive their due, so too should those skilled practitioners of the lower orders of cinema. Kael won the National Book Award and inspired a mini-legion of fellow movie-crazed critics who came of age during the great flowering of that American art form and tried to keep its flames burning, even when the culture as a whole moved on to other loves.
The Library of America’s sturdy, wondrous compilation The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael makes a solid argument for Kael being this great American critic. If nothing else, the volume contains an improbably rich trove of not just her loves and hates, but also those ill-advised championings, which any decent critic must take a flyer on from time to time (how did anyone ever think Brian De Palma was that good?). Spanning 1965 to 1990, the volume holds many sparkling radio essays she delivered over the East Bay airwaves and had reprinted in places like Film Quarterly before heading east, and a wealth of reviews from magazines, especially from her residency at The New Yorker, where she opined from 1967 to 1991. The full range of Kael’s smarts, vision, wit, prejudices, and downright cruelty are on full, wicked display.
Kael’s writing holds up so many years later — even if the films she’s writing about have not — in part because of her zest for the fight, for the engagement. In an age like our own, critics of note have in the main been exiled to media’s fringes, where they can safely carry on schismatic battles of choice about Wong Kar-Wai or Terrence Malick on specialist blogs. Those writers still holding the bully pulpit in the Arts section of major newspapers or magazines can get worn down by the need to not annoy their readers and just deliver a few zingers, a plot synopsis, and a star rating. Kael’s ability to bridge the high and the low, to write about the grungiest of genre flicks with the same acuity she brought to an art-house extravagance and being equally merciless to both, is one that’s in sadly short supply today.
There is her humor, an area in which only possibly The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane can be currently seen as a competitor. It’s hard to imagine a better put-down than her response to Raging Bull (and this coming from a critic who had cheered the greatness of Mean Streets):
I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb f—k,” and Joey says, “You dumb f—k,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb f—ks?
What also makes Kael’s writings still sting and sing today is something even more basic, nestled like a germ inside her barbs. She was, more often than not, just plain right, particularly when sparring with fellow reviewers who fell in awe before the latest manufactured classic. In his introduction to The Age of Movies, editor Sanford Schwartz notes that as memorable as her jokes were “Kael’s little torpedoes of common sense, perceptions that could lodge in a reader’s mind.” This was generally truer of her slash-and-burn pieces than her arias of praise.
Oh, the things she did to West Side Story. It is difficult to describe what a clean and refreshing breath of air it is (even for a fan of the film) to read a critic like Kael coming at that work in 1961 when it was just another movie on the marquee, before it had been encrusted in decades of accolades and revivals. But in her West Side Story broadside (like many of the better pieces here, collected in her 1965 whipcrack of a book, I Lost it at the Movies), she shoots hole after hole in its pretentions of realism and its jazzy insistence of modern relevance. From the basic story (“first you take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and remove all that cumbersome poetry”) to the dancing (“it’s trying so hard to be great it isn’t even good”) and the heroine (“[Metropolis’s robot] named the false Maria … had more spontaneity than Natalie Wood’s Maria”).
On the flip side of this is the joy that comes with reading Kael’s delighted take on Jules and Jim, also before it had been safely sanctioned as a classic. The idea of a moviegoer like her just coming across a sweet ray of cinematic sunshine at random in between all her other screenings is hard to comprehend. Here, like in many of her writings from the 1960s, Kael spends as much time jousting with other critics as she does with the film itself. Knocking The New Republic’s staid Stanley Kauffmann (a favorite target) for saying that François Roland Truffaut had no purpose for making the film, she fires back: “Truffaut, the most youthfully alive and abundant of all the major film directors, needs a reason for making movies about as much as Picasso needs a reason for picking up a brush or a lump of clay.”
Like most of those who end up embodying a particular establishment, Kael started out as an outsider. Born in 1919, she was a San Francisco area native who ran a Berkeley repertory house in the later 1950s while raising a daughter as a single mother. The voice that enabled her to collect her writings into I Lost It At the Movies and get her a sinecure at The New Yorker was fierce in its cinephilic distrust of what goodie-goodies thought people should see. She could be swept away but generally preferred light to meaningful. Nothing irritated her more than portentousness or lesson-giving. But she could be just as dismissive of brutally cynical downers like The French Connection as she was of airy and ponderous uplifting epics like Dances with Wolves.
When Schwartz writes about reading Kael “clearing the air of academic systems of grading movies,” he’s vividly depicting the insouciant air of rebelliousness that allowed her to write a classic long-form piece like “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” In this 1969 Harper’s essay, Kael lays down one of the greatest definitions of true movie-love:
The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.
This idea of movie-love being a community of talkers and arguers is lost in Kael’s later writing. Some would argue that the falling-off that comes in the latter chapters of The Age of Movies might have something to do with the decline in American film. It has to be said that concluding with reviews of 1989’s Casualties of War (while not nearly as bad as its detractors would have it, the film doesn’t deserve Kael’s hosannas of praise) and 1990’s The Grifters (a middling film, at best) is a letdown.
What is really missing in Kael’s leaner pieces from the 1980s is her connection with the society as a whole. So often in her writings of the 1960s and ’70s was the feeling that that weren’t just reviews but larger pulse-takings of society and culture. She lost that knack of the great statement, like her indelible line from “Trash…” which defines movies as “a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry, corrupt world.” Possibly that had to do with film losing its place at the center of American society. Films of today like The Tree of Life or Black Swan that would have once sent cinephiles into the aisles to duke it out with brass knuckles now barely rate a peep from the larger culture. When Kael stopped writing with that great sweep, her work was no less good, but it was certainly less necessary — perhaps the same could be said of film, especially American film, as a whole.
The Age of Movies isn’t the definitive Pauline Kael collection, that honor must still go to 1996’s For Keeps, the 1300-page doorstopper whose great length allows it to include a long selection from her magnificent book on Citizen Kane. At 864 pages, this new collection will serve just fine, but when it comes to Pauline Kael, the great American film critic, quantity just brings more quality.
When it comes to terse, morally ambivalent novels about sexually compromised men and bullfighting, I pick James M. Cain’s Serenade any day of the week over Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Sure, Hemingway’s novel’s got its beauties, but there’s a humorlessness about Hemingway, a feeling of high seriousness–in The Sun Also Rises, especially–that’s a little off-putting, a little ridiculous. Cain, on the other hand, even though his work’s very much in the tragic line, still has a taste for comic details (He describes a whorehouse in Guatemala City with cans of vegetables stacked behind the bar: “When a guy in Guatemala really wants to show the girls a good time, he blows them to canned asparagus.”) Somehow these comic touches make the tragedy hit you that much harder.
And I’m not the only one who thinks Cain’s the crack-shot of the masculinist/Noir/laconic/hard-boiled set of early twentieth-century American writers: “Nobody has pulled it off the way Cain does, not Hemingway, not even Raymond Chandler,” wrote Tom Wolfe. And yet Cain’s not half so well-known as his peers—maybe because his two most famous novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, became two even more famous Noir films—films so famous perhaps that they all but eclipsed their literary origins. Also, it was Raymond Chandler who adapted Cain’s novel for the film version of Double Indemnity—so there may be some legitimate confusion about where Cain ends and Chandler begins.
But the point here is Cain’s Serenade, which is, like The Sun Also Rises, a novel about an exiled American whose sexuality’s in a bad way. Cain’s American exile, John Henry Sharp, is a once-great opera singer whose voice has dried up mysteriously, though he’s still in his prime. The mystery of what happened to Sharp’s voice is tied up with sex, but I leave the specifics out, since the book’s better if you don’t know ahead of time. Sharp’s been relegated to the opera in Mexico City—where supposedly even washed up singers can get along alright. Except that what’s left of Sharp’s voice isn’t even good enough for the Mexicans and he’s had to quit that as well. When you meet him, he’s down to his last three pesos and he’s just seen a woman he can’t stop looking at–the woman, it goes without saying, who’s going to mean big trouble for him:
I was in the Tumpinamba, having a bizcocho and coffee, when this girl came in. Everything about her said Indian, from the maroon rebozo to the black dress with the purple flowers on it, to the swaying way she walked, that no woman ever got without carrying pots, bundles, and baskets on her head from the time she could crawl. But she wasn’t any of the colors that Indians come in. She was almost white, with just the least dip of café con leche. Her shape was Indian, but not ugly. Most Indian women have a rope of muscle over their hips that give them a high-waisted, mis-shapen look, thin, bunchy legs, and too much breast-works. She had plenty in that line, but her hips were round and her legs had a soft line to them…All that I only half-saw. What I noticed was her face.
Maybe it’s just that I’m a sucker for Cain’s hit-the-ground-running Noir story-telling–talk as straight and sharp as a machete blade and twice as likely to leave you sore, since Noir heroes’ stories never end well. Cain, by his own account “shuddered at the least hint of the highfalutin, the pompous, or the literary” and true to his word, there’s none in Serenade. Yet, for my money, Cain’s writing is a far more satisfying and impressive literary experience than much of the self-consciously “literary” and “poetic” and “lyrical” stuff that passes for fiction nowadays. It also has a real, artfully designed plot—something that contemporary “literary” authors apparently find vulgar—and this plot rip-roars along with astonishing agility and speed. You also don’t know where’s it’s going, how’s it’s going to end (other than pretty badly—it’s a Noir novel, after all), and that uncertainty about what might be coming round the next page is exhilarating too.
There’s also something breathtaking about Cain’s hero/narrator’s unabashed frankness about sex and race (“Yes, it was rape, but only technical, brother, only technical.”), something that makes you realize how constricted the parameters of our cultural discussions about sex and race have become, and our books and movies about them—how timid and polite we’ve all become. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t have a hankering for hate-speech or stereotypes, nor do I want to return to the good ol’ pre-civil rights, -women’s rights, -gay rights days—shiver me timbers, no. But I do sometimes feel—especially in the middle of a ripping Noir crime novel that’s tossing off generalizations about women, nationalities, cops, and pretty much any group you can think of like handfuls of confetti—that we’ve all become so nervous about being offensive and our sensitivity to offense is so heightened that we’d all just rather not talk about sex and race in any real way, certainly not explore the murkier side of things. (Manohla Dargis recently wondered why we don’t make movies like Last Tango In Paris anymore in “The Closing of the American Erotic“; Katie Roiphe, in “The Naked and the Conflicted,,” why the sex in contemporary literature is so tepid—this would be why: we’re fucking terrified. I know I am.)
But Cain wasn’t terrified. The murkier side of things is where Cain’s novel pitches it tent—where it begins, middles, and ends. And, really, Cain, for all his name implies, and for all of his hero’s deliciously off-color opinions and confidence in his own perceptions, tells in Serenade, a story about how utterly, even tragically, wrong most of these opinions turn out to be. Juana Montes, the girl in the maroon rebozo, whom Sharp first takes to be “a little dumb muchacha,” is a lot sharper and stronger than Sharp knows; She sees him a lot better than he sees her, for all of his keen, meticulous descriptions of her body, her country, her people. The tragedy of the Noir hero is always some version of this: He sees so much, narrates and describes what he sees so meticulously, beautifully, and yet fails to see the destruction that awaits him. This blindness is the mark of Oedipus, the original tragic hero and the Noir hero’s earliest ancestor.
Cain wrote of his work: “I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination…I think my stories have some quality of the opening of the forbidden box, and that it is this, rather than violence, sex, or any of the things usually cited by way of explanation, that gives them the drive so often noted. Their appeal is first to the mind, and the reader is carried along as much by his own realization that the characters cannot have this particular wish and survive, and his curiosity to see what happens to them, as by the effect on him of incident, dialogue, or character.” What he describes sounds an awful lot like Greek tragedy—and this is the feeling you have throughout a Cain novel, a Noir novel or film: the inexorable movement towards disaster—that begins in Serenade as soon as John Howard Sharp lays eyes on Juana Montes. (But the novel and it’s tragedy isn’t just about sex, it’s very much about art, namely singing opera, and in this it shares with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan the idea that the art sometimes destroys the artist.)
These days, novels and people seem to have lost their sense of fate and destiny (Tana French is something of an exception—she’s doing a beautiful sort of brogue-Noir right now). Fatalism is out of fashion—and it’s infantile world-view, I’m often told when I defend it—but it does make for a damn good story.
“You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery, but it ain’t no flattery.”
Appraising this cinematic year, it’s these words, Huckleberry Finn’s description of the resourceful and feisty Mary Jane Watson, that offer the best summing up. It was, to be sure, a year of great film roles for women—Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey in Black Swan; Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mia Wasikowska in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright; Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the eternally mesmerizing Tilda Swinton in the operatic I Am Love, an all too brief glimpse of the effortless Sissy Spacek in Get Low. If there was a reigning ethos in the films (and cinematic novels: think The Hunger Games) of 2010, it was girls on fire, girls doing men’s work. A.O. Scott contends that this movie year was all about class, and it certainly was, but it was also about gritty girls. 2010 gave us the first best director Oscar for a female director, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (a film about the very masculine world of war), Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt (a role originally written for a male lead, Tom Cruise), and Helen Mirren resplendent as Prospera, a transgendered version of Shakespeare’s Prospero, in Julie Taymor’s exuberant and impressive (if, as usual, somewhat chaotic) adaption of The Tempest.
But perhaps more noteworthy than these great performances, blockbusterings, and transgenderings was this year’s critical mass of girls on fire: self-possessed, irrepressible young female characters played by self-possessed, irrepressible young female actors—girls, as Huck Finn would say, “just full of sand”:
Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Set and filmed in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Winter’s Bone offers a vision of another America, somewhat evocative of that depicted in James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a world of stoic, rural poverty, crank cooking, and intense, absolute clannishness. “Bred and buttered” in this world, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, played by the quietly luminous and quietly assertive Jennifer Lawrence, finds herself suddenly the head of her household, caretaker to a virtually catatonic mother and two much younger siblings, and in desperate need of answers that violate her community’s strict code of silence and hierarchy. “Ain’t you got no men to do this?” a hard-bitten, suspicious meth matriarch asks Ree when she comes seeking answers about her father’s whereabouts. Ree doesn’t. In the absence of parents and guardians, she must make her own way among the brutal, hostile adults who hold the means to her family’s salvation. Lawrence hits just the right balance playing Ree: as capable of a square-chinned, fend-for-myself, (even) fuck-you attitude—while splitting logs, shooting and skinning squirrels, standing her ground with belligerent police, drug kingpins, and bail-bondsmen—and of the vulnerable, frightened fragility of a child out of her depth. It is this balance that makes Ree’s courage (and Lawrence’s performance) more impressive—because we know her ability to challenge the rules of her world isn’t reflexive: it’s an act she wills herself to out of love for her family and her certainty that justice is on her side.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. Feel as you will about sexual politics, prose, or plotting of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, I dare you not to be impressed by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film versions of Larsson’s novels. Among recent filmic evocations of androgyny, Rapace’s Salander stands on par—perhaps above?—Lina Leandersson’s Eli (Let The Right One In), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, Ally Sheedy in High Art, even Tilda Swinton’s masculine/feminine gold standard (Orlando, Constantine). Rapace embodies Salander, Larsson’s dark recasting of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (she who outwits and overpowers men many times her size and age). The most obvious vehicle of Rapace’s masculine femininity is her body, which she trained meticulously before filming began: the squarely set, muscled shoulders, the corded sinews and veins in her arms, neck, and hands; her somehow simultaneously masculine and feminine breast/pectorals. More impressive still is Rapace’s total and absolutely convincing masculine affect: how she sets her mouth, how she takes off her jacket, smokes, eats, drinks, stands, walks. (Nota Bene: You can’t fully appreciate the quality and extent of Rapace’s morph without seeing her out of character, say being interviewed on Charlie Rose). In one of the movie’s best scenes, Lisbeth, in half-fastened combat boots, smokes outside the cabin she’s sharing with the middle-aged journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). It’s a morning after: the night before, Salander has rather unceremoniously had her way with Blomkvist. She walks in brusquely and sits down; Blomkvist looks solicitously at her as she, avoiding his eyes, squirts ketchup on the plate of eggs he’s cooked for her. While Lisbeth shovels down her food with the gusto and unselfconsciousness of a teenage boy, licking her strong, nail-bitten fingers, gulping her coffee, Blomkvist eats small bites delicately, watching her intently, curiously. Nyqvist’s evocations of Leopold Bloom’s “new womanly man” are good, but Rapace’s indomitable, inscrutable Salander is breathtaking.
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, in True Grit. Strange to say that among the gritty cast of the Coen brothers’ latest, the straight-backed, apple-cheeked Hailee Steinfeld is grittiest of them all. Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a hard-bargain-driving, Bible-quoting, law-minded 14-year-old determined to bring her father’s killer to justice with her own hands—and a little help from crusty US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the be-fringed Texas Ranger LeBeef (Matt Damon). The crux of Mattie’s character is her unwavering faith in the righteousness of her cause and her absolute determination to “see the thing done” herself. Mattie is also preternaturally articulate and unnervingly, delightfully at home in the world of men, a sort of puritan Calamity Jane. She attempts to engage Cogburn in business negotiations through the door of a barroom jakes and when this doesn’t work invites herself into his bedroom, unfazed by his filth and undress; when LeBeef shows up in her boardinghouse bedroom with his rifle, Mattie’s verbal sparring and continued poise leave LeBeef visibly disconcerted. But, as in Winter’s Bone, the beauty is in the balance: For all her crackshot repartee, Latin, and Scripture, Mattie’s still very much a tenderfoot (flinching reflexively at gunshots and severed fingers, weeping at the death of her pony). The clear-eyed Steinfeld delivers Mattie’s steel and fragility with a light touch—a perfectly natural, steady frankness that is as charming as it is convincing.
Kristen Stewart as young Joan Jett in The Runaways. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning starring together in a movie that doesn’t, in a word, suck. Fanning is as good as Stewart in this biopic about the original all-girl rock band, The Runaways (often better known as Joan Jett’s launching pad), but her character, the Runaways’ lead singer, Cherie Curry, is that all too common creature: a thin-skinned, compulsively seductive young woman and she doesn’t, in the end, have the hunger or stamina for fame or rock and roll. Sultry and lipstick-feisty but ultimately tediously fragile and difficult, Fanning’s Curry just isn’t as interesting a specimen as Stewart’s Jett—a little feral, sure and not sure of herself at the same time, aggressive and shy by turns. Gruff, hunched, and twitchy—almost stuttering at times, almost pre-verbal—Stewart’s Jett is portrait of the artist as a young woman on the verge of finding her voice.
And, perhaps a rogue choice: Hayley Atwell as Lady Aliena of Shiring in The Pillars of The Earth (an adaption of Ken Follet’s historical novel of the same name). Yes, gothic ridiculousness abounds in this tale of the building of a medieval cathedral and its attendant machinations: poisoned cups, self-flagellating monks with unholy ambitions, bloody dreams and rhyming prophecies, the Michael Bay/Ridley Scott-style galloping-high-drama-at-every-turn theme music. But if you can stomach the melodrama, this production also has a ripping rise-and-fall plot and about as fine a cast as you’re likely to see anywhere, including Donald Sutherland, Matthew McFaddyen, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Redmayne, Allison Pill, and Ian McShane (as the unholy priest, Bishop Waleran—seeing the man who played Deadwood‘s Al Swerengin tonsured and in episcopal robes is a meta-delight of its own). Foremost among the female cast is the young, English actress Hayley Atwell. Atwell’s still waiting for a great role (she was Julia Flyte in the recent, ill-concieved Brideshead Revisited and Bess Foster in the equally ill-conceived The Duchess) but even in flawed productions Atwell distinguishes herself. In Pillars, she plays the spirited Lady Aliena, whose family loses their land and title in the political upheavals of the 12th-century English succession crisis known as “The Anarchy.” Determined to regain her family’s name and prominence, Aliena turns wool merchant and builds the family’s prospects again, one fleece at a time. Atwell plays the fall from the charmed life and the determined climb out of poverty with a passion, almost a rage, that’s sometimes electrifying—made the more striking by her diction and delivery (classical training highly apparent).
And finally, in brief: Chloe Moretz who played the c-bomb dropping, infant assassin Hit Girl in Kick-Ass and Abby the infant vampire in Let Me In (the unsubtle American remake of the Swedish Let The Right One In). While some (me among them) found Kick-Ass disturbing and not as clever as it thought it was, Moretz did manage to project an actorly verve superior to her surroundings, as she did in the redundant Let Me In. And perhaps meatier roles lie ahead: Moretz has her eye on the role of Katniss Everdeen in the inevitable film versions of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. And really finally, last but not least: Elle Fanning in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Coppola’s film is quieter than the others here: Fanning II’s character, Cleo, isn’t toting guns (she packs an iPhone and the most expressive pair of eyes since Pruitt Taylor Vince) or going toe-to-toe with outlaws (just a jaded moviestar dad in crisis) but she radiates the poise, the same woman-girlishness, the same knowingness beyond her years (as well as a child’s fears, loves, needs), that animates so many of these fine roles.
This is Huck Finn, signing off: “She was the best girl I ever see, and had the most sand.” And may girls, on screen and off, grow ever sandier in 2011.