Adolf Hitler loved Mickey Mouse. Mickey’s Fire Brigade, Mickey’s Polo Team, Pluto Outwits Mickey — for Hitler, Mickey Mouse was magic. Hitler loved Mickey Mouse so much that, in 1937, Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Reich Ministry of Popular Entertainment and Propaganda, sent the Führer 12 Mickey Mouse films (plus “a wonderful art album”) for Christmas. The box set was a gift that Goebbels hoped would bring his dictator “much joy and relaxation” as Hitler proceeded with his plans to conquer Europe, systematically annihilating two-thirds of its Jewish inhabitants along the way.
Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler begins with this startling juxtaposition. It is the unholy alliance of Hitler and Mickey that tees up Urwand’s central claim: from 1933 to 1939, the Jewish moguls who ran Hollywood’s studio system “collaborated” with the Nazi regime, censoring and even quashing films that represented the German state in a negative light.
According to Urwand, the studios were motivated by profit, pure and simple. In 1932, Germany represented Hollywood’s biggest foreign market, a business opportunity complicated by the fact that the German Foreign Office claimed the right to deny import permits to any film whose “tendency or effect” was “detrimental to German prestige.” It was no accident that Germany’s tightening oversight of its film imports came at precisely the same moment that writers and directors — ranging from Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz to Hitler parodist Charlie Chaplin — sought to expose Nazi evil on the silver screen. But markets trumped morals. Films like The Road Back (1937) and Lancer Spy (1937) were hacked up according to German demands, while anti-Nazi films like The Mad Dog of Europe and It Can’t Happen Here were relegated to dustbins on Hollywood Boulevard.
Urwand finds evidence of “collaboration” (Zusammenarbeit) everywhere. He finds it in the letters of studio heads, like Universal Pictures’ Carl Laemmle and MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who allegedly pulled films that alluded to Germany’s “Jewish Problem.” He finds it in records of meetings between the Hays Office, Hollywood’s chief censorship organization, and a revolving door of German diplomats, each more unctuous than the last. And crucially for Urwand’s purposes, he finds it in Hitler’s incoherent scribblings on film and propaganda in Mein Kampf (1926). If Hitler “derived a lot of pleasure” from Mickey and friends, “he was also seduced by them. He believed that they contained a mysterious, almost magical power that somehow resembled his own abilities as an orator.” And so Urwand claims that “Hitler himself” sits “at the center” of the studio system’s complicity with the Third Reich, dictating from his private screening room in the Chancellery which movies were “good,” “bad,” or needed to be “switched off.”
Armed with an embarrassment of archival riches, Urwand draws a conclusion that would make Hannah Arendt sit up and pay attention were she alive today. Indeed, it seems impossible to read The Collaboration without hearing echoes of Arendt’s reasoning in Eichmann in Jerusalem — her indictment of the “Jewish ‘collaborators’” who “had cooperated [with the Nazis] because they thought they could ‘avert consequences more serious than those which resulted.” While Hollywood studios “had the chance to show the world what was really happening in Germany,” he argues, they were too busy kowtowing to the bottom line to “expose the brutality of the Nazi regime” in action. Although Urwand stops just short of offering his readers a full counterfactual history, his implication is clear. There is blood on Hollywood’s hands.
Since word of The Collaboration got out this past June, the hype surrounding it has given way to a firestorm of personal and professional trash talk. Perhaps it began with the cover letter that Urwand’s publicity team at Goldberg McDuffie Communications, Inc. sent to reviewers, which talks up The Collaboration while simultaneously dissing film historian Thomas P. Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, a strikingly similar account of the Third Reich’s dealings with the studio system that came out only six months earlier. “Whereas Doherty relied on flawed, superficial accounts in domestic trade papers, Urwand discovered a vast array of primary source materials,” wrote Urwand’s publicist, seeking to undermine Doherty’s far milder claim that, when it came to Nazism, “the motion picture industry was no worse than the rest of American culture in its failure of nerve and imagination, and often a good deal better in the exercise of both.”
But Urwand’s team seems to have forgotten that all publicity is good publicity, especially where academic historians are concerned. So baited, Doherty struck back in the pages of The Hollywood Reporter. Urwand’s charges of collaboration were “scandalous and ahistorical,” Doherty argued, an irresponsible retro-projection of the Vichy and Soviet government’s political collaboration with the Nazis onto the Hollywood studio system. He was, however, much nicer in print than Hollywood heiresses Cass Warner and Alicia Mayer, the latter of whom attacked Urwand’s “sickening claims” on her blog Hollywood Essays. “I need your help,” Mayer begins her petition to blacklist Urwand’s book. “Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis…How could one book destroy the amazing legacies left by my family and those of the Warners, the Goldwyns and others?” Spurred on by her outrage, Mayer calls on Doherty along with film historian Michael Greco and director Quentin Tarantino to strike down Urwand’s “terrible libel.”
By now, Urwand has surely realized that someone had blundered by riling up Doherty, who proves a far better critic than Urwand. Hollywood and Hitler is a tighter, more riveting read than The Collaboration, and Doherty displays the methodical prowess of a historian who doesn’t have to scandalize to sell his story. More importantly, Doherty’s unwillingness to stretch the limits of interpretation throws into relief The Collaboration’s many sleights of hand, the dark magic of a historian’s misreadings across a series of otherwise fascinating archives.
At its best moments, The Collaboration covers ground well tread by Doherty and others, offering by-the-book sketches of the Nazi riots at the 1933 screening of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the failed anti-Nazi film The Mad Dog of Europe, and the proto-fascist spectacle of films like Gabriel Over the White House (1933). At its worst, The Collaboration proceeds by insinuation rather than proof, clumsily contorting its archival findings to fit Urwand’s agenda of character assassination. Consider, for instance, how Urwand treats Twentieth Century Fox’s Oscar nominated movie The House of Rothschild (1934), an attempt to allegorize the rise of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century by narrating the history of Mayer Rothschild’s banking empire. Politically incorrect by today’s standards, The House of Rothschild was praised at the time of its release by rabbis and Jewish affiliates of B’nai B’rith. Six years after The House of Rothschild premiered in the U.S., the Nazis spliced footage from The House of Rothschild into The Eternal Jew (1940), a vicious piece of anti-Semitic propaganda directed by Fritz Hippler. From this, Urwand concludes that The Eternal Jew was “unthinkable without The House of Rothschild,” as it “provided structure to what otherwise would have been the regime’s usual anti-Semitism.” But Urwand fails to tell us how long this footage lasts — a mere 4 minutes — nor does he draw attention to the long history of “The Eternal Jew” as a folklore figure, a Yiddish-language play, a British film, a 1937 anti-Semitic book, or a Nazi art exhibit, all preceding or contemporaneous with the American film. If the actual details of The Eternal Jew deflate much of Urwand’s overblown rhetoric, they’re also beside the point. To label Hippler’s cut-and-paste job an act of collaboration between Hollywood and the Nazis is a little like calling shoplifting collaboration between a thief and a shopkeeper.
The Collaboration is littered with such analytic missteps. Pick a page, and read it carefully, and some thread of Urwand’s argument is bound to unravel in your hands. There are conclusions that feel shaky the instant you land upon them — for example, his claim that Germany’s ban on Warner Brothers’ film Captured! (1933) somehow scared the other studios into “collaborating with Nazi Germany” seems both vague and implausible. There are instances where Urwand cites anecdotal evidence only to undercut it, only to rely on it in pushing his argument forward. His introductory chapter “Hitler’s Obsession with Film” is especially troubling in this regard, as he introduces his sustained analogy between Hitler’s oratorical skills and movie magic on the testimony of Hitler’s friend Reinhold Hanisch, an account he first flags as “dubious in several respects.” And finally, there are whole chapters in which Urwand’s fascinating and contradictory strands of evidence are muted by an overly pat conclusion. When, for instance, Urwand can’t find any solid proof that Louis B. Mayer personally pulled Sinclair Lewis’s anti-fascist film It Can’t Happen Here for fear of the Third Reich, he reads Mayer’s “no comment” as an obvious admission of his guilt. Of course, this ignores Urwand’s earlier evidence that Mayer repeatedly “decided to push ahead with It Can’t Happen Here” despite the German government’s protests.
All of this is simply to say, if you only read one book this year on Hollywood and the Nazis, don’t read this one. And it’s a shame, really, because there’s an extraordinary book to be written using the evidence that Urwand extracted from his German and American sources. As a critic, the best part of reading The Collaboration is fantasizing about the book it might have been — something less sensational, but more patient and responsible with its raw materials. I was beckoned time and again by flashes of archival mystery: Hitler’s childish fascination with not just Mickey, but the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy and the sentimentality of musical theater; the genesis of national typecasting in Howard Hughes’s World War I film Hell’s Angels; the unspecified and fluid relationship between the studio centers in Hollywood and their foreign branches. The list goes on, but it matters little. After all, critics can’t be collaborators.
You are sitting with the Great Man, and he is holding forth. He made the Greatest American Film of All Time when he was just twenty-five (he has the Newsweek notice from John O’Hara memorized, and he will repeat it for you with only a slight addition here or there, with no prompting.) He’s a legend, an idol, a God of Cinema. He is Orson Welles and, my God, he is such a bitch.
Whether or not to read Peter Biskind’s My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles is simply decided: do you care, at all, about continuing to admire Orson Welles as an actual person and artist, or are you happy to have that illusion exploded by a sad, embittered caricature performing great feats of persona for a sycophant with a hidden tape recorder?
The “conversations” (90% Welles monologue) in Lunches with Orson provide entertaining, salacious reading for those of us who enjoy old Hollywood gossip delivered with exquisite nastiness (Paulette Goddard “was a wonderful girl, but she’s a living cash register, you know.”) And if the aim of the book is to show the absurd, monotonous viciousness of Hollywood and its poisonous characters, it’s an unqualified success. Yes, it’s repetitive, and it drags, but so does the life of Welles at Ma Maison, the restaurant where he and his tiny dog, Kiki, held forth for the adoring filmmaker Henry Jaglom between the years 1982 and 1985, when Welles died. They spent these luncheons eating California nouvelle cuisine while trying, endlessly, to fund, cast, or complete any Welles project. In the midst of plotting future works, Welles was happy to tell stories of his greatness and dish outrageously petty dirt on any person, film, or concept imaginable.
The gossip is endless, and endlessly amusing: Humphrey Bogart, “both a coward and a very bad fighter, was always picking fights in nightclubs.” Katherine Hepburn “laid around the town like nobody’s business.” “Larry [Olivier] is very– I mean seriously– stupid.” Chaplin is also “deeply dumb” and Garbo is “a big-boned cow.” Lest you think him petty, he shares his generous pimping efforts on behalf of a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe: “I would point Marilyn out to Darryl [Zanuck], and say, ‘What a sensational girl.’ He would answer, ‘she’s just another stock player. We’ve got a hundred of them. Stop trying to push these cunts on me. We’ve got her for $125 a week.’ And then, about 6 months later, Darryl was paying Marilyn $400,000 and the men were looking at her — because some stamp had been put on her.”
After a certain point in the book, one is very much reminded of the recurring motif within Vertigo (a movie Welles hated, along with most Hitchcock films): are we fated to forever return to same conversation about the myriad betrayals Welles has endured? Are we still waiting for Welles’s 16 millimeter, black and white King Lear to be financed by the French? Is it still so important to claim ownership of every single aspect of Citizen Kane? (His sensitivity over the writing credit is understandable, as Paulene Kael’s 1971 piece for The New Yorker, Raising Kane, put forth the widely accepted — though since debunked — theory that Welles had claimed credit for a script actually penned by Herman J. Mankiewicz. But must Welles also claim sole responsibility for lighting and editing the film, and boorishly refuse to call film in any way collaborative?) Everyone “loves” his new script for The Dreamers, but will anyone actually buy it? Lunches with Orson, with their clear routine of gossip, pontificating, and money-hustling, are repetitive, and never go anywhere. The depressing stagnation and inertia of Welles’s later life is on full display here, and all the fawning and flattery and promises Jaglom offers cannot move Welles’s career forward, or undo his tremendous self-sabotage.
Jaglom claims to have done everything he could to help Welles find funding, but The Great Man’s reputation as a temperamental egotist who never finished a project continually frustrated their efforts. While it seems clear that Welles was often stymied by the profit-driven dullness of the movie industry, he also never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. There are numerous instances in which Welles talks himself into and out of a deal in one breath (the French have offered him a blank check for Lear…but he cannot stomach filming in France; he could direct The Cradle Will Rock…but he cannot in good conscience direct something he does not have full writing credit on), and any eavesdropper (which, of course, any reader is) might find themselves tempted to suggest, “just do it, you indecisive blowhard!” upon the fourth or fifth dissection of a possible funder’s motives and/or creative purity.
In the book’s most telling instance of self-sabotage, Welles begins to pitch a miniseries about Acapulco to a very receptive HBO executive, Susan Smith. Within minutes of beginning, Welles throws a massive tantrum, insulting Smith and refusing to even speak with her after she expresses interest in a Dominican Republic setting. After Welles has dismissed Smith as someone who simply does not understand his vision, Jaglom tells him how a recent biographer has “put the lie to the myth of your self-destructiveness.” But what have we just seen, if not a frankly ridiculous act of creative immolation?
This is, of course, the privilege of the “artist” in film: to flirt with or deny based on feeling, or temperament, or vision. But the capriciousness of the visionary, when coupled with a sympathetic producer’s pragmatism, can wield great (or at least produced) works. Welles has no such partner here. What he has is Jaglom, a disciple with a vested interest in Welles as the misunderstood, noncommercial artist. Jaglom uses Welles’s dismissal of John Huston as an opportunity to point out what he finds truly rare about Welles: “You mean because [John Huston] doesn’t have a need to really be the creative artist. The fact that you’ve not been able to do that is testimony, in many people’s minds, to a kind of — you’re gonna hate this word — purity. It comes from a kind of insistence on making your own films…” This is lovely talk from an admirer, less useful from a person charged with finding money for your films. After years of teasing, Jack Nicholson finally killed Welles’s “The Big Brass Ring” (his salary needed to be more 1980s, less 1960s), but what could have been if Jaglom had pushed back against Welles’s absurdly racist reaction to the idea of casting Hoffman, Pacino or De Niro in the role of an American president? When Jaglom suggested that these stars had expressed interest, Welles responded, “Not your friend Dusty Hoffman. No dwarfs. Besides, they’re ethnic…No dark, funny-looking guys.”
Ah yes, old man Welles, the lovable old bigot you never knew. Though Welles himself sees through the moral bankruptcy of excusing abhorrent behavior because of artistic greatness (when he rightly criticizes Elia Kazan, who named names for HUAC, Jaglom protests, “You don’t make allowances for people with talent, like Kazan?”), the reader of My Lunches with Orson is urged to excuse what Peter Biskind calls Welles’s “politically incorrect opinions.” In his introduction, Biskind lets the reader knows that he knows that Welles will be surely read as “sexist, racist, homophobic, vulgar (let’s be kind, call it Rabelaisian),” but that he is certain that it was driven by Welles’s “impish” nature. Yes, surely it was his “impishness” that made Welles refuse to hug Jaglom in 1985, saying, “I haven’t gone through my life to be felled by some gay plague.” One can almost see the scampish twinkle in his eye as he pronounces, “no female has guilt. That’s why the Bible is so true!” And any idea that he might be prejudiced (against, for instance, the Irish, Hungarians, Jews, Italians, or Russians, all of whom he neatly reduces into “Rabelaisian” stereotypes) is undone by his many experiences! “I love Hungarians to the point of sex! I almost get a hard-on when I hear a Hungarian accent.” He certainly couldn’t be racist, as he dated Lena Horne! His way of getting back at a racist club-owner who didn’t want him being seen publicly with her was to find a “big, black mammy, like Aunt Jemima, a Hattie McDaniel type, coal black,” send her obscene letters and harass her, then make it appear that the club owner was in fact her deranged stalker. Great prank, Orson!
In the end, the reader of My Lunches With Orson is left with the queasy, hollow, particularly guilty feeling one gets from too much misanthropy; from imbibing too much bile. Welles is petty and vindictive, and though he is an astute critic of the nastiness, solipsism, and viciousness of Hollywood, he is absolutely of it as well. Reading My Lunches With Orson is akin to spending a long three hours with your amusing, gossipy, bigoted old grandpa.
But of course, your grandpa was probably more than just stupid Hungarian jokes (“How do you make a Hungarian omelet? First, steal two eggs. Korda told me that.”) Lost in this book is any sense of a “real” Welles. Though Jaglom claims they are great friends, Welles generally performs his “Welles bear show,” says incendiary things about various groups, and tells fantastic stories about famous people. Yes, yes, the argument goes: was there a “real” Welles? Aren’t we all performing? Did he not amuse? But this is the kind of tiresome and ultimately lazy dehumanization with which Biskind and Jaglom seem too comfortable. Granted, Welles acts more like a caricature than like a man, but he is not treated like a man either. He is treated as an idol, an embodiment of radical cinema, auteur theory, as a living cautionary tale.
The sadness that runs throughout the book is tangible, and even when we are driven to distraction by the unbelievable amount of pretension and egotism on display (it’s like being seated next to a massive blowhard — who also happens to have the voice from Transformers — yelling about how he’s an expert on everything from the Renaissance to Latin American politics, for 14 hours), the overwhelming feeling is one of pity. Pity that this man could not be a man, but had to be an idol, and pity that he did not have better, more human friends. The reader senses the weariness of this Welles pose, the expectation of constant persona becoming too great for him to escape. As they wait for the Lear money to come in (it never does), Jaglom suggests Welles make a short, experimental film “in the meantime.” In one of the rare glimpses of the humanity and desperation behind the Great Man persona, Welles responds,
There is no meantime. It’s the grocery bill. I haven’t got the money. It’s that urgent. That what drives me off my…nut. I can’t afford to work in hopes of future profits. I have to hustle now. All I do is sweat and work. I’m imprisoned by a simple economic fact. Get me on the screen and my life is fuckin’ changed.
This is the real, de-auteured reality of Welles in his last years. Here was a man who had to shill for Paul Masson wine (and then beg to shill again), do voice-over for Magnum P.I., and haggle over a possible Love Boat appearance; the man who wished, bitterly, that he could land a McDonalds campaign like his nemesis John Houseman.
And in the end, no matter how Jaglom protests that Welles knew of the Ma Maison lunch recordings and approved of their eventual use, we are left with Welles’s own words on the foolishness of “knowing” your Gods. Welles had recently read biographies of Isak Dinesen and Robert Graves, his own “Gods.” Though the Graves book was written by an admirer, Welles says:
I learned a lot of things about him I didn’t want to know. If you do the warts, the warts are gonna look bigger than they were in life. If these people were my friends, the warts wouldn’t be as important to me as they seem in the book. We all have people that we know are drunks, or dopeheads or have bad tempers or whatever, and they’re still our friends, you know. But in the book, you focus on it. And these biographies have diminished these people so much in my mind. They deny me someone who I’ve loved always. I like Dinesen a lot less, now. In other words, Dinesen was brilliantly careful to present herself as the person I wanted to love. And if she was somebody else, really, I’m sorry to know it. And I suddenly think to myself, “You know, there’s no such thing as a friendly biographer.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons
It’s been a good year for Alfred Hitchcock, what with Vertigo beating out Citizen Kane in the once-a-decade Greatest Movie of All Time poll conducted by Sight and Sound. At Full-Stop, Rachel Baron Singer takes a look at Hitchcock and The Girl, both of which examine “the dark side” of Hitchcock’s genius.
For more than a century, filmmakers have been plundering world literature for source material. Countless works by ancient, medieval, renaissance, enlightenment, Elizabethan, Victorian, modern, post-modern, and futuristic writers, working in every imaginable form and genre, have been transported from page to screen. Every once in a long while an ingenious writer upends this time-tested formula and uses a movie as a springboard for a book. Recently I came upon instances of three very different writers drawing on three very different movies to produce three odd and wondrous little books. The writers are Geoff Dyer, Don DeLillo, and Jonathan Lethem, who, for all their differences, have one thing in common. Each became bewitched by a movie that spoke so forcefully to him that he watched it again and again until it revealed all of its secrets and meanings, until he grasped what might be called the movie’s deep tissues. Here are three case studies of the fruits of their obsessions:
Case Study #1: Geoff Dyer on Andrei Tarkovsky
Last summer I got to interview one of my favorite writers, the English novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer. The occasion was the American publication of The Missing of the Somme, Dyer’s intricate meditation on the ways the dead of the First World War are memorialized and remembered. As our conversation was winding down, I asked Dyer the obligatory parting question: “Do you have a new book in the works?”
“I have a book coming out in January or February,” he replied. “It’s a very detailed study of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which is the film that I’ve seen more than any other. It has really stayed with me for the thirty years since I first saw it. This book is an unbelievably detailed study of that film…(and) hopefully people will buy it because it’s by me, irrespective of the fact that they’ve not seen the film, or perhaps not even heard of it.”
Well, my ignorance of Russian cinema is so immaculate that I had not heard of Stalker and, yes, I’m one of those people who will read a book simply because it was written by Geoff Dyer. So I took Dyer at his word and read his new book before I watched the movie that inspired it. The book is called Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, and from its very first line we’re inside Tarkovksy’s 1979 film, seeing what the camera sees and listening to what Dyer was thinking as he watched the movie, again and again, over the course of three decades. Dyer describes the book as “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings, and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.”
Fair enough, and yet the book does take the movie apart, all 142 shots of it, with some sharp instruments. As always, Dyer brings ferocious curiosity and intelligence to the job, guiding us through Tarkovsky’s strange world by bouncing his own thoughts off writers of literature and criticism, cinema and psychology, including Flaubert, Wordsworth, Camus, Barthes, Bresson, DeLillo, Tony Judt, Stanislaw Lem, Rilke, Heidegger, Jung, Slavoj Zizek, and, of course, Tarkovsky himself.
If you like your movies with a plot synopsis, here goes: A guide (Stalker) takes two men (Writer and Professor) into a forbidden and mysterious area called the Zone, at the heart of which is the Room, where your deepest wish will come true. Period. How, you might ask, can anyone spin a 228-page book out of remembering and misremembering that? The simple answer is that Dyer, much like Tarkovsky, recalibrates our sense of time. He doesn’t merely slow things down, he sometimes freezes them, the better to examine them under his microscope. Instructively, Dyer quotes Tarkovsky here: “If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.”
“This,” Dyer writes, “is Tarkovsky’s aesthetiic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last – and no one can concentrate on anything – for more than about two seconds…. Tarkovsky is saying to the audience: Forget about previous ideas of time. Stop looking at your watches.”
Dyer makes the case that every work of art – like life itself? – is best appreciated by those who have the patience to look, look again, and keep looking: “The Zone is a place – a state – of heightened alertness to everything.”
The film’s script was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, adapted from their short science-fiction novel, Roadside Picnic. (So, yet another movie that sprang from a work of literature.) It was shot in Estonia, in and around an abandoned hydroelectric power station that possesses an ethereal beauty similar to what you witness while passing through the petrochemical badlands on the New Jersey Turnpike, those same toxic fogs, sludgy waters, and dripping pipes, minus the methane spurts. An early caption informs us that the Zone might (or might not) be the result of some kind of meteorite or alien invasion, and Dyer duly notes that the setting foreshadows the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986 (he calls Tarkovsky “a prophet”), and that the Zone also echoes Stalin’s gulags. Citing Wordsworth, he addresses the importance of such man-made landscapes: “It is when there is some kind of human interaction with landscape, when the landscape, having been manufactured or altered, is in the process of being reclaimed by nature – a source of abiding fascination for Tarkovsky – that its ‘inward meaning’ is most powerfully felt.”
By the end of their journey, Stalker, Writer, and Professor have learned that the Zone “is not a place of hope so much as a place where hope turns in on itself, resigns itself to the way things are.” Not exactly a heart-warming takeaway, but as soon as I finished Dyer’s book, I watched the movie for the first time. I suppose only two questions remain: 1.) Is Stalker, as Dyer contends, “the reason cinema was invented”? And, 2.) How did Dyer’s book affect my experience of watching Tarkovsky’s movie?
My answers are, 1.) No, I would go with the much more conventional view that the reason cinema was invented is Citizen Kane. Beyond that, I’ll man up and admit that Tarkovsky-time got a little boring in spots. Even Dyer confesses that “it was not a case of love at first sight: the first time I saw Stalker I was slightly bored and unmoved.” Which might just mean that I need to see the movie a few dozen more times. And, 2.) Dyer’s book enriched the experience of watching the movie in ways I can’t count, but most basically because it reminded me that we will always be repaid for a heightened alertness to everything – the sounds of birdsong, the changing of light, the smoky nature of our hopes, the riches that are spread out before our eyes if only we have the patience to see.
Cormac McCarthy once said, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books.” Well, no and yes, you’ll conclude after reading this astonishing book about a film about a book about a journey to a room.
Case Study #2: Don DeLillo on Douglas Gordon on Alfred Hitchcock
In 2010 Don DeLillo published Point Omega, a novel that begins with a short overture and ends with a short coda, titled, respectively, “Anonymity” and “Anonymity 2.” Both tell the story of an unnamed man who has come to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 2006 to watch a video by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. It’s called 24 Hour Psycho and that’s precisely what it is – Alfred Hitchcock’s classic slowed down from its original 109 minutes and turned into a crawling, day-long taffy pull.
Like many people who visited MoMA to see Gordon’s movie, I came away thinking that a little bit of this sort of thing goes a long way. (Ditto Andy Warhol’s 1964 movie, Empire, which consists of a fixed camera gazing out a window at the Empire State Building for eight unblinking hours.) Indeed, most of the museum-goers in Point Omega watch Gordon’s slowed-down movie for a few minutes and then flee, looking at the museum guard on their way out the door hoping for eye contact that will validate their “bafflement.”
DeLillo’s nameless moviegoer is no such impatient dilettante. He spends countless hours on six successive days absorbed by the movie, going deeper and deeper in search of its meanings. What he discovers would resonate with Dyer and Tarkovsky:
The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion… It takes close attention to see what’s happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at.
This, it seems to me, is the mission of all true art – to enrich our lives by making us alive to what is happening as it is happening to us. We’re back to Tarkovsky’s “special intensity of attention” and Dyer’s “heightened alertness to everything.”
Between DeLillo’s cinematic overture and coda lies a thin novel about an encounter between two men at a remote house “somewhere south of nowhere” in the Sonoran desert. These two men, we’ll learn, were among the people who came to see 24 Hour Psycho in New York but fled after a few minutes. One is Richard Elster, an academic, a “defense intellectual” (perfect DeLillo job title!), who was involved in the preparations for the invasion of Iraq. He has come to the desert to detox from the experience. With him is the novel’s narrator, Jim Finley, a filmmaker who is trying to persuade Elster to be the subject of a documentary. (So, a novel that springs from a movie about a movie and wants to produce yet another movie.) Finley’s documentary will consist of one unblinking shot (think of Empire, or the single-take Russian Ark): Elster standing in front of a blank wall talking about what he did inside the Pentagon. Finley wants Elster to reveal “what you know that no one knows.” Elster has already confided, vaguely, that his job was “to conceptualize…to apply overarching ideas and principles to such matters as deployment and counter-insurgency.” This, he admits without shame, involved a certain amount of lying. “Lying is necessary. The state has to lie. There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended. We went beyond this. We tried to create new realities overnight, careful sets of words that resemble advertising slogans in memorability and repeatability…I wanted a haiku war. I wanted a war in three lines.”
Presumably he came up with this lethal lie:
We are deep in DeLillo country here, the land of smoky operators who work the barely visible levers that control the two great engines driving contemporary American life: anxiety and dread. Geoff Dyer summed up DeLillo’s achievement in his superb collection of essays and reviews from 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition. DeLillo, Dyer wrote, “has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves… Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality…”
True, but the thing that stuck with me about this slight novel – slight, at least, compared to such meatier DeLillo masterworks as White Noise, Libra, and Underworld – was not Richard Elster’s contribution to the lies that brought on our nation’s longest war. What stuck with me was that nameless man in the museum watching the slowed-down movie and reminding me of the pious effort that’s required to see, to truly see, what’s happening in front of us every minute of our lives.
Case Study #3: Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter
In 2010 Jonathan Lethem published a monograph, They Live, about a most unlikely subject. Or maybe it wasn’t so unlikely, given the yin-yang mashup of Lethem’s influences, high and low, including DeLillo and Philip K. Dick, Mailer and J.G. Ballard, comics, the movies of John Cassavetes. So in a way it makes perfect sense that Lethem devoted a whole book to a close analysis of John Carpenter’s They Live, a low-budget genre movie by a director the Hollywood establishment barely gives a B rating.
Like Dyer and DeLillo, Lethem brings a sharp intellect and vast tool kit to his chosen movie. And, like them, he argues persuasively that what we see is far less important than how we see it. Taking this a step further, everything can be interesting, including the marginal, especially the marginal, if we’re willing to make a pious effort and bring to bear a frame of reference, informed tastes, education (preferably self-education, in the view of this autodidact), and imagination. And so, like Dyer, Lethem calls on an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the works of diverse thinkers, including the artists Jenny Holzer and Robert Smithson, the writers and philosophers H.F. Saint, David Thomson, G.K. Chesterton, Poe, Lovecraft, Bret Easton Ellis, George W.S. Trow, Greil Marcus, Darko Suvin, Barthes, Slavoj Zizek, and Stanislaw Lem. Note the overlaps with Dyer’s reading list.
Might as well get the plot summary out of the way: A down-on-his-luck construction worker named Nada (the pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper) wanders into a Los Angeles homeless encampment called Justiceville. After the cops raze the camp, Nada discovers a cache of magic sunglasses that enable him to see that many “normal” people are actually hideous alien ghouls who have mounted a sophisticated mind-control campaign to keep humans complicit and subdued. This includes subliminal billboards and televised commands to OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, WATCH TV, BUY, STAY ASLEEP. Nada realizes he needs to set this shit straight. And so, strolling into a bank wearing shades and armed with an automatic rifle, he states his mission: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Lethem leads us on a delirious tour of this “self-conscious B movie,” with time codes serving as mile markers. It’s a close, highly informed reading that never feels precious or claustrophobic because Lethem admits that the movie is “howlingly blatant on many levels,” and yet “it grows marvelously slippery and paradoxical at its depths. Watch something enough times and all you see are the holes, much like a word whose meaning dissolves because you’ve said it aloud too many times in a row… Out of holes, a whole.”
Carpenter comes in for high praise from Lethem for shunning Hollywood’s compromising cash and going the noble low-budget route. “They Live,” Lethem writes approvingly, “ignores the presence of the film industry” and instead mounts a critique of television and consumerism as brain-killing propaganda tools. Carpenter has even less use for the local dream factory than it has for him. He’s proud of the fact that his budget requires him to cut every corner he comes to. This ranges from the movie’s blue-collar leading man, with his acne scars, mullet hairdo, and oak-tree neck, to the cheapo props, droning musical score, and skeezy (Lethem’s word) ghoul make-up and wigs. A friend watching the movie with Lethem was delighted to see that a garbage truck was filled with confetti: “They couldn’t afford real garbage!” Even the magic sunglasses, Lethem notes with approval, look like $2 Ray Ban knockoffs. When the movie flirts with porn scenarios (something Carpenter did more than flirt with earlier in his screenwriting career), there are no winks and nods. Carpenter has moved way beyond post-modern irony, all the way to unapologetic self-awareness. He knows that his film is, on one level, a protracted joke, but he doesn’t bother to acknowledge that he’s in on it. “Carpenter really doesn’t care whether or not you get that he gets it,” Lethem writes. “He’d far sooner be mistaken for an audience-laughing-at-you-not-with-you artist than slow the pace of his film, or wreck its tone, by underlining the jokes.”
They Live was based on a short story called “Eight o’clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, a minor science fiction writer who had the distinction of being one of just two authors ever to collaborate with Lethem’s hero, Philip K. Dick. (So, this time we have a book about a movie about a short story.) The movie was released in November 1988, just as Ronald Reagan was passing the decade’s greed-is-good baton to George H.W. Bush. The previous summer, Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village had erupted in riots when police forcibly removed homeless squatters, a la Justiceville, a dustup that gave birth to the invective Die, Yuppie Scum! It’s not hard to see the link between “Yuppie Scum” and the wealthiest “1 percent” reviled by Occupy Wall Street protesters who were recently cleared from their campsite in lower Manhattan, a la Tompkins Square Park. But Lethem, to his credit, points out a crucial difference between Tompkins Square (and, by extension, Zuccotti Park) on the one hand, and Justiceville on the other: the squatters in Tompkins Square included defiant drug users, anti-gentrification protesters, and “interested witnesses from the ranks of the middle-bohemian class” (including Allen Ginsberg), while the homeless in Justiceville are for the most part “sheepish, demoralized, obedient” losers content to “zone out and ponder television.” In other words, feel free to read They Live as an indictment of Reaganomics, as many have done, but be careful about turning it into an endorsement of Tompkins Square or a prophecy of Occupy Wall Street.
I had seen They Live years ago, and I watched it a second time after finishing Lethem’s book. The second viewing was definitely better, richer, thanks to the way Lethem opened my eyes to the liberation that comes with doing things on the cheap – and not apologizing for it. They Live, both the movie and the book, are examples of what Manny Farber called “termite” art, as opposed to overblown, ostentatious “white elephant” art. “A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art,” Farber wrote, “is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
And that kind of activity, as Carpenter and his great advocate Lethem have proven, is everything a tuned-in moviegoer or book lover can ask for.
It wasn’t until I’d finished digesting these three books that I was able to see what ties them together. It is, for lack of a better word, their anti-Kaelishness. In his new biography of the celebrated New Yorker movie critic, Brian Kellow notes that Pauline Kael watched a movie just once before reviewing it because “she felt the need to write in the flush of her initial, immediate response…. If she waited too long, and pondered the film over repeated viewings, she felt she might be in danger of coming up with something that wouldn’t be her truest response.”
Lethem, who seems to be aware of everything, is aware of his own anti-Kaelishness: “I’m Pauline Kael’s ultimate opposite here: I’ve watched the entirety of my subject film a dozen times at least, and many individual scenes countless times more (Kael used to brag of seeing each film only once).” It could be argued that a weekly magazine deadline robbed Kael of the luxury of watching a movie a dozen times before writing about it, but she made a conscious choice to see each movie just once. She trusted her instincts over her intellect. Her gut over her brain. And she bragged about it.
Kael, to borrow a Malcolm Gladwell-ism, went with blink. Dyer, DeLillo, and Lethem, to their credit and their readers’ unending benefit, go the opposite route: they look closely, they keep looking, and then they think, think, think.
One problem with modern American romance is that very little can prevent two Americans who love each other from getting married. (So long as they don’t share a combination of sex chromosomes, and it’s fair to say the tide is turning on that one.) This freedom — relatively unheard of in human history — is perhaps why we have more romantic comedies these days than romantic epics. It’s a limitation dictated by the times. Any story where two heterosexual Americans face any serious obstacle on the path to marriage is going to strain credulity or just plain bug people. While I’ve seen neither Valentine’s Day nor New Year’s Eve — and at the risk of being factually incorrect — I simply can’t imagine those kinds of movies trade in a currency of love problems whose snags aren’t pretty easily untangled. Such stories, as a classical matter, deal, rather, in misunderstandings, missed signals, crossed signals, and bunglings of translation from one heart to another. They’re nice and all, but does anyone out there get hit where it really hurts when they see or read a romantic comedy?
There’s something better, obviously, a more heightened version of the old Boy Meets Girl, Loses Girl formula. I’m talking about the previously mentioned romantic epic, and I’m talking about this because I’ve had a running conversation with my dear wife over the last few years about just what makes a romantic epic epic. This conversation hit a high point recently, as we’re finishing Gone with the Wind, a book I’ve been reading to her since last June.
Somewhere out there, you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I’m a Gone with the Wind fanatic!” Look — I don’t want to insult you, but if you’re a harder-core fan of Gone with the Wind than my wife, I’ll wear a red dress and dance the Macarena on the courthouse lawn. They just don’t make Gonezos (©) any bigger than my spouse. You cannot physically restrain her from paroxysms of joy when the damn thing’s on. She quotes from the film’s dialogue the way 2003-04 circa college guys spat lines from Old School. We’ve never been to the “Road to Tara Museum,” but it is strictly a matter of time.
She’s not alone, obviously. Gone with the Wind inspires mad devotion, in part, I think, because it works as both a romantic epic, and a tale of female empowerment. One reason for the story’s universal appeal, in fact, might lie in how neatly it nails a tricky middle ground between the Left and Right on issues of feminism. Scarlett is a thousand percent devoted to women’s rights — except really in any plural or political sense: Scarlett wants freedom for herself; she’s only truly interested in economic freedom; and could frankly give a damn about the rights of other women, or political liberty, voting, etc. She understands — with a clearsightedness that would be cynical if it weren’t so simply observant — that having money means you don’t really need to vote. For instance, late in the novel, she and Rhett entertain Georgia’s Scallywag Republican Governor at their tacky new McMansion, and even though Scarlett bears a real grudge against the Gov and all his Yankee ilk, she butters them up nonetheless, the better to use them for her own purposes.
In this sense, Scarlett is both a proto-feminist hero, and an almost Ayn Rand-y paragon of self-advancement. Not only does she tickle the imaginations of liberals and libertarians, but her canny progress from marriage to marriage takes place entirely within the boundaries of so-called “traditional” womanhood — something I’d bet more than a few Schlafly-types have found validating.
Even Scarlett’s devoted anti-intellectualism works to her advantage. You will not find a character in American fiction more rigorous in her disdain for abstract or philosophical topics (except as they give pasty old Ashley Wilkes something to be amazing at). Scarlett is interested in nice things, food, money, property, and getting what she wants — nothing else. The key feature of her character is therefore a sort of materialistic pragmatism — and since every branch of American politics considers itself “the practical one,” Scarlett occupies prime real estate to be adored by all sides.
All that being said, and just as ludicrously fantastic a character as Scarlett O’Hara is (the highest compliment you can pay a fictional character is Odyssean, and boy oh boy, is Scarlett Odyssean), none of this would register if Scarlett weren’t given an appropriately larger than life backdrop against which her labors could unfold. The Civil War? Check. Gone with the Wind also wouldn’t work, though, unless there were real problems for the story’s centerpiece romance. Something has to impair the parties’ full consummation in order for the love story to qualify as epic. The more grand the obstacle, the more epic the romance.
A quick survey of romantic epics bears this out. War, of course, is about the grandest and most epic obstacle a love affair could ever trip over. (See The English Patient). Class distinctions also place high on the list. (Likewise Atonement). Tragic events (cue flute from “My Heart Will Go On”) are obviously another. In my opinion, the most epic American romance of the past ten years was a little flick called Brokeback Mountain (based on the short story from Annie Proulx’s “Close Range,” whose lingering after-effects are a version of the same gut-gnawing pity induced by the movie). Brokeback Mountain is a romantic epic for the same reason only same-sex couples are really good candidates to have epically problematic love stories, at least in modern America: the problem for that story’s couple is pretty damn intractable, given their time. In fact, Brokeback Mountain has a harder edge than other classic romances, because the characters aren’t simply kept apart by grand circumstance, but by a threat of doom. Some band of redneck vigilantes would definitely have murdered Jack and Ennis if they’d ever tried to live together happily. The fact that death was a strong possible outcome — because of their love, and not incidental to it — puts that story on a high plane, stakes-wise.
Of course, Scarlett and Rhett face nothing like that. In fact, the inductions drawn from this drive-by survey point to a troubling conclusion for Gone with the Wind’s “epic” status. Scarlett and Rhett aren’t really kept apart by the Civil War. Rhett’s such a dastard that he sits most of the conflict out, right there in Atlanta, with Scarlett and the other ladies, speculating in foodstuffs and running off to England every now and then. Scarlett is in mourning, of course (her first husband died almost immediately after the War broke out), so preemptive norms of seemliness might interrupt the pair’s march to happiness — but Scarlett didn’t even like Rhett at that point, and all Rhett was interested in (I don’t think this scandalous wrinkle is mentioned in the movie) is having Scarlett be his mistress, his (goddammit, but it fits) “no strings attached,” “friend with benefits.”
Rhett does eventually run off to fight, in the last days of the Confederacy, and by the time he and Scarlett cross paths again, Scarlett’s desperate for cash to save Tara, and throws herself into Rhett’s arms, an offering of virtue given in sacrifice for the survival of Tara. Rhett sees right through this (with help from Scarlett’s grubby little turnip paws, of course), and flat, dropkick rejects her, sending her right into the arms of old Frank Kennedy. Once Frank dies, Rhett swoops in and proposes marriage, knowing he can’t wait forever to catch Scarlett between husbands. They marry, seem fond of each other, until Rhett figures out Scarlett is never going to get over that God damned Ashley Wilkes, and it’s “Adios amiga.” Microphone drop. I don’t give no damn.
But take a closer look: What does this story lack that other romantic epics have? Are Rhett and Scarlett kept apart by war? Class distinction? Tragedy? Disease? Threat of destruction?
Nope. They get together because they can, and they break up because one gets pissed at the other. A less grand set of circumstances could not be found.
This is not epic — this is mundane.
At this point I’m in deep trouble. If the takeaway from this essay is that Gone with the Wind lacks the status of an epic romance — that it is, in fact, nothing but a love story with two rather bratty protagonists — my wife is not going to be happy with me.
Fortunately, the genuine size of Gone with the Wind, the sheer land area it occupies in the American imagination, offers enough glitz and orchestra to rocket even the flimsiest of romances up to orbital heights. Whether we’re talking about the novel or the movie, this story is celebrated. The film is such a gigantic deal that it’s easy to forget how enormous a deal the novel was: It won the Pulitzer Prize, captivated the nation, is apparently (if you believe Pat Conroy’s introduction to my copy) given a Biblical place of honor on many a Southern coffee table, and had its movie rights sold off for the unheard of at the time sum of $50,000. At any serious gathering of top shelf American cinema, Gone with the Wind would be at the Kane, Casablanca, Godfather table. Even as non-pop-culture-obsessed a writer as Flannery O’Connor has a story (one of her weirder ones (and that’s saying something)) that involves the famous Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” which in classic Flannerian style makes us feel both sorry for and annoyed by a cranky genteel Southern White who thinks too highly of himself, in this case because they gussied him up for the movie premiere in a Confederate military costume, which now that he’s way older thinks is actually his original battle uniform and so insists on wearing to special occasions.
Think about that. Gone with the Wind is such a huge deal, Flannery O’Connor wrote a story that hinged on its status in the texture of Southern life. Flannery O’Connor. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.
Which is all to say, something is epic about this story. Can it be an epic because it makes us feel epic? A horror story scares us, a comedy makes us laugh, a tragedy makes us cry — I suppose a romance makes us feel, uh, twitterpated — is that, then, the real mark of genre? Not some academic’s induction based on a leisurely survey of the available material, but the specific kind of blast the story delivers, the special effects it drives into the hearts and guts of readers?
If that’s the case, then I think I’m sitting pretty with my wife. Because Gone with the Wind has got the chops in spite of the fact that the love problem at its center is not only mundane, but teenagerly so. Rhett really does love Scarlett, but has to act like he doesn’t, to protect his feelings, because he knows Scarlett never got over Ashley being the one man she couldn’t have. Drop that love triangle right into a CW plotline and nobody’s going to raise an eyebrow.
In other words, Gone with the Wind surpasses the un-epicness of its romance, and makes us feel romantically epic all the same. This is a serious accomplishment. I wish I could explain how it’s done. Of course, part of it is the historical backdrop, but I think a more important factor is just the expansiveness of the couple, particularly Scarlett (though Rhett’s a pretty insanely intriguing character, too — I’ve heard rumors he was based on Sam Houston — go read about that crazy bastard some time).
But maybe it’s epic because it’s just so successful as a story. I think we need to feel that a story is about everything in order to let it in, let it move us. That’s the mark, I think, of the true masterpiece, and if anything could coherently separate “literature” from “fiction,” that’d be it. It’s a pretty simple standard, actually — all any story has to do is just show us the meaning of life.
Gone with the Wind qualifies. Something in Scarlett’s practicality, something in her determination, something in her hunger (I don’t mean the turnip-eschewing kind, I mean the way Scarlett from the very first scene is driven by this crazy, all-consuming, no-boundaries-recognizing hunger for everything, the way she just wants it all) — there’s something brutal and fine to that. In her strange optimism, too, the way she pushes everything unpleasant from her thoughts, so that faced with the collapse of her third marriage, she is almost transported, idiotic, almost insensate, in her belief that she can fix it all, have it all, that she can get Rhett back — which of course wouldn’t mean that she’d have to give up on Ashley, too — and, most impressively, in her faith that tomorrow holds all the space you’ll ever need to get what you want, and keep it.
This is one of the strange centers of the world, a vein of pure human talent, unearthed and irrefutable, mysterious, friendly, beckoning, and fully beyond us.
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.