losing it at the movies: true stories (david byrne, 1986)

Picking this up one last time, this is the fifteenth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here. It took me years to finish, but I've finally done it.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of True Stories:

This first feature directed by David Byrne, of Talking Heads, is laid out like a musical-comedy documentary about a town, except that the town--Virgil, Texas--is imaginary. Byrne, the narrator and observer, introduces us to the townspeople, who are about to take part in the pageantry of the Texas Sesquicentennial with their own "Celebration of Specialness." Byrne is looking for a true mythic image of America; Virgil is Our Town, it's Anytown, U.S.A., and the movie is about banality and eccentricity and consumerism--it's about the manners and mores of the shopping mall, where fashion shows are staged and miming contests are held to see who is best at lip-synching to records. In his polite, formal, and slightly ghostly matter-of-fact way, Byrne is trying for something large scale: a postmodern Nashville. Byrne sets up the material for satirical sequences, yet he doesn't give it a subversive spin. His unacknowledged satire is like a soufflé that was never meant to rise. But, working with the crack cinematographer Ed Lachman, Byrne shows a respect for pared-down plainness, and after a rather shaky opening the characters themselves begin to engage us--especially John Goodman as the big, friendly bachelor with a "Wife Wanted" sign on his lawn, who gets to sing the film's anthem, "People Like Us." Jo Harvey Allen is terrific as a crackpot liar, and Tito Larriva's high-speed dancing has a comic dazzle. Singing "Papa Legba," Roebuck ("Pops") Staples has a juicy richness about him; when he's onscreen a viewer can be completely happy. Also with Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray, Annie McEnroe, and Alix Elias. The nine songs by Byrne are conceived as rock or country, Tex-Mex or gospel, depending on which character sings them. The Heads provide the instrumental work, and can be heard now and then on the words; it's their voices that the lip-synchers weave and sway to. 

Kael liked this more than I did, but I liked it more than I expected to. There's a reason True Stories was the last movie I watched during this project (well, it was hard to find as well).  When Byrne worked with Talking Heads (we saw them in 1978), his persona seemed wrapped inside the people and situations he described. The worlds were slightly cocked, but the Byrne persona was slightly cocked, too. In True Stories, Byrne is still quirky, but he is more of an observer than a participant. This distance, quirky as it is, means at times he seems to be looking down on the characters in his film. It's a fine line ... I don't want to make too much of it ... but that's why I didn't love this movie.

Best/kindest moment:

losing it at the movies: loving (irvin kershner, 1970)

Picking this up after yet another long break, this is the fourteenth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here. I've been at it for years ... maybe I'll finish in 2023 (there's only one movie left).

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Loving:

A beautifully sustained piece of moviemaking by Irvin Kershner. It's an unusual American movie in that it has the sensibility and humor and feeling for character generally associated with Czech films or prewar French films. It looks at the failures of middle-class life without despising the people; it understands that they already despise themselves. There's a decency-almost a tenderness-in the way that Kershner is fair to everyone; he never allows us to feel superior to the characters. George Segal is a free-lance illustrator who makes good money but never makes enough money; he wriggles this way and that because he doesn't like his life. He's trying to do right by his wife (Eva Marie Saint) and his children, and still keep the possibility open that he could yet be a dashing, gifted artist. The new girl he longs to run away with is not very different from his wife-only younger, and not bound down by his children. Eva Marie Saint gives a stunning performance as a tough, gallant woman who doesn't have many illusions about her husband or herself, and Segal has a loose, informal sense of irony-he radiates likable human weakness. There are some wonderful scenes: the couple going to see a house that has come on the market because of a divorce, Segal just standing and looking at his two daughters through the window of a suburban dress shop-children who are simultaneously alien to their father's life and at the center of it. With Keenan Wynn, Sterling Hayden, Nancie Phillips, Janis Young, Andrew Duncan, Sherry Lansing, and Roy Scheider. Produced and written by Don Devlin, from J.M. Ryan's novel Brooks Wilson, Ltd. Cinematography by Gordon Willis; music by Bernardo Segall.

The wonderful scenes Kael refers to are nice, indeed. Eva Marie Saint is indeed tough, even gallant. And Segal, as is often the case, is loose and informal. I'd even agree that Kershner avoids looking down at his characters.

But she misses the boat when she says Segal radiates likable human weakness. His character is actually quite unlikable, and the movie is off because of the sense that Kershner, in trying to be fair to everyone, wants us to find the illustrator as likable as does Kael. I kept getting the feeling that I was supposed to understand what the artist was going through, but I didn't care because I thought he was a jerk.

losing it at the movies: blume in love (paul mazursky, 1973)

Picking this up after still yet another long break, this is the thirteenth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here. I've been at it for more than two years ... maybe I'll finish in 2022.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Blume in Love:

This romantic, marital-mixup comedy, written and directed by Paul Mazursky, is like a hip updating of The Awful Truth. Now the institution of marriage itself is in slapstick disarray. Blume (George Segal), an L.A. divorce lawyer, is berserkly in love with his ex-wife, the stiff-jawed Nina (Susan Anspach). An inscrutably frustrated, humorless woman, she has taken up with Elmo (Kris Kristofferson), a roly-poly drifter-musician. He’s just the right lover for tense Nina: his stoned contentment is the best protection against her high-mindedness. And he’s so likable that even Blume, who’s obsessed with winning Nina back, has to like him. Mazursky gets L.A. just right; he sees the pratfall folly of his educated, liberal characters who are up to their ears in social consciousness. This is his most messily romantic movie: he’s “too close” to the subject—he’s gummed up in it, and the chaos feels good. The scattier his characters are, the more happily he embraces them. They include Marsha Mason (in her film début) as a giggly, compliant woman who has an affair with Blume, and Shelley Winters as a legal client. Also with Donald F. Muhich as the divorced couple’s deadpan analyst, Mazursky himself as Blume’s law partner, Anzanette Chase, and Erin O’Reilly. There are scenes that dawdle, but in Mazursky’s best films craziness gives life its savor and a little looseness hardly matters. The cinematography is by Bruce Surtees; the production design is by Pato Guzman.

Blume in Love is very much of its time. Writer-director Paul Mazursky's films in the 1960s and 70s included Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Harry and Tonto, Next Stop Greenwich Village, and An Unmarried Woman. George Segal had a long career ... in the 1970s he worked with directors like Robert Altman and co-starred with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Glenda Jackson, Elliott Gould, and Jane Fonda. Blume in Love was only the third movie for Kris Kristofferson (Elmo), who followed it with directors like Peckinpah and Scorsese and teamed with Streisand in the 70s A Star Is Born. Susan Anspach (Nina) is best known for Five Easy Pieces, and she plays a similar character here, an intelligent, tense woman. (Anyone who thinks she could only play one type should check out Montenegro.) I'm not sure why her star faded, although she kept working through 2011 (she died in 2018). But for a few years, it felt like she was in half the good movies.

I was buried in movies in those days, especially in 1973, when I began my time as a film major. My program ran free double-features five nights a week, plus there were all the movies I watched in my classes. (One result was that despite my fighting hard against the literary canon in grad school, my time as a film major meant I had a comprehensive "canonical" education in movies.) Blume in Love was the kind of movie that I watched all the time, partly because there were movies like Blume in Love all the time. I liked it, especially a scene where George Segal (Blume) hangs out with his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, singing "Chester the Goat" (quit watching just before the two-minute mark ... the uploader added a montage that does nothing for me):

You can see why Kristofferson could be so appealing on screen ... it's as if his lack of actorly moves enhances his character here. Segal is trying hard to fit in, and also trying hard not to fit in, so he's more uncomfortable than Kristofferson. And Anspach is content for the moment. Mazursky gives the entire scene the feeling that it was made up on the spot, in a good way.

Blume is basically a creep, but he's the film's point of view and Segal manages to help us forget the creepiness. Kristofferson isn't quite a creep, but his casual lack of commitment finally loses whatever made him likeable. And yes, it was of its time. I don't think I'd seen it since it came out so long ago, and for the most part, my fond memories still held. But I had forgotten something, something that probably wouldn't be made today, and if it were, it would be treated much differently. Blume visits his ex, tries to get her to bed, insists on his love for her, and when she turns him down, he rapes her. And Mazursky doesn't shy away, doesn't pretend it "wasn't really a rape". But he does something worse: after she gets pregnant (time for Elmo to hit the road), Nina decides to give Blume another chance. And with that, all of my fond memories went down the drain.

And it's weird how it was treated at the time. Roger Ebert gave it his highest rating ... he didn't mention the rape at all. Nor is there any hint of it in Kael's review. Nor in other "major" reviews I read, from the New York Times and the Village Voice. Again, this would be one thing if the rape wasn't a rape, but Mazursky makes it clear what happened. And with that, Blume in Love goes from a fondly-remembered picture to something worse.

losing it at the movies: one flew over the cuckoo's nest (miloš forman, 1975)

Picking this up after still yet another long break, this is the twelfth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here. I've been at it for almost two years ... maybe I'll finish in 2021.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest:

Smashingly effective version of Ken Kesey's novel about a rebel outcast, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who is locked in a hospital for the insane. The book was a lyric jag, and it became a nonconformists' bible. Published in 1962, it contained the prophetic essence of the whole Vietnam period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic. Miloš Forman, who directed the movie version, must have understood how crude the poetic-paranoid vision of the book would look on the screen after the 60s paranoia had lost its nightmarish buoyancy, and he and the scenarists--Lawrence Hauben, and then Bo Goldman--did an intelligent job of loosening Kesey's schematism. Set in 1963, the movie retains most of Kesey's ideas but doesn't diagram them the way the book does. Louise Fletcher gives a masterly performance as Nurse Ratched--she's the company woman incarnate. And Will Sampson, a towering full-blooded Creek, is very impressive as Chief Broom, the resurrected catatonic. Forman's tentative, literal-minded direction lacks the excitement of movie art and there's a callousness running through his work; he gets laughs by pretending that mental disturbance is the same as ineptitude. But the story and the acting make the film emotionally powerful. And Nicholson, looking punchy, tired, and baffled--and not on top of his character (as he often is)--lets you see into him, rather than controlling what he lets you see. With William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Scatman Crothers, Danny De Vito, Vincent Schiavelli, Sydney Lassick, Louisa Moritz, Marya Small, and Christopher Lloyd; cinematography by Haskell Wexler.

Not being privy to the selection committee for the original Quad Cinema festival, I can only guess at why they chose certain movies. On the one hand, Kael praised Cuckoo's Nest with her usual extravagance, but far as I can tell, it isn't featured in either of the anthologies of her work, including the one where she chose the reviews. As she often did with films based on novels, her take on the book is as insightful as what she has to say about the movie, and in comparing the two, she illuminates them both. She is able to take a more distanced approach than I do, though ... though I was only nine when the book came out, it, and Kesey in general, was a touchstone for me in the 60s ... I am one of those people Kael comments on as jumping right into the novel's world view.

Kesey refused to see the movie, which he felt ruined his book. And indeed, a few of the changes from book to movie are crucial. The film almost completely lacks the psychedelic feel of the novel. Kesey has Chief Broom narrate ... as Kael describes him, the Chief is catatonic, which the other inmates and staff take to mean he is deaf and dumb. He is a diagnosed schizophrenic, and his first-person narrative is largely where Kesey instills psychedelia in the novel. Kesey was pissed that in the movie, McMurphy is the central character, with the Chief pushed to the side for much of the film. Whatever else he is, McMurphy is not schizophrenic ... his perspective is far from psychedelic. So the film version has an entirely different feel from the book, and if you read and loved the book for it's paranoid vision of "The Combine", you'll notice something is missing. I think Kesey missed out, if he really didn't see the film, because Will Sampson as the Chief is magnificent. I used to think it was Sampson who saved Kesey's vision, but watching it now, I think I was wrong. Sampson/Chief is an important character, but his psychedelic narration is gone.

The film famously won all of the top Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress), which hadn't happened in more than 40 years. Jack Nicholson is at his most iconic ... it's safe to say that if you like Jack, you'll love him in this movie. Louise Fletcher's performance as Nurse Ratched is much more subtle than you might think. Her competition for Best Actress was a mixed bag: two-time winner Glenda Jackson, the odd choice of Ann-Margret in Tommy, Carol Kane wonderful in the little-seen Hester Street, and Isabelle Adjani, to my mind Fletcher's equal in The Story of Adele H. Fletcher's Oscar was deserved.

But then there's the problem with women in the story. Nurse Ratched represents the most oppressive aspects of the establishment ... Kesey (and the film) doesn't really contest this notion of Mom as Evil. The other women in the film are a couple of prostitutes, and a few of Ratched's underlings. I'm sure I didn't notice this when I was a kid, and I probably was still clueless in 1975. In 2021, it's impossible to miss.

Forman's treatment of the inmates is also odd in ways that aren't always positive. Writing about Forman's work in general, Kael wrote, "I experience a streak of low, buffoonish peasant callousness running through his work. He locks people into their physical properties." Back in 1975, I thought maybe Forman hired some actual inmates and exploited them, they seemed so exaggeratedly real ... like "crazy people" might look. (The movie was filmed at an actual state hospital.) Now, what I see are a lot of actors who were unknown to me at the time ... Christopher Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Michael "Hills Have Eyes" Berryman, Brad Dourif (in essentially his screen debut). There is some good acting here, especially from Dourif. But Forman does have Lloyd walking around bug-eyed, Berryman looks like Berryman ... so does Vincent Schiavelli, who has a part, as well. Danny De Vito isn't any shorter than usual, but it feels like a more defining feature of his character. Forman's use of these actors equates looking odd with having mental/emotional problems, as if we can spot the crazies because they look different from the rest of us. The acting overcomes most of this, but never completely.

So, is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest still great? Does it, as they say, hold up? I'd say yes to both questions. There are problems that need to be confronted, but as Kael wrote, it's smashingly effective, and a lot of these people did their best work on this film.

losing it at the movies: the story of adele h. (françois truffaut, 1975)

Picking this up after yet another long break, this is the eleventh in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of The Story of Adele H.:

A François Truffaut film to rank with Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, and The Wild Child -- and perhaps his most passionate work. The picture is damnably intelligent--almost frighteningly so, like some passages in Russian novels which strip the characters bare. And it's deeply, disharmoniously funny--which Truffaut has never been before. The story, about romantic love fulfilled by self-destruction, is based on the journals of Adele, the daughter of Victor Hugo; she's played by the prodigious young actress Isabelle Adjani. The visual consistency attained by the cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, enables Truffaut to achieve a new concentration on character.

If anything, the above understates Kael's love of the film. "It’s a great film, I think—the only great film from Europe I’ve seen since Last Tango", high praise indeed from Kael in 1975. And she wasn't alone ... Molly Haskell compared it to Vertigo and The Earrings of Madame de ..., ("for me, the greatest ever made"). I think Haskell hit on something important, though, reflected in the title of her review: "'The Story of Adele H' Is a Tribute to an Experience". She called Adele H "fascinating, but ultimately more as a tribute to an experience than as an experience in itself."

Truffaut digs deep into Adele's obsession, but while Adele might think she is in love with Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson), or in a more abstract way, in love with love itself, the truth is if Adele is in love at all, it is with the obsession, not with the object of the obsession. Truffaut seems sympathetic to Adele, although her actions are increasingly excessive, such that we start to feel sorry for the cad Pinson. In real life (the story is based on the life of Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo's daughter), Adele spent her last 40 years in an asylum, and while a case can often be made for the ways "society" calls some people "insane", the Adele of Truffaut's movie, at least, seems to come to insanity without too much help from that society. Her obsession overwhelms her (perhaps that defines obsession), and Truffaut seems almost admiring of the commitment Adele makes towards that obsession. Thus, The Story of Adele H. is "a tribute to an experience" more than it is the actual experience.

Isabelle Adjani is the best thing about the movie. Only 19 when it was made, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (Louise Fletcher won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). At the time, this made Adjani the youngest-ever Best Actress nominee. She lets her obsession take her over gradually ... she is much worse off at the end of the film than at the beginning, but there is something off about her from the start, which she portrays with subtlety. We see how her obsessions crush her, as she goes from seeming reasonable to making things up out of thin air to, finally, wandering the streets, lost in her thoughts.

I'd seen The Story of Adele H. a long time ago, and didn't like it, but in fairness, I can no longer remember why. Unlike Kael, I don't think it's a great film ... among other things, I have no idea why she says it's funny. But I'm glad I gave it a second chance.

losing it at the movies: shoot the moon (alan parker, 1982)

Picking this up after yet another long break, this is the tenth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Shoot the Moon:

As Faith and George Dunlap, whose marriage has become poisoned because she knows all his weaknesses and failures, and her knowledge eats away at his confidence, Diane Keaton and Albert Finney give the kind of performances that in the theatre become legendary. And, in its smaller dimensions, Dana Hill’s performance as their 13-year-old daughter is perhaps equally fine. This unapologetically grown-up movie about separating is perhaps the most revealing American movie of its era. Though the director, Alan Parker, doesn’t do anything innovative in technique, it’s a modern movie in terms of its consciousness. The characters in the script written by Bo Goldman aren’t taken from the movies, or from books, either. Their emotions are raw, and rawness is what makes this film get to you. It goes way past coolness. Diane Keaton has no vanity; Faith’s angry misery is almost like a debauch—it makes her appear sodden. And both as a character and as an actor, Finney seems startled and appalled by what has been let loose in him. He’s an actor possessed by a great role—pulled into it kicking and screaming, by his own guts.

For some reason, over time I've become more aware of Kael's love of definitive exaggeration. A movie can't just be revealing, it has to be "the most revealing American movie of its era". She may even be right, but mostly, it's just a habit in her writing. Having said that, Shoot the Moon is indeed quite revealing of its characters. It was one of several movies in its era about divorce (Kramer vs. Kramer, An Unmarried Woman), and while it's been awhile since I've seen those, my memory is that Shoot the Moon is harder to take emotionally than those others, because of the rawness Kael refers to.

It was interesting to watch this movie after so many years, because it made quite an impact on me when it came out. I was at the tail end of my decade as a steelworker. I was miserable. I was a shitty husband, a shitty father, a shitty person. And, like men have done forever, I would lash out. I never went as far as George Dunlap in Shoot the Moon, at least not physically, but I felt a kinship with him at his worst. I like to think I'm not that person anymore, but revisiting it was still uncomfortable.

Shoot the Moon gets at the scariness of a bad temper on your loved ones. It shows how that tears at the insides of the man with the temper. And it finally shows how truly destructive such behavior is.

In fact, the excellence of the angry scenes somewhat overwhelms the movie. In my memory, Albert Finney was angry throughout, and expressing his anger ... I thought it was two hours of tantrums. In truth, the angry scenes are more spread out than I recalled, and much of the movie addresses the impact of divorce on a family with a slightly more toned-down feel.

I am not a fan of Alan Parker's work. The Life of David Gale is atrocious, Mississippi Burning not much better, and Midnight Express was overheated in all the wrong ways. I thought Parker's excesses were well-suited to the demonic feel of Angel Heart, and Parker brings real heat to the acrimony in Shoot the Moon. But even at his best, Parker is a minor figure. Of the ones I've seen, Shoot the Moon is his best.

I must mention one other thing. I waited through the credits so I could see the name of the Key Grip on the screen. It's my cousin, Jon Guterres, and it was one of his earliest on-screen credits.

Here is the best scene in the movie ... Finney and Keaton are great, the awful anger is there, and it glides into comedy unexpectedly.

losing it at the movies: last tango in paris (bernardo bertolucci, 1972)

Picking this up after another long break, this is the ninth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Last Tango in Paris:

Exploitation films had been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without passion or emotional violence. Then, in this film, Bernardo Bertolucci used sex to express the characters’ drives. Marlon Brando, as the aging American, Paul, is working out his aggression on the young bourgeois French girl, Jeanne (Maria Schneider), and the physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything that audiences had come to expect at the movies that the film created a sensation. It’s a bold and imaginative work—a great work. When Brando improvises within Bertolucci’s structure, his full art is realized; his performance is intuitive, rapt, princely. Working with Brando, Bertolucci achieves realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen.

In her full review, Kael famously compared the film to the first performance of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, which was a breakthrough in classical music and, legend says, inspired riots in its debut. There is no way for any movie to live up to such accolades, and anyone watching Last Tango today might be surprised that the famous critic was so overwhelmed by the film. Roger Ebert wrote, in 1995:

Watching Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" 23 years after it was first released is like revisiting the house where you used to live, and did wild things you don't do anymore. Wandering through the empty rooms, which are smaller than you remember them, you recall a time when you felt the whole world was right there in your reach, and all you had to do was take it.

This movie was the banner for a revolution that never happened.... It was not the beginning of something new, but the triumph of something old -- the "art film," which was soon to be replaced by the complete victory of mass-marketed "event films." The shocking sexual energy of "Last Tango in Paris" and the daring of Marlon Brando and the unknown Maria Schneider did not lead to an adult art cinema. The movie frightened off imitators, and instead of being the first of many X-rated films dealing honestly with sexuality, it became almost the last. Hollywood made a quick U-turn into movies about teenagers, technology, action heroes and special effects.

Make no mistake ... at the time, Last Tango in Paris was shocking. It was banned in some countries and censored in others. (Oddly, the version I watched this time, on HBO, was listed as NC-17 but the infamous butter scene was toned down by sticking a lamp over their midsections so we couldn't see exactly what was going on.)

The film is beautiful ... the cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, worked many times with Bertolucci, and his camera movement can be smoothly ecstatic even when the scenes do not involve sex.

The IMDB tells us that "Marlon Brando later admitted in his autobiography 'Songs My Mother Taught Me' that after making this film, he vowed to never again become so vulnerable for a role." Once you've seen his performance, you know what he meant. You will often read that someone is so good, they don't even seem to be acting. But that's not what Brando does here. We know he's acting, but he submerges himself so efficiently that we realize his acting is more real than someone else's non-acting. His Paul is merciless, with himself as well as with others, even with his wife, dead by suicide. He projects his self-hatred onto people. He is never what you'd call a "nice man", but we empathize with him because his pain is so deeply felt.

If only the whole movie was as good as Brando, it would be as good as Kael thought it was. Maria Schneider had many terrible things to say in later years about her experience making the film, and I see no reason not to believe her. What is most important as we watch is that her Jeanne is only there to provide Paul with something to work with. Bertolucci never fills out her character, and while she is fine in the movie, there isn't any real effort to make her better than fine.

Last Tango in Paris is not Bertolucci's best film ... it's been a very long time since I've seen it, but my memory is that The Conformist ranks at the top. Nor is it Brando's best, although it is close, and as his last great performance, it encompasses all of his past glories, which are imprinted in our minds. #371 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

geezer cinema: what she said: the art of pauline kael (rob garver, 2018)

This may be the ultimate "Steven's Pick" movie. Last summer, I made a small donation to the folks making this movie, which meant my name showed up in the credits, a first. Kael, of course, has been an obsession of mine for close to 50 years. A quote from her sits atop every page of this blog. Rob Garver has been working on this film for several years ... IMDB lists it as a 2018 movie, and that's when it first appeared at festivals. Prior to this, Garver was a director of shorts.

Garver tries to squeeze Kael's entire life into 98 minutes, an effort that is doomed from the start, although he does a pretty good job nonetheless. He hits the high points ... born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, attended Cal and settled in at Berkeley, had a daughter, worked at menial jobs because she couldn't make a living as a film critic, ran a theater, did reviews on radio, published a compilation of her work, got noticed, and went to New York.

You don't learn a lot about Pauline Kael the person ... if you do, it's more like my borrowed quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." Garver walks us through her most famous reviews, and those reviews supply much of the film's narrative. Limelight, Shoeshine, The Sound of Music, Bonnie and Clyde, Citizen Kane, Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, Shoah. Garver isn't a hagiographer ... he mentions some of her low spots in passing. But What She Said is nonetheless a love letter (appropriate that when it finally came to Berkeley, it was Valentine's Day). The very fact of its existence is remarkable: a documentary about a movie critic who has been dead for almost 20 years, who wrote her last review almost 30 years ago.

The movie is probably best appreciated by those of us who have memorized everything she ever wrote. Garver uses clips of Kael, interviews with people who knew her and/or were influenced by her, and voice overs of some famous passages, read by Sarah Jessica Parker. (Parker does fine ... she doesn't try to imitate the sound of Kael, she let's the words do the work, and while at first it was a bit odd hearing Parker, eventually I quit noticing.)

What She Said should be seen by all Kael aficionados. I'm not sure it will connect with others, though.

Here is a brief clip that combines Parker reading, Kael speaking, and Quentin Tarantino being Quentin Tarantino:

And the trailer:

losing it at the movies: nashville (robert altman, 1975)

Picking this up after another long break, this is the eighth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Nashville:

The funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen. Robert Altman’s movie is at once a Grand Hotel-style narrative, with 24 linked characters; a country-and-Western musical; a documentary essay on Nashville and American life; a meditation on the love affair between performers and audiences; and an Altman party. In the opening sequences, when Altman’s people—the performers we associate with him because he has used them in ways no one else would think of, and they’ve been filtered through his sensibility—start arriving, and pile up in a traffic jam on the way from the airport to the city, the movie suggests the circus procession at the non-ending of 8 1/2. But Altman’s clowns are far more autonomous; they move and intermingle freely, and the whole movie is their procession. The basic script is by Joan Tewkesbury, but the actors have been encouraged to work up material for their roles, and not only do they do their own singing but most of them wrote their own songs—and wrote them in character. The songs distill the singers’ lives, as the pantomimes and theatrical performances did for the actors in Children of Paradise.

The reason Nashville was included in the "Kael Festival" is obvious. Kael originally reviewed a rough cut of the film ... she was a big supporter of Altman's work, and he arranged a viewing hoping she might create some buzz. Her subsequent review (Molly Haskell called it a "dithyramb", and yes, I had to look up the meaning ... a "piece of writing that bursts with enthusiasm") certainly got people's attention. (Wikipedia refers to it as a "preview", since it preceded the film's actual release for a longish time.)

My opinion of Nashville has varied over the years, for one simple reason: I never know how to take the film's stance regarding country music. The rest of the movie deserves the highest praise, and that has always been true for me. But the idea of having actors write and perform their own songs, which makes a certain sense in terms of their characters, means we get a lot of mediocre-at-best music, presented as if it was beloved by country fans. This viewing, I guess I was feeling magnanimous, because the music didn't bother me as much as usual.

Henry Gibson is a good example. His portrayal of country icon Haven Hamilton, something like a Porter Wagoner, is wonderful. He acts with his eyes ... his disapproval is a scary thing. And there is something phony about Haven, who defines unctuous. Except by the end of the film, you realize that Haven's love for the music's culture and its fans is real ... he isn't really phony, even though he is playing a role. Gibson gives Haven status (ironic given Gibson/Haven's short height). But Gibson is a pretty poor singer. I could forgive this, because his songs are wonderfully obvious (interesting that most of his songs were written, not by Gibson, but by Richard Baskin). But I can't quit complaining about the way Nashville presents country fans as a group that loves bad singing ... it's insulting to the fans. But again, Gibson knocks it out of the park.

Some of the actors are better singers and songwriters than others ... David Carradine won an Oscar for Best Song for this picture. And Ronee Blakley is an actual singer ... I'm not a big fan of her music, but in Nashville, when she lets her voice run free, it's a beautiful thing, plus Blakley's performance won her a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress (the idea of a supporting actor is pretty silly with Nashville, which features 24 supporting parts and no leads).

And Carradine also wrote "It Don't Worry Me", which pops up more than once, including the emotional finale, when Barbara Harris, whose character has seemed like a bimbo throughout, rises to the occasion with the most moving segment in the entire movie.

The performances are variable, but none of them are bad ... it's more that there are too many characters and so some aren't fleshed out. Of particular note, besides Gibson, Blakley, and Harris, I'd mention Lily Tomlin, Gwen Welles, and Keenan Wynn.

The Long Goodbye is my favorite Robert Altman film, but Nashville is a strong second.

losing it at the movies: jaws (steven spielberg, 1975)

Picking this up after a break of three months, this is the seventh in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Jaws:

It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you. The film belongs to the pulpiest sci-fi monster-movie tradition, yet it stands some of the old conventions on their head.... When the three protagonists are in their tiny boat, trying to find the shark that has been devouring people, you feel that Robert Shaw, the malevolent old shark hunter, is so manly that he wants to get them all killed; he’s so manly he’s homicidal.... The director, Steven Spielberg, sets up bare-chested heroism as a joke and scores off it all through the movie.... The fool on board isn’t the chief of police, or the bookman, either. It’s Shaw, the obsessively masculine fisherman, who thinks he’s got to prove himself by fighting the shark practically single-handed. The high point of the film’s humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they’re tougher than anybody. The shark’s cavernous jaws demonstrate how little his toughness finally adds up to. This primal-terror comedy quickly became one of the top-grossing films of all time.

Kael also told the following anecdote:

While having a drink with an older Hollywood director, I said that I’d been amazed by the assurance with which Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, had toyed with the film frame. The older director said, “He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.”

I thought about that latter quote while watching Jaws again. I'm not positive I understand the point, and it's likely we don't see the revolutionary nature of Spielberg's work because in the last 44 years, it's become the norm. Still, let me give it a try. Spielberg blocks his scenes for the camera, not for the stage. He uses the camera as an aid in that blocking. He doesn't simply tell the actors where to stand ... he tells them where to move within a shot, and then moves the camera to solidify what he wants on the screen. Sometimes you notice what he is doing, but other times, he makes what we are watching seem "natural", as if no one was actually directing. His skill at changing points of view allows the audience to feel a part of first one character and then another, along with the occasional omniscient angle. In the case of Jaws, credit is due to editor Verna Fields, but often, it seems that Spielberg is editing in the camera so there is nothing left to do in the editing room.

Jaws is one of four Spielberg films I consider classics, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (my favorite), Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Yet Jaws also changed movie history in what seems to me to be unfortunate ways. As Wikipedia notes, "Jaws was the prototypical summer blockbuster, regarded as a watershed moment in motion picture history, and it won several awards for its music and editing. It was the highest-grossing film until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Both films were pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which pursues high box-office returns from action and adventure films with simple high-concept premises, released during the summer in thousands of theaters and heavily advertised." Jaws is a great film, and it wasn't the last great one of Spielberg's career. But this movie marks the beginning of the end of the "New Hollywood" era that began with Bonnie and Clyde. There have been many great American movies since Jaws, and however you define "New Hollywood", it still had plenty of life. But I've spent a lot of my life blaming Star Wars for what happened to Hollywood, and it's only fair to note that Jaws was there first.

Since this is a Pauline Kael-related post, I should include a link to one of her most famous essays that addresses some of the above: "Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers" from 1980.

#91 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.