Friday, November 26, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #4: Pauline Kael (1983)

Pauline Kael

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to critics who ran against the current of popular thinking in the eighties. That chapter included discussions with film critic Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet) who wrote a book about gay cinema before the horror of AIDS changed the landscape; also Jay Scott, who would later die from AIDS, spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic; and author Margaret Atwood who turned to literary criticism in her 1986 book Second Words. She discussed -- from an author's perspective -- the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worst during this decade.
There was also a discussion with New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael who two years earlier had returned to writing after a brief hiatus as a consultant in Hollywood.  Kael's career began at a fortuitous time in movie history during the sixties when Godard, Truffaut, Bertolucci and Arthur Penn dramatically changed the face of the art form. Her reviews also changed the intent and style of criticism. She fought the auteur school of Andrew Sarris that was worshipful of film directors. She created instead an intuitive and personal approach to criticism based on examining her responses to the work and illuminating that experience in the context of art, politics, popular culture and literature. In a sense, she acted on D.H. Lawrence's sharp observation in his Classic Studies in American Literature: "Never trust the artist, trust the tale."
When we met to talk at the Windsor Arms hotel in Toronto, during her book tour for her compendium, 5001 Nights at the Movies, the Reagan decade was already beginning to have its deadening impact on the movie industry. I had only been reviewing professionally for about three years and was already beginning to witness a decline in quality pictures as well as the decline of a critical and discerning audience. With that question rattling in my brain, we began the interview.

kc: You once wrote in the seventies, a great decade for movies, that the hardest job for a critic to do is to convince a movie audience that certain visceral entertainment like The Towering Inferno and Death Wish were not good films, but crudely manipulative ones instead -- Is it becoming even more difficult to be that convincing today?
pk: Oh yes. I think it's still true that if people are emotionally moved by a movie they think it is a great movie. They can't believe that those emotions were pulled out by very simple tricks. It's funny...if you reduce it to its simplest and let's say you see a boy, and the boy loses his dog, and the dog gets run over, of course, it's going to make you cry. Well, there are certain kinds of romantic stories that will have the same effect. I'd say there is a terrific example in An Officer and a Gentleman. I've gotten very hostile mail from people who thought that it was so realistic and true to the life of poor people. They couldn't understand why I took that side of it with a grain of salt.
kc: I responded similarly with On Golden Pond.
pk: (laughing) I responded negatively all the way! That film exploited the public's knowledge that Henry Fonda was dying and the material itself was such obvious phoniness. It's such a prettied-up view of old age with the man and the wife so supportive and loving. Have you ever known an old couple even remotely like this? There were none of the hostilities coming out that would have developed in that marriage over the years. It didn't even come out in relation to their daughter. You know, if the father had mistreated the daughter all those years and made her miserable, and if the mother loved her, surely this would have been a bone of contention between the parents. And if you're the daughter and you've had this rejecting stink of a father, I don't know if you're going to come out in the end and say, "I love you."  

Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond
kc:...or do back-flips in the pond to get your father's approval.
pk: I mean, if you have to do back-flips in order to be accepted by a parent, I think it's hopeless anyway.

kc: I wonder if this change in both movies and the audience follows up on that piece you wrote in The New Yorker in the late seventies called "Fear of Movies." In this piece, you stated that audiences were becoming afraid of exciting movies, or violent ones, because of what it stirred up in them. Audiences, according to your piece, were starting to embrace more banal, or safe pictures. This revelation touched a nerve in me because there were some pretty interesting pictures that I couldn't get certain friends to see because they'd say, "I don't need that." How pervasive is this attitude today?
pk:  I've been jumped on and attacked for that article more than anything I've ever written. Now I'm being accused of, or pro-blood and guts. People completely misread what I was trying to say. I think a lot of people want to misread anything on the subject of violence because they don't want to deal with it analytically. They want to reject all violence instead of realizing that it's a basic part of all dramatic, literary and film art. It's as if, once people reject the really bloody revenge fantasies, or the street western movie, or even the horror movie, they transfer it also to movies that upset them, or really get them excited. They think that film art is a polite foreign film like Truffaut's The Woman Next Door which is like a situation comedy being treated very seriously. A lot of mediocre fillms from Europe are getting great press and marvellous response in North America because they're safe. They don't have the kind of churning emotion that you get in The Godfather, Mean Streets, or Taxi Driver.
kc: Why do you think we are getting this kind of timidness now?
pk: I think it's partly because our whole society seems so violent and fraught with danger. In the United States, we still have a lot of unresolved racial problems in the cities. Put simply: People want safety at the movies. They don't want anything that reminds them of the horror on the streets.
kc: But if some movies have the ability to get us to confront our fears, why would we choose to reject them?
Al Pacino and Marlon Brando
pk: I think many people feel that they're rejecting them for their own peace of mind. And you can't convince them otherwise. If you say it's a great movie and it intensifies your experiences without in any way exploiting violence -- in fact, it makes you hate the violent characters -- people still want to remove that entire experience. Many people thought The Godfather was a violent movie and didn't want to think of it as a piece of film art. It was easier to make fun of it as a cheap gangster movie than admit that it did excite them.
kc: This reminds me of another film from a couple of years back that also inspired strong negative reaction and that was Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill. At the screening I attended, feminist groups were outside encouraging people to walk out because they felt the movie was celebrating violence against women.
pk: They did that in the States as well. I thought that was a very naive reading of the movie because the Angie Dickinson character (ed. a housewife who is murdered by a psychopath in an elevator after having had sexual relations with a man who she just met) is darling. You feel so sorry for her. Here is this sweet woman who isn't harming anyone and this hideous irony happens where she steps out and tries to have some sexual pleasure and she gets killed after it. It's so subtly funny in the way that it's handled. Somehow the feminist critics have treated it as if she's being punished for her sexual transgression. I don't think that's remotely what's going on in the movie.

kc: Why then do you think political groups would get so incensed about Dressed to Kill if it doesn't eroticize the murder of women?
pk: I think that there often is a misreading of a movie in terms of issues. Certain people, when they are organizing, homosexual and feminist groups, almost wilfully misread what is going on in a movie in order to feel that they are being insulted. Some black pressure groups have been this way about the portrayal of blacks on the screen. Now producers are afraid to have any black characters who aren't the greatest thing you've ever seen because people will get upset. It's unfortunate. I've been criticized by certain feminist groups for not calling for legal censorship which I happen to think it the last thing that movies need. The point is, they are so upset over the violence issue that I don't think they look at how violence functions within the movie. They just decide that any acts of violence against women have to be protested against.  
kc: But there are some movies that have exploited violence against women, don't you think?
pk: Sure. There are also movies that gloat about the killing of men, too. Often those films aren't the ones that are protested. It's generally the best work -- the work that really doesn't do that, the kind that involves people emotionally. After all, why was it D.H. Lawrence who got people so upset that they wanted to censor him? They don't censor somebody who doesn't make them feel anything. I think it's because Brian de Palma does get at very basic emotions, as well as some rather subtle intellectual concepts, that they're offended by him. On the other hand, something like...oh...that Hitchcock film from the sixties where that woman is strangled....
Barbara Leigh-Hunt in Frenzy
kc: Frenzy?
pk: Yes. Frenzy. It's amazing. I found that film rather offensive because the woman is made to look ridiculous right at the point where she was being killed. I thought there was something very ugly -- spiritually -- about that. It's very odd that no one protested that. I've seen Clint Eastwood movies, and I'm thinking of [Magnum Force] where a black whore is made to swallow Drano. There was nothing in the scene to excite the audience except the brutality. It's generally the hacks that do that and nobody protests them. I think the movie Cruising was probably mangled by the protests because I think the movie-makers weakened the idea. The book that the movie is based on has a terrific subject for a movie. There is a legitimate idea there that a man who is that interested in hunting a killer of homosexuals becomes a killer of homosexuals. Even though it was an ugly book to read, there was some psychological validity to it. By the time they made the movie inoffensive to homosexual pressure groups, they had nothing left.
kc: This brings me back to what we were discussing around the fear of movies.You wrote another piece earlier in the seventies about the audience watching Arthur Penn's Alice Restaurant as an audience that was trying to feel its way through that movie. From what we've been talking about, audiences today don't seem that willing to take a chance on a film that doesn't spell it all out.
pk: It's true. People today are more closed off. I think in the seventies they were more open to movies, as they were also in the sixties. It's harder now to get them to go out and see something a little unusual. I even think they resent it when they have to sit back and feel their way in. I don't think they want to anymore. Who knows if it's the influence of television, or the Reagan era, or what it is? They just seem hostile if it isn't a movie that just lays everything on the line like On Golden Pond. That's the kind of movie that makes me resentful because I feel like I'm being treated like an idiot. Unfortunately, quite a few people want movies to be as simple as TV.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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