Tag Archives: Day Seven

Ten Books in Ten Days: Day Seven – Reeling by Pauline Kael

reeling

I’ve excluded books of history or theory from this list that have to do with work even though some (Marx, Benedict Anderson, Harold Innis, Barthes, Sontag) had an influence on my thinking that exceeded the boundaries of my job – always and at best uncertain, elastic, permeable — and seeped into shaping an understanding of life and the ways the world works. But I can’t refrain from including Pauline Kael here: she was my introduction to films and film criticism. In the mid-late 70s there were very few film books in the second-hand bookshops I trawled through and worked at in Montreal but Going SteadyKiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I Lost it at the Movies could usually be found there along with Bazin, V.F. Perkins, Paul Rotha, John Grierson, maybe a collection of Agee.

The problem with those and with other film books then available was that one was usually reading on films that were not available to see; one was reading …but in the dark. This changed for me when Reeling was published and was available at every corner bookshop in paperback: I bought my copy at Classics. In Reeling she was writing about some films I’d already seen or would soon see on television, and one could have a conversation with her views, and as one grew up and social circles expanded, one could also have a conversation about her work with others. It was almost de rigueur at a certain period. I saved my money and bought The New Yorkeronly to read her: I could barely understand the rest of the magazine. The weeks she wasn’t in it, I didn’t buy.

Anyway this is turning into a thesis, suffice to say that I’ve read her all my life and continue to dip into it occasionally, that no one’s writing on film entertains me more, that she’s endlessly interesting as a figure and despite her unarguable historical importance has still not received the attention that is her due (why do David Thomson, James Wolcot and all the other major figures she helped have such a tortuous relationship with her legacy – each expression of gratitude is a sting; what does it say that the person who did most damage to her reputation was a fellow female critic, Renata Adler?). I miss her irreverence, that thirties unsentimental funniness, those marvellous jazzy sentences, her fearlessness (she was banned from screenings several times). No one now exercises a similar centrality in the current culture, and that’s probably a good thing. But it does seems to me that no established popular critic now dares call out and poke fun at those in power like she did with Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, calling him ‘Feather in Brains’, one of many of her jokes that still make me chuckle over thirty years later , and largely because it hits its target so accurately. See the film. That’s what Kael always made you feel like doing.

José Arroyo

‘Ten Films in Ten Days – Easter Parade’

 

easter parade

Most musicals aren’t very good. But I love them. Even the worst have at least one great number; and when the whole film is good, there’s nothing better. The glories of the ‘Astaire and Rogers’ films have already been extolled here. And the best of the Freed Unit (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon) needs no introduction. So today I’m going for ‘not quite top notch Freed-Unit’, which still probably makes it better than anything by anybody else. I’m thinking of films like The Harvey Girls, Show Boat, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Cabin in the Sky.


The reason for choosing Easter Parade (Chuck Walters, MGM, 1948) is simple. It’s the only film to star Astaire and Garland– to me the two giants of the genre. Each made films that are arguably better (much of the RKO series for Astaire; Wizard, Meet Me, and Star is Born for Garland). Irving Berlin raided his back catalogue and wrote new music for it: the score is a treasure box of standards, most sung by Garland and Astaire, of whom there’s no one better at singing the classic American songbook ,and at its very inception: this is the film that introduced ‘It Only Happens When I Dance With You’. Easter Parade was MGM’s biggest hit of the year one of the greatest successes of both of their careers. The ever-so alive Anne Miller helps anyone shake the blues away. Peter Lawford is the rich, charming but passive and not-fully-there fellar with an umbrellar. This is the film where Judy and Fred do the famous tramp number, ‘A Couple of Swells’. 


Judy was supposed to star with Kelly but he broke his leg and aren’t we glad he did? Breaking a leg can indeed bring luck. I used to watch this annually with my sister; and the only thing that’s changed about my feelings for it is that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate Garland’s performance more. She’s a truly great and truly inventive comic actress with crack timing. Just look at her parody of Ginger Rogers, feathers moulting off her dress in ‘Top Hat’ (see above). The DVD of Easter Parade has a wonderful series of out-takes on ‘Mr. Monotony’ which demonstrate so well how a film is pieced together of various takes. There are moments where she’s listening on the playback and then turns on the performance on a beat of the music — subtly projecting, fully present, eager to please and express — that are just astonishing to see. And you get to see how she does it the same but with slight subtle variations in take after take. Comparing the out-takes to the final number (excised from the print on its initial release) one realises that it’s almost always the first take that’s chosen.  It’s truly amazing.

 

José Arroyo