What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael gives us the opportunity to reflect on a woman who, for José, stands above all other popular film critics, and whose work has always remained resonant. Pauline Kael effused about, excoriated, and defined an era of cinema and the culture that surrounded it, and changed the way films were written about. Through interviews with other critics, filmmakers and her daughter, Gina James, What She Said tells the story of Kael’s life, work, philosophies, and controversies.
And not very well. The documentary doesn’t ask interesting enough questions about Kael’s life, glossing over areas that just beg to be explored, such as the relationship that produced Kael’s daughter, which is handled only with a cursory line of superimposed text. José finds fault with the use of Sarah Jessica Parker to recite excerpts of Kael’s reviews, feeling it to be wasted time; Mike argues that we’re here because of her work, so it’s sensible to include examples of it, and the use of appropriate film clips to accompany the words works well. Wasted time or not, the film doesn’t show much interest in digging deep.
However, there’s pleasure to be had in spending time with What She Said‘s interviewees, and sinking into its vast assortment of archive footage and illustrative film clips. It’s a fan film, in the end, and enjoyable if approached with that in mind, and though Mike finds it hagiographic, José is glad of it as a corrective to Kael’s detractors, of whom there were many, who saw her as a harridan and whose sparring with her almost always had an obviously misogynist component. It’s an unsatisfying documentary, but well-meaning, and recommended to anyone with an interest in film culture and its history.
In the early 80s, pushing 70, But Lancaster top-lines and gets a star entrance in Cattle Annie and Little Britches. The film, based on a true story, is about Cattle Annie (Amanda Plummer) and Little Britches (Diane Lane) but Burt’s Bob Dooley is the legend, the lodestar, who they want to emulate and with whom they want to join. He’s no longer the romantic lead, but the film’s protagonists have their own non-sexual romance of and with him, and so does the film.
Mannerisms in actors are usually seen as a negative. That an actor resorts to old tricks and lacks the imagination to inhabit character in different ways. But what if those gestures of body and face, those stances that indicate bursts of energy are part of what audiences love and look forward to in an actor’s performance? In Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Burt’s mannerisms bring up whole eras of audience affection, evoke authority, and are shortcuts to character and a base with which to create something new. He’s too old in the film to play the romantic leading man but the film has its own romance with him, his stardom and his own legend that feeds into that of his character’s. And displaying his body is still part of what he does as an actor and a star, even if pushing 70, it’s now filmed through mist (Pauline Kael said he looked like an old water buffalo). Perhaps that’s why he was still top-billed and headlining in vehicles guided by intelligence and social purpose into his 70s and almost right through the 1980s.
One of the reasons I pay no attention to all the Kael haters is that I vividly remember Kael’s review forty years after I read it, and this was a movie I’d never been able to see up to now. And now that I have seen it and re-read it, I agree with so much of what she says. And she’s so funny saying it. On Rod Steiger: ‘Rod Steiger is probably more contained than he has been in years. The last time I saw him—doing his padre number in “The Amityville Horror”—his spiritual agony was enough to shatter the camera lens.’
Pauline Kael is worth quoting at length: ‘here are some remarkable performances—Lancaster’s and Diane Lane’s, and, especially, the unheralded, prodigious screen début of Amanda Plummer. (Actually, everything about this picture is unheralded. It was finished over a year ago, but nobody wanted to release it, because a couple of other Westerns had failed. It wasn’t really released: it was just dropped into a Broadway theatre for a week, to plug up a hole before “Outland” arrived.) As Bill Doolin, Lancaster (who made this film before “Atlantic City”) is a gent surrounded by louts—a charmer. When he talks to his gang, he uses the lithe movements and the rhythmic, courtly delivery that his Crimson Pirate of 1952 had when he told his boys to gather ‘round. The great thing about Lancaster is that you can see the face of a stubborn, difficult man—a man who isn’t easy to get along with. He has so much determination that charm doesn’t diminish him. In his scenes with Diane Lane, the child actress who appeared in New York in several of Andrei Serban’s stage productions and who, single-handed, made the film “A Little Romance” almost worth seeing, Lancaster has an easy tenderness that is never overdone, and she is completely inside Jenny’s childish dependency. And when he’s by himself, naked, soaking at the hot springs (where the marshal traps him), he’s a magnificent, sagging old buffalo. Lancaster looks happy in this movie and still looks tough: it’s an unbeatable combination’.
The film itself is charming and a bit ramshackle. It’s unusual to see a film about women’s desires to be outlaws, one set in a period where those dreams were being shut down along with the frontier, and yet the film doesn’t makes those desires as central to the narrative as it should, constantly cutting to the bigger stars, Lancaster himself of course, but also Rod Steiger and Jon Savage — whatever happened to him? He seemed to be everywhere in this period — and even Scott Glenn (why didn’t he become a bigger star? He’s sexy, charismatic and so good here and in practically everything he did in this period). And the questions I ask above in relation to Savage and Glenn are even more worth asking regarding Amanda Plummer, a debut to compare to Hepburn’s writes Kael, and yet it seems American cinema of this period did not have the space for such an electric and original presence. Its loss. But this is a film that allows us to enjoy and mourn the magnitude of that loss.
According to Kate Burford, ‘critics would note that Larry Pizer’s cinematography glowed like a Frederick Remington vision’ (loc 2903), except for the clip of Burt’s entrance I’ve extracted above, where one can barely see anything.
In her extraordinary book on Lancaster, Kate Buford includes excerpts from a truly illuminating interview with Amanda Plummer on Lancaster’s acting in Cattle Annie that is worth extracting here in its entirety:
A bit of trivia: Steven Ford, son of the American President Gerald, appears in a small role as a man of the law and is very good.
A landmark film. One of the great hits of the 1950s, with an all star cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine. One of the things that makes the film legendary is that it contains some of the best screen moments of that astonishing cast: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster kissing on the beach, Sinatra’s Maggio dying in Prewitt’s arms; Prewitt on the trumpet playing through tears at Maggio’s funeral, Fatso’s sadism, more evil for being so unaware and perfectly embodied by Borgnine. With the the exception of Donna Reed — whose TV super-stardom in The Donna Reed Show superseded the meanings her persona accrued here — these are roles the cast would continued to be remembered for even up to now.
There are many legends that accrue to the film: how Joan Crawford dropped out over a silly dispute regarding her wardrobe; what Frank Sinatra had to do to get this role: Did he make an offer that couldn’t be refused? Was there a horse’s head under Harry Cohn’s sheets. However he got the role, what he did with it became one of show-business’ legendary come-backs. His work remains terrific.
The shot on the beach, which you can see below, marked an era. It was considered shocking partly because Deborah Kerr is on top, and remains amongst the sexiest embraces ever filmed.
The film is tightly directed: every shot counts; and it remains emotionally affecting, partly through always siding with the underdog (Di Maggio, Prewitt, the prostitutes and adulteresses of this world), partly through evoking the depths of unhappiness that love can bring, such as in the beautiful scene below.
The film also offers more spectacular pleasures, again unusual in that it focusses on male bodies in various states of undress, such as Burt Lancaster below:
and Burt Lancaster in motion is always a joy to watch, like everybody’s idealistic embodiment of G.I Joe, at least if that were any longer a possibility:
David Greven, commenting on the initial posting of this piece, argues that, ´There are many things to recommend this movie, but for me it has always been about Clift primarily and his absolute and utter integrity as an actor. Sinatra lends fine support and is indeed probably better than any other time, but Clift is the mesmeric centre of this film´.
And perhaps it´s true that he deserves more attention here. In her review of the film, Pauline Kael writes, ”Montgomery Clift´s bony, irregularly handsome Prewitt is a hardhead, a limited man with a one-track mind, who´s intensely appealing; Clift has the control to charm –almost to seduce — an audience without ever stepping outside his inflexible, none–too-smart character’. She sees the conflict between (Prewitt´s) status and his determination to have his rights (as) the mainspring of the action, and later argues that Prewitt´s fate gets ‘buried in the commotion of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And Clift´s innovative performance was buried in the public praise for Sinatra and Lancaster. It was almost as if the public wanted to forget Prewitt´s troublesome presence’ (5001 Nights At The Movies, p. 204).
One could, however, see this in a different way, as David Thompson perceptively does in his review of the film. It´s not that Prewitt´s fate gets buried, it´s that ‘this complicated romantic story is so wonderfully aimed at December 7, 1941. The sudden collapse of urgent personal stories in the name of war is what is most impressive about this picture, and most true to the mood of 1941. In a world war, millions of ordinary people put their lives on hold. In turn, the quality that a nation brings to its war is exemplified in part by the stubbornness of Prewitt and Maggio and the expertise of Sergeant Warden in getting things done. …Definitive popular cinema, (p.314, Have You Seen….)
Clift is divine in From Here To Eternity, with some unforgettable moments. He´s beautiful and affecting in everything he does, and the trumpet scene is gorgeous and moving, And Prewitt is indeed the mainspring of the action, his inability to bend is what sparks everything. But Lancaster is undoubtedly the centre of the film narratively, structurally, and he too has two unforgettable moments, both which I´ve included here. The love scene on the beach (obviously) but also the moment in the car with Kerr where they talk of the unhappiness their love brings them, which is just lovely. There´s also a thing about film acting, about embodying, rather than traditional notions of acting, the way his body is used, when he bends down to kiss Kerr say, or when he breaks the bottle to take on Fatso, that are superb and under-appreciated.
Everyone agrees Clift is great in this, a legendary performance. There are now several books about Clift and he is widely considered one of America´s greatest actors. Elisabetta Girelli, for example ,sees From Here to Eternity as a film that ‘crowns the peak stage of Clift´s stardom’ (loc 1851 Kindle, Montgomery Clift, Queer Star) and offers a fascinating queer reading of the film based on Clift´s performance and the film´s uses of his presence. If indeed the praise for Lancaster and Sinatra upon the film´s first release buried Clift´s achievements, this is certainly no longer the case. Indeed, I find that critics and scholars (though not audiences) find it harder to appreciate what Lancaster brings, which to me is just as great albeit in a different way. He always embodied and always performed for an audience, and as his career developed he learned to also *act* a character: all of those things are entwined but each is also a distinctive aspect of what a screen actor brings to film drama. And one of the things that distinguishes this film from so many others is how marvellous all of the leads are, each in a different way, as, for example, the way Kerr looks as she says she´s never felt that way before. Superb.
The film also succeeds in dramatising a solution to real contradictions. The army is horrible throughout; sadistic, petty, punitive; until Pearl Harbour, where everyone heeds the call to arms, even at the cost of their lives. It’s a lovely film that well evokes passion, sadness, various kinds of love, including depths of non-sexual feeling men can really have for each other. It’s a rare film in that every kind of coupling is defeated, most of our heroes die, love is impossible. But of course everything important alters once war begins: everything changes then, and thus perhaps now has a renewed resonance.
The set-piece of the bombing of Pearl Harbour remains spectacular. The scenes leading up to it, with Zinnemann cleverly putting characters in front of dates (the 6th) or names (Pearl Harbour) subtly lead up to that moment. It’s a film where rhythm and pacing have been carefully through through. Everything’s measured, including the explosions: here, it works.
It’s a beautiful adaptation of James Jones, probably much better than the book deserves, and miles above the TV mini-series with Natalie Wood and William Devane.
The film won the award for Best Film and Zinnemann, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra won Oscars. Burt Reynolds won the New York Film Critics’ award. One of the great hits of the era, with the shot of Kerr and Lancaster on the beach embracing through the tide one of the most famous in the history of cinema.
A landmark noir with a superb opening sequence (see below): we see some men through their shadows reflected on a wall. They’re fighting. The only light source seems to be from a lamp and the light gets extinguished as it falls on the floor. For a moment we only hear sounds. Then the lamp gets turned on again but we only see a person below the waist. We follow that person’s feet and they reveal a body on the floor. The man searches its pockets. The first man grabs the other man, clearly drunk, and we see only their legs as they leave through the door. The camera then pans back to allow us to gaze on the body on the floor. There’s a dissolve and the body gets turned over to show us it’s now clearly a corpse with a man we will come to know as Captain Finley asking a woman, ‘Was Samuels drunk when you left him at the bar’?
It’s a great opening, all shadows, mystery, half-seen moments of violence. Who are these two men? What were they doing there? Which one is the killer? Why did he kill? These are questions the film sets up. They’ll be answered progressively and only fully at the end. In the meantime the world of the film is dramatically conveyed: darkness, violence, murder, mystery, murkyness. And it´s got a particular and particularly resonant context. These are all returning soldiers who have been demobbed but have yet to find their way home, in a liminal, transitory space, with many of them not yet adapted to a civilian context and some still processing trauma. The world created is a vivid one.
Crossfire is based on novel by Richard Brooks, The Brick Foxhole. In the novel the cause of the murder was homophobia. The film changes it to anti-Semitism, newly unacceptable after Auschwitz, and denunciations of which were then in vogue: Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement, made the same year, won the Oscar for Best Picture.
According to Thomas Schatz in Boom or Bust:’ In 1947, Hollywood’s film noir output accelerated and took on a new complexity as the period style began to cross-fertilize with other emerging postwar strains. Sometimes noir only slightly shaded an established formula or recombined a bit with another genre. Crossfire, for example, is very much a hard-boiled crime thriller except for two elements which interject element of both the message picture and the police procedural:the killer (Robert Ryan) is an ex-GI motivated by rabid anti-semitism, and he is eventually brought to justice by a police detective (Robert Young) operating very much by the book (p.379)’.
What anti-semitism brings as motive and cause to a crime film and police procedural like Crossfire is that it´s particularly difficult to prove. Robert Young, nice, steady Robert Young — to my generation forever Marcus Welby MD– is top-billed but burdened with the thankless task of delivering the film´s message, offered in the most cringey and condescending way possible. According to Pauline Kael, ‘There are condescending little messages on the evils of race prejudice that make you squirm; this is the patina of 40s melodrama’. It´s difficult to disagree with the former but I´m not sure about the latter.
In many ways, the film is an archetypal noir: flashbacks that offer different perspectives on the action; unreliable narration, subjective camera on scenes evoking drunkenness that are all canted angles out of focus, and marvellous to see,;low-key lighting often deploying one source (see above). It´s got a great look from cinematographer J. Roy Hunt; and Dmytrik is wonderful at creating interesting compositions (see below):
…and at choosing just the right angles for maximum expressiveness, such as the way the film suggests the very real threat and power that Montgomery (Robert Ryan) represents (see below):
According to J.R. Jones in The Lives of Robert Ryan:´Dmytryk also chose his lenses to make Monty look increasingly crazed: at first his close-ups were shot with a fifty-millimeter lens, but this was reduced to forty, thirty-five, and ultimately twnty-five millimeter. ¨When the 25mm lens was used, Ryan´s face was also greased with cocoa butter,¨Dmytryk recalled, ¨the shiny skin, with every pore delineated, gave him a truly menacing appearance¨(p.59).
Crossfire is exciting to watch. But it´s also blunt and capable of great crudity — not just thematically, as in the homilies offered by Robert Young´s Finlay but also through it´s mise-en-scène. Note below how Ginny, the hooker marvellously played by Gloria Grahame is introduced via a dissolve of a trash can (see gif below)
Robert Ryan nominated for Best Supporting Actor; Gloria Grahame won for Best Supporting Actress. Sam Levene is the victim. George Cooper is Mitchell, the fall-guy. Robert Mitchum was clearly used just for box-office and is completely wasted.
The film was a B produced by Adrian Scott, later one of the Hollywood Ten. It´s box office success would launch Dore Schary from producing B´s at RKO into his running of MGM, still for while, the ‘Tiffany´s’ of the studio. It´s the product of progressive filmmakers then at RKO who wanted to make a difference (Schary, Scott, Dmytryk) and was praised for it´s worthyness. But it was also , one of a series of films that led to the famous saying, ‘if you want to send a message, use Western Union.’
To say that it´s a landmark is not to say that it´s great.
‘The aim of Alternate Takes is to provide analysis of cinema that is informed by academic debates, but also walks a line between the journalistic review and the critical essay. It publishes long-form essays that embody this ethos, but the most obvious way the site has achieved this compromise position between reviewing and scholarly criticism is by writing about new films twice. First there is a short, evaluative piece that ‘spoils’ as little as possible about a film, but still grants a sense of the sorts of experience it offers; the idea is that this is a review to read before you see a film. Then, after you’ve watched it, you can read our Alternate Take – a longer, more in-depth critical piece, which usually digs more deeply into a particular critical issue that the movie raises. While over the years this dual-review format has become less rigidly enforced, the overall approach it fostered has remained the same, and the site has continued to publish film criticism that is in-depth, critical, mindful of social and artistic contexts, but also accessible and enjoyable.’
The impetus for this conversation with Josh Schulze was merely to find out if there was a new direction he, along with co-editors Matt Denny, Patrick Pilkington and Leanne Weston, wanted for the now celebrated digital platform and what that might be.
In the podcast Josh and I discuss Pauline Kael, cinephilia, the pressures of writing quickly and its effects on film reviewing, the nuances of film criticism and how Alternate Takes is devoted at looking at films and television in depth. We also discuss our admiration for the video essays of Adrian Martin, Catherine Grant and Kogonada, and how contributing to Alternate Takes is a great way for early career people and students to explore their ideas and take new approaches to film.
The Long Goodbyeis by now an acknowledged classic. It wasn’t always so. As Pauline Kael writes in her 1973 review, ‘It’s a knockout of a movie that has taken eight months to arrive in New York because after being badly reviewed in Los Angeles last March and after being badly received (perfect irony) it folded out of town. It’s probably the best American movie ever made that almost didn’t open in New York.’ Charles Champlin, one of the initial culprits, titled his review ‘A Private Eye’s Honour Blackened’. But as early as 1974, Stewart Garrett in Film Quarterly was already underlining its importance and influence: ‘‘the masterwork of America’s most interesting working director….In watching Chinatown, one can feel The Long Goodbye lurking behind it with the latent force of a foregone conclusion’. All I want to do here is add my praise, point to a couple of aspects of the film’s particular brilliance, and also indicate some problems with the film that its biggest fans have been too quick to gloss over.
The movie begins and ends with an extract from the song ‘Hooray for Hollywood’, a nod to dreamland and part of the film’s homage to noir and the detective genre. Elliot Gould is a different Marlowe than Humphrey Bogart, looser, gentler, even more addicted to tobacco, with cigarettes constantly dangling from his thick, sensuous lips. The car he drives, the apartment building he lives in, the bars he frequents, all conjure up the forties. But the LA he moves through, a character of its own in this film (the skyline, the highways, the all-night supermarkets, Malibu), with the women in the apartment next door making hash brownies, practicing yoga, and dancing topless, all point to the film’s present. And that interplay between past and present, figured through the casting of Elliot Gould as the central character, is one of joys of the film.
Gould’s Marlow, unkempt, seeming to offer a wry, disbelieving and humours look at everything he sees, is convincingly single, marginal, and over-reliant on his cat for company. He is the most unkempt and bedraggled of leading man: loose, irreverent but convincingly embodying someone who carries the night with him like a halo; a knight errant reeking of stale tobacco, too much booze and too little sleep. His friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouten) calls hims a born loser.
David Thomson writes of how Altman ‘spends the whole film concentrating on the way Elliott Gould moves, murmurs, sighs, and allows silence or stillness to prevail’. And this at a time when as Pauline Kael writes in her review of the film, by 1973 , ‘Audiences may have felt that they’d already had it with Elliot Gould; the young men who looked like him in 1971 have got cleaned up and barbered and turned into Mark Spitz. But it actually adds poignancy to the film that Gould himself is already an anachronism…Gould comes back with his best performance yet. It’s his movie.’ It certainly is. Next to M*A*S*H and Bob &Carol&Ted&Alice, it’s also become the one he’s most associated with.
The first few scenes in the film dazzle. The whole sequence with the cat at the beginning where Marlowe gets up to feed it, the cat jumping from counter, to fridge, and onto Marlowe’s shoulder is disarming and rather wondrous. Even those who don’t love cats will be charmed. But the scene also conveys quite a bit about who Marlowe is: someone lonely, who relies on cats for company; someone responsible and loving who cares that the cat is well fed and willing to go out in the middle of the night to buy the cat’s preferred brand; a good neighbour too, prepared to get the brownie mix the women next door ask for and unwilling to charge them for it: a gent or a chump? The choices Altman makes to show and tell us the story are constantly surprising, witty and wondrous on their own. See above, a minor example, that begins inside the apartment, showing us the city’s skyline, then the women, then the women in the city, before dollying down, something that looks like a peek at a little leg action before showing us, perfectly framed, Marlowe arriving in his vintage car.
In The Long Goodbye much is filmed through windows, which sometimes look onto something else, allowing action to happen on at least two planes. However the dominant use of this is to show the play of what’s happening between foreground and background, with the pane of glass, allowing partial sight of what’s beyond the glass and the reflection itself only partially showing what’s in front of it; and both together still only adding up to two partial views that don’t make a whole but which suggest there’s a background to things, and things themselves are but pale reflections of a greater underlying reality. You can see an example of this in the still above, from the the interrogation scene at the police station with the two way mirror. It’s a beautiful, expressive composition. According to Richard K. Ferncase, ‘the photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is unlike the heavy chiaroscuro of traditional noir’. However, as evident in the still above, whilst it might be unlike, it certainly nods to and references it. In fact it’s part of a series of references: the gatekeeper who does imitations of James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Barbara Stanwyck etc; the way Marlowe lights matches a la Walter Neff, the hospital scene where it seems like the Invisible Man or Bogart before his plastic surgery in Dark Passage, etc.
This must be one of Vilmos Zsigmond’s greatest achievements as a cinematographer. Garret writes of how, ‘Altman accentuated the smog-drenched haze of his landscape by slightly overexposing, or ‘fogging’ the entire print.’ Ferncase admires the ‘diaphanous ozone of pastel hues, blue shadowns, and highlights of shimmering gossamer’ Zsigmond created by post-flashing the film. Zsigmond himself attributes this to a low budget: ‘We…flashed the film heavily, even more than we flashed it on McCabe. And the reason was basically because we didn’t have a big budget there for big lights and all that. So we were really very creative about how, with the little amount of equipment that we had, how we are going to do a movie in a professional way. A couple of things we invented on that movie — like flashing fifty per cent, which is way over the top. But by doing that we didn’t have to hardly use any lights when go from outside or inside and go outside again.’.
Robert Reed Altman notes how, ‘On Long Goodbye the camera never stopped moving. The minute the dolly stopped the camera started zooming. At the end of the zoom it would dolly and then it would zoom again, and it just kept moving. Why did he do it? Just to give the story a felling, a mood, to keep the audience an an edge’. Zsigmond describes how this came to be, ”On Images, when we wanted to have something strange going on, because the woman is crazy, we decided to do this thing — zooming and moving sideways. And zooming, and dollying sideways. Or zooming forward. What is missing? Up and down! So we had to be able to go up and down, dolly sideways, back and forth, and zoom in and out. Then we made The Long Goodbye and Robert said, ‘Remember that scene we shot in Images? Let’s shoot this movie all that way’.
They did. But it’s worth remarking that whilst Altman was happy to let actors improvise and to grab and use anything useful or interesting that happened to pass by the camera’s path (the funeral procession, the dogs fucking in Mexico, etc.), the use of the camera seems to me to be highly conscious and controlled. See the scene below when Marlowe brings Roger Wade (a magnificent Sterling Hayden, like wounded lion on its last legs) home to his wife.
In the scene above Marlowe has just brought Wade back home to his wife Eileen (Nina van Pallandt), who’d hired Marlowe to do just that. As Marlowe heads to the beach, note how they’re both filmed outside a window, Wade cornered into the left side of the frame, his wife on the right; the palm trees reflected on the glass but outside. Inside the house is dark, the conversation pointed. In the next shot we get closer to Wade but stil framed within frames, encased in his situation, with window shades acting like bars behind him. In the third shot, we get closer to where the first shot was but Wade seems even murkier, hidden. When Eileen says ‘milk, is that what you really want,’ The camera zooms in, first on him, then her, then him, and as he walks over to her, we see Marlow behind a second window in the back. So we are seeing a domestic scene through a window, sunny California reflected in the palms in front, in the surf behind, something dark happening inside the house, and Marlow, pondering outside, for the moment their plaything, and playing on the surf behind, seen through two sets of glass. Much of the scene will be played like that until Wade goes to join Marlowe outside. Brilliantly evocative images, vey expressive of the characters, their situation and their dynamic, and they seem to me to be perfectly controlled to express just that. In fact that series of images evoke what the film’s about (see below)
The scene where the Wades and Marlowe are gathered together for the first time, rhymes with their last one. This time it’s Marlowe and Eileen who talk, and the discussion is about the husband, who as the camera zooms past Eileen and Marlowe’s conversation, and through the window, we see heading, fully dressed, into the ocean. The camera cuts to them from the outside, once more seeing through a window, but the darkness is on the outside now, and we don’t hear what they’re saying. What we hear now is the sounds of night on the beach — the waves, the surf — , and what we see, clearly and without mediation is Wade letting the surf engulf him. It’s a perfect riposte to the first scene, taking elements of the same style, but accentuating different ones — analogous to the way the film uses ‘The Long Goodbye’ song but in completely different arrangements as the film unfolds –, and creating a series of images that remain beautiful and startling in themselves but beautifully express what’s going on, what’s led to this. Had I extended the scene longer, you’d be able to see Eileen and Marlow also engulfed by the sea, the Doberman prancing by the shore, and that indelible image of the dog returning only with Wade’s walking stick. It’s great.
Schwarzenegger makes an uncredited appearance in The Long Goodbye, screaming for attention by flexing his tits, and looking considerably shorter than Elliot Gould. An interesting contrast between a characteristic leading man of the 70s and how what that represents gave way to Schwarzenegger’s dominance in the 80s and 90s, and what that in turn came to represent. But though this is a fun moment in the film, its also what I liked least about it: i.e. the stunt casting. Nina van Pallandt is beautiful and she’s ok. But think of what Faye Dunaway might have brought to the role. Director Mark Rydell as gangster Marty Augustine is also ok but imagine Joe Pesci. As to Jim Bouton, a former ballplayer and TV presenter as Terry Lennox, to say that he’s wooden is to praise too highly. There’s a place in in cinema for this type of casting– and a history of much success — but see what a talented pro like David Carradine brings to the prison scene — not to mention Sterling Hayden and Elliot Gould both so great — and imagine the dimensions skilled and talented actors might have brought to the movie. The Long Goodbye is great in spite of, not because of, the casting of these small but important roles.
Many thanks to Dave Stewart for bringing this Jack Davis ‘Mad’-esque poster of the film to my attention:
*The Vilmos Zsigmond and Robert Reed Altman quotes are taken from Mitchell Zuckoff’s great book on Altman, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, New York, Knopg, 2009.
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 Steady, Kiss 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.
I was lucky enough to visit the Karel Zeman museum in Prague. I’d not known of his work before. His ingenuity in creating so many marvellous special effects for films is dazzlingly on display at the museum, and in imaginative and interactive ways children of all ages delight in. But I was too cheap to actually buy one of his films. I thought it would simply be added to the growing mountain of DVD’s one should watch but probably won’t. Also, upon first glance, the films seemed too crude, ‘primitive’ even, the kind of Eastern fantasies ok for Communist era audiences then or film historians who makes this a specialty now but… All my prejudices spilled out. How wrong I was.
When travelling in foreign parts I’ve been making a point of visiting their Cinémathéques or Film Institutes. The Danish one is a marvel. A retrospective of Luis Buñuel was the highlight of the varied programme on offer (see below).
There were varied exhibitions children could join in:
There was a fantastic blu-screen interactive display, which as you can see below, was a great delight to myself and my companion.
And you could hang around at the Asta (aster Asta Nielsen) bar whilst in between activities at the Danish Cinemateket:
The young people selling tickets are cinephiles and their enthusiasm and knowledge is what led us to buy tickets to Straub Huillet’s The Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach (which for reasons I won’t go into here we did not manage to attend) and a marvellous and long-prolonged encounter with Zeman’s work.
The most important aspect in any Cinémathéque is the films curated, programmed and screened. And it was here, amongst a selection of film adaptations of works by Jules Verne, that I once again encountered the work of Karel Zeman, The Deadly Invention/ Den Dødbringende Opfindelse / The Fabulous World of Jules Verne/ An Invention for Destruction/Vynález zkázy: it’s a work that goes by many names and is ostensibly the most popular film ever in the old Czechoslovakia. The look is like that of a Victorian engraving of Jules Verne’s novels mixed with live action; and I can do no better than quote Pauline Kael’s mini-review in full:
Among Georges Méliès’ most popular creations was his 1902 version
of Jules Verne’s A TRIP TO THE MOON (which was used at the
beginning of Michael Todd’s production of AROUND THE WORLD IN
80 DAYS). Another great movie magician, the Czech Karel Zeman,
also turning to Jules Verne for inspiration, made this wonderful giddy
science fantasy. (It’s based on Facing the Flag and other works.) Like
Méliès, Zeman employs almost every conceivable trick, combining live
action, animation, puppets, and painted sets that are a triumph of
sophisticated primitivism. The variety of tricks and superimpositions
seems infinite; as soon as you have one effect figured out another
image comes on to baffle you. For example, you see a drawing of half
a dozen sailors in a boat on stormy seas; the sailors in their little
striped outfits are foreshortened by what appears to be the hand of a
primitive artist. Then the waves move, the boat rises on the water, and
when it lands, the little sailors-who are live actors-walk off, still
foreshortened. There are underwater scenes in which the fishes
swimming about are as rigidly patterned as in a child’s drawing (yet
they are also perfectly accurate drawings). There are more stripes,
more patterns on the clothing, the decor, and on the image itself than a
sane person can easily imagine. The film creates the atmosphere of
the Jules Verne books which is associated in readers’ minds with the
steel engravings by Bennet and Riou; it’s designed to look like this
world-that-never-was come to life, and Zeman retains the antique,
make-believe quality by the witty use of faint horizontal lines over some
of the images. He sustains the Victorian tone, with its delight in the
magic of science, that makes Verne seem so playfully archaic.’
Released in the U.S. with narration and dialogue in English.
According to Wiki, ‘ In 2011, the science fiction writer John C. Wright identified Vynález zkázy as the first steampunk work and Zeman as the inventor of that genre, commenting that if the film “is not the steam-powered Holy Grail of Steampunkishness, it surely ought to be.’
Seeing it was a delirious delight, and one which I’m grateful to the Danish Cinemateket for providing. I am also grateful to Ian Banks for pointing me to this wonderful documentary on Zeman’s work, the Magical World of Karel Zeman, which well demonstrates Zeman’s techniques and how he achieved some of the effects that make his films so magical. It can be seen on youtube here
‘You can be had,’ Mae West said to Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong, which opened in January, 1933, and that was what the women stars of most of his greatest hits were saying to him for thirty year, as he backed away – but not too far’ writes Pauline Kael in her great essay on the actor, ‘The Man From Dream City’.
Watching the moment in Jupiter Ascending ((Andy and Lana Wachowski, USA, 2015; see clip above), where Mila Kunis is coming on to Channing Tatum only for him to back away — she’s royalty now; he’s half dog, oh but she loves dogs! — made me think of Kael’s argument on Grant. Tatum is the male love object of the film and one of the leading sex symbols of the day. Since the Step Up musicals, it’s a rare film where his body hasn’t been prominently on display. It’s Jupiter’s/Kunis’ desire that Jupiter Ascending expresses . The narrative aligns the desire of the protagonist and that of the audience in that it presents Tatum as the object of desire — elegantly skating through space, often with his shirt off — to both; furthermore it presents Kunis/Jupiter as a point of identification in the narrative and aligns the audience’s gaze with hers. Female expression of desire as depicted in Kunis’ lovely and witty performance and that alignment of the gaze of female star with that of the audience is still so rare in cinema , and rarer still in this particular type of cinema, as to invite commentary, and perhaps incite discomofort.
Writing on Grant and Redford, Kael argued that both were ‘sexiest in pictures in which the woman is the aggressor and all the film’s erotic image is concentrated on (the male).’ Redford, for example, ‘has never been as radiantly glamorous as in The Way We Were, when we saw him through Barbra Streisand’s infatuated eyes.’ Yet a similar moment in Jupiter Ascending, that extracted in the clip above, whilst offering a moment of glee to me personally, doesn’t seem to work in quite the way similar moments worked with Redford or Grant. Clearly Tatum isn’t as debonair; he lacks the lightness; he’s too earnest. However, could it be more than that?
As star personas metamorphise over time, can there be some moments that come too late to work in a work, i.e. is it conceivable that the ‘I love dogs’ moment might have worked better had the film been released after Dear John (Lasse Hälstrom, USA, 2010) and The Vow (Michael Sucsy, USA, 2012) or perhaps as late as Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2012) but pre 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, USA, 2012) and Foxcatcher (Mark Schultz, USA, 2014)? After all, there was a point where one simply went to a movie with Tatum to look at that body in motion. When did it start to matter that he was ‘wet’; that there seemed a cloud of depression perpetually overhanging that pudgy face; that he comes across as not-too-bright (though considering the choices he’s made recently, he can’t be as dumb as he looks); that he seemed to take everything too seriously; that he could be a serious bore; that whereas better romantic comedians like Grant are different with the heroines than they are with anyone else in the film, Tatum can only do ‘sad-serious-and-slow’, or at least until the use of his body brings a different kind of kick and energy to his performance? Was it perhaps that moment when critics began to talk of him seriously as an actor?
Or does that striking moment ‘not working’ simply characterise a film of brilliant ideas that seems also laughably silly pretty much throughout? And yet, I’ve now seen it twice…can it be that we’re not used to seeing sci-fi where the female star is the desiring subject, the active agent, the focus of the film’s drama? Or that we’re not seeing used to seeing sci-fi in such traditional melodramatic terms? Jupiter (Mila Kunis) is a cleaning lady, a migrant born in the middle of nowhere who ends up becoming a queen with the whole of the earth as her personal playground. There’s a wedding interrupted at the last moment and love that has to skate through galaxies , class and ethnic barriers and many disasters before being consummated. There’s also Eddie Redmayne’s excessive, intriguing and camp performance which seems to belong to a different genre. There seem to be all kind of intriguing and brilliant clashes and displacements in the film. Maybe what Jupiter Ascending is providing so brilliantly is so far removed from audience expectation that the only response to that clash is uncomfortable laughter?
One sometimes can’t help but hoot at the notion that method actors created a new, more ‘realistic’ style of acting. One sees them now in old movies – James Dean, whom I love, is the most famous name that comes to mind — flailing about and being ever so ‘intense’ and, when one recovers one’s composure, one reads it, at best, as a style, different but no better, and sometimes a lot more mannered and worse than what preceded and followed it.
There are exceptions to all of this of courses. And Marlon Brando is one such. He’s simply a great actor, a monumental one. There are reasons why he was instantly celebrated, instantly influential, why he changed the course of American acting, first on stage and later on film. It is also worth remembering that in his heyday as a box office film star, his competition consisted of John Wayne, Rock Hudson, Burt Lancaster, William Holden, James Stewart, and Glenn Ford; more traditional film stars who often surpassed him in the box office rankings.
Brando was not only instantly influential but also instantly mythologised. In ‘The Glamour of Delinquency,’ writing not only from another century but from what seems another world, Pauline Kael says, ‘The United States has now achieved what critics of socialism have always posited as the end result of a socialist state: a prosperous, empty, uninspiring uniformity. (If we do not have exactly what Marx meant by a classless society, we do have something so close to it that the term is certainly no longer an alluring goal). What promises does maturity hold for a teenager: a guaranteed annual wage, taxes, social security, hospitalization insurance, and death….It may be because this culture offers nothing that stirs youthful enthusiasm that it has spewed up a negative reaction: for the first time in American history we have a widespread nihilistic movement, so nihilistic it doesn’t even have a program, and, ironically, its only leader is a movie star: Marlon Brando.’
That’s quite a burden to put on anyone, much less young and anguished artist.
I thought I knew all I wanted to know about Marlon Brando. I’d read all the biographies, including his own rambly autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me; I’d seen the key films, and I felt my interest in Brando had been satiated, exhausted frankly. But Listen to Me Marlon is endlessly fascinating and deeply moving. What the film has to offer that’s new is vast amounts of audiotape that Brando recorded for himself, sometimes to meditate, sometimes because he couldn’t get to sleep, sometimes because he wanted a record, evidence. But the film also edits these mountains of tape into a structure and a narrative and finds excellent images to accompany Marlon’s voice, speaking in his twilight years, in the night, and into the void, as a means of making sense of what’s happened, what he searched for and what he lost, what turned him from a beacon and into an overweight depressive who couldn’t even take care of that which he loved most, his children.
The film begins by Brando telling us that his face has been scanned by a computer, in motion, and whilst conveying different expressions and that, out of these, the computer could then generate much more, i.e. the actor is now unnecessary, even the actor’s job has been taken over by a machine. The film then proceeds to demonstrate why this can never be so, as we hear Brando recite some of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, interspersed throughout the film, usually spoken to himself from memory — this is a language he loved that expressed something he felt to be true — to make sense of his life, very movingly. The first is from Macbeth:
‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Brando’s career is a metaphor for America in what’s been called ‘The American Century’: so much talent, so much beauty, so much genius, so many gifts bestowed by the gods, so easily corrupted, thrown away, deprecated, debased; an amazing talent to turn the many bounties bestowed by the Gods into nasty, self-agrandizing ugliness. Yet, the film makes us understand this. The abusive father, the shame and pity incurred by his mother’s being the town drunk, the insecurity engendered by the feeling that he wasn’t very bright, that all he had to offer was his beauty, his escape to New York and the freedom and release he found there. One senses that this rejection of Omaha, middle America, all the Rockwell Saturday Evening Post certainties, also gave him freedom. Impossible to dictate behaviour, norms, societal niceties to a child if one parent’s a wife beater and the other passes out on Main Street.
The freedom is what enabled him to search and to express that which he found, that which he found lacking, and that which he was searching for but couldn’t find. The film demonstrates what a great, versatile and original actor Brando was through a whole series of clips of his most celebrated performances: The Men, The Wild One, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Guys and Dolls, Last Tango in Paris and many of his most infamous flops, including Chaplin’s The Millionairess and Mutiny on the Bounty. The one that struck me most is the moment in The Godfather where he’s told of his son Sonny’s death, acknowledges it, clearly tries to restrain the emotion that he’s feeling, but then he exhales from one side of his nose and half his face seems to collapse, indicating the depths of his grief thought an uncontrollable moment of breath. It’s such an original and beautiful acting choice: so right. One can’t imagine anyone else doing it and one can’t imagine Don Corleone feeling anything less.
Near the beginning of the film, when Brando’s describing his first days in New York, how kind Stella Adler had been to him and how much she taught him, the revelling in his triumph in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the film evokes the same kind of nocturnal, alcohol fuelled, sexual freedom Gore Vidal so well describes in Palimpsest as being characteristic of New York in the late 40s. It was the ‘American Century’ but Americans had come back changed from the war and didn’t believe the old verities. Everything was possible.
Much of the film is devoted to showing the descent into tragedy; but the film very cleverly interweaves the triumphs with disaster; the great performances with the failed relationships; what his island in Tahiti meant to him with the fact that even an island couldn’t protect his children from misfortune; the box-office success wit the relationship with his father; his fight for civil rights and the rights of indigenous people with his own inability to keep his own home together. It’s a messy life the film presents, a complex one, riveting and moving
When he begins reciting Sonnet 29 into his tape:
‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising’
We don’t miss the last few lines of the sonnet:
‘Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’
The film makes us understand and feel his loneliness, his sense of failure; we regret that he gave up on acting around the time of Apocalypse Now. Decline was perhaps inevitable but Brando’s fall and the way he fell…it’s not only that he turned into a joke — the great beauty and sex symbol now so fat he could barely move, though even as a joke he never lost his popularly acknowledged title as ‘the greatest film actor of his generation, but that decline turned to tragedy: a son jailed for murder, a daughter committing suicide, nothing but fast food for comfort and only audiotape to talk through and make sense of his life.
It’s a great film; and though I’ve focussed here on the audiotape, there is also fantastic footage, not only from the films but from press conferences – Brando flirting with a journalist in the early sixties is something to behold – old tv shows showing him interviewed at home with his father, his marching with Dr. King and his speaking on behalf of Native Americans on Cavett. It’s a complex weave of a life with a central insight – that Brando overvalued sex and couldn’t understand or accept love, presumably until he had his own children. And there’s an interesting tension that the film provokes between how he saw himself; a small-town boy, abused and mistrustful, fundamentally decent, not too bright and what the world saw; a beautiful, explosive actor, seemingly capable of understanding and expressing all that people are capable of feeling.
Listen to Me Marlon is a film to see. In a superb recent interview with the director and some of his children in The Guardian, one of them, Miko Brando says, ‘This film is about as close as you get to knowing him without ever meeting him’. One senses that, even as it makes one want to know more.
 Pauline Kael, ‘The Glamour of Delinquency’, I Lost It At The Movies, New York, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, 1965, p. 45
A dear friend asked me to do one of those facebook lists of my top ten books and in spite of trying I simply couldn’t do it. I realized I don’t really read books individually unless they’re not really satisfying. If I fall in love with a book, then I pursue the author, in a sense inhabit their world, read their oeuvre and then sometimes even their influences, until something snaps, I lose attention and I move on to someone else. So here are the ten writers who, for better or worse, I remember now as having marked a period of my life. This of course eliminates a whole series of types of books I read as a child, books where the series was more important than the author and in fact I now struggle to remember who wrote them even though I once lived in the world they created: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsy Twins, Alfred Hitchock and the Three Investigators etc. Thus here we go:
1: J.D. Salinger. I’m a cliché but I did read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, then Franny and Zooey and all the rest. I annoyed everyone about me for years by wanting to be Holden Caulfield, finding everyone phony, and itching to tell everyone ‘truths’ that a) might not be theirs or b) might be my view but might not be true and c) might in any case be at best inconvenient and at worse offensive. It took me years to realise that Caulfield might be a psychopath.
Simone De Beauvoir: I came across Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter at a second-hand bookshop and it rather changed my life. This led me to read all of her diaries. Until my very late twenties and beyond I re-read them, partly for pleasure, partly to compare myself to Simone until I reached a point where that comparison became laughable. Reading her diaries led me to read quite a lot of Sartre, all of Camus, all of Genet, some of Nelson Algren’s work. Reading Sartre then led to dabble with Merleau-Ponty until I realized I wasn’t really invested enough. I read all her novels too and The Mandarins led to Koestler and Darkness at Noon. The intellectual rivers that led from De Beauvoir are immeasurable — I could signal what Camus, Genet and Algren in turn led to just as I did with Sartre — and the pleasures ongoing.
James Baldwin: As a gay teenager trying to understand who I was I came across all the books one is supposed to read: A Boy’s Own Story, The City and The Pillar, A Single Man, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Our Lady of the Flowers and Giovanni’s Room. I liked them all though didn’t fully connect with any. But Giovanni’s Room did lead to If Beale Street Could Talk, Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone, Just Above My Head and then the rest of Baldwin including and especially, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Things Not Seen. For many years I felt Baldwin spoke ‘me’ better than I did myself.
Margaret Laurence: I grew up in Canada and grew up with bookshops having a section, a tiny one, entitled ‘Canadian Literature’; it wasn’t integrated into the normal literature section, it needed special attention, special care, special nurture; on the other hand, it also had the connotation that it wasn’t quite good enough to simply be literature; that a special case needed to be made for it. In this shelf I made my way though, amongst many others, early Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, all of Mordecai Richler and Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen. But in spite of having grown up in the neighbourhood that Richler wrote about and having to then no experience with the Prairie and West Coast world of Margaret Laurence, it’s The Diviners that became the first Canadian book I loved without qualification and, after reading The Stone Angel, The Fire-Dwellers and the others, Margaret Laurence with her wise, brave, gentle and feminist narratives, became the first Canadian writer I loved without special pleading.
Michel Tremblay: Tremblay was the leading Quebec playwright whilst I was growing up; from the late sixties onwards he wrote hit after hit. Plays like Les belles soeurs, La duchesse de Langeais, Laura Cadieux, and À toi pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou have become not only canonical but absolutely central works in Québécois culture and are continuously revived. I love the plays but the Tremblay works that are important to me are the novels, which have become collected under the title of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal: La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte, Thérèse et Pierretteà l’école des Saint-Anges, La Duchesse et le routier etc. They were all set in the neighbourhood I had grown up in but one unknown to me because it was in French; also some of the characters were central in one novel and then reappeared as supporting characters in others; then marginal characters in one would become central subjects in a later one. I loved those characters, understanding them made me understand a culture I lived in but only marginally had access to and I felt I went on a journey with them from book to book. I haven’t re-read them since but remember them still.
Shakespeare: I turn to Shakespeare for the same reasons others resort to The Bible; when things go wrong, when they seem beyond understanding, when one can’t quite make sense of one’s feelings or one’s life, Shakespeare seems to provide answers. One finds sublime articulation of one’s feelings in his work; things make sense beautifully. I’m fifty-two so up to now the Sonnets have been a starting point and ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ a kind of leitmotif. The plays have been a constant too though I suspect they might figure more prominently now that I’m entrenched in middle age.
Anthony Trolloppe. I was very ill for a time many years ago now and I found solace in the world of Barchester. The novels were so quietly enthralling, the world so precise but expansive, that I lost myself in them and found them so comforting that when I got over my illness I decided to save Trolloppe as the security of my old age.
Pauline Kael: I have been writing on film for over thirty years in one form or another and Pauline Kael got me started. I used to save up money to buy the New Yorker and wasn’t even disappointed when I opened the magazine to see she had written on a film I hadn’t yet seen or wouldn’t even be allowed to see because I wasn’t yet old enough. I still re-read her constantly and I still think no one has written better on film. An array of different types of writers on film (Richard Dyer, V.F. Perkins, David Bordwell, Robin Wood, David Thomson, Andrew Sarris, Thomas Elsaesser — I would even put Susan Sontag on this list – and this is only to name a few) have influenced me in various ways but there’s no one I love reading more. Her sentences have a jazzy flow and a snap; her understanding of American film is vast; no one I can think of has written better on film actors; and in spite of her fame, I still think she’s underappreciated. In my view Susan Sontag is the most significant American intellectual of the twentieth century and Pauline Kael is the best critic.
Antonio Machado: The poetry that I like to read is in Spanish; it’s my first language, my native tongue. I don’t know if that really has anything to do with this partiality but I suspect it does even though some of my favourite poets (Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti [te quiero por que sos mi amor mi complice y todo y porque andando codo a codo, somos mucho mas que dos/ I love you because you are my love my accomplice, everything; and because together arm in arm we are so much more than two]) are not themselves from Spain. Antonio Machado, however, writes in Spanish, is from Castile, and lived in Segovia, not far from where I was born, and I was moved enough by his works, particularly by Campos de Castilla, to make a pilgrimage to the house he lived in. It was emotional to see and made me better understand both he and I, a culture and a landscape he brings to life in his work; one that I left, recognise and once more feel when reading him.
David Foster Wallace: I know he’s no longer with us but I still consider him my favourite of contemporary writers. He’s got the largest vocabulary of anyone I’ve read; I love the way he mixes different generations of vernacular speech; his collections of essays – Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Things I’ll Never Do Again – are the very best essays I remember reading in the last ten years or so. In fact only Gore Vidal’s — a previous generation’s best American essayist — can really compare…and not favourably. It always delights me to come across one of his essays that hasn’t yet been collected (the one on Federer for example). I’m working my way though his novels at present and haven’t been able to finish Infinite Jest yet though the whole sequence at the beginning where the protagonist is waiting for his dealer has to be amongst the funniest and truest I’ve ever read. I plan to plow on.
There are others of course. As a teenager I read detective novels avidly (all of Agatha Christie, all of Arthur Conan Doyle, all of Dashiell Hammett, as much as I could get of Earle Stanley Gardner, Ross McDonald, even Mickey Spillane, etc); I had a mad passion for the iron curtain adventure novels of Helen MacInnes (Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Salzburg Connection,The Venetian Affair, Cloak of Darkness etc: I read them all); I read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann for the sexy bits; television turned me on to Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man), Alex Haley (Roots), James Jones (From Here to Eternity) and others; I even read Jean Plaidy.
In my early twenties I lived in Stendhal and Fabrice Del Dongo and Julien Sorel are especially meaningful, my favourite characters in fiction to that point. In my first long-term relationship I lived quite a while in the world of Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City without quite rejecting outright that of Capote and Isherwood though both of those were much less appealing than the world of Anna Madrigal. For almost a decade, I went to Barcelona every Spring and discovered the work of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, particularly his series of Pepe Carvalho detective novels. Pepe ritually burned a page of a book a day, cooked a dish, solved a crime and each of his cases offered a social history of an aspect of Barcelona (Andrea Camilleri names his detective Montalbano in hommage to Vazquez Montalban) — I read all his books including the cookery ones; I also lived in Mitford-world for a while and read what all of the sisters published and everything on them to the point that I made the happy discovery of the Mapp and Lucia novels simply because Nancy Mitford loved them. Gabriel García Maquez was and continues to be significant to me though I read just as much of Isabel Allende.
There’s an intellectual formation too, one that doesn’t quite belong here, one that took place in grad school and beyond and that still pervades my working life. But the list above is the after-work dream worlds that can only really take place in times of leisure or sleep,
Joel McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, the very successful director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who has decided that he cannot continue making frivolous, light films in a world where Europe’s at war and where there’s so much unemployment and misery in America, not when he’s got the greatest educational tool ever invented by man at his disposal: movies!
He convinces his studio bosses to let him make ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’, a film about the plight of the common people; realistic, pedagogical, depressing. ‘I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ Nothing could terrify the movie moguls more, but Sullivan is so successful that they have no choice but to agree to let him make it, though he in turn concedes to put ‘a little sex in it’.
When the studio bosses point out that the reason he makes such light, optimistic and successful films is that he’s had a privileged life –what does he know about misery? — Sullivan decides to dress as a tramp, go on the road, and find out. At first everything conspires to bring him back to Hollywood, but then, just as he feels he’s done enough research and he’s out handing out dollar bills to those less fortunate than he who helped him on his quest, events conspire to send him to jail, put him in a prison chain-gang and teach him what real misery is really like. As he learns that, he also learns the value of the light, the frivolous – what joy, laughter and entertainment can bring to a world full of misery — i.e. he learns the value of his own work.
In many ways Sullivan’s Travels is a self-serving and self-affirming film, with Sturges and Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing exactly what they’ve always done. But it’s also a marvelously entertaining film that shoots the audience with such a quick, smart, and witty spray of jokes that you might miss out if you’re not quick on the uptake. It’s great to see a film that assumes each individual member of the audience is the smartest and brightest person in any room.
Sullivan’s Travels successfully satirises Hollywood and the audience’s own trivial sentimentalising of the poor whilst offering quite a critique of: Hollywood’s pretensions; the issue of class in America; the inadequate system of poor relief, with prayer often being the price – non-negotiable – of a floor to sleep in and a bite to eat; and the brutality of prison chain-gangs. It might even have tried to critique race, certainly the NAACP commended it in 1942; though what the film does on this score now sits a bit uncomfortably.
David Thomson has written that ‘Sullivan’s Travels falls flat when it tries to move from comedy to pathos.’I’m not sure I agree with him. Firstly, I don’t think the film sets out for pathos. It tries to reveal poverty and injustice, to make the audience aware of it, but not to induce pathos, or at least not until Sullivan himself is imprisoned and seems to have no way out. Until then, we see the misery from the outside; from Sullivan’s eyes, but the eyes of an outsider whose experiences are purely optional; and the jokes, the winks, the acknowledgment that even your brothers in the soup-kitchen can steal the very shoes from your feet unless you have eyes in the back of your head and can see whilst sleeping, all take priority over the arousal of emotion.
Pathos has no bigger enemy than laughter. But it’s Sturges choice not his lack. Personally, I rejoice in that choice. When McCrea, feverish and trembly from illness, reiterates his convictions as if a spirit of daffy do-gooding giddiness has taken hold of him in Church — ‘nothing is going to stop me. I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone’ — he’s irresistible; as close to reaching the endearingly irrational heights of the great screwball dames (Colbert, Hepburn, Lombard) as any male actor except for Cary Grant.
Andrew Sarris indirectly touches on this and attributes it not only to McCrea but also to Sturges. In fact he sees it as a characteristic of Sturges’ work: ‘It is as if his characters were capable of being lit from within by the cartoonist’s device of the instantly ignited light-bulb in the hero’s skull. Joel McCrea’s movie director in Sullivan’s Travels experiences and expresses such a flash of practical creativity at the stirring moment in the film when he proclaims himself to be his own murderer’. Although I don’t quite agree with Thomson that the film falls flat when it moves from comedy to pathos, the film’s various changes in tone and register, seem to catch the audience by surprise.
There are those who delight in the surprise. Steven J. Schneider in his appreciation of the film in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has written that the script is a tour de force and ‘brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical and prison movie.’ But there are also others who have found in these shifts, a loose and shambly shapelessness. Manny Farbercalled Sullivan’s Travels ‘immature in its philosophy, formless and without a single discernible characterization; but it had an astonishing display of film technique.’
We can agree on the philosophy and on the astonishing technique; but as to the rest, I’ve already mentioned McCrea and his performance as Sullivan and I find the film formally clever too, beginning at the end of an ‘entertainment’ with a fight scene on a train that’s still thrilling, and later, near the end, signaling clearly to the audience that the film is at a turning point and that it needs to unravel the tangle of plot its gotten itself into before the closing credits. The montage with which it does so is a marvel of narrative economy that can still thrill those who are interested in visual story-telling.
Veronica Lake is ‘The Girl’. She’s given no name. And this might have been part of why Farber accuses the film of ‘lacking characterization’. However, ‘The Girl’ is a function rather than a character and thus needs no name and no characterization, though Veronica Lake is a very memorable look and presence in it. Moreover, she matches up with McCrea beautifully, the disparity in their height alone creating an element of comedy that doesn’t intrude on the romance needed to put ‘a little sex in it’. It’s also joy to see all the Sturges stalwarts: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore and other wonderful comic actors who would have been just as famous to audiences of the period as the stars.
There are scenes that still linger in the mind: the opening sequence, the sex-starved sister locking McCrea in his room, the first real experience of a Hooverville, the black parishioners singing ‘Let My People Go’, the pettiness of the bureaucrat in the train station, the injustice of the court, the brutality of the chief of the chaing-gang.
Sturges achieves what the film says on one level isn’t possible; a film that both documents and critique its time — brimming with social relevance — that teaches us a lesson on the social conditions of the Depression, the filmmaking practices of the Hollywood of the period and on how brilliant and bright American comedy once was – directed by one of its greatest practitioners — but with some feeling, thrills, chills, lots of laughs ‘and a little sex in it’.
*** Film buffs might be interested in knowing that, according to Pauline Kael, ‘Sturges himself can be glimpsed behind Veronica Lake on a set inside the movie studio’.
 David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London: Little and Brown, 2002, p. 846.
 Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949, Oxord: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 323
 Steven J. Schneider, ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ Steven Jay Schneider, General Editor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, London: A Quintet Book, 2004, p. 180.
 Manny Farber, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito, A Special Publication of the Library of America, 2009, p. 40.
 Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982, p. 568.