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April 2008 Archives

April 5, 2008

The Gospel According to St. Pauline

Roger Ebert may have been the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, but Pauline Kael was the first to become a household name (and the first to win the National Book Award). Critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, Kael was a one-woman Cahiers du Cinema, combining an encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history, theory and technique with a tart, vivid literary style and very strong opinions as to what made a good movie. She excelled at the long-form reviews she published in The New Yorker every week, in which she could expound on the cinematic trends she considered important and the actors, directors and screenwriters she most admired (or, more memorably, despised). However, readers can still get an idea of her style and her influence by reading 5001 Nights at the Movies, a compendium of her encapsulated reviews still in print 26 years after the first edition appeared.

Rereading Kael after a number of years, I can attest that her reviews always make a bracing read, even when (fairly often in my case) I disagree with her. I still don't comprehend Kael's enthusiasm for John Boorman's indigestible Excalibur("It's as if Boorman were guiding us down a magic corridor and kept parting the curtains in front of us," she wrote); still less do I endorse her dismissal of John Ford's masterful The Quiet Man as "fearfully Irish and green and hearty" or of the exquisite David Lean-Noel Coward Brief Encounter as "implicitly condescending." And don't get me started on her downgrading of Hitchcock (a petit maitre if ever there was one") while she praised Brian De Palma for doing Hitchcock knockoffs. Nevertheless, at her best she could encapsulate a director's entire oeuvre perfectly in one line; of Jean Cocteau, she wrote, "Cocteau's special gift was to raise chic to art." She was every bit as good at pinpointing the appeal of popular films she didn't necessarily admire: she wrote of An Officer and a Gentleman, "It's crap, but crap on a motorcycle." And of Easy Rider, she wrote, "The film became a ritual experience. It was the downer that young audiences wanted; they puffed away at it."

Of course, no one ever got skewered in print until they got skewered by Kael. She positively body-slammed Samson and Delilah: "De Mille, with God as his co-maker...The sets are wondrous chintzy." And she was no respecter of high reputations, as evinced by her review of Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour: "(I)t makes you so conscious of its artistry tht you may feel as if you're in church and need to giggle." And I am overjoyed when Kael agrees with me about a movie; I cannot tell you how happy I am that there's one other reviewer besides me who doesn't think Terms of Endearment is the heartbreaking, staggering, magnificent, eternal, makes-Jean-Renoir-look-like-Andy-Milligan masterpiece that every other critic said it is, at least in 1983.

Reading Kael's capsule reviews is like eating a jar of macadamia nuts: a gourmet but compulsive experience. Although you may not always agree with her, you will respect her as a cinematic scholar who despised the generic, who championed what she saw as the idiosyncratic and innovative, and who had the guts, brains, and literary talent to make her influence felt.

P.S. To update my pre-Oscar entry, left hanging so shamefully for two months: Congratulations to Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who made headlines in Dublin, Prague, and everywhere else after all.

April 13, 2008

Helen and Kathi Take the Stage

A few months ago, I wrote about Kathi Wolfe's pending chapbook, "Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems." The chapbook is now available for $10 from Pudding House Press in Columbus, Ohio, and I assure you your $10 will be well spent indeed if you buy it. These poems achieve the very highest goals of historical/biographical poetry--to project themselves into the inner life and world of the subject with total believability, and to do so using language that is both precise and beautiful. Wolfe's Keller is not the plaster saint of sentimental legend, but flawed, at times irascible, and always scintillating. Wolfe begins her collection with "Q&A: Palace Theater," a marvelous found poem that features Keller's own words from her appearances in vaudeville:

What is the greatest obstacle to world peace?
The human race.

What is the slowest thing in the world?

Do you think women are men's intellectual equals?
God made woman foolish
so that she might be a suitable companion to man.

Do you desire your sight more than anything else in the world?
No! I would rather walk with a friend in the dark
than walk alone in the light.

From this statement of original principles, Wolfe creates a flesh-and-blood Keller who disarms us with her brilliance, wit, insight, and romantic intensity. "They call me wonder woman, then say/they'd rather be dead than live like me./I'd like to blow smoke rings around/their pity," Keller says in "Fingertips and Cigarettes: Helen at the Cafe." In "Dreaming of Heaven," Keller defends her perceptions of the world: "What right/do I have to even talk/of color, you demand.//No more right/than you/to tell of Paris,/unless, like me,/you've inhaled/the mingled scent/of cigarettes and hyacinths/along the Seine." Yet Keller by no means is always on the defensive; there are poems of great tenderness, such as "Brush Strokes: Helen Greets a Friend": "Your mustache/dances with my fingers,/tickles their tips. Your skin, rough,/misshapen as a skewed moon crater,/smells like sun-drenched lavender." In "A Letter to my Hands," Keller says of them, "You exhale the dots of Braille," and concludes, "You'd go on strike/if I were the factory boss/and you the union./Who knows/why you stick with me?/I only know,/apart from you,/I couldn't even breathe."

As a journalist, Wolfe writes often about differently abled persons and disability issues; in "Helen Takes the Stage," she has raised advocacy for the differently abled to art--much as Helen Keller herself did. This is a deeply humane, moving and funny book, and you can buy a copy from www.puddinghouse.com.

April 26, 2008

We Are Such Stuff as Movies Are Made of

There are only a couple of weeks left to view "The Cinema Effect: Dreams," the compelling current exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., but if you're in DC or plan to be there shortly, be sure to go see it. This bracing exhibit of 20 avant-garde films from 21 filmmakers demonstrates the power of the medium to enter and, in some ways, create the subconscious of the viewer.

The curators of the exhibit designed it astutely, with an eye for effect. Douglas Gordon's "Off Screen." the first exhibit, lures viewers into a properly dreaming state, as a beam of light projects their shadows at double size onto a wavering orange curtain. From there we proceed to the granddaddy of all dream movies, Andy Warhol's "Sleep"--mercifully a mere two hours of the 5 1/2-hour original, as the naked poet John Giorno lies still in his own world of dreams. The third exhibit is masterfully insinuating--Stan Douglas' "Overture," a grainy black-and-white film of a train trip through the tunnels and trestles of the Canadian Rockies, seen from the engineer's view, as a flat-voiced narrator intones the great passages from "Swann's Way" about the twilight state between waking and sleep. And so on, until Harun Farocki's TV-monitor exhibit, "Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades"--presenting documentary images as well as scenes from the work of such filmmakers as Chaplin, Antonioni and Von Trier--releases us back into the workaday world.

To describe each exhibit in detail would take much more time and space than I have (and would also spoil the fun of seeing the exhibit), so I'll only touch on a few of my favorites. The most written about of all of them is probably Christoph Girardet's "Release," which stretches Fay Wray's famous scream at her first sight of King Kong into a half-agonizing, half-ludicrous 9 1/2 minutes. Darren Almond's "Geisterbahn" is the nightmare analogue to Stan Douglas' dream state--a darkly lit trip into a carnival funhouse, accompanied by an unnerving electronic music score. Chibo Aoshima's vibrantly colored five-panel animation "City Glow" forges a link between anime and nightmare science fiction, as mutating skyscrapers sway and chatter at each other. Kelly Richardson's "Exiles of the Shattered Star" channels Magritte as it depicts flaming meteorites falling in endless succession into a peaceful mountain lake. Perhaps the most amazing of all is Anthony McCall's "You and I," in which a projector beams ever-changing parabolas onto a pitch-black wall as machines shoot water vapor into the air. If you walk into the projector's beam and look into it, you will find yourself enveloped in an amazing tunnel of light and smoke.

I meant to write about this exhibit much sooner--it opened in February--but I found that one viewing wasn't enough for me to take it all in, and various obligations delayed my second visit. Oh well--it's still there at the Hirshhorn until May 11, if you're in DC and can possibly take the time. If you miss it, all is not lost: "The Cinema Effect: Realities," the second part of the exhibit, opens at the Hirshhorn in June, and if it's half as good as "Dreams," it will be well worth seeing.

About April 2008

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in April 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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