I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael

Before she became a famous film critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote about movies out in San Francisco. She also offered her opinions on radio station KPFA. I Lost It at the Movies includes selections from her criticism between 1955 and 1964.

The single word that best describes her writing is “provocative”. She slams a number of movies generally considered classics (West Side Story, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, This Sporting Life). She also strongly criticizes other film critics, especially Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and the group of critics who subscribed to the auteur theory (film is all about the director). Her favorite films from this period include Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (“perfect”). She loves Antonioni’s L’Avventura but hates his La Notte.

Kael appreciates many popular American classics but thinks the films of the 50s and 60s that have mass appeal tend to be formulaic. She loves a number of movies that appealed to “art house” audiences but makes fun of art house patrons who take obscurity and complexity to be artistic or “deep”. Here she is on her chosen profession:

The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others [308].

I disagreed with a number of her opinions (in some cases, she seems to think a movie misfires because she would have preferred it to be about someone else), but she certainly communicated her enthusiasm to me. So far, I’ve watched a relatively obscure Japanese film she recommended, Kagi or Odd Obsession, about a husband who tries to regain his sexual powers by getting his wife to have sex with their prospective son-in-law, and I’m planning to watch another one, Fires on the Plain. The latter is about Japanese soldiers undergoing pain and privation and doing horrible things in the Philippines at the end of World War 2. She called it a “masterpiece”, writing that “it has the disturbing power of great art: it doesn’t leave you quite the same”. 

After watching Odd Obsession, I read her review again. She did indeed see more in the movie than I did (not a surprise). If I make it through Fires on the Plain, I’ll see if she saw more in that one too.

Note:  Someone identified as “Not Pauline Kael” has posted what certainly seem to be Kael’s reviews from I Lost It at the Movies, including the ones for Odd Obsession and Fires on the Plain. They are worth reading.

Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman

William Goldman is a novelist who became a successful screenwriter in the 1960s. His best-known screenplays include Harper (the Paul Newman detective movie), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men,  A Bridge Too Far and The Princess Bride. He wrote this book in 1982, partly as a memoir and partly as a guide to screenwriting. It’s a bit dated now, but it’s still a wonderful book for anyone who’s interested in how movies get made (and how many movies don’t). 

Goldman lists two key lessons for the novice screenwriter (the Roman numerals and capital letters are his):

I. NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING (i.e. nobody in the movie business knows for sure what will work and what won’t)

II. SCREENWRITING IS STRUCTURE (i.e. there’s more to screenwriting than telling your story in the right sequence, but you’ll never write a good one if you don’t get the story’s structure right).

The biggest lesson I took away from the book, however, is that screenwriting is extremely frustrating. You can make a whole lot of money at it, if you’re very talented and/or very lucky, but you’ll spend most of your time writing scripts that never get made into movies, and when one of your scripts does get filmed, you won’t have any control over what the director, producers, actors, et al. do with it. Film making is a collaborative medium, but the screenwriter is rarely invited to collaborate after filming starts. It’s unlikely you’ll even be invited to a sneak preview.

Love and Mercy Will Be Available June 5th

In the United States anyway. Love and Mercy is the new movie about Brian Wilson (not the baseball pitcher with the silly beard).

It’s also the name of a song from his first solo album. The performance below, by members of Libera and the Boys Choir of Harlem at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2007, gets me every time.

In a Way, It All Turned Out For The Best (Wolf of Wall Street Edition)

Even for Netflix customers, curiosity sometimes wins out and it’s worth $1.28 to rent a DVD from one of those big vending machines at the grocery store. That’s how we ended up watching The Wolf of Wall Street the other night, instead of waiting to see how long a “Very long wait” would be. Unfortunately, the minority of critics who said The Wolf of Wall Street is a bad movie were right.

Maybe it was a good idea for Martin Scorsese to use the story of these crooked stock brokers if he wanted to make another Goodfellas. But he ended up with a movie that is ridiculously long (3 hours) and repetitious. It isn’t funny or suspenseful. It’s merely excessive. Since I never cared about the characters, I should have given up, like I did with Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But since I’ve seen almost all of his movies (all the way back to 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door), I kept watching (in three installments), partly out of respect and partly to see if it would get better. It didn’t. It was just more of the same.  

If you’re open to watching a movie about terrible people who look like they’re having a wonderful time, consider watching Goodfellas again. But not The Wolf of Wall Street.

Needing to return the DVD to the store in order to avoid being charged another $1.28, I figured I’d use the trip to buy some more milk. The wait at the express lane wasn’t too long, but the best part of the transaction was when the clerk handed me the receipt and announced that I had just saved $1.40 on my purchase. Simply by using my A&P customer card. 

But wait! That meant my rental of The Wolf of Wall Street and subsequent visit to the store had returned a profit of over 9%! Not bad at all!

Of course, there was the time spent traveling to the store, the cost of gasoline and three hours of weak entertainment that could have been better spent. But if you put all that on one side, and balance it with the curiosity I satisfied, the knowledge I gained and that 12 cent profit, it all turned out pretty darn well. 

Plus, if I convince just one of you to skip The Wolf of Wall Street, our collective life on Earth will be a little bit better (“saving the world since 2012”). Unless you could have made a profit.

Nebraska in Black, White and Gray

Since I recently expressed great disappointment with Gravity, one of the movies nominated for Best Picture last year, it’s only fair that I express great appreciation for one of the others: Nebraska. That’s the one in which Bruce Dern plays a cantankerous, confused old man who thinks he’s won a million dollars from an outfit that’s pushing magazine subscriptions.

It’s an old-fashioned picture, beautifully filmed in black and white, with some wonderful performances, especially by Dern (a healthy 77-year old runner in real life) and June Squibb as his extremely outspoken wife. Their performances were both nominated for Oscars, as were the screenplay, directing and cinematography. 

I had a little problem with the premise of the movie — hadn’t Dern’s character ever gotten one of those “We are authorized to award you one million dollars!” notices in the mail before? And when his wife and sons try to convince him he hasn’t really won anything, don’t they point out the very big “if” in the small print?

Putting that quibble aside, Nebraska is the most consistently enjoyable movie I’ve seen in months. I don’t know how a young person would respond to it (a lot of old people, plus black and white?), but the characters and relationships in the movie resonated with me. My parents didn’t age gracefully, I had an uncle who wouldn’t stay put, and I’m wondering what kind of old man I’m turning into. Contented, grumpy, quiet, outspoken, wise, befuddled? Probably all of the above.