Tag Archives: pauline kael

Not My Opinion

Last weekend I was at UCLA’s Billy Wilder theater for a screening of Gerald Peary’s documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a story which – spoiler alert – does not end happily.

True, Peary closes the film with a misty-eyed snapshot of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, arm-in-arm, leaving a cozy, small town movie theater, but it’s put there to help us look back, not forward. Looking forward is a much scarier prospect. Thomas Doherty, in his piece, “The Death of Film Criticism,” explains why:

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

Why buy the cow, in other words, when you can get the kvetch for free? So says the younger generation to the old. “But the kids don’t know the first thing about movies,” replies the golden age. (Or as Richard Schickel said, “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium.”) You can see where it goes from here. It’s On Golden Pond meets The Paper Chase. (Charles Laughton plays Schickel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “The Kid.”)

The septuagenarians are out of touch, says the youth. The youth is under-educated, says the septuas. Of course, these statements are meaningless reductions.

The real problem is the new generation’s misreading of film criticism’s purpose. The new technology is innocent, as is the general drift of the reading-population towards the cheapest-possible (i.e. free) format. That technology is here to stay, so the fogeys should get used to it (Roger Ebert has, and he done beautifully.) What’s torn asunder serious film criticism is the erroneous belief, held by many of the new generation, that critics are there to offer an opinion. And – to follow the logic – because everyone has an opinion, there’s no reason why this arbitrary group should be elevated to the level of special elite.

As a member of the new generation, I have a sense of why this is. Growing up post-modern products of a deconstructionist age, wherein our liberal arts colleges taught us the death of the author has rendered analysis a free-for-all, and each of our $40,000 a year opinions, which can be voiced in break-out study sections, is as uniquely perfect as a snowflake, it’s no wonder that my people are irked by the idea of intellectual authority, especially with respect to pop culture and media, our favorite pastime.

I was there when Academia became est.

Now everything is valid if you “feel” it. Now we “feel” Kubrick’s intention. We “feel” Barry Lyndon was too long. We don’t “think” it’s too long. No, not any more. The democratization of intellectual authority has done away with all that. (How do you feel about that last statement?)

But film critics aren’t there to offer their feelings. They’re there to offer insight. And while every one of us, no matter what our training, can bring thoughtfulness to the understanding of a motion picture, only a select group, who knows their history, their theory, and has a basic understanding of the realities of production, can bring serious, comprehensive intelligence. Feelings are for book groups.

I’m not getting Ayn Rand on you, so let’s be clear. Everyone’s invited. Whether you’re young or old, a blogger or a print journalist, come join the serious conversation. Just leave your opinions in the lobby. Serious film criticism is begging you.

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Americans Have Feelings Too

A friend just sent me a link to this video, a tribute to filmmaker Paul Mazursky. “Well,” I thought, “it’s about time.”

Paul Mazursky’s nearly twenty films as writer/director stand alongside those of Woody Allen as American film’s most sustained comic expression of the 1970s and 1980s. Though unlike Woody, whose milieu is predominately intellectual, Mazursky’s people are so raw, and so baffled by their own emotional tumult, their sincerity comes across as forcefully as their ridiculousness. This makes films like An Unmarried Woman and Blume in Love very difficult to classify, but all the more relevant; in that place between funny and feeling, there is an inner world, uncharted by contemporary Hollywood, where the joke is vital, yes, but never at the expense of character truths, of the hearts and minds in play. If laughter is always warm in Mazursky, it’s because it comes from this place of empathy, and not – as is the case with today’s comedies – from distance. As Pauline Kael wrote, “Mazursky brings you into a love relationship with his people.” We are not better than Mazursky’s people because we are Mazursky’s people.

Way back, in one of the American cinema’s most formidable decade, Richard Corliss had a sense of what would come. “Paul Mazursky,” he wrote, “is likely to be remembered as the filmmaker of the seventies. No screenwriter has probed so deep under the pampered skin of this fascinating, maligned decade; no director has so successfully mined it for home-truth human revelations….Mazursky has created a  body of work unmatched in contemporary American cinema for its originality and cohesiveness.” And Andrew Sarris, on the occasion of Lincoln Center’s 2007 eleven-film tribute, wrote, “Mr. Mazursky is a testament to the sheer depth of American mainstream movies way back (it now seems) in the days when directors – and Mr. Mazursky in particular – knew how to be funny and adult at the same time.” “The great thing about Paul’s movies,” Mel Brooks said, “is that they never seem to be made up. They seem to spring from life.” It’s true. It’s very, very true.

She Could Be a Farmer in Those Clothes

The good news is Amy Heckerling is back and she’s reteaming with Alicia Silverstone. The bad news is, it’s vampires.

According to Screen Daily, “Vamps tells the modern-day tale of two female vampires who live it up in New York until love enters the picture, when each has to make a choice that will jeopardize their immortality.” Jesus. More of this?

I’m trying to have faith that despite the material, Heckerling and Silverstone will alchemize, and turn this nonsense into the kind of sweet-tempered parody they made of Clueless. No one needs to be reminded that Clueless, which celebrates its fifteenth birthday this year, was one of the most popular comedies – critically and commercially – of the nineties. Even today, just about everyone agrees that it’s good. But I’m not sure we’ve even scratched the surface. It’s actually really good.

Today, looking back on the film, it’s clearer than ever that Clueless, more than being merely funny, was profoundly attuned to its cultural moment, that Amy Hecklering had the shrewdness to see, often on a subatomic scale, everything that was ridiculous about Cher Horowitz and her little world, as well as the sensitivity, on occasion, to lend her an empathic hand. At its best, it was almost like being in a Paul Mazursky movie. Hecklerling has that kind of eye. Even a figure like Jeff Spicoli, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, is, like one of the characters out of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, drawn with a lunacy commensurate with total seriousness.

Pauline Kael, writing about Mazursky’s, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, could have been writing of Hecklerling when she observed, “What made his earlier films so distinctive was the acceptance of bugginess as part of the normal – maybe even the best part of it. In his films, craziness gives life its savor. When Mazursky makes fun of characters, it’s not to put them down; quite the reverse – the scattier they are, the more happily he embraces them.”

Heckerling sees teenagers from both sides; to her they are half-Twilight, half-American Pie. So you see, she may be onto something really good in Vamps.