Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lucking Out and Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

October is Pauline Kael month, with three major books released in one transom-crushing batch. One is The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, which I haven’t yet received, although I’m familiar with most of what’s in it. Another is a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow. And the third is James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York.

Wolcott has long been a friend to this blog (and, as Tom Watson points out, a friend to many other blogs). He is a personal friend to me. But I was reading Wolcott long before I met him, and this book shows why I still pounce on every word he writes. I turn his sentences this way and that, I flip clauses, I analyze word choice, only to give up, as Bluegirl did. I can’t imitate his prose, I can’t even claim it as an influence; all I can do is hope that if I read him long enough, osmosis might help me out.

As if that weren't enough, he also has an impeccable sense of structure. Lucking Out is built of five parts and a coda. The first deals with Wolcott’s arrival in New York to work at the Village Voice, after being granted a wish by the world’s most unlikely fairy godmother, Norman Mailer. The third covers his years on the punk scene at CBGB’s and sundry other downtown crawlspaces. The fourth examines (a carefully chosen verb) his encounters with the hyperventilating world of 70s porn, and the fifth circles back to the writing scene. The second section, and the coda, focus on his long friendship with Kael; those sections are the heart of the book.

I’ve read some reviews suggesting Wolcott has folded his switchblade for this one and avoided the kind of verbal slashings that helped make his name. Maybe those reviewers read over phrases that reduced me to unbecoming cackles, like “John Simon, then at the unpopular height of his Dracula impersonation;” “Renata Adler, she of the bell-ringer braid;” or “Sontag gagging with laughter is not a picture to linger over.” And maybe stories like John Cale trying to strangle Wolcott when he didn’t understand Cale’s beer order are one of those male-bonding things that I don’t get; Jim does remark afterward, “I didn’t take it personally.” Then again, those reviewers are right that Lucking Out is essentially a warmhearted book. No excuses are made for difficult people--such as Lester Bangs, James Agee’s only rival in the “Self-Destructive Critic” sweepstakes--but they’re still drawn with sympathy and due appreciation for talent.

That’s why I say the Kael sections are the centerpiece, written as they are with affection undimmed by more than thirty years. Reading the book, I thought, god, no wonder the woman drew so many writers into her orbit: She was fun. She’s hilarious during a talk-show foray, where Ed Asner and his stomach acid sour the mood before Kael and Wolcott even get a chance to go on camera. Just sitting around the offices of the New Yorker with her, listening to her read letters from people outraged by her pan of Seven Beauties, sounds like fun. Accompanying her to a screening even of a catastrophically bad movie, like George C. Scott’s The Savage Is Loose, must have been a hoot. Wolcott describes it as “a Darwinian allegory that was like Gilligan’s Island goes Lord of the Flies.” Asked by an overeager, protocol-violating publicist what she thought of the film, Kael chirped, “Tell him to bury it.”

Clearly Wolcott’s own refusal to hold his fire must have been reinforced by sustained contact with Kael.

I can almost hear Pauline’s characteristic, pithy response: ‘Tough.’ (Which sometimes, depending on the situation, had a ‘shit’ attached.) It was often what she said when someone expressed queasy apprehension on some point of possible offense, a retort that was made not with anger or defiance but with a snorty impatience for euphemism, false shirking the truth, or, worse, killing a joke.

Kael took keen interest in her friends’ romances, too, although she had some odd ideas about courtship; Wolcott describes her coming out of Blue Velvet and saying, “It might make a wonderful date movie.” On another occasion, she suggested that he ask out a mutual acquaintance. When Wolcott reminded her that the proposed date was a lesbian, Kael responded, “Oh, that. So what. Aren’t you up for a challenge?"

I cherish this book. It isn't nostalgia, that tattered paper valentine that arrives sometime around St. Patrick's Day. It's a chance to visit another world with a critic supreme, who's as generous here as he's always been to struggling writers.

Reading Lucking Out before A Life in the Dark is a good idea. You go from Wolcott’s time when “there was no happier calling than making Pauline laugh,” to a view of her whole life. I was familiar with Kellow’s calm, meticulous writing and research from his biography of the Bennett sisters, which I also recommend. It’s good to see Kellow bring his determined “on one hand...on the other hand” approach to Kael in this excellent biography. Because with Kael, there is always another hand. She was controversial from the moment she picked up a pencil.

She was, and this should never be under-emphasized, a self-made woman, born into none of the literary or Ivy League connections that can elevate a critical career to this day. Her early childhood, on a chicken ranch in Petaluma, California, was marred by financial catastrophe, after which her father moved the family to San Francisco. She went to Berkeley, never finished, and worked at a strikingly disparate series of jobs, including cooking, sewing and, significantly, running a repertory house. In between she pursued an ill-judged taste for relationships with gay men, and had a daughter, Gina, whose father refused involvement in her upbringing.

Stints of writing at City Lights, McCall’s and The New Republic followed, as well as “Circles and Squares,” Kael’s attack on what she saw as the absurdities of the auteur theory as propounded by Andrew Sarris. That essay caused a longstanding feud--sort of. In this, as in her other bridge-torching opinions, Kael said her piece and, at least publicly, moved on. “There was a certain clean detachment to many of her broadsides against other critics; she was often astonished to learn that the objects of her critical wrath were under the impression that she hated them personally,” writes Kellow.

The fame she gained from articles like “Circles and Squares,” as well as her bestselling first book, I Lost It at the Movies, led eventually to Kael’s job at The New Yorker. She was forty-eight.

Here Kael’s highest point as a critic begins, and her personal life forms the pattern it would follow afterward. Kellow writes that by the time she was at The New Yorker, Kael was through with men--dating them, anyway. Pauline Kael never once in her life lacked for the presence of men. She constantly cultivated friendships and became famous for out-of-the-blue phone calls to other writers, even to people who had simply written her a letter.

But at this point Kellow’s book also shifts in tone, and becomes almost an intellectual history. Kael’s reviews dominate Kellow’s book as they did her life. All the famous pieces swing back to please or irritate in turn, with Kellow reconstructing the stories behind them. Did she really dislike Badlands and rhapsodize over Yentl? Yes, she did. She also proclaimed Steven Spielberg’s promise all the way back with Sugarland Express and raved over Michelle Pfeiffer when the actress was considered just another blonde. Kael saw Casualties of War as the best of the late-80s cycle of Vietnam War movies; Kellow quotes her review, and shows that no one could give you more of what it’s like to watch Casualties of War than Kael, with her emotional response and that “we” that Renata Adler found so irritating.

We in the audience are put in the man’s position: we’re made to feel the awfulness of being ineffectual. This lifelike defeat is central to the movie. (One hot day on my first trip to New York City, I walked past a group of men on a tenement stoop. One of them, in a sweaty sleeveless T-shirt, stood shouting at a screaming, weeping little boy perhaps eighteen months old. The man must have caught a glimpse of my stricken face, because he called out, ‘You don’t like it, lady? Then how do you like this?’ And he picked up a bottle of pink soda pop from the sidewalk and poured it on the baby’s head. Wailing sounds, much louder than before, followed me down the street.)

Kellow’s scrupulous approach means that his book can be read with pleasure by a Kael fan, and profitably combed by a Kael detractor looking for unflattering stories. The worst episode in the biography concerns the “Raising Kane” essay, published by the magazine and later expanded into a book. Several writers, particularly Peter Bogdanovich, later showed that Kael, in her zeal to promote Herman Mankiewicz’s role in Citizen Kane, had seriously misunderstood the process of making the film. Even more distressing is Kellow’s account of how Kael used research from UCLA assistant professor Howard Suber without crediting him in the article, and without more than a single $300 payment to him.

Kael’s relationship with The New Yorker’s Olympian editor, William Shawn, varied from mildly fractious to hugely frustrating. Shawn, shown here as a towering figure in the history of passive-aggression, never got used to Kael’s blunt writing, nor even her opinions. While her negative review of Badlands was still being printed, Shawn told her that Terrence Malick “is like a son to me.” Kellow records Kael’s response--“Tough shit, Bill”--in a perfect echo of Wolcott’s memory.

There were ruptures in later years, including one with Wolcott, who wrote a piece about the Paulettes for Vanity Fair that angered Kael. (Those who know the story will see its melancholy foreshadowing in Lucking Out.) I attended a panel on Kael at the New York Film Festival, where Kellow took exception to Manohla Dargis’ remark that the Kael of his book lacked “an equal passion for, and pleasure in, life beyond the screen.” It wasn’t like at all, he said; Kael’s life was full of music, books, art and friends.

And that is the picture I got from this biography. There is Kael, the steel-plated critic, criticizing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, getting a letter from George Roy Hill with the genteel salutation, “Listen, you miserable bitch...” and using the letter to entertain people at parties. And then there is Kael, stricken with Parkinson’s, running into Hill at a restaurant after he received the same diagnosis. She “clutched his hand warmly and gave him the name of her massage therapist.” Despite the title, this was not a life in the dark.


All film writers eventually must deal with Kael, like it or not. I will always love my friend Dennis Cozzalio’s post, in which he details how often he thought she was wrong, but captures what she meant to those of us out in the hinterlands in the Paleolithic times before the Internet. My father had a subscription to The New Yorker, and every week I would pick it up and start an argument with Kael. The argument had to remain in my own head, as that was well before the Web made it possible to storm into a comments section and tell off a critic. Usually, I didn’t want to tell off Kael, not exactly, no matter how much I objected to what she had written, and I objected to quite a lot. I wanted to ask her questions. I wanted some interaction with that brain. I would read her capsules in the front, or her ever-lengthening reviews in the back, and marvel at the syncopated, give-a-damn writing style and her utter faith in her own judgment. The fact that she was a woman mattered to me, too. Growing up in Alabama, I did not encounter many women with that kind of intellectual aggressiveness.

Only gradually did I realize how widely Kael is criticized, even despised. The volume of things for which Kael is faulted begins to approach the size of her own output. She had too much power and wielded it unwisely. She collected acolytes, she started feuds. She overpraised Last Tango in Paris, she was blind to the virtues of Dr. Strangelove. She had no consistent set of criteria. She placed too much emphasis on screenwriters. Her kinship with ugly ducklings meant she gave too much credit to Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand. She sent David Lean into a spiraling depression with her review of Ryan’s Daughter. She helped ruin Orson Welles and the piece that did it, “Raising Kane,” showed lack of ethics, as did her stint in Hollywood, as did her rave over the rough cut for Nashville.

She palled around with filmmakers, tuts Dargis, as though friendships with Woody Allen and Robert Altman kept Kael from hating Stardust Memories or 3 Women, the latter judgment prompting Altman to scream at her in the middle of an airport. (Altman got over it; Allen did not.) Others fault her for lack of loyalty to directors we now idolize. She never expounded “a theory, a system, or even a consistent set of principles,” points out A.O. Scott. And my response is, “well, thank god for that.” But the question also arises, is that the highest goal of criticism? Start Your Own -Ism?

The above objections--whether I agree with them entirely, in part, or not at all--can be supported with evidence from Kael’s life and writing. It’s another, patronizing strain in Kael bashing that gets under my skin. I could, if I wanted to indulge in the euphemism that Kael hated, call it a double standard. Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, can write a dismissal of Ingmar Bergman in the pages of the New York Times, and encounter little more than vigorous dissent. Kael, though, is often presumed to have other motivations wafting around her little head. Gary Indiana, at Artforum (in a piece that Wolcott also quotes) sneers that Kael “clearly had a thing for Warren Beatty, for Paul Newman, for various stars whose worst performances, in her view, paradoxically contained their best work; she rhapsodized over horrible hack directors whose ‘honest’ formulaic dreck she preferred to ‘pretentious’ films by superior directors.” Funny he should mention that. I keep encountering writers who clearly have “a thing for” Kael, like Michael Atkinson, who memorialized her in the Village Voice as “the hot-pants Queen Victoria of American film criticism,” and “the focus of gossip (a film critic!) that speculated on her liaisons with colleagues and with certain testosterone-dizzy filmmakers.”

Richard Brody also vaults to mind. For ages now he has used his perch at the online version of The New Yorker, the magazine that Kael’s marquee appeal helped keep afloat for years, to swat her at every opportunity for a voluminous array of sins. He quotes, with sorrowful relish, the story David Denby told about Kael’s lunch with Nicholas Ray; Denby said Kael spent her time describing the flaws in Ray’s movies, despite the man’s evident illness. To recap the links so far, Kael’s writing was entirely too personal, and her personality was heartless to boot. She appears in a post about John Cassavetes, whose movies Kael consistently loathed. Cassavetes physically bullied Kael, but in the Brody cosmology it is Kael who comes across worse, for denying the greatness of Cassavetes in the first place. Brody's contributions to the latest flurry of interest in Kael include the idea that 5001 Nights at the Movies still weren’t enough for her to write about all the movies that Brody thinks she should have written about. It has long since gotten hard to keep up. Last week, along came an offering that begins with Clint Eastwood and quickly swerves into Kael's dislike of Eastwood. Eastwood once commissioned a psychoanalysis that revealed Kael's supposed attraction to him. Brody says that theory is "nonsense," but apparently not nonsensical enough to be unworthy of block-quoting. The piece ends with a sort of victory tarantella concerning all the many, many ways in which Kael's opinions were wrong and, in an unanticipated bit of felicity, Brody's opinions were right. And why would anyone esteem a critic with whom they frequently disagreed? Because critical opinion is not an unyielding, unanimous and permanent entity? Because the critic wrote well? How quaint.

Nowhere is Brody’s animosity toward Kael more evident than in his discussion of her Shoah review, which he calls “so grotesque as to seem willful.” He continues, The wild subjectivity of her approach to the film—her writing about the feelings of her backside rather than the feelings of the people in the film or of its maker—suggests, overall, the basic problem with her criticism.” How about this for a willful suggestion about Kael’s overall basic Shoah problem: She didn’t like the movie. For the record, my own attempt to watch Shoah when it was screened on PBS in the late 80s ended sometime around the three-hour mark. I didn’t like it either, for several of the reasons that Kael cited; like her, I preferred The Sorrow and the Pity.

In a whiplash-inducing gear-shift at the end, Brody says Kael might have written a swell autobiography, where her “assumptions” and her “prejudices” and her insistence on putting herself in her movie reviews would have been quite apposite. That’s the ticket, a nice little memoir. So much more profitable a use of her talents than puttering around West 43rd Street, being the most famous film critic of all time.

In comments sections, where bloggers and cinephiles flex their intelligence at one another, pretense is abandoned. Jim Emerson, a (qualified) Kael admirer, once excerpted Renata Adler’s attack on Kael and collated some Kael defenses; the brief thread this prompted is illuminating. There’s a comment from one film blogger, alleging that her fans “don't want film criticism, they don't like cinema either, they just want to have fun reading fiction, and inflamatory diatribs [sic].” Someone else remarks, “The problem with Pauline Kael is that one gets the impression that she dismissed films on the basis that they didn't get her sexually aroused.” (Adler went after Kael for what she saw as a hectoring use of the second person. Kael always said she found “one” prissy and disingenuous, and this one agrees with her.) Adds another commenter, “[he’s] right about Kael's sexual fixations, but that isn't the sole problem. There's also the fact that there's no rhyme or reason to her approach. She would, time and again, praise one movie to the skies for certain qualities, and then turn around and trash another that possessed those same qualities;” he winds up by saying Kael had a “borderline psychotic degree of subjectivity.”

When I read threads of this sort, I consider dropping by to say, “I wonder why Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber, both of whom had some blind spots and occasionally reversed themselves, don’t inspire certain people to call them irrational, or psychotic, or to speculate about their sexual fixations.” But I don’t comment, because I don’t really wonder why. I don’t wonder at all.

God knows I begrudge no one the right to tear their hair out over a Kael review, or even over her entire body of work. I disagree with her all the time, much more often than I second her thoughts. That’s the whole goddamn point to Kael. I put my hand over my mouth when she acknowledges the beauty of a woman’s picture I love like Now, Voyager, only to call it “a shlock classic.” I grieve when she refuses to see merit in my own pets, like Joan Crawford--I suppose because I’m emotional about Crawford. Still, I’m not interested in some guy’s psychoanalysis of why she didn’t like Last Year at Marienbad. As a friend remarked to me, once you go there, “you might as well go all the way and speculate whether she was having her period during the screening.”

I’m arguing that through a decades-long career, Kael earned the courtesy of having her film judgments evaluated without veiled sexism. She clearly wanted that herself. My favorite part of Kellow’s biography was the story of Kael’s visit to a hardware store in Great Barrington:

“It happened to be Mother’s Day, and the proprietor gave her a gift, adding in a condescending tone, ‘Because you look like you’re a mother or a grandmother.’ ‘Fuck you, Charlie,’ Pauline replied. ‘Do you know I’ve written ten books?’”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

New York Film Festival 2011: Wrap

The Siren is late with this New York Film Festival wrap-up, but she felt like she owed it to Carey Mulligan, if no one else.

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)
Once upon a time the Siren took acting classes, and one day we embarked on a story-telling exercise. The idea was for the actor to take the stage and describe an incident from his life. His classmates would then tell him which parts they didn’t believe. First up was an earnest young woman from New Jersey--we’ll call her Angie. The Siren has forgotten most particulars of Angie’s story, but it began with a great deal of Boone’s Farm wine, which Angie said she consumed because she was young and foolish and “I thought you had to be drunk to have a good time.” The story ran through some mildly embarrassing hijinks. When Angie finished, there was a short silence.

Then, loud and clear from the back of the room came the voice of a guy from Tennessee: “We-ell, first of all, I don’t believe that you don’t have to be drunk to have a good time.”

And therein we have the Siren’s obstacle with Shame. She doesn’t believe having tons of sex is this big a drag. Porn--OK, maybe, when it reaches the point where it's your whole sex life. The Siren has known people who preferred porn to a partner. They became too put off by the fact that doing it with someone else involves mess and noise and exertion and flawed bodies--not to mention pre- and post-coital conversational formalities. Rich, handsome, single Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is addicted to porn, all right, but that sure doesn’t mean he won't go out and get laid with obsessive, addictive and utterly joyless regularity.

Director Steve McQueen must know many people have the Siren’s attitude, and he responds by daring the audience to find anything in his movie erotic, up to and including his lead actor’s traffic-stopping beauty. Much of the sex and nudity is shot from pitiless angles with the kind of office-building lighting that makes even the dewiest interns look like they have a case of stomach flu. The strategy reaches its nadir with a threesome, as the lugubrious score (the movie’s worst flaw) keeps sawing away to emphasize, "This is sad, this is dreary, so whatever you do, DON'T GET TURNED ON."

What saves the film from risibility is that sex-addiction isn’t its primary theme. Rather than perversion (actually, you don’t even get to see anything that qualifies as perverted, so if that's the selling point for you, consider this the Siren’s Consumer Report)--as the Siren was saying, rather than perversion, Shame is about near-fatally damaged people. Brandon is unable to connect with a single human being in one of the world’s most crowded cities. His trauma is obvious, but never specified--a good choice, since it would take a lot to explain a man this shattered. The two best scenes in the movie, consequently, have no sex at all. Both are shot in bravura long takes that enable the actors to show a huge range of reactions to one another. The first is Brandon’s attempt at a real date with a pretty coworker. The scene becomes a death-spiral of awkwardness, Fassbender showing that his character has only a vague notion of how to socialize when neither fucking nor the immediate possibility of fucking is involved.

The second is an extended fight, shot from the back of Brandon’s couch, between him and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She’s moved into his Dwell-ready apartment because her own life is also a mess. Now, you may recall that the Siren did not cotton to Mulligan in Drive. Well, here she was marvelous. She’s a perfect take on a certain kind of rootless urban girl, self-sabotaging her own desultory pursuit of a career and throwing herself at men who transparently don’t give a damn. There's a suggestion of incestuous attraction, but whatever Brandon's desires may be, at this point he does have one boundary, and Sissy is it. The feeling he has for her is as close to ordinary affection as he gets, and it’s painful to watch him provoking her into a fight, because it’s obvious why he’s doing it: She’s preventing him from pursuing his addiction.

The Siren can’t call Shame wholly successful, no way. But it has some extraordinarily accomplished acting, it's heartfelt and sometimes moving. Uneven efforts like this one can be more interesting to watch and discuss than many more coldly efficient products.

The Kid With the Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011)
The Siren got one lovely moment out of the NYFF press conferences, when the Dardenne brothers came onstage to discuss The Kid With the Bike, the story of a friendless boy and his frantic search for belonging. Someone asked about the use of music, and one brother said they hadn’t used any before. The Kid, however, uses a short passage from the Emperor Concerto at several points, as when the title character Cyril (Thomas Doret) is falling miserably asleep. They thought of the music, said M. Dardenne, as a caress: “It’s what Cyril is missing in his life, which is love.” In that declaration is all the power of this movie. Doret has a pugnacious face that could be easily cast as the cafeteria bully, and the character is a volcanically difficult little brat, stubborn and defiant, constantly on the move, usually in the direction of trouble. But from the first moments the Dardennes show why this unlovable child desperately needs love, as he tries to contact his indifferent father, and later is deceived by a charismatic young criminal. In the world the Dardennes create, so urgent and universal is the hunger for affection that when Cyril locks his arms around a stranger, merely to prevent his minders from taking him away, it has the power to involve the stranger in the boy’s life forever. Deeply emotional, and a beautiful film.


Here the Siren offers her ranking of the 15 films she saw at NYFF 2011. The top three get her very strongest endorsement; the next four are highly recommended; the next five are worthwhile, with reservations. The Siren endorses the bottom three only for those with a passion for the directors or for Marilyn Monroe.

A Separation
Le Havre
This Is Not a Film
The Kid With a Bike
You Are Not I
Miss Bala
Woman With Red Hair
The Loneliest Planet
A Dangerous Method
The Turin Horse
My Week With Marilyn
We Can’t Go Home Again

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Memoriam: Barbara Kent, 1907-2011

"The golden era was the period from 1916 to 1928. It is a neglected period, forgotten often by the very men who enriched it. They have seen their films reissued on television; bad prints shown at the wrong speed have distorted their memory. Perhaps the ballyhoo meant nothing. Perhaps their much-praised pictures were as jerky and as primitive as they appear today.

They were not."
--From the introduction to The Parade's Gone By, by Kevin Brownlow

"I've always said that the pantomime is far more poetic and it has a universal appeal that everyone would understand if it were well done. The spoken word reduces everybody to a certain glibness. The voice is a beautiful thing, most revealing, and I didn't want to be too revealing in my art because it may show a limitation. There are very few people with voices that can reach or give the illusion of great depth, whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird flying. The expression of the eyes--there's no words. The pure expression of the face that people can't hide--if it's one of disappointment it can be ever so subtle. I had to bear all this in mind when I started talking. I knew very well I lost a lot of eloquence. It can never be as good."
--Charlie Chaplin, from the so-called Lost Interview with Richard Meryman, at ednapurviance.org


The Siren has seen only two pictures starring Barbara Kent, who has died at the age of 103. One is the 1933 shoestring Oliver Twist, with Kent as Rose. The other is Flesh and the Devil, in which Kent had the unenviable task of being the forsaken lover to Garbo's lascivious temptress. Still, it's the silent Flesh and the Devil that left a far stronger impression. Sound seemed to diminish this diminutive actress, as it did so many others. In pantomime, her tiny body made her even sweeter and more fragile, and it added poignance to her hurt over John Gilbert's betrayal.

Kent managed to continue her career into the talkie era, but never caught on as a big star, despite marrying her agent in 1934. She got out of the business in 1941. Read enough about Hollywood--or even a little--and you realize Barbara Kent's fate is no sad ending. She got, in fact, about the best you could hope for, short of a star's immortality. She lived a long, long life and, we hope, a good one.

Still, Kent's passing, which leaves Mickey Rooney as one of the only living actors who ever played in a silent, made the Siren well up, though the Siren knows some would tell her it's absurd to cry over the death of a woman you never met, whom you've seen only in two movies.

The Siren always knew she would most likely live to see every silent-film artist depart the planet before she did. But the Siren still wishes she'd gotten the chance to tell Kent, or any of the other artists that Kevin Brownlow has spent a lifetime celebrating, that she's sorry about all the years when so few people were even trying to preserve their legacy. Probably that wouldn't have meant much to Kent, anyway, since she spent most of her life refusing all interviews of any sort; the Times said Kent was sometimes known to deny that she ever had a film career at all. Who knows how she looked back on Hollywood, let alone the silents. Did she see a lost golden age, or just a quaint, irrelevant relic of a former lifetime? The Siren looks at images of the late Barbara Kent, and thinks only that we need to do better.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

New York Film Festival 2011: My Week With Marilyn

If the Siren’s attitude toward Marilyn Monroe could be graphed as a fever chart, it would have two lines. One line would represent the Siren’s opinion of Monroe’s acting, and it would show a steady, if not steep, rise. The other line would chart the Siren’s interest in the Monroe myth. It would resemble a headlong tumble down the south face of K2.

Unfortunately for the Siren’s patience with My Week With Marilyn, the new movie just screened for the press at the New York Film Festival, the myth is still what sells.

In act one, whippersnapper Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) uses his refined upper-class moxie to get a job as third assistant director on Laurence Olivier’s ill-starred directorial outing, The Prince and Showgirl. That part is palatable, as young Colin rushes about making himself indispensable, and there’s a chance for Toby Jones to utter some choice lines, including one delivered on learning of Arthur Miller’s (Dougray Scott) visa troubles: “All those pain-in-the-ass New York intellectuals are Reds.”

The second act is pretty enjoyable. That’s where Colin hangs around as Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) shoots his movie and copes with Monroe’s (Michelle Williams) bizarre work ethic, which included much dedication to the Lee Strasberg distillation of the Method and almost none to such trivia as punctuality and knowing the lines. Little fresh material is evident, except possibly a conception of Monroe’s drama coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) that does not paint her as a complete gargoyle. But it’s fun, even if the score is vacuous, the camerawork never once rises above director Simon Curtis’ BBC-TV roots, and Emma Watson plays a love interest who should have been left on the cutting-room floor. The Siren certainly hopes Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench) really was that charming and understanding. Branagh is hilarious, whether remarking that teaching Monroe to act is “like teaching Urdu to a badger,” or making a priceless face as he fields a call from the absent actress and says, “Colin, it’s for you.”

None of the actors look much like their real-life counterparts. Williams is Monroe-ish only around the cheekbones, and Branagh is Olivier only from the cheekbones up. Judi Dench looks like Judi Dench. Julia Ormond fares worst. She has only Vivien Leigh’s coloring, not her features, but Ormond is still a beautiful woman, and here she’s subjected to lighting and makeup that would have sent the real Leigh into one of her depressive breakdowns. It is one of the film’s strengths, though, that once the initial shock wears off, the lack of physical matching doesn’t much matter. Branagh’s speaking forcefully recalls Olivier’s Old Vic accents, and Williams’ voice blew the Siren away--fully Marilyn, yet believable, consistent and 100% free of parody.

Williams is, in fact, superb. The Siren has lost count of the actresses she’s seen playing Monroe, but Williams leaves them all in the dust. She takes the most imitated woman of all time and manages a performance that recalls every gesture and effect, while still creating a character. It’s a remarkable feat of acting, and Branagh’s work, despite his having to spend too much time musing out loud about Marilyn, is still right up there with Williams.

But what shall it profit an actor to give a good performance in a movie this trite? For any interest in My Week With Marilyn vanishes as soon as the much-vaunted week begins. That’s when we’re supposedly getting to know Marilyn the Woman. And it’s the same goddamn Marilyn we’ve all been seeing since approximately 4:26 am on Aug. 5, 1962. The wounds of her childhood abandonment and loneliness, her rotten luck in love, the pressure oh the pressure. Jesus Christ on a soundstage, you don’t need the Siren to recap any of it. She could hand her Macbook to a stranger on the Columbus Circle subway platform, ask for one paragraph on Marilyn Monroe, and those scenes are what you’d get.

So the Siren’s graph diverges more strongly now than ever. This story that purports to give us Marilyn as she was off-camera only winds up proving what the Siren has always known to be true: Monroe on camera was, and always will be, vastly more worthwhile.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

The Siren is back at Nomad Widescreen this month with something the world probably does not need: a tribute to Breakfast at Tiffany's, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a Blu-Ray. The first part of her essay is concerned with the movie's flaws, chief among them being, it seems almost redundant to mention, Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi. The Siren deals with Yunioshi in the article, because one must, but here among her friends she'd like to offer a few more thoughts on Rooney himself.

One painful aspect of Rooney at Tiffany's is that for the broad public, it's by far his most famous role. That's a pity, because Rooney is still very much with us; he turned 91 on Sept. 23, and long may he thrive. Rooney's incredible career embraces everything from a series of silents, to the definitive screen Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, to his underrated musical work and many outings with Judy Garland, to a surprisingly varied film noir period. That last group of roles is written up here in an excellent piece at Noir City; the Siren saw The Strip this year and was struck by how good Rooney was at being depressive and dark, even in between jazz numbers. He's a consummate trooper, determined to give it his show-biz all whether he's having a heart-to-heart with Spencer Tracy in Boys Town or, in Drive a Crooked Road, he's proving Ryan Gosling isn't the only one who can drive a getaway car.

That is probably why, to this day, Rooney does not appear to understand what the big honking problem is with Mr. Yunioshi. From the actor's perspective, he was given a broadly farcical role and he played the everloving hell out of it, just like he was supposed to, and now everybody is on his case for not being Japanese (or even identifiably human, but let it go). It should also be reiterated that the director, Blake Edwards, bears the ultimate responsibility for Mr. Yunioshi. That's why, as hard as the character is to take, the Siren isn't inclined to berate Rooney for it. The Siren absolutely understands why Mr. Yunioshi pretty much ruins the movie for some viewers, whether or not they're Asian. But she herself pushes Yunioshi aside, to the same mental cubbyhole in which she puts some of Preston Sturges' African-American characters, and concentrates on the party, on the cat, and Audrey.

And so back to Breakfast:

Part of what makes a great comedy is the accretion of comic detail, and Edwards piles up the bits for us, as does the script by George Axelrod. The film’s been a touchstone for fashion lovers for decades, but chic as they are, the costumes in the movie still have comic effect, as in the absurdly large hat and Ray-Bans shrouding Hepburn’s delicate face, or (my favorite) Holly’s earplugs fitted with dangling baubles, like she’s wearing earrings to bed. The film is full of minor characters who sashay in, deliver a brilliant line or two, and depart, never to be seen again. Mag Wildwood (Dorothy Whitney), the model and aforementioned thumping bore: “You know what's gonna happen to you? I am gonna march you over to the zoo and feed you to the yak.” Sally Tomato (Alan Reed), the mob boss: “Snow flurries expected this weekend in New Orleans.” Even the Tiffany’s salesman, played by the unflappable John McGiver, looking at a Cracker Jack ring and saying with complete sincerity, “It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past. That sort of thing.” And of all the quoted and re-quoted lines in the movie, the one that sums up its appeal is delivered not by Holly Golightly, but by Martin Balsam’s O.J. Berman, playing Holly's would-be agent: “She’s a phony. But she's a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk she believes in.”

That swinging party in Holly's apartment, from Holly’s toga to Mag’s face-plant, is one of the most glorious mixtures of slapstick and sophistication ever filmed, worthy to be placed alongside other shindigs from Duck Soup, My Man Godfrey, and The Philadelphia Story. Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” theme is as good as Elmer Bernstein’s main melody from To Kill a Mockingbird for the purpose of making grown men nudge you in the theater to see if you’ve got a Kleenex in your purse.

Above all, there is Audrey Hepburn. Whether or not you care for this movie is very much dependent on whether you care for her, and I love her dearly indeed. Capote famously did not want Hepburn; he thought she was too genteel, preferring the up-front sensuality of Marilyn Monroe. He had a point. But, having admitted that it’s hard to believe Audrey Hepburn was ever Lula Mae Anybody, let’s also admit that most great stars don’t seem to have come from anywhere, except maybe the forehead of Zeus. And in every other respect, Hepburn nails the part. Her essential sweetness takes the edge off Holly’s avarice, as her face lights up at the sight of the “ninth richest man in America under 50.” Her lovely, overarticulated voice suggests a girl who’s role-playing so often she doesn’t know whether she’s “on” or “off.” Hepburn began as a dancer, and like her other good roles, Breakfast at Tiffany’s uses her ease with her body, as when she cries “Thursday? It can’t be, it’s too gruesome!” and gallops into action. One of the smartest things Edwards does is that opening, where Holly, still in last night’s evening gown, glides along the Tiffany’s windows with her coffee and bread. It’s defiantly literal, but it anchors every part of the character: her practicality and her whimsy, her materialism and her dreams.