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Herman J. Mankiewicz


Citizen Kane (1941)

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#180 August 14, 2013

Marie writes: Much beloved and a never ending source of amusement, Simon's Cat is a popular animated cartoon series by the British animator Simon Tofield featuring a hungry house cat who uses increasingly heavy-handed tactics to get its owner to feed it. Hand-drawn using an A4-size Wacom Intuos 3 pen and tablet, Simon has revealed that his four cats - called Teddy, Hugh, Jess and Maisie - provide inspiration for the series, with Hugh being the primary inspiration. And there's now a new short titled "Suitcase". To view the complete collection to date, visit Simon's Cat at YouTube.


Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Deeper into Kael

"Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know." -- Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris" (1963)

"She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. And I don't mean that facetiously. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising." -- Woody Allen, to Peter Bogdanovich, quoted in the introduction to the book This is Orson Welles (1998)

The imminent publication of two books devoted to Pauline Kael -- "A Life in the Dark," a biography by Brian Kellow, and a collection of reviews and essays called "The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael," both due Oct. 27 -- has provided an excuse to recycle all the old arguments about her. And that's not something I can imagine being said for many of her American contemporaries, mostly because nobody argues about them. Is there another American film critic who has inspired such a biography, published 20 years after her retirement? Does anyone still read, say, Vincent Canby, the powerful, impressively independent but rather lackluster successor to Kael's much-ridiculed Bosley Crowther at the New York Times? (Canby covered the film beat at the Times during the height of that institution's "make-or-break" authority from 1969 to 1993, when he switched to theater, succeeding Frank Rich.)

Some have pointed out that Kael was often wrong. Well, I should bloody well hope so. What critic isn't? By "wrong" these critics evidently mean that she did not agree with them about which movies were good and which weren't, or that her verdicts did not align themselves with the Judgments of History, lo these many years later. Were "Bonnie and Clyde," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Last Tango in Paris," "Shampoo," "Nashville" and "Casualties of War" really as great as she claimed? How could she be so dismissive -- even contemptuous -- of "La Dolce Vita," "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," "Shoah," "L'Eclisse" (and all Antonioni after "L'Avventura"), "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and all Kubrick thereafter) and Cassavetes pretty much across the board? (If you don't find at least a couple things in those lists that raise your hackles, you should be worried about the integrity and independence of your own critical values.)


Are Movies Going to Pieces?

View image Pauline Kael.

"I love subtextual film criticism, especially when it's fun, when a guy knows how to write in a readable, charming way. What I love the most about it is that it doesn't have a f---ing thing to do with what the writer or the actor or the filmmakers intended. It just has to work. And if you can make your case with as few exceptions as possible, then that's great." -- Quentin Tarantino, in Sight & Sound, February, 2008

Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of Pauline Kael, who may have encouraged more people to articulate their love for movies than anyone of her generation. She wasn't necessarily all that big on what he calls "subtextual film criticism," but she knew how to write in a readable, engaging and idiosyncratic style. The titles of her collections of reviews and essays, with their suggestive sexual and romantic overtones -- "I Lost It at the Movies," "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," "Deeper Into Movies," "Reeling," "When the Lights Go Down" -- told you everything about her approach to movies. I don't remember her using the word "film" or "cinema" much, unless it was to deride them as vacuous or pretentious. Though she became most famous and influential while writing for an upper-caste, urban(e) institution, The New Yorker, that reeked of calcified East Coast provincialism, she presented herself as an ardent movie populist. (Kael came from the northern coast of California.)

In November, 1964 -- that would be about 43 years ago, for those keeping count -- she published an essay for The Atlantic Monthly called, "Are Movies Going to Pieces?" in which she asks a lot of questions we're still asking today (see recent Scanners post and discussion, "Moviegoers who feel too much," and Stephen Whitty's column in last Sunday's Newark Times-Ledger," Critic's Choice").

View image "If I say I am a film critic, you will agree."

Standard disclaimer-cliché: I obviously don't concur with all that Kael says here (but at least at this point in her career she was willing to admit to feeling some ambivalence!). One of the things I've always found fascinating about her is that, even when I believe she's dead wrong, she unwittingly includes much of the evidence to make a case against her right there in her review. It's not that she didn't observe what was there, but that she drew such different conclusions from it. Also, her favorite rhetorical trick is the false dichotomy. It's fun to consider her arguments, but are we really forced to make such dramatic (or simplistic) either/or choices: "The Eclipse" or "His Girl Friday"? "Art" or entertainment? Right brain or left brain? Herman J. Mankiewicz or Orson Welles? George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden?

"Are Movies Going to Pieces?" (1964). Most of these excerpts are from the middle and the very end: I trust I won't be mistaken for the sort of boob who attacks ambiguity or complexity. I am interested in the change from the period when the meaning of art and form in art was in making complex experience simple and lucid, as is still the case in "Knife in the Water" [Roman Polanski, 1962] or "Bandits of Orgosolo" [Vittorio De Seta, 1960], to the current acceptance of art as technique, the technique which in a movie like "This Sporting Life" [Lindsay Anderson, 1963] makes a simple, though psychologically confused, story look complex, and modern because inexplicable.

Movie Answer Man

Movie Answer Man (09/26/1999)

Q. "Stigmata" is not as silly as you say. My friends and I left the theater having experienced a dazzling and powerful film. You talked about demonic possession. The spirit (not the demon) that possessed Frankie was a Catholic priest angry at the Church because it would not publish what he believed to be the gospel Jesus himself wrote. We don't have a demon who wants to ravage the world and kill people, as silly horror movies portray. We have a priest who wants to be heard, and his only way to get this word out to the world is through possessing the atheist, Frankie. Nor does "Stigmata" imply that the stigmata itself comes through the rosary. It comes due to the possession by the spirit of Father Almeida. At the end of your review you talk about Catholics and the outrage that this film has caused. A Catholic friend watched it with us and thought it was incredible. He even agreed with the corruption of the Catholic Church which was illustrated in the film. (Nathan Miller, Castleton VT)