[1973] The Sting

Pauline Kael is easily the most influential film critic that most of the world has forgotten. What makes her style—and voice—more distinct than her peers and especially modern critics is the absolute sincerity with which she wields her devastating pen. Tone is near impossible to master and it’s important to understand how hard it is to douse your words in them without trying to. It’s the game all writers play. Kael had mastered it and then some.

To be critical without being unfair, to pick apart a film with legendary wit without being sarcastic or even sardonic is Kael’s greatest strength. Pauline Kael always told her own story without rewriting the work she covered, but always accepted the work as is—a trait armchair critics and bloggers can’t seem to shed; “but if only director X had done such and such” was most often nowhere near Kael’s reviews. She would always do well to play, not Devil’s advocate, but critic’s advocate, putting words to exactly why a beloved movie was just not as good as we thought it was. Her work, which often got her in hot hot heat with editors and made few friends behind the camera, gave cover to every other critic and ran counter-cultural to a pervasive narrative that popular was either good or bad. Kael’s writing focused on the work. She’s a driving force behind why I’m adamant to finish this blog: I’m looking for a why.

Her review of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is as artful as the film itself. It’s a brilliant trick of phrasing and construction, matching Bertolucci’s inward eroticism made outward by Brando’s performance of American masochism. It would seem that Kael thinks of two minds of Last Tango: shock and awe that it was made and shock and awe that the top masters of their craft would make this movie, effectively turning the deck of cards upwards and demanding audiences to pick a card. It’s what Kael does with her reviews. She’ll always guess your card but not because she was looking at the deck.

This review, written the same year as her one-shot takedown of 1973’s Best Picture winner, The Sting, infantilizes the Redford/Newman “thriller.” Her criticism is valid if the reader is looking for reasons not to like it, but it’s the undertones—not so soft—that make a very simple point. She is, in effect, calling out some combination of actor, director, film, industry for straight-washing and woman-erasure in about 200 words. And she’s right and she says it right in the review. What if Last Tango was about a gay “relationship?” What if Shaw (Newman) and Kelly (Redford) sought a relationship that wasn’t poking fun at homoerotic tropes, or propped women instead of equalizing a whole gender? Not to fall into the trap that I’d set for myself: director George Roy Hill made the movie he made and therefore we must judge it for its merits and faults on its face, which Kael does, too. Continue reading

[1973] Cries and Whispers

There’s enough copy out there about how Ingmar Bergman drenched his feature, Cries and Whispers in red (röd). He chose red (especially after the majority of his earlier work was monochrome) for its striking visuals, color theory, and connection to Swedish history. If nothing else, in Sweden a specific red, Falu Rödfärg, colors a significant number of buildings, especially in the countryside. Red, across cultures, symbolizes passion, lust, desire, etc. It’s also the least visible of the color spectrum, so I’ll offer that Bergman chose to oversaturate the film with it to stand it out. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about this movie.

That’s really all there is to say about the color red and Cries and Whispers. There’s lots of scholarship about it. That’s enough.

The not-so-secret fact about the Oscars is their Americanness: of the 566 films to ever have been nominated, 12 have been filmed in a language other than English. This isn’t surprising–the Academy voters are mostly native English speakers, American audiences overwhelmingly see movies performed in English, and despite the premise that the Oscar winner should best represent the gestalt of the year, what we really mean is the zeitgeist of American culture. The road to global reach is unpaved, likely, but we’d like to think that language is the one phenomenon we can overcome; there are subtitles.

But alas, Cries and Whispers was the last Swedish movie to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (but not first! The Emigrants” was nominated just a year earlier. The Emigrants, however wasn’t wholly Swedish, either. It’s a Swedish-rooted story about America).

Swedish, as a language, is sort of bonkers to decipher, and nagging to the native English speaker because of its Germanic roots and bouncy gait. Its structure, like any language spoken by millions of people, follows a pattern, and there’s more than a few cognates. But there’s still great distance between Swedish and English, and it’s an effective barrier between the two cultures. Cries and Whispers is incredibly Swedish, incredibly Bergman, but also full of universal tones ahead of their time: the quiet tragedy of women.

Continue reading

[1973] American Graffiti

Nostalgia is a hell of a marketing technique. It, as a concept, can be sufficiently disaggregated so that each person’s experience is both universal and personal. Lots of new media relies on the unreachable past. There exists, as I’ve written about before, a term called sonder, which means nostalgia for a time not one’s own. Midnight in Paris captures this feeling to the letter, and commodifies it so that its message can be bought and sold by the very people it aims to placate with dreams of subservience to the artistes de La Belle Époque. Nostalgia is also overwhelming. Instead of inspiration, nostalgic media inspires selective memory, further confusing past narratives. Drowning in nostalgia is akin to a drug-induced coma. Here’s the trick for those who insist on capitalizing on it: rinse and repeat. People will become nostalgic of their own nostalgia.

That’s where, in 1973, George Lucas sold middle-aged Boomers on a “better” time, some ten years earlier, before fake war and realpolitik took generations of Americans to dirt futures. The concept is bizarre, because presumably these very Boomers lived this era, perhaps not as wantonly as the four underdeveloped kids, but they very much existed and had formed their own memories of 1962. Remember, 1962 was the apex year of postwar prosperity for an average American kid. The question for Lucas and his producer, somehow Francis Ford Coppola, is not what they should write the movie about, it’s who is this movie for, exactly? Was it a dopamine insult for Americans who couldn’t stand having family and friends napalming Cambodians and systematically picked off near Hanoi? Was a movie going to suddenly placate the hippies? The answer, in short, is totally, absolutely, and exactly. Here’s a mind-blowing number: in 2019 dollars American Graffiti would have made $800 million on a budget of just over $4 million. This movie made an overwhelming amount of money selling a truly empty version of American Life. Continue reading

{Second Take} [1973] The Exorcist

Few things have been so distorted by popular culture quite like The Exorcist.  The ooze-like vomit and crucifix masturbation that the film is famous for are but details meant to enhance the grand and traumatizing struggle of good versus evil personified by each character.  Originally, a particularly horrific scene involved the possessed Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) crab-walking down a flight of stairs, coming to a halt only to howl and vomit blood.

This scene was cut from the 1973 release because director William Friedkin felt the effect was “too much” and the wires used to harness the contortionist stunt-double were too obvious. In the 2000 extended release, the wires were digitally removed and the importance of the effect was finally realized.  Right before Regan descends the stairs, her mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is told that her director and close friend Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) was found dead at the bottom of the steps outside her house with a broken neck.  With doctors unable to help her daughter and her career and sanity threatened, this is the precise moment that her life unravels completely.  The effects of a young girl doing these terrifying things isn’t to incite a simple shock, they are crucial moments in which the other pivotal characters are broken down and forced to question their very existence.  What is overlooked by almost everything that has ever mentioned the film is that Regan’s character is not only a vessel for evil but is a tool used to force everyone in contact with her to confront the evil they feel inside themselves; whether it’s her own mother questioning what she has done to allow this to happen to her daughter despite the ‘ideal’ life she has provided or the rouge priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who questions his own faith and blames himself for his own mother’s neglected condition and even her eventual death.  Every character has something for the true evil inside of Regan to exploit. Continue reading

[1973] The Exorcist


(That will be the only time I get to quote that in a semi-academic paper)

The Exorcist hits home as a shattered reality for the millions of religious folk who fear God and the Devil in (almost) equal amounts. While this quote is not a summation of The Exorcist thematically, it is the most overt method that director William Friedkin used to disarm his audience. The Exorcist stunned, and continues to stun, audiences through a plausible disconnect from reality because a religious man or woman does believe and fear the devil; he or she does believe in demons and exorcisms to remove them; and, he or she does want to believe that God is the answer.  For Father Karras, whose faith wanes as his mother dies, Pazuzu, the demon who possesses the young Reagan MacNeil, is the manifestation of his guilt and faith, two factions that almost exclusively define Christianity. The horror doesn’t lie in the devil or in the details but in the harsh reality that this movie is really made for children.

Adults, no matter their religious faith, have lived long enough for certain adolescent sheen to have been ripped off. We learn the harsh truths that our elders aren’t necessarily wise simply ‘because,’ and that relationships are complicated: with oneself, with our families and loves ones, with strangers and with God. The Exorcist seems a farce to the adult freed from the dogmatic belief in the supernatural and the impossible. As kids, we’ll believe in anything, because why not? There’s no inherent context built into our brains about what’s real and what’s not. The time before youth start questioning their beliefs is the best time to indoctrinate them. You, the adult, tell the child that God exists and that Hell is real and that demons exist to torture their souls towards God as Savior. And the youth fully believes and so it’s easy for the child to just believe that he or she is possessed by a demon, or that the divorce is his or her fault. That’s the horror and that’s where The Exorcist succeeds.

‘Overt horror’ is an attempt to impress its audience through incredible situations, copious amounts of shock and awe and mostly gore. To the untrained eye or to the easily impressionable, the overt horror films seem frightening or scary – we’ll make a mental connection to the actor or situation and channel his or her own survival instinct; we don’t like to see other humans hurt as a species (save for misanthropes and sociopaths). These films, including the Saw series, the Final Destination series and all the precedents and descendants (the Scream series, the Paranormal Activity series, the Human Centipede series, Keeping Up With The Kardashians) use almost comically overt tropes to scare the audience; but it’s an ephemeral fright. In no way do these films linger past a few seconds of decapitation or buttocks-to-manticle embroidery; they offer a quick shock, or in the case of some a final twist or shock that is (usually) a let down. The exception to this rule is die Kinder, who don’t yet have the mental bank or the defense mechanisms to process the trope and move on to the next one. Thus is the appeal of the horror film, both the overt and the more psychological or occult thriller, for the young.

Father Damien Karras: Why her? Why this girl?

Father Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.

Depending on perspective, then, children are either an ideal audience for horror, or the exact opposite. If we look at horror (any manifestation) from a director’s lens or a playwright’s pen, the impressionable may as well be sitting ducks for the snipe of a rifle or the twist of a head. The effort needed to achieve horror’s main goal – uncomfortable fear – is minimal, which either leads to nightmares (The Exorcist) or lazy writing (any sequel to a movie with an original idea – SawScream, Paranormal Activity, etc.). On the contrary, because the ideal audience doesn’t have (m)any accessible reference points, the thrill to scare might lead to the manifestation of a mental scar (seeing Event Horizon when I was 9 was….not a good idea). As far as appropriateness goes, the parent or guardian should decide if he or she wants to either, a. expose the child to the genre early and often to systematically numb the effect of horror, or b. avoid the situation and put on a more ‘age-approrpriate’ film. I’m sure there’s a risk/reward system in there somewhere.

The Exorcist has critics foaming with praise and the reason the film continues to endure and age gracefully into the annals of film lore (and Oscar nominations) is the overreaching script and understated acting. The dialogue (see above, as well as, “Let Jesus fuck you, let Jesus fuck you. Let him fuck you,” while Reagan/Pazuzu masturbates with a crucifix) is still shocking, especially in an age of never-ending profanity and violent gestures. The cast of (relative) unknowns kept this film from ‘becoming a Brando picture’ or a Nicholson film, though we do get a wonderful performance from Lee J. Cobb, in one of his last films. This practice is common in horror, keeping casts relatively unknown, and it’s to keep the human connections to a minimum. Seeing a well-traveled actor brutally murdered elicits an unwanted sympathy from a director’s viewpoint, except in the case of The Shining, which is the most horrifying film ever made. That film, which is a Nicholson film, digs deeper than The Exorcist because the most innocuous of details keep the audience off kilter the whole length of the film and Kubrick intentionally grabs the audience and mirrors Jack Torrance’s dissolution into insanity. The Exorcist‘s director, William Friedkin, chose to scare through direct confrontation and a worsening ‘condition’ and thus Reagan’s experience with the supernatural is told linearly and obviously. We, the audience, see the overtness and it’s our inability to affect the outcome that’s uncomfortable, but fleeting. The Shining‘s director, Stanley Kubrick, however, knew that there’s no escaping the horror of one’s own thoughts. He chose to prod the human mind through a series of left-turns and mind-melts and he knows, just like we know, that it’s horrifying, being left alone with one’s own mind. Don’t take your kids to that one.

I’m relatively clueless about 1973’s Oscar nominees: The Exorcist is the first of the five that I’ve seen. I’m intrigued by the others: The Sting (winner), American Graffiti, Cries And Whispers and A Touch Of Class. In terms of recognition, The Exorcist has certainly entered more conversations, but I’ll hold judgement until I’ve seen a few of the others, whether this fact is highly justified.