[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

[1951] A Streetcar Named Desire

220px-a_streetcar_named_desire_28195129The tiniest of innocuous details, ones that pass by without notice are the crema of legends. Neither are all-time events and figures borne from a single gigantic event; nor more likely is a mythologized film shot in a single take. Every event you’ve heard about has a history in the small, snowballing events that lead up to it. Most films are lucky to have been made but for a perceived slight toward the executive production team. A single turn – not casting Marlon Brando in the lead as Stanley Kowalski – might have doomed A Streetcar Named Desire to an important, but ultimately indexed footnote to film history. As is the case, however, it is monumentally important.

What makes A Streetcar Named Desire odd, right away, is that the streetcar in question, yes named “Desire,” bears almost no weight on what this film tackles. It is a small, innocuous detail, whose point, if there is one, is to usher in the story medias res. The Kowalskis have a life of tumult, so as playwright Tennessee Williams does so featherlike, he drops in a complete mess of a personality via a perfectly normal streetcar. The detail (the name of the car), while tiny, is not extemporaneous or thoughtless. It is a clever and worthwhile misdirection. Blanche is an imbalance, waiting without delay along a fixed path toward disaster. We know this almost immediately and we wait without delay, along a fixed path, to see how this disaster unfolded. It is manifest in American, human experience and we watch this movie to chase the fixed path, deeply arcing toward disaster. Are we meant to look inward? Do we…desire it?

Tennessee Williams was a master playwright. Not only did he understand the confines of stage space and a reasonable parallel to action, he understood, somehow, the capacity of humans to deal with a rotten tomato tossed haphazardly. Sometimes it hits an actor in the face, and she has to wipe it off and keep performing; sometimes it misses completely and shatters the papier-mâché stage behind him; sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. A the cherry bomb is metaphor without being overwrought. How Williams was able to understand the intricacies of the human experience, process them, eulogize them, and repackage them as a confined statement, bold and indirect, is astonishing. This play was built for the screen, too, in an era of limited budgets and a restless postwar America.

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[1957] Sayonara

1957’s Sayonara is a movie about rejecting racism and prejudice. Predictably, the 1957 version of civil rights has less to do with civil rights than it does with ‘edgy’ filmmaking.

On the forefront of civil rights and a level-ish playing field for all Americans, we staged a war in Korea thereby making the rest of the world safe for America, too. Predictably, Film took an almighty stab at the heart of intra-American conflict, race-relations, and while the medium is better for it the film plays more like a dark parody than it does a golden light. Yes, some citizens of the Orient have a problem distinguishing between an ‘L’ and ‘R’ (it’s the same letter in Japanese – about halfway between the two). Yes, Japan has modernized to become a global powerhouse, and not just a setting for kabuki and subservience. Yes, there was no way for screenwriter Paul Osborn to have known this and the depiction surely comes across as less overtly goofy in James Michener’s novel. But the best films in the past 85 years have done their best to create believable dystopia, so maybe enough with the ching-chong and a more focused look into politick if the movie really wanted to be a smart civil rights flick.

Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka save the work from becoming a true parody. We know Brando for his iconic performances in the 1950s and ’70s. We don’t really know Taka, save older theatre and cabaret junkies, but on-screen together the pair have uncanny chemistry – the believable relationship helps to highlight at least part of this issue, which would grow from anti-Orientalism (after our unofficial isolation after Korea) to anti-African American (still happening…) and now to anti-orientation-that-isn’t-straight (even more frustrating). We follow the issue on a micro level – the relationships among the soldiers and the betrothed natives and on a macro level – the military-industrial complex’s official position on inter-cultural relationships. Lots of these issues are dragged out to almost extreme examples – the double-suicide, the intense focus on the kabuki (really, though, Ricardo Mantalban as a Japanese kabuki artist?) and the somewhat goofy courtship among the lead actors. Brando just makes it believable that he’s a West Point educated son of a general with a goofy southern accent. What makes the performance so strong is that it’s almost incredulous to believe that any other actor could have played this part miraculously without spiraling into cabaret. Continue reading