[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

[1968.1] Rachel, Rachel

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

83aThe human eye, for its awesome complexity, is imperfect. An average human can distinguish among 10 million colors to varying levels of intensity. Trichromacy is a distinguishing factor among primates from other mammalian species and is responsible for evoking (occasionally vivid) emotional responses. Artists and filmmakers decide that crisp and clear color might symbolize a specific emotion or mood; to that effect, an artist with a different objective might elect to dull a palate of colors enough to push a different set of feelings. A filmmaker’s choice can only really reflect intent, however, as each human, just as she has different eyes also sees things through a unique perspective. Sometimes the human eye, it its awesome complexity, cannot interpret crispness as imperfection causes the physiology to distort.

To examine the history of film is to undertake an impossibly knotty task. Separate, and often collinear threads, like technology’s insatiable progress and public opinion’s often disheartening demagoguery, or a deepening mistrust of authoritarian figures and a shift in music tastes, that have little to do with one another often superimpose one another, intentional or not. The eye, as propagator of one of humans’ most treacherous senses, cannot piece cognitive dissonance together: against evidence to the contrary, what it sees it believes, even at the behest of the other senses; the eye is the human’s most slanderous sense. 1968’s Rachel, Rachel remains honest with intent, but blurry in obscurity. Released during a time of global tribulation, its soft reflection on human suffering seems trivial – but, once again, the human eye deceives.  Continue reading

[1974] The Towering Inferno

In the “normal” course of a “normal” person’s “normal” morning or evening, things happen both to and around the individual . These things are stimuli of various levels of control. In some instances, the individual acts on a thing that directly affects his or her environment and other times things happen in quick succession outside of anyone’s direct control. As living creatures, humans react and respond to external stimuli either consciously, unconsciously, or subconsciously, and as rational beings some among humans understand the relationship among many causes and effects, feedback loops, iterations, and dead-ends. Enlightenment via order is certainly a waste of precious time considering that we float through space with the capriciousness of the things that happen to us and to everyone else. To wrangle is to fight entropy – a natural state of chaos and disorder. This is true, normality is a subsection of chaos. The “normal” accident, then, is one of a confluence of seemingly random happenings en route to disaster. Thus simplifies the premise of The Towering Inferno.

The film itself is straight-forward, but seems to stall for about two hours in between the introduction of the problem and the eventual resolution. An as-of-yet-to-be detected fire starts in an inconspicuous closet on a single floor of over a hundred, and because of dramatic necessity, the whole building bursts into flames while hundreds of people panic 50 floors up. The story weaves through character profiles whose motivations do not really matter, so the sense of urgency falls somewhat flat, and whose outcomes feel random – normal even. Both Steve McQueen and Paul Newman vie for the audience’s affections, and mostly succeed, though they both seem to want this love in its entirety. Fred Astaire makes a legacy performance worthy of an Oscar, Jennifer Jones exits on a high note, and O.J. Simpson practiced his own peculiar brand of acting, for which he would soon become infamous. Together, this ensemble cast in this situation should have made The Towering Inferno an exciting and enjoyable watch. Normally, it would have been, but the specifics behind the scenes somewhat doomed this picture to bloat and disorder.  Continue reading

[1961] The Hustler

There’s a long and unspoken acknowledgment that the archetypal “sports movie,” has almost nothing to do with sport in favor of a life lesson. The fact that the plot, milieu, characters and themes revolve around the sport is secondary to the nested life lessons. In 1961’s The Hustler, “Fast Eddie” Felson is the best pool player around. He knows it, his loyal manager knows it and, in turn, everyone else knows it. He (we) learn(s) that it’s hard at the top; to be the best means to be lonely and satiated. The Hustler is a sports movie, but like all sports movies and like all sports, a higher meaning adds purpose to the simplicity of competition.

We meet “Fast Eddie,” as he’s known, waiting to challenge the best pool player he can find, with the goal of taking him down. We meet “Minnesota Fats,” as he’s known, a humble and talented pool player, who no one’s beaten in almost two decades. Surely an exaggeration, it sets the scene for an epic performance from both Paul Newman (as Eddie) and the incomparable Jackie Gleason (as Fats). Director Robert Rossen, intriguingly also the writer, demonstrates Eddie’s fast up-and-down character as he wins, wins, wins against Fats, only to completely fall apart and lose, lose, lose all but his original vig. About twenty minutes in, the real story starts. The man “Fast Eddie” is moving slow, having lost his confidence, his support system and his home. We meet his love interest, Piper Laurie (as Sarah), and out comes the struggle, both internal and external. Both are equally interesting.  Continue reading