Friday, October 14, 2011
FFB: 5001 NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES Pauline Kael (Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1984)
As the primary film reviewer for most of William Shawn's ever more self-indulgent reign as editor of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael's column in that magazine was always a bit of a mixed bag, and that's reflected in the 1984 edition (the expanded first paperback edition of the 1982 Holt hardcover)(the image here is of a later edition of the paperback) of her capsule review collection (as taken from the "front of the book" "Goings On About Town" section of the magazine's issues). She was better-educated in the other arts than, say, Siskel and Ebert, and grossly moreso than the likes of Gene Shalit and Rex Reed, to judge by their output, among the most famous film reviewers of their day (and she was one of the few with a level of comparable name-recognition), and had a trenchant wit at times; she also displays a snobbery toward whole fields of film that seems less marked by ignorance (given, for example, how often she returned to horror film as a subject of both these capsules and her longer reviews) than by a desire to comport with the snobbery of the perceived audience, which I'd say is even more pathetic. Driven as the contents of this book were, in part, by what the revival and more eclectic houses would offer in NYC, this volume has in some ways a wider and more engaging remit than the similar Ebert or even the Scheuer or Maltin tv-oriented volumes, ranging back through time but also outward to more foreign films and documentaries...even as some of her worst writing is snide dismissal of films such as Cat People (1942)--while praising aspects of this film, particularly, backhandedly. Some of her other worst is still-just celebration of the likes of High School (1968), bad in large part because it was cramped by her format, while her quick analysis of the strengths (at least for some of its audience) and weaknesses (all-around) of Billy Jack and similar films is rather good...better than the others are likely to come up with, even with similar short takes, if they were even to take on the likes of the cinema verite documentary or some of the more obscure foreign films represented here. Laboring under fixed ideas, some rather eccentric to be kind (her review of How the West Was Won is largely a forum for her resentment of this, of all films', insult to US history and notions of manifest destiny), she was never a critic for the ages, but by the too-often weak standards of film reviewing, she was certainly in the upper middle rank, even if overcredited as a paragon; she was neither Dorothy Parker nor James Agee, of course, but wasn't actually comparable, either, even if also by no means dismissable (both points her colleague John Simon was quick to make in reviewing her collected criticism).
For more of this week's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.