One Cent's Worth

The Fury
  • The Fury

Don’t expect am sustained and coherent thought from me any time soon. Like, say, before Judgment Day. But if shorts and the soaps can return to television, I suppose I am obligated to tear myself away from it and to start seeing some movies again, or, as with this week, writing about them whether I have seen any or not.

On topic number one, there is not a lot I can say within my orbit. The oft-heard remark that the attack on the World Trade Center was “like a movie” is true enough, I guess, as far as it goes. It goes little farther, however, than a few seconds of “action news" footage, after which you begin to count the ways in which it is not like a movie: no Bruce Willis to take charge of the situation, no British-accented archfiend, no two-hour resolution, no emotional insulation, etc. No doubt the remark can be taken as a kind of compliment to the realism of today’s special effects, but the pursuit of reality in such movies tends to be short-winded: limited to those few seconds of ka-boom that seem to add up in so many minds (until September 11, at any rate) to a whole movie.

It’s a reasonable surmise, then, that the postponement of a number of movies as well as television shows on the upcoming schedule — the Arnold Schwarzenegger anti-terrorist adventure, Collateral Damage, the bomb-on-a-plane comedy, Big Trouble, and others — is no more out of respect for the victims than out of abashment at their own inadequacy to the subject, a tacit admission of their mediocrity. Courage of conviction, fairly understandably, has been in short supply on the Hollywood front. (A film such as The Little Drummer Girl which I am startled to realize is now seventeen years old, or in other words a practical “classic,” would have no need of apology or refuge.) One of the smooth-tongued defenses of screen violence, we might remind ourselves, is that it’s a reflection of reality; and an accurate reflection, even if it’s not what everyone wants to see at a time like this, might be thought to have some use in coming to grips with reality. Inaccurate reflections, in any event, have clearly been shown to have no voodoo effectiveness in keeping reality at bay. Will things now — as the optimists have been quick to predict — begin to change in Hollywood? Will a sudden sobriety descend? With production schedules as they are, it’s going to be a long time before any new seriousness of resolve could show up on screen; and there’s no reason to hope from recent experience that, when and if it did, it would look much different from the seriousness of Pearl Harbor. Hard though it is to swallow or digest, that gooey hallelujah was in fact the face of seriousness in the season just past.

And now that that title has spilled out onto the table, allow me to wonder aloud whether quite so many people would have likened the attack on the Twin Towers to that on Pearl Harbor had it not been for that summer blockbuster and its attendant promotion/exploitation, still fresh in mind. (Here again the ways in which it was unlike Pearl Harbor weigh down the scales: no television coverage back then, no civilian targets, no action within American borders, no immediately identifiable enemy, etc.) I myself am prone to doubt it very much. And that, I’m afraid, is the best I can say in tribute to the “power” of contemporary Hollywood.

The recent death of Pauline Kael (mercifully preceding September 11) brought forth numerous commemorations of her importance as a critic, her influence, and her running combat with her important and influential colleague, Andrew Sarris. As she was never all that important or influential with me (though it would be dishonest to say not at all), I could not connect with much of what I’ve been reading. The fundamental difference between Sarris and Kael, now that the shooting match has faded to a distant echo, might be simplified like so: Sarris made his big splash m the Sixties (as a conduit of French criticism) by turning the spotlight to the past, reassessing the American cinema up to the point when he cannonballed into the water, and he then became progressively less “relevant” (or important or influential) as his anointed auteurs vanished from the scene and the ripples of his splash subsided; Kael, at the height of her power (or importance or influence) in the Seventies, preferred to play the tout, placing her bets and staking her reputation on selected tyros of the New American Cinema, Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese, Altman, Lucas, Spielberg, Kershner, Kaufman, Beatty, Toback, et al. Hindsight, contrary to the old saw, is not 20/20, but it does tend to be more reliable than prophecy, and Sarris’s enthusiasms unsurprisingly hold up better than Kael’s: Hawks and Hitchcock, let’s say, better than Coppola and De Palma. But that doesn’t make Sarris the more important and influential.

By an irony, Sarris, who continues to ply his trade in the pink pages of The New York Observer long after his deposal from The Village Voice, has become more susceptible to the sort of liberal-humanist stuff he once would have classified, in his seminal The American Cinema, as “Less Than Meets the Eye” or “Strained Seriousness.” By a similar irony, Kael, the braying opponent of Sams’s imported “auteur theory," set about erecting her own pantheon of auteurs from scratch. The theory was all right, apparently, as long as she was the one with the say-so in implementation. To her credit, she could, and would, turn against her pets when she found that they had misbehaved or made a mess on the carpet. To her discredit, however, she had been guilty in the first place of elevating them too soon, too fast, and too high. One of the things I didn’t hear enough about in the eulogies, and to my mind her largest legacy, was her infusion of hyperbole into the critical debate, her saber-rattling escalation of critical rhetoric. I can’t be troubled to document this in detail (I gave away my copy of I Lost It at the Movies to a visiting film scholar from Soviet Georgia, and I failed to acquire the later compilations that came along like clockwork during her New Yorker years), but I believe I can recall, for one paraphrased example, that her review of De Palma’s The Fury (reprinted in full in the ads) proclaimed that the demise of the villain, by means of telekinetic combustion, was the single greatest demise of a villain in all of screen history. This was typical of her bullying attempts to dictate the tone and direction of discussion. (Another bullying tactic: her habitual use of the first-person plural in describing her responses — not the monarchal “we,” but the mob “we” — so often wringing from the squirming reader a response of “Speak for yourself”) If, in the case at hand, you felt it was not — as it obviously wasn’t — the greatest demise in screen history, then what was it? The fiftieth greatest? The five hundredth greatest? The fifth or sixth silliest? How far do you want to be drawn into such a discussion?

In her hyperbole, even more than in her handicapping, Kael pointed the way to the future. This — the continual upping of the ante, the raising of the volume, the pounding on the table — could be seen as the critical equivalent of the rising tide of special effects and stunts on the screen, the constant quest to top and to outdo, the impulse to strong-arm. (Even those who embraced Sarris’s taste were apt to do so in Kael’s rhetoric.) The development of the language of blurbs, along with the dependence of studios on these in their advertising, owes a good deal, it seems to me in retrospect, to Kael alone. Or to Kael more than to any other. She can scarcely be held accountable for all the bad taste and bad writing of her emulators (or of the emulators of her emulators), just as her spirited defense of the vigor and vitality of good old-fashioned Hollywood “trash” — in pointed contrast to the effeteness and rarefaction of the foreign “art film” — cannot be blamed directly for The Mummy Returns and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. But indirectly, maybe. Distantly. Fractionally. Her hands, like Lady Macbeth’s, can never be washed completely clean. And I doubt, what’s more, that it would be altogether unjust to suggest that her predilections as a tout and a prognosticator have, in similar fashion, degenerated into the current concern with the “buzz” and the box-office: with who and what are hot, who and what are not. What I guess I am trying to get across is that the greater importance and influence of Kael above Sarris have been, on balance, a bad thing for movies.

Speaking of importance and influence: the Museum of Photographic Arts undertakes next week a two-and-a-half month series on Orson Welles, his precursors and successors. Close to thirty years ago, in my graduate days, I co-taught a course on the very same subject, with some of the same films. The subject back then did not seem quite so remotely historical, so hermetically academic. Welles, for one thing, was still alive and making movies — or trying to. Pauline Kael’s The Citizen Kane book a major anti-auteur broadside, was hot off the presses. And the wide-angle lens remained a common filmmaker’s toy at the time, and the deep-focus and/or low-angle composition a common use of it. (Notwithstanding the trendy advance of those mush-making tools, the telephoto lens and rack focus.) Today I can occasionally be reminded of Welles when I see a film by Brian De Palma or, less frequently, John Frankenheimer. But it seems increasingly rare that I am called upon as a modern moviegoer to notice something as basic as composition or angle, much less anything as distinctive as “Wellesian.”

The second annual San Diego Asian Film Festival, September 27 through 30, can be found this year where the International and the Latin could earlier be found, Mann’s Hazard Center. Among the fifteen or so narrative features and assorted documentaries, shorts, and cartoons, there is nothing I know of beforehand to rival last year’s Flowers of Shanghai. But you can always cross your fingers.

The Vertical Ray of the Sun, which you might have been aware has moved over from the Ken for an extended run at the La Jolla Village, now feels more than ever like a balm to the world around us. Peace and quiet and respect for life.

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