Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pauline and Louise and Dorothy and Ronee

Pauline Kael is my favorite critic, and Louise Brooks is up there as my favorite silent actress. I know neither are perfect; hell, the more I read Brian Kellow's biography, I learn just how much Kael could be an imperfect critic and human being (though I get the feeling Kellow's outlook on Kael is slightly biased toward the negative, at least where Kael as a person is concerned--and as she'd attest for herself, her personality is very much tied to her reviews).

However, there's no denying the impact they've both had on my own novice take on film criticism. I regularly consult Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies and For Keeps looking for film recommendations or to help me ground my scattered musings about movies I've already seen. And the first time I read Brooks' Lulu in Hollywood, I about wigged out discovering how damnedly intelligent the femme Spock-haired flapper was, and the depths she could find in film and filmmaking that many professional critics either don't see or don't care to get into. Kael covers the sociology and rhythmic beat of movies, Brooks the insight into what went into them, having been there herself, knowing instinctively how it was done even after she left the scene. They both, to steal Kael's phrase, go "deeper" into movies than fellow critics following an already outlined school of thought. They both threw objectivity shamelessly out the window, bringing the full force of their personalities to their writing.

So how cool is it for me that it turns out Kael and Brooks were mutual fans of one another?

Once Kael finally, finally gets her start in the '60s, when she was well into her forties, and releases her book Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Kellow mentions as almost an aside that, oh, all along Kael's been corresponding with Ms. Brooks after an attempt to get her to speak at Berkeley. So Kael sends Brooks a copy of her book. The reply? Brooks proclaims her "the best film critic since Agee." Moreover, she also gives Kael what I believe the very best compliment you could give a woman of intellect:

"Your picture on the dust cover made me think of Dorothy Parker when she was young in a moment of happiness."

I'd say I'm about halfway through Kellow's book now, and decided to celebrate by finally watching Nashville (1975). Kael's review of the film, similar to her review of Last Tango in Paris, could be viewed as either one of her biggest achievements or her biggest folly. Her detractors take issue with the fact she released the review before the finished product could be screened for other critics, giving her an unfair advantage, and before director Robert Altman had made the final edit, all because she was over-eager to promote her protege Altman. Others laud her for her fervent enthusiasm, her unabashed championing for an unconventional film, proof of how seriously she believed in her preferred artform. She calls Nashville "an orgy without don't get drunk on images, you're not overpowered--you get elated."

It's annoying as hell to parrot another critic when you're trying--even in your wee little blog--to write some criticism of the piece yourself, but I'm still trying to work out what I thought of Nashville, and how I feel it stacks up to Kael's epic review. I liked the movie, that much I know. But at least after my first viewing--keep in mind that unlike Kael, I often need to see a movie more than once, because I can't always trust my initial responses--the only time I felt that elation she wrote of was when Ronee Blakley was singing, smiling, and breaking down as the vulnerable, otherworldly Loretta Lynn figure Barbara Jean.

Blakley might be my new favorite film personality--and this was from 36 years ago. And I really don't know what else to call her besides a personality, since she's an actress, singer, songwriter, and screenwriter in this one movie alone. Her low, full voice, combined with those burning eyes and that ecstatic, tragic smile, brings a unique magic to the movie; a believable magic, that soothes everyone around her even in her weaker, uglier moments.

So why isn't she as well known as Garland or Streisand, other personalities whose voices and acting are equal in their emotional throttling? Because unlike Streisand's characters or Garland herself, Blakley doesn't hide Barbara Jean's vulnerability and tottering mind, she soaks in it. Kael writes that "she's radiant, yet so breakable that it's hard to believe she has the strength to perform." This is true of Garland's later performances, but we could try desperately to convince ourselves otherwise, because Garland was trying to convince us otherwise, but we don't have that safety net with Barbara Jean. Kael goes on to describe Blakley's posture as "tipping to one side like the Japanese ladies carved in ivory." She's unreal and ethereal, yet her voice is so boomingly alive that it might have unnerved audiences too much. Yet I frankly adore her all the more for it.


  1. This was a real treat, a post about four brilliant artists for the price of one. I'd love to get a look at the Brooks-Kael correspondence.

    I like your point about their brash lack of objectivity. Sometimes it can be so refreshing to come across a writer who's partisan and passionate and a little sloppy, especially when so many critics opt for a cool, dry-humored pose. Not that I dislike that style (I like any style when it's done with intelligence) but it does seem to be the default.

    "unlike Kael, I often need to see a movie more than once, because I can't always trust my initial responses" Same here. For my part, I can be waaay too easily influenced by my fellow audience. Or too distracted.

    It occurs to me just how many posts in your blog could be subtitled, "Women Who Are Awesome." And I love it. Great post, Laura!

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  3. Great work. Great article. I can't wait for this update and the preview update for the dashboard.

  4. Thank you so much, Rachel! Very sweet comment. I am really starting to love writing about awesome women. In fact, I've been knocking around the idea of writing a post dedicated to my favorite female characters from books and movies (because no one ever gets sick of list posts).

    "For my part, I can be waaay too easily influenced by my fellow audience. Or too distracted." Ohhhh yeah. Especially in this day and age when I watch a lot of things at home on my computer, and sometimes real life dares to interrupt me at my keyboard.

    James, thanks for the kind words! But what's all this then about the dashboard? I'm out of the loop.