Happy 100, Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael

Today marks the centenary of film critic Pauline Kael’s birth. Beside recreating film criticism in her New Yorker column and giving shape to our conversations of cinema — particularly that of America in the 70s (if not launching the careers of more than a few directors), Kael was a product of my hometown.

“She had discovered her passion for the screen early on, as a child growing up in the farming community of Petaluma, California,” writes Brian Kellow is his doorstopper (and perhaps showstopper) of a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. The screen in question belonged to the Mystic Theatre, which is directly below me as I write this (my office is upstairs in the Historic McNear Building).

And back when the Mystic was temporarily the Plaza Theatre in the 70s and 80s, I too discovered my passion for the screen. In fact, my feature film Pill Head debuted there this Spring. If that isn’t enough to inspire in me a sense of kinship with Kael, there’s her taste, which seamlessly spliced together cinema’s loftier aspirations with its seamier sensational side. I think of it as a continuum that she joined together in her prose, the snake of low art biting the ass of the high — the sweet spot. That’s where I like films to land, my own included.

Or, as she put more succinctly, “Trash has given us an appetite for art.”

That appetite, however, didn’t extend to the ilk of blockbuster that evolved under her watch during the peak of her career. Kael was witness, if not critical midwife, to the best filmmakers of the 70s but also had a front row seat to era’s end as filmmakers overreached for the stars. Consider her review of George Lucas’ first Star Wars:

“The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head; for young audiences ‘Star Wars’ is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes.”

— Pauline Kael

Then there’s the fact that Kael was one of a few women in a male-dominated industry writing about another male-dominated industry. She was forthright with her criticism of this state of affairs:

“Moviemaking is so male-dominated now that they think they’re being pro-feminine when they have women punching each other out.”

— Pauline Kael

Naturally, everyone is a critic — especially nowadays when would-be Siskel and Eberts thumb their reviews (if not their noses) into the very devices from which they consume their media, the kind of deep tissue, insightful cinematic observances we got from Kael are fewer and farther between. But her legacy continues in a smattering of bright lights, who, like Kael recognize that “Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again” and have the talent to still convince you that it’s true. They’re out there, even if the films aren’t.

On Anthony Burgess and Inspiration: The Me in The Metropolis Movie

Metropolis Movie

Artists can absorb influences so deeply, it can be renewing — if not startling — when we discover traces of them in our later, “mature” work. By traces, I don’t mean George Harrison-style cryptomnesia when you suddenly have to lawyer-up thanks to a couple of misappropriated “doo langs.” No, I mean the subtle nods or oblique homages to the works that inspired us and the whose who made it. We may have forgotten some of these instances of inspiration then trip over like psychic land mines when looking over one’s own oeuvre.

I credit my newfound awareness of this potentiality to Anthony Burgess, whose previously unpublished essay, A Movie That Changed My Life by Anthony Burgess, recently appeared in the Guardian. It got me thinking about the quiet DNA of influence. Spoiler alert — for Burgess, it was Fritz Lang’s expressionistic and dystopian Metropolis that prefigured ideas that later became the author’s A Clockwork Orange and a quasi-sequel to an Orwell classic cheekily titled 1985. The essay brought to mind my own transformative relationship with the expressionistic genius of Fritz Lang.

The first images of Metropolis I laid eyes on were in what I’m assuming was 1979’s The Art of Star Wars by Carol Titleman, which I poured over as a seven-year-old. There was a poster-worthy image of Metropolisrobot revealed as the spiritual ancestor of the nebbishy C-3P0 as conceptualized by artist Ralph McQuarrie.

Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art for C-3PO is a nod to Fritz Lang’s activist robot.

I wouldn’t see the film until five years later when it came to the Plaza Theatre in Petaluma, California. The Plaza was a revival house in the heart of town, responsible for birthing many a local cineaste (and the inspiration for the Lumiere in The Late Projectionist). But this was 1984, so the version of the film making the rounds wasn’t the original silent, black and white, Fritz Lang original but rather a sort of extended found-footage, color-tinted, music video version tailor-made for the MTV generation.

We can thank or blame Giorgio Moroder for this particular cut. 

For context, Moroder is “the founder of disco and an electronic music trailblazer” (according to his bio). An Italian-born producer and film composer, Moroder is responsible for scores for films including Scarface and Midnight Express, and soundtrack singles like Top Gun‘s “Take My Breath Away” and Blondie’s “Call Me” in American Gigolo. This is just conjecture but it seems Moroder had the notion to build a soundtrack and needed a movie upon which to pin it. In fact, Moroder outbid David Bowie for the rights for Metropolis (we can cry about that later). He then reduced the film’s running time (or butchered depending on your sense of authorial sanctity) and added this New Wave-ish soundtrack:

Admittedly, I remember being quite taken by Bonnie Tyler’s “Here She Comes,” with all its chordal echoes of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” and heavy rotation on MTV as a video culled from Moroder’s cut.

So, yeah, I didn’t (at least first) see the version of Metropolis that so inspired Burgess but I was inspired nonetheless. Perhaps the dilution of the film’s potency has resulted in the comparatively weaker sauce that is my own oeuvre. But, hey, Tony’s dead, so I have time to catch up. You do too — you can start with Moroder’s edition on YouTube:

Film is a visual medium, and, if the task of literature is to stud the brain with quotations, cinema’s job is to cram it with images which transcend storyline and feed the need for myth. — Anthony Burgess

Consider it fed, Mr. Burgess.