Wednesday, November 16, 2011


There's been a lot of talk about film-crit legend Pauline Kael of late - the Library of America recently published a typically pricey compendium of her work, The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, Brian Kellow followed a few days later with a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, and reminiscences of Kael figure heavily in James Wolcott's new memoir, Lucking Out - and I wholeheartedly approve.  Kael is not merely my favorite film critic (in my eyes, only the eccentric brilliance of Manny Farber compares), but one of my favorite writers, full stop.  (I don't have to spell out my punctuation, do I?  It's been a while.)  I didn't always agree with her - how much fun would that be? - but her writing influenced the way I look at movies as much as Lester Bangs affected the way I heard music.

Queen Pauline was obviously a far more disciplined and coherent scribe than Saint Lester, of course, but they shared many of the same qualities - a ravenous passion for their chosen artform, a disdain for pretension coupled with an appreciation for well-executed trash, and an ability, at their best, to express their opinions with biting wit and a moral sensibility that speaks to their respective arenas with equal lack of compromise, the sense that the finest works of their form jet past diverting and entertaining into life-enhancing, and woe betide those who forget that.  (Of course, there are pitfalls to that kind of rigor, as the last half of that sentence demonstrates - both Kael and Bangs [and those of us who attempt to follow in their footsteps, a-henh] had a tendency to get a little carried away by their passion, sometimes waxing too ecstatic on subjects that deserved a more measured response, other times expressing enthusiasms and antipathies that the more level-headed among us would look upon as a trifle goofy.  [It's at this point that I must tread carefully, lest I get stuck in the De Palma Tarpits - let's just say she disliked Chinatown and liked Billy Jack and leave it at that.])  They also happened to be beneficiaries of great timing, coming along in a period of artistic decadence and decline, having their minds blown when an inspired bomb got lobbed into the stagnation (Bonnie and Clyde Fun House), and devoting their energies thereafter to directing the resulting wreckage into new and better configurations (the "New Hollywood" = punk).  In the process, however, their idealism and unflinching insistence on calling it like they saw it got them into trouble - they palled around with, inspired and encouraged no few artists themselves, only to earn their scorn when they had the nerve to skewer those artists when they dared make bad art (Paul Schrader = Lou Reed).  And it could be said that the ranks of the scorned got their revenge when the critics made the mistake of traversing into the bellies of their respective beasts of burden.  Bangs, like most rock writers, wanted to be a rock star, and made a valiant but failed attempt to do so, hobbled by an unpalatable singing voice and a drunkard's shot physique.  (That said, he had some chops as a lyricist and songwriter, and I revere his rare 7-inch single and rarer full-length album like I would a prodigious but slightly-deformed child.)  Kael, more disastrously, fell under the sway of Warren Beatty, who seduced her into taking a job as a consultant at Paramount, during which time she grappled with several key members of the industry's testocracy, including James Toback, Paul Schrader, Barry Diller, and Don Simpson, and suffered enough humiliation that she retreated to the safety of The New Yorker, and even then had to bow and scrape to get back into their pages.  (Here's an excerpt from Kellow's book which covers the whole sad tale blow by blow.)

Which brings me to what I actually came here to talk to you about.

I don't really want to go on about Pauline Kael here - much better writers than I have been having their say for weeks, and even Armond White has managed to stop being an idiot-contrarian long enough to evince some insight on the subject - and I certainly don't want to prattle on about Lester Bangs again, except maybe to reattain a soup├žon of writerly juju (I wrote a piece about him eight years ago with the intention of never mentioning him again, then almost immediately lapsed into an extended period of writer's block, so perhaps I should show a little more respect to my ludicrously-mustachioed muse/mentor). When I get a little more money, I'll drop the necessary coin to acquire Kellow's bio, and I'll surely get my hands on James Wolcott's book - he's a consistently entertaining scribe, and any memoir that encompasses Norman Mailer, la Pauline and the CBGB's crowd of the seventies is sure to be a pip (and this excerpt seems to bear that out), but I can hold off on the Library of America volume, as I've managed to snag all but a couple of Kael's collections via various trawls through eBay and Powell's, and, as a New Yorker subscriber, I have access to its entire 86-year archive through their website and can access most of her primo film-crit anytime I like. Which is what I was doing when I happened upon a small but most pleasant discovery - Kael's replacement for the last few months of 1979 was none other than Veronica Geng.

Geng's may not be a name that chimes any bells to anyone lacking the blazer badge and laminated ID card of the hardcore humor nerd like myself, and almost none of her work is accessible online without scaling various paywalls (the best I can do is send you here to hear Jonathan Franzen read one of her funniest pieces, "Love Trouble is My Business," along with an equally brilliant turn by her close friend Ian Frazier), but believe me when I tell you that her short humor pieces for The New Yorker and elsewhere place her firmly in the pantheon of the great composers of "casuals," up there with Perelman, Thurber and Allen (and she makes Fran Lebowitz look like Erma Bombeck).  Or better yet, don't believe me - drop a couple of bucks on a copy of Love Trouble and see for yourself.  You'll thank me for it.  Geng had the supreme and most crucial gift a parodist could have, the ability to replicate a plethora of voices and twist and fluff them up just enough to reveal the full contours of their absurdity, not to mention a knack for inspired juxtaposition (my favorite example: a piece which reviewed the Nixon White House tapes in the style of Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide").  She was also, apparently, as difficult and mercurial a personage as Kael herself in her cranky prime (as this 1999 piece from New York magazine shows).  But that's as may be - what matters is the work she left behind (sadly, she died of brain cancer in 1997), and what remains is largely glorious.  But even I didn't realize until recently that she had a curare-dipped film critic arrow in her considerable quiver.

Geng only contributed five installments of "The Current Cinema" to The New Yorker at the end of '79, and she wrote only sparingly on the subject of celluloid otherwise.  It probably didn't help that most of it coincided with a particularly fallow period in international film - sure, she got to write about Apocalypse Now and Life of Brian, but she also had to write about More American Graffiti and Americathon.  (Okay, full disclosure - I retain some residual fondness for Americathon, as it was one of those movies that played every fifteen minutes on weekday-afternoon premium cable when I was ten years old, it carries a little bit of Firesign Theatre DNA in its bloodstream, it has a pretty cool soundtrack and it features a cameo by the angry young Elvis Costello as the Prime Minister of England, but I'm sure I'd be mortified in the unlikely event that I ever run across it again.) Her film writing, therefore, will probably never be anthologized, which is kind of a shame, since she cast her not-inconsiderable intellect and somewhat jaundiced eye upon the moving picture with the same aplomb that she tackled the likes of the wedding announcements in the New York Times and the life of Henry James in the form of a coming-of-age TV dramedy.  (Buy that damned book, I'm telling you.)  Only Geng could recognize the shared faults and falsities of the G.I. Gurdjieff biopic Meetings with Remarkable Men and the Alan Alda political polemic The Seduction of Joe Tynan and lay them out in capital letters ("SPIRITUAL PROCESSES AS SUBJECTS," "MOTE-IN-THE-MIDDLE-DISTANCE ACTING," "CATECHISM DIALOGUE," "CALCULATED TOUCHES OF DISORDER," "CASUAL USE OF IN-GROUP TERMS IN DIALOGUE"), leaving both pictures smoking on the projection-room floor as if they were filmed on nitrate.  And only she could have written the following, the best writing anyone has ever done or will ever do on Nick Nolte, a passage that took my breath away so brilliantly that I had to write a long-winded blog panegyric to its author just to be able to share it with you:

Nick Nolte, whose strong performance as Hicks, the Marine, in "Who'll Stop the Rain" made me want to see what he did next, seems in danger of specializing in the symptoms of internal injuries.  When Hicks died, in that lone march along the railroad tracks, there was not much visible blood - there was a man whose behavior said he was bleeding to death.  In Nolte's new movie, "North Dallas Forty," he is Phil Elliott, a professional football player for the North Dallas Bulls (based on the Dallas Cowboys); Elliott's bones, muscles, ligaments and nerves have been so often fractured and dislocated, smashed, torn and crushed that he has to start the day with codeine tablets washed down by beer just to dull the pain enough to be able to lift a tweezer and work it up through the cartilage fragments to clear a passage for breathing.  To suggest the extent of the damage, Nolte becomes the virtuoso of his own respiratory tract.  He plays the whole apparatus, from diaphragm to sinuses, as if it were a set of bagpipes.  Phil Elliott is a composition in throat- and chest-clearings, groans, croaks, wheezes, sighs, snuffles, phwhew!s, and serial staccato explosions of breath.  He gives those noises emotional weight, using them the way actors normally use inflections and pauses, and he does it so well that it never screams technique - not even when the soundtrack overstresses it with amplified bone creaks.... 
...When he is not busy puffing on a joint in pursuit of anesthesia, or compressing his mouth into a small oval to pull in air, he activates the three or four sets of long vertical dimples that run parallel to the drooping ends of his blond mustache like parentheses of different sizes.  He can show these one set at a time; but when he lets them all kick in at once, and lifts the inside corners of his brows so they look like the two sides of a pagoda roof sheltering his weary little blue eyes, he is the coolest thing this side of a menthol-cigarette ad.  Sometimes his little eyes go blank and his face goes white and puffy, and his body, which was burned down to pure will in "Who'll Stop the Rain," is flabby, too - so that he looks more like Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy; he is willing to look bad, but we find out what a cool kind of bad it is when he says, "I don't need a healthy body - I do it all with my mind."

Damn.  Top that, Anthony Lane.

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