Posts Tagged ‘New Yorker


Review: For Keeps – Pauline Kael

For Keeps: 9thirty Years at the MoviesFor Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies by Pauline Kael

This isn’t really the kind of book you’d sit and read cover to cover. Like, I did, but I’m not really a role model for how people should live their lives. I loved it, though.

What For Keeps is, is a collection of essays written for magazines (largely the New Yorker, but elsewhere too), generally reviewing then-current films. They were written back before screeners and largely before VHS/Beta allowed people to take movies into their homes, so a lot of her reviews try to capture her emotions after a screening or two.

Generally, when I read a collection of this sheer size and scope – it’s well over a thousand pages and over an inch thick – I find the essays all kind of bleed into each other and it’s hard to pick moments out of the pack. Fortunately, it’s not the case here. Although there are plenty of reviews for movies I’ve never seen (and probably never will), her prose, insight and instincts generally stand out well after I’ve read them. For example, when she writes about “Last Tango in Paris,” she carves into the raw sexuality of Brando. Elsewhere, she gets into the madness of Nicolas Cage, the way Paul Newman can make his characters appealing and looks at what made Cary Grant so good at what he did.

Similarly, taking her essays all in order lets you see how her judgment evolved, changed and focused over the years. For example, when she rips into “Full Metal Jacket,” it isn’t just a broadside against the movie, but a part of a long-running antagonistic relationship with Kubrick, who she feels lost himself when he moved to England and started taking himself too seriously. Or her long-running dislike for Clint Eastwood, where her arguments about violence in movies – particularly in how it rationalizes the violence viewers are supposed to embrace – sound as fresh as anything you’d read on AV Club, Grantland or New Yorker.

Still, there are moments which sound dated. Kael is probably best remembered for her insight or wit, but she also had a real nasty streak. When I read her calling someone a fatty, I wonder what’d she say about Melissa McCarthy. And her defence of a movie like “Driving Miss Daisy” seems a little reactionary, particularly since I’d read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist almost in tandem with For Keeps, and Gay’s approach to a movie like that comes off far better (to again make a modern parallel: would Kael have liked “The Help” or would she have seen through that, too?).

Probably the weakest moment in the book is her book-length essay “Raising Cain,” which is collected here in full. At the time, it was an incendiary shot at Orson Welles and Auteur Theory, arguing “Citizen Kane” was more the work of Herman Mankiewicz than Welles. Although it has it’s moments, particularly when dealing with Hollywood in the 30s, the essay is problematic: there are attribution issues where Kael claimed others work as her own; there are factual errors by Kael, too. I like the style and her essay is readable, but I also skimmed over it.

It’s a little hard to recommend a book of this scale and size. It’s a little unwieldy to carry around and the reviews are both too long and too few to really make it worthwhile as a companion to, say, Leonard Maltin’s books. (Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies might be a better choice there). But I’d still recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading good criticism, is interested in film or in writing their own criticism. For me, it has a nice spot next to Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film.

The thing about Kael isn’t her wit (although it’s nice), but the way poked into and at movies. I don’t think it’s a cliché to say she loved film, since it so vividly comes through with her writing, in the way she could enjoy both pulpy fare like “The Re-Animator” and high-class works like “The Dead.” But her love wasn’t uncritical: if a movie had holes, she’d poke at them: why was a character motiviated? What did the lighting do for a scene? Does a script take the time to explain a character? Etc, etc, etc.

These days, movie criticism is largely left to the specialists who work off in a corner that nobody really reads. Wesley Morris won a Pulitzer for his work, but Grantland struggled to find an audience. Instead, people gravitate towards people like Ebert, who would sum a movie with a hand gesture, or TV critics who award flicks on a sliding scale of three to five stars. It’s kind of funny when some of the best criticism comes from Gregg Turkington and Tim Hidecker’s funny web series “On Cinema at the Cinema.” So go back to Kael, go back and read about some movies you’ve forgotten or never seen, and enjoy yourself. I certainly did.



Between the covers: Forewords and Afterwords – W.H. Auden

Forewords and Afterwords by W.H. Auden

A collection of essays about literature, Forewords and Afterwords is a nice collection of reviews, forewords and such but it suffers from a lack of context, not to mention age.

Today, Auden’s remembered mostly as a poet (when he’s remembered at all, anyway), but during his lifetime he was a voluminous writer and lecturer. He translated, wrote librettos and taught at universities on both sides of the Atlantic. And he wrote a lot for the trades, too.

These are generally what comprises Forewords and Afterwords. It’s generally taken from the last decade of Auden’s life, when he wrote short book reviews for slicks like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and elsewhere. In these, he generally lays down his ideas on prose, what a biographer should include (or ignore) and the perils of translation.

Some of his ideas are interesting, if a bit odd. He doesn’t just think writers should have biographies written about them, he suggests most writers would gladly publish anonymously to stay out of the spotlight. Likewise, he draws a thick line between private and public life and what a biographer should cover.

For example, Auden writes that Charles Dickens’ disastrous marriage doesn’t offer any light on his novels, so why should it be reported. Elsewhere, he says reading correspondence between people after their death is no better than sneaking a peek at their letters when they’re out of the room. I wonder what he made of James Joyce’s infamous love letters, let alone their publication.

Of course, he has no problem bending his own rules when it comes to a book he likes, like a biography of Alexander Pope. One wonders if his own messy private life –  Auden was openly gay but proposed marriage to several women, notably Hannah Arendt – is simply why he holds this opinion. He certainly didn’t like his dirty poems getting published!

Elsewhere, he betrays an attitude that’s either intentionally cantankerous or just reflective of snobby taste. When reviewing Lincoln Kerstein’s long-forgotten book of poetry Rhymes of a PFC, he calls it the best book he’s read about World War II, slighting books like Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line and more.

Still, at times, he writes with force, particularly on religious matters. I especially liked his line when reviewing a science book through his devout Episcopalian beliefs:

“If… it is a statistical impossibility that I should be walking the Earth instead of a million other people, I can only think of it as a miracle I must do my best to deserve.”

The forewords collected in this book are also interesting snapshots of their time they were written: his take on Shakespeare’s sonnets is wildly different than other writers: not only is he uninterested in their subject and circumstances, he casually dismisses several of them:

“Going through the hundred and fifty-four of them, I can find forty-nine which seem to me excellent throughout, a good number of the rest have one or two memorable lines but there are also several which I can only read out of a sense of duty.”

Of course, he makes the interesting observation of their publication: did Shakespeare intend for them to be made public? And if not, was publishing them after his death tantamount to betraying his privacy? It’s an interesting take on someone who’s writing an introduction to a collection of them. And questions Auden poses again and again.

I suppose the great flaw of a collection like this also works as one of it’s virtues: by this time, so many of these books have fallen out of print and into obscurity that reading about them has the duel effect of spotlighting something impossible to find.

Another example: he praises a collection of writing by Russian author Konstantin Leontiev called Against the Current. The book he praises is long out of print and goes for a pretty penny on sites like Amazon. And Leontiev himself has fallen basically into the abyss; I don’t think any collection of his writing is in print at all. Reading about Leontiev raises his profile a bit, but it’s also like reading about music you can’t hear or a painting you can’t see: you’re trusting the critic to portray something you’ll likely never encounter. And, as shown above, Auden was somewhat problematic in his opinions, so that trust is only grudgingly given – if at all.

Despite his contrariness and desire for privacy, some of the books most interesting passages come when he interjects his own life into his reviews, comparing his upbringing to that of Evelyn Waugh, outlining his family history or the importance of reading Greek in prep school. He never would’ve written an autobiography – even when he writes of himself, it’s hard not to feel a shade being drawn over his past – but when he shows a little of himself, his reviews shine.

In all, a bit of a mixed bag: some of the introductions and reviews are interesting, especially if you’re familiar with the books or authors involved. He certainly convinced me to look more into Goethe and Henry Mayhew’s books. But elsewhere, the reviews lack interest to someone in 2015. After all, it’s hard to convince anyone to read a book these days; it’s harder still to convince them on something published nearly 40 years ago.

Rating: 5/10. Interesting to literary snobs and Auden fans. And occasionally, his prose shines – and makes me curious in reading The Dyer’s Hand, not to mention any other collection of his as-yet uncollected nonfiction – but not enough for me to recommend.


A few quick book reviews

Part of the reason why this place has been so quiet lately is that I’ve been working a lot – and reading a lot, too. Here’s three quick reviews of some stuff I’ve recently enjoyed – an

The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short NovelsThe Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Big Knockover is something of an odds-and-ends collection of Hammett’s short fiction. Most of it is filled with stories about The Continental Op, basically the first hard-boiled detective, and as a whole they’re pretty good. Some of the tales – Dead Yellow Women and the title story in particular – stand out and really pack a punch. And like a wise man one said about pizza or Eric Clapton’s guitar playing, even when an Op story isn’t at it’s best, it’s still pretty good. Continue reading ‘A few quick book reviews’