Kael, Kael, Fire and Snow! (Part 1 of 2)

Assume that I am just a guy mad for the movies, and one who just likes to write about movies, and you would find yourself with a negative mark. Assume from the usual subject matter of this site that I have regard only for a select pair of genres of film, and you would find yourself with yet another demerit. Think the next fourteen things you are thinking, and you will have a start on your fourth handful of incorrect assumptions.

By virtue of the fact that I have multiple blogs on movies and animation, some people have asked if I want to be a film critic when I grow up again (a qualifier that I throw in for free in the conversation), and I have laughed at them and told them "No" on every single occasion. I have defused the question normally by stating my usual case of the at of blogging as a mere writing exercise, which is mostly true. I explain my choice of material as simply being something at which I have a certain accumulated knowledge, "So, why not write about something I
know?" But if I were to carry on as if these were the sum total of my purpose in trundling warily down the avenue of film criticism, then I would be the third worst kind of liar. (The first two are presidents and priests...) Naturally, I am doing this because of an interest in film criticism, but I've never wanted to become a film critic as suggested by the popular phrase "film critic" and as practiced in the largely ignored reviews within newspapers and magazines. Sure, being largely ignored is a goal of mine (and I feel that I have a solid 42 years of experience and success in that endeavor), but I write what I write because I simply cannot help it. It is what I am, what I am interested in writing, and this impulse was formed long, long ago.

I have been reading film books regularly and deeply since I was a teenager. Literally hundreds of books on film criticism and film history. Hitting the library at the age of thirteen or so, I first became enthralled by a series of simple frame-by-frame film breakdowns edited by Richard Anobile, and it was here, not on the screen, that I fell in love with Hitchcock's Psycho (which I didn't see for another five years or so, when CBS showed it late one Sunday night
) and Keaton's The General, pouring over each image with the sort of attention that some of my friends at that time gave to their father's Playboy and Penthouse collections. (Not that I was lacking in interest in that department either.) Likewise, I sharpened my love for the Marx Brothers via his book Why A Duck?, which laid out their most famous scenes, including dialogue, in a most appealing way, and it was here on the printed page, in a VCR and cable-deprived era, having only seen Animal Crackers at that point, where I became a true devotee of Groucho, Harpo and Chico.

And then I hit the actual
literature surrounding film hidden within the library. I grew fascinated by Pauline Kael, whose every carefully hewn syllable made me long to see any film about which she wrote. Never mind that she disliked a good portion of them, and never mind that she seemed to have her own private agendas championing certain directors, genres and films (we all do); I wished to have a chance to see every film she reviewed because the tone of her writing imparted the true magic within the cinema: that fervent need to sit in a darkened theatre, flush with anticipation, and waiting for that certain thrill that comes when a filmmaker exceeds the viewer's expectations. But one cannot judge on one's successful trips to the cinema alone, and it was in her disappointments that I truly became fascinated with Ms. Kael. I read her books Reeling and Going Steady stem to stern, over and over at that time, keeping them out for weeks. These were primers of film for me, but the truth was that I had seen only about four of the movies described in their pages at that tender age. And all on television, cut up and slammed through with annoying commercials. For all I knew, she was making most of these films up and her review collections were nothing more than an elaborate parody of the film business and criticism in general. But the films were all too real, as were the reviews, and she set me off films that I would never have considered seeing if she hadn't written about them. Last Tango in Paris seemed like something from Mars to me, but I knew that I wanted to see it, merely from her reviewing it. (I have seen it since then and… eh…)

Before her books, though, was my first look at Kael's home periodical
The New Yorker (and, therefore, my intro to Kael) via my English teacher. My interest in film in 1977-78 stemmed from the fact that Star Wars was all the rage, and I was purchasing every publication that even just put an ad for the film in it. I had magazines, I had comics, I had blueprints of the droids and spaceships in the film, I had a portfolio of prints from the original Ralph McQuarrie production paintings, and I had the original paperback version (the elusive purple McQuarrie cover, which I still own, along with the rest of my Star Wars paraphernalia from that period), which I purchased and read several months before the movie even came out. My teacher, Mr. Brooks, knew of my obsession with the film, and naturally was aware of how much I read. He threw his copy of The New Yorker at me and said, "You should read what this reviewer said about your movie. She hates it." (For the record, Mr. Brooks loved the movie, but did feel free to lecture us all on the pop-cultural and literary footnotes contained within the film.) I was floored by his revelation that this person dared to blaspheme in this manner, mainly because I had no conception that anyone could EVER dislike Star Wars! Mater-freaking Star Wars! (To be continued tomorrow...)


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