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Sunday Reading: The Electrifying Critical Mind of Pauline Kael

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Next week marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the film critic Pauline Kael. Her arrival at The New Yorker, in the late nineteen-sixties, heralded a revolution in cinematic taste—one that was often messy yet exhilarating. Kael articulated a provocative new vision of American cinema in which the most invigorating films blurred the boundaries of high and low culture. This week, we’ve collected a selection of her pieces, spanning several decades. Kael reviews George Lucas’s film “Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope” and finds it lacking. (“Lucas has got the tone of bad movies down pat,” she writes. “You never catch the actors deliberately acting badly, they just seem to be bad actors.”) In “Underground Man” and “Tumescence as Style,” she considers Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “GoodFellas,” respectively. (“No other film has ever dramatized urban indifference so powerfully,” she writes of “Taxi Driver.”) In “Raising Kane,” Kael chronicles the creation of Orson Welles’s masterpiece “Citizen Kane”; in “Alchemy,” she examines the brutality behind the Mafia machinations in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” (Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, she writes, “is a primitive sacred monster.”) Finally, in one of her most celebrated essays, “Bonnie and Clyde,” she upends the cultural status quo and gleefully makes the case for the artistic value of so-called trash, or offensive, films. We hope that you enjoy these glimpses of an electrifying critical mind at work.

David Remnick


Underground Man

“ ‘Taxi Driver’ is a movie in heat, a raw, tabloid version of ‘Notes from Underground,’ and we stay with the protagonist’s hatreds all the way.”


“ ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ ”

“The tragedy of ‘Macbeth’ is in the fall from nobility to horror; the comic tragedy of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is that although you can’t fall from the bottom you can reach the same horror.”


Contrasts

“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.”


Raising Kane

“ ‘Citizen Kane’ is the story of how heroes become comedians and con artists.”


Alchemy

“In ‘The Godfather’ we see organized crime as an obscene symbolic extension of free enterprise and government policy, an extension of the worst in America—its feudal ruthlessness.”


Tumescence as Style

“Is Martin Scorsese’s ‘GoodFellas’ a great movie? I don’t think so. But it’s a triumphant piece of filmmaking—journalism presented with the brio of drama.”



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