Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Cherry-Poppin' Movie-Writin'

Dressed To Kill

As a teen, I remember haunting the bound periodical stacks of my school library. I’d pull a massive New Yorker volume off the shelf with a grunt and drag it into a secluded carrel. Calcutta being a city of chronic power shortages, evenings usually found the metropolis dark, dotted with the dim lights of kerosene lamps. Grade school kids were often employed by the library as lamplighters. When the power went out, they’d trawl the corridors, poking their heads into carrels, matchbox in hand, while readers waited patiently, fingering their bound volumes like Braille texts. When the power came back on, the kids turned down every last wick before the library closed for the night.

It was in a cramped and musty carrel by the light of a pungent-smelling lamp that I read the first piece of movie writing that I memorized: Pauline Kael’s review of Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill. It began thus:

One of the most sheerly enjoyable films of recent years, this sophisticated horror comedy, written and directed by Brian De Palma, is permeated with the distilled essence of impure thoughts. Set in Manhattan, it’s about sex and fear; De Palma presents extreme fantasies and pulls the audience into them with such apparent ease that the pleasure of the suspense becomes aphrodisiacal.

Young and impressionable, I copied out the review and carried it to school in my backpack every day for a week. I circled all the unexpected turns of phrase, underlined the zingy adjectives and drew doodle-balloons around the intricately constructed sentences: I was becoming intimately acquainted with a piece of music as I was learning it by heart. Never mind that I had seen nothing by De Palma or any of the directors she discussed in the review, including Hitchcock. It would be years before I caught up with Dressed To Kill, appropriately so in New York.

I've had a long and complicated relationship with Kael's work, marked both by love and exasperation. Her prose remains matchless. But in the end it is Andrew Sarris' auteurism that packs the greater resonance for me. His books The American Cinema, Confessions Of A Cultist, and The Primal Screen formed and shaped my thinking about movies (especially American movies) — more so than Kael ever did. But each time I pick up one of her pieces and start to read, within seconds I've got a grin on my face and I'm shaking my head in admiration. What a writer.


Blogger girish said...

Optional, extra-credit question:
Do you remember the first piece of movie writing that really did it for you?

(Sorry, folks--I'm nosy and I like to ask questions and I grade a hundred student quizzes each week. Feel free to bypass my questions and talk about exactly what you wanna talk about.)

November 30, 2005 8:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

A wonderfully moving post by Nick.

November 30, 2005 8:11 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr on Rob Marshall's Memoirs Of A Geisha:
"But as the film wanders from one extravagantly art-directed moment to the next, it becomes apparent that the model the filmmakers had it mind was not Japanese at all, but an exercise in “la nouvelle qualité chinoise” (as Claude Chabrol recently described this lush, exportable style) as represented by Zhang Yimou, who launched both Li and Zhang (in “Ju Dou” and “The Road Home,” respectively) and whose “Raise the Red Lantern” Marshall clearly screened more than once."

Gotta love that suave Chabrol put-down.

November 30, 2005 8:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ever seen spam that's more poetic? I think not.

November 30, 2005 8:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, and the poster is for the French-language version of Dressed To Kill.

November 30, 2005 8:17 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

My very first taste of film criticism came in the '60s. As a monster-mad kid, I collected all the magazines and fanzines that were dedicated to the genre...and there were quite a few.

Heavily pictorial, Famous Monsters of Filmland was the most popular; but the best, in my opinion, was Castle of Frankenstein which was published by Calvin Beck (who wrote the books Heroes of the Horrors and Scream Queens -- both worth checking out), and edited by Ken Beale and Bhob Stewart.

One of their contributors was a young guy named Joe Dante, who wrote most of the capsule reviews in Castle of Frankenstein's ongoing "TV MovieGuide," and years before the style became commonplace, this was his write up (in 1974) of Richard Rush's Psych-Out (1968):

One of the pics, along with THE SAVAGE SEVEN, that caused people to think director Richard Rush would emerge as a major talent -- a notion which GETTING STRAIGHT cured rather decisively. Rush simply cannot stage action convincingly, a weakness hidden fairly well by Laszlo Kovacs' dreamy telephoto cinematography. All this one has to recommend it these days are nostalgia values and some very naturalistic and funny, if stoned, performances by Jack Nicholson, Adam Roarke, Max Julien and Dean Stockwell. Susan Strasberg is deaf girl searching Haight-Ashbury for her crazy hairy brother (Bruce Dern, looking like a homage to METEOR MONSTER). Drug-fantasy sequences are embarrassingly literal. Interesting sidelight is cast presence of later directors Robert Kelljan (COUNT YORGA) and Henry Jaglom (A SAFE PLACE) as well as earliest indications of Nicholson's hitherto well-hidden talent. AIP cutting from 101 minute length jumbles the plot and renders the climax unintelligible.

Remember, this was published in what was then commonly dismissed as a "kiddie" magazine.

Dante, of course, went on to direct his own pictures.

Castle of Frankenstein was the first to make me aware of directors and writers (they published excellent interviews with Robert Bloch, William Friedkin and Don Siegel), but the writing style opened me up to a whole new level. Even Sarris recommended Castle of Frankenstein in one of his columns in the early '70s.

I was fortunate to have met both Calvin Beck and Bhob Stewart, and I owe my own short career in fanzine publishing to their influence.

November 30, 2005 9:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Cool stories, Flickhead! Thank you.

btw, The Siren and Flickhead have been having a most illuminating back-and-forth on Chabrol's La Ceremonie. (warning: the chat is land-mined with spoilers, but maybe it will serve as incentive to rent the DVD for those who haven't seen it--it's a marvelous movie.)

November 30, 2005 9:50 AM  
Anonymous rakesh said...

Oh Girish!!! Pauline is my all time favourite reviewer (Although I disagree with some of her reviews). I just love her madly (I mean her writing). She is so passionate. I have been searching high and low at all the bookstores but just can't find any of her books. Could you please post her reviews of Bresson's "Diary Of A Country Priest" and Agnes Varda's "Vagabond". I really can't get enough of her.

November 30, 2005 10:01 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice holiday mp3's by Sufjan and NRBQ at The Pop View.

November 30, 2005 10:12 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

My father had a pretty impressive film book collection. The two that always caught my eye were Volumes I and II of "Agee on Film". They were the first I pulled off the shelf, and I was mesmerized by what I read.

Another book I enjoyed (and still own) is Edward Wagenknecht's "The Movies in the Age of Innocence", which is a collection of his reviews of silent films (written at the time of their release). A truly wonderful book that I still consult when watching those late Sunday night rarities on TCM.

As for the Kael-Sarris battle, I'm partial to Kael, though I'm in no way a Paulette. (Amazing that there are still some left!) However, I can remember being offended at her review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but hey...I was 16.

November 30, 2005 11:35 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I remember my mother got Pauline Kael from the library for me to show me what "good" film criticism was suppose to look like. I don't remember which book but this was around 1967 or 1968. I did ask for and got Sarris' "American Cinema" as a high school graduation present. Prior to that though, I stumbled upon the magazine, "Films and Filming" and discovered Raymond Durgnat. I recently stumbled upon a memorial website for him, so I know I'm not the only one who was a fan.

November 30, 2005 11:42 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I noticed Kehr's piece on "Geisha" was also linked at GreenCine as is a scathing review of "The Producers". This should be an interesting holiday season. It would be nice if "Geisha" would create greater interest in the more authentic geisha films of Mizoguchi.

November 30, 2005 12:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Kael was great; even when I disagree heartily with a review of hers, she's still worth reading. The critic whose film writing really did it for me was someone not really known for film criticism: Susan Sontag. (And your post and this comment are timely because just last night I was working on a piece on what Sontag's criticism means to me -- not sure if I'll post it on my site, but I hope to.) For me, Sontag's essay on Godard opened up the ingeniousness of his films and, also, showed me her unmatched ability to illuminate things. I sort of did the same thing with that essay as you did with Kael's review: I underlined sentences, drew big stars next to important points, highlighted her turns of phrase. And I think her formalism struck me the way that Sarris' auteurism seems to have struck you: it completely shaped my thinking about the movies.

November 30, 2005 12:49 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Filmbrain--I've never heard of Wagenknecht. Cool tip: I'd like to pick up that book.
One book I did pick up on your recommendation was Theodore Roszak's Flicker--I look forward to reading it over the holidays.
And if you don't mind my asking--didn't your dad work in the film industry?

November 30, 2005 1:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, I only discovered Raymond Durgnat about three or four years ago. But I rushed out and picked up a half dozen of his books used on the Net. (Most of them were out of print anyway.) His BFI Classics book on WR: Mysteries Of The Organism is amazing.

Oh, and this is funny. Durgnat's chapter on Vertigo in his Hitchcock book begins with a description of the opening scene of the chase on the rooftops of...Los Angeles (!), not San Francisco: what a colossal boo-boo. I love his style though--and the man must've seen a billion movies.

November 30, 2005 1:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael--Big Sontag fan here.
Jim Tata and I have exchanged Sontag-rhapsodized emails to each other a few times. Her essay on Bergman's Persona is one I'll always remember.
And the book, Against Interpretation hit me at just the right time in my life when I was trying to make sense of some of the same formalistic issues she was wrestling with and elucidating in that book.

November 30, 2005 1:24 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

I'm slightly embarassed to say that I was pretty ignorant of most serious film criticism until just about a year or two ago. Until then, I always held Roger Ebert in the highest regard. I grew up on his reviews - as a Star Wars obsessed youngster, my parents read his take on Return Of The Jedi aloud to me many times until I was old enough to read it myself, at which point I devoured his various yearbooks. I still love his writing (even if his reasoning is a bit...daffy at times, especially lately), simply because his emotional love of film is so evident in it; his commentary tracks on Floating Weeds, Dark City and Citizen Kane are even more represtative of this. And I greatly appreciate how he tries to convince average moviegoers of the worthiness of more challenging cinema.

But nonetheless my horizons, almost out of necessity, have broadened, and just last year, Matt recommended that I pick up Against Interpretation; I might as well just quote what you wrote about it above, Girish, because that sums up what it meant to me as well.

November 30, 2005 1:50 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Flicker is tremendous fun -- full of great little tidbits that might or might not be true. (It actually had me consulting IMDB at times.) I've been stuck at around page 450 for a while now -- very little time to read.

And yes, Dad was in the film biz. Started at Columbia Pictures in the 50s, and moved to Universal. He loved his job, though he hated where the studio went after '75 or so. He was involved with their "alternative" wing that gave us such great films as Two Lane Blacktop, The Last Movie, Taking Off, etc.

November 30, 2005 2:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"And I greatly appreciate how he tries to convince average moviegoers of the worthiness of more challenging cinema."

So true.
I don't read Ebert's current writing much but I did get his "great films" book. It's a terrific effort to do just what you say--his writing about these classic movies is lucid and unfussy and accessible. And there's not a single "dud" choice in it.

And David, thanks to the gentle nudges that you and Filmbrain provided, I was able to hobble over to The Wizard Of Oz. (Thank goodness, or I might just have slit my wrists in shame.)

November 30, 2005 2:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"...great films as Two Lane Blacktop, The Last Movie, Taking Off."
How cool!
I'm sure you grew up with a gazillion neat stories.

My dad on the other hand was a banker who once loaned a hefty sum to a Bollywood movie which tanked. It was a fretful time in the household.
Just so no one gets the wrong idea, we were not wealthy JP Morgan types--merely humble middle-class Government employees.

November 30, 2005 3:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, Sontag's essay on Persona is a work of art itself. And Against Interpretation was pivotal for me as well; I can't think of another work that has so deeply informed the way I think and write about and experience film and art. One thing I appreciate about Sontag is that she had a specific agenda when it came to film, and only wrote about films she loved (she had that luxury; professional film critics, on the other hand, have to write about all kinds of films).

dvd -- I like Ebert, too. I don't read him often, but he has a genuine love for movies, and I find that he talks and writes about film in a very honest manner.

November 30, 2005 3:02 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

For five dollars, I picked up a first edition hardcover of Roszak’s Flicker in a K-Mart bargain bin in 1992, and it blew me away. (So well written, I kept wondering if the people and events in it were based on truth.) I was glad to see the recent printing, though I felt that the “bonus footage” chapters were a bit much. Roszak was kind enough to reply to a fan letter I sent him in the mid-’90s, when I felt that a film of Flicker simply had to be made with David Hyde-Pierce in the lead. Anyway, you can read my review of the book here.

November 30, 2005 3:19 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

I haven't read Flickr, but for what it's worth, Darren Aronofsky was developing it right before The Fountian was re-greenlit.

November 30, 2005 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Sontag's book "On Photography" articulates what I try to explain to people who think a good photo is simply a visual document.
Filmbrain: Not to be nosy, but it sounds like your father was associated with Ned Tanen, who as I understood, was the Universal exec who brought in Cassavetes (Minnie and Moskowitz), and the others you mentioned, to Universal for that era that seems to have ended with Spielberg's first film.

November 30, 2005 5:49 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Not film criticism, exactly, but when I was a senior in high school I read Hitchcock/Truffaut for the first time, and I was never the same again.

Great post, Girish. You were quite the precocious boy, eh?

November 30, 2005 6:31 PM  
Blogger Ben said...


This post killed me. Calcutta by lamp, Kael, deconstructing a DePalma review.
Now I need to think about the question posed...

November 30, 2005 7:02 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I haven't gotten past Ebert yet. I swear, I'm a flyweight around all of yous.

November 30, 2005 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Spot on Peter. Dad worked for Ned Tannen. Quite a guy, though really unpleasant to be around when he was angry.

Girish -- yes, loads of stories. A quick one -- In 1979 Producer David Brown (of Zanuck and Brown fame) once spotted me at the Universal office and insisted I would be perfect in the role of the young son in The Island -- an awful Michael Ritchie film about modern day pirates with Michael Caine. They actually set me up with an acting coach and a screen test. Needless to say, I didn't get the part.

November 30, 2005 8:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

When Susan Sontag died, I printed off reams of articles, essays and interviews off the Net, a few hundred pages worth, and filed them.
I'm still working my way through all that great material.

"You were quite the precocious boy, eh?"
Alas no, Darren.
Merely a geek.

And the Hitchcock-Truffaut book was huge for me too. Memo to myself: add to potential blog post list.

Ben, I thought of you over the weekend.
I ran across the Complete New Yorker DVD set at the bookstore and decided I need to pick it up over the holidays.

Tuwa, you should check out some Kael if you can; I'm sure the public library would carry her books. She's a blast to read.
A nice and handy collection that I have lying around the house that I can dip into for a few minutes at a time is 5001 Nights At The Movies.
It's a collection of her New Yorker capsule reviews.

Filmbrain--That story is AWESOME.

November 30, 2005 8:59 PM  
Blogger Dipanjan said...

I distinctly remember reading The Statesman's (an English daily published from Calcutta) Friday review of Dressed to Kill when it was briefly released in Calcutta around 1989/90. Swapan Ghosh was no Pauline Kael, but he had me very perplexed with the word transsexual. A word not to be found in a 15 year old Bengali's tiny English vocabulary, nor in his unambitious Sansad's English-to-Bengali dictionary. The subword sex was intriguing enough to make me walk about a mile to the local library and consult the last resort - Oxford Advanced Learner's.

Not a bad way to get introduced to the fascinating world of gender identity and confusion, though an Almodóvar review would have been even more appropriate.

November 30, 2005 11:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dipanjan, that is too hilarious.
Never realized that it opened in Calcutta. I had moved away by then.
Now I'm getting all nostalgic for The Statesman.

December 01, 2005 6:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Liz Penn, aka Dana Stevens, pulls down the curtain on her blog, The High Sign.

December 01, 2005 6:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Maud links to the Guardian on "writers in the sack."

December 01, 2005 6:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Glad to hear Susan Orlean say this about Adaptation:

"I am a thousand times happier to have had a great movie made from my book, even though it's not faithful to the book (well, it's faithful to the book and then goes off on its own crazy path), than to have some boring, labored Hollywood effort to "accurately" adapt the book."

December 01, 2005 6:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

LOL at Ron Silliman's:

"Some time back, I started receiving – pretty much daily – a series of emails whose header always included the phrase “Daily Treated Spam.” My first thought, before I deleted the message, was “Truth in Advertising.” After awhile, tho, that middle term “Treated” got under my skin & I actually opened one. Voila! Somebody was taking their spam and turning it into a poem of what appeared to be mostly found language. I still pretty much deleted them every day, but now I was reading them first."

December 01, 2005 11:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Mom, in an email received a few seconds ago: Girish, what is this "cherry-poppin'" business? Don't believe I know the word.

Me: You know cherries? The fruit? They taste nice, no? Well. Writing can be nice. Like that. Too.

December 01, 2005 12:23 PM  
Blogger phil said...

girish, you and your mom should be a vaudeville comedy team.

and i'd have to say, truly, the first time i ever recognized writing on film to be an artform was while reading yours. and you know i'm not blowing smoke up your cherry when i say that either.

December 01, 2005 2:00 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I was surprised by the title too, but not in the same way. Uh.

Seen any good films lately? ^_^

December 01, 2005 2:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Phil.
You know, it's time for one of our decadent scallops-and-vino dinner events set in the first building in Buffalo to ever have electricity. Call me.

December 01, 2005 6:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, I've been spinning plates--just one more week of classes and then final exams week--and thus remiss in my movie-watching duties lately.

December 01, 2005 6:06 PM  
Anonymous nilblogette said...

That "Dressed to Kill" review is the one that got me hooked on Kael.

December 02, 2005 7:39 PM  

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