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Reeling Paperback – March, 1977
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As an illustration...and "taking the bull by the horns", here's a focus upon just one of my disagreements: Kael's discussion of the dance musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in her review of Arlene Croce's masterful: "The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book". I first detected contradiction, when Kael, the film critic, accuses Croce, the dance critic, of "swooning romanticism", while simultaneously, praising her precise, crisp descriptions and understandings of the dances.
Kael reacts to Croce's praise of Rogers's dancing...as incapable of the appearance of "clumsiness or toil"...by writing that Rogers, on the contrary, was fully capable of "clumsiness", and as well, could be seen as "working hard". This is absolutely ridiculous. I thought in light of what I knew to be true about Astaire/Rogers, how could anyone think that Fred would accept the appearance of "clumsiness" and "working hard"? Astaire, the perfectionist, would have just required another take. In the end, it's a significant aesthetic disagreement I have with her. She just didn't get what's fundamentally important....to simply agree, with someone, who she essentially agrees. Or does she? Kael's was a confusing reaction to me....at first.
Then, surprisingly, she proposes a quasi snobbish, out of context, personal attack concerning Rogers's alleged "broad streak of commonness". Both Rogers and Astaire did not have fine university training. They both learned by doing, in Vaudeville and the theater. Fred as such, avoided public conversation...mainly because, other than a few subjects....he had limited broader knowledge. Rogers embarked upon a decade long travel, and international career, to fill some of the voids in her admitted sheltered Hollywood life. So what? Their performances together, both acting and dancing...and many of Rogers's individual 30s and 40s dramatic and comedy performances, are of genuine quality....and, in fact, her musicals with Fred are unselfconscious HIGH ART. A pretty fine achievement, for two highly talented, but common people.
Finally, Kael adds the standard critique of the fragile plots of the innovative Astaire/Rogers dance musicals....which to some extent I can understand. But, whereas Croce states flatly that these are the "greatest courtship rituals ever put on film"....full of superb acting and conceits, comedy, wit, and cleverness....Kael, and to be fair, other critics...rather flippantly subscribe to the prior thesis...while literally millions continue to enjoy them as great art and entertainment. Have not Kael, and these critics, ever experienced the comedy of youthful behavior..vulnerability, and immaturity themselves? I came feel today that Kael has a problem with the concept of delightfulness...for this is what these great films are...pure delight.
In the end, Kael reveals herself, in her ever-edgy attitudes to film (as in her own life), as a type of Bourgeois/Bohemian...a kind of early shock-jock, a cinema fashionista, ever-ready to pounce upon popular tastes, no matter the merit. Astaire was a modernist also...but he possessed...and demanded of those who collaborated with him to have one quality not recognized in much of Kael's thinking....SKILL....and the commitment and determination that go with creating, with Ginger Rogers, a very high quality of work....of great beauty, elegance, energy, discipline; filled with expressions mutual support and respect, humor, and grace...all polished and synthesized into top-flight performance. Unlike all too many of Kael's favorite films, Fred and Ginger's work RAISED the level popular culture.
These considerations are at the core of her negativity to a certain body of work, that reflects the popularity of film...and their contemptible commercial success....even including the fine work of Alfred Hitchcock! This book helped me to discover that I no longer share such opinions.
In fact, typical of Kael's extremist view of cinema, is her review of "The Last Tango in Paris"...as something that filled the theater with "hypnotic excitement". In fact, it is a work of dark nihilism, failure, sexual confusion, and brutality. She so praises Brando's performance, the sex of course...so ultra-hip and revolutionary then...but also a key scene, in which he literally bumbles, in character, across the dance floor. Now, this time, it is clumsiness put to good use...but, in pursuit of what? Is there supposed to be a message here? In fact, this film is a deliberate mockery, not only of the joy and happiness of dancing....but of joy and happiness in life itself...to what end, no one knows for sure. The film is one of those works that critics tell us we are supposed to like...but most do not. Kael can find no room in her thinking for the great American dance-musicals...can so glibly find fault with Ginger Rogers's dancing...but, for Brando and his "Last Tango in Paris"..."nearer to heaven", is not an overstatement. It is Kael in fact, who "swoons"...every bit as much as Arlene Croce...but, it's only about this kind of pointless nihilism.
So to sum up, in this too long review, I found myself still attracted to the sharpness of Kael's writing, and still agree with her sometimes...but also, I have grown to become appalled at the dullness of some her perceptions...which used to be my own. Perceptions on human nature, I no longer share. Most people are human enough, and smart enough, to avoid films of such debasement and reduction of human potential.
Listen to me! I said to myself. Yet, this is what I truly feel...the wool removed from my eyes. In one key sense, I found this book to be valuable as an historical document...and, I found, as a touchstone, to my own growth in understanding. That's what criticism is intended to accomplish. And Pauline Kael succeeds in that general purpose. In fact, I do recommend it on this basis.