06 August 2010

Disagreeing with Pauline Kael

Because my education in real film criticism has to start somewhere, I've been reading Pauline Kael's Reeling and enjoying the frequency with which I disagree with the last unanimously lauded film writer. Sometimes, as with her harshness towards Sam Peckinpah and Peter Bogdanovich, I can see her points and would probably lose an argument with her on his merits as a filmmaker. Elsewhere, I feel more combative to her opinions and approach.

And so, Badlands. She begins with a discussion of how Malick made the film at the same age (29) that Godard made Breathless and that Badlands is not as good. Not to set too high a bar or anything...

After establishing to her satisfaction that Malick is a lesser light than the greatest filmmaker of all time, she continues, "The film is a succession of art touches. Malick is a gifted student, and Badlands is an art thing, all right, but I didn't admire it, I didn't enjoy it, and I don't like it."

Even though I think a "succession of art touches" is kind of how you define a film, I'm actually impressed that she was willing to set something so petulant to print. Reading these lines were my first indication that the lady might be protesting too much. Kael returns over and over to the idea of the character's (and by extension their director's) emptiness. Her laughable take on Sissy Spacek: "She's just blah." I would argue it's brilliant to watch Spacek show the accumulating cracks in Holly's facade of adolescent love cliches. As the character puts it, "At this moment, I didn't feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you're sitting there and all the water's run out of the bathtub."

In another strong statement, Kael writes that she found the "cold detachment" of Badlands offensive. I guess I can't be offended by Malick, who explores his detachment so beautifully. He has always pushed man far out into nature and explored the cruelty of each in turn (think of the scene in The Thin Red Line when, amidst a hail of Japanese bullets, the American soldiers also have to navigate around a viper lunging at them as they crawl uphill). Kit and Holly roll through the Badlands in wide angles that emphasize the smallness of humans on that western landscape where we've always projected our ideas of freedom. Instead of focusing on the plight of two characters blowing around the countryside, I think of the countryside itself, before and after. Kit's violence takes its place in the continuum of bloodshed in movie Westerns the just as real-life Charles Starkweather entered the history books with all the other murderers in the American West.

I should note that it's much easier for me to praise a film that I first watched after it had been canonized as an American classic than it was for Kael to write a review in its original theatrical run (she didn't get to take into account all the fabulous Bruce Springsteen music it inspired!). Perhaps, after Christopher Nolan has been anointed a greater director than Hitchcock and Fellini combined, I'll be ridiculed for napalming his crowning masterpiece, Inception.