Thursday, November 11, 2004

Hitchcock’s fetishes, and Pauline Kael

Fascinating, and meticulously put together, photo study of Alfred Hitchcock’s fetishes - some of the visual motifs that recurred in his films - on the Bright Lights Film Journal website. Check all the links. There are some omissions - I was surprised by the exclusion, from the "Hands" section, of the image of Anthony Perkins briefly extending his palm out ("I wish I could curse her") towards Janet Leigh during the parlour conversation in Psycho - but this is one of the more interesting collection of Hitchcock images I’ve seen on the WWW.

Incidentally, I came across the link after reading another piece by the author, Alan Vanneman, on film critic Pauline Kael. Very opinionated, very interesting. Much of what Vanneman says is debatable (why shouldn’t a film critic be inconsistent in her opinions over a reviewing career?) but he rightly points out that people picked up on Pauline Kael’s energy and not her specifics. I remember when Quentin Tarantino interviewed Brian DePalma for the journal Projections, both men agreed that "you could go on disagreeing with Kael’s opinions, but you could never argue with the passion with which she wrote about movies".


  1. Fascinating study, man. The vortex is probably the only bit that had occured to me, apart from the more obvious 'eyes'. I'm sure you would have worked on this a lot more...

  2. Been reading snippets of Kael's reviews on the net lately.

    Frankly, I find it difficult to fathom her immense popularity considering how often she seems to have got it wrong.

    A perceptive film critic is the one who can identify a classic at the time of its release. Kael's record in this regard doesn't seem too impressive.

    She dismisses Hitchcock's films as 'great trash'. She prefers his British and early American work over his superior, universally acknowledged masterpieces of the late fifties. She often goes overboard in her praise of 'New Hollywood' films many of which haven't aged too well. The sex comedy 'Shampoo' being a case in point.

  3. The most jarring thing about her is the artificial distinction she draws between trash and art.

    There's something wrong with a critic who regards Notorious as trash but vulgar, unsubtle films such as Last Tango in Paris and Shampoo as Art.

  4. A perceptive film critic is the one who can identify a classic at the time of its release.

    shrikanth: big generalisation there. Nearly every major critic has a mixed record when it comes to this criterion. And as an important counterpoint, you can look at Kael's very sensitive writing about Satyajit Ray's films, at a time when most other western critics didn't know what to make of them.

    Besides, what if critical consensus decides 50 years from now that Vertigo and Hitchcock's other American films were all trash after all? Would that make Kael right in retrospect? These things are way too fluid anyway - accepted notions of what is great art and what isn't will keep changing with time.

    Anyway, for me, Kael has always been a perfect example of the idea that you don't need to agree with a review to enjoy/appreciate it. (See this post btw.)

    P.S. I should add, I don't care for the art-trash distinction myself.

  5. was a generalization.
    Also, to Kael's credit it must be said that she championed films like Bonnie and Clyde/Nashville at a time when most other critics were panning them.

    Also, I get a feeling that Kael's reviews were influenced by her political worldview. This explains her panning of "conservative" classics like It's a Wonderful Life, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance and Shane and the liberal homilies of Stanley Kramer and Stanley Kubrick's antiwar films.

    In contrast, the amoral tone of movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Last Tango in the backdrop of the cultural changes in the sixties appealed to her greatly.

    So, the nature of her review probably depended not so much on the quality of the film per se but on its trendiness.

  6. As an aside: was Liberty Valance really a conservative film? I mean, sure, it had two very politically conservative actors in the lead roles, but somehow the image that stays with me is Stewart wearing an apron, complaining about excessive displays of machismo in the uncivilised West! A complex, somewhat schizophrenic film in some ways, I think.

  7. well, actually i began to think of it as a film with a 'conservative' message after reading your review of it.

    As you observed, law and order in the West might never have been set down if it hadn’t been for the heroes of an earlier time, who went about things in a less “civilised” way.

    Also, the real hero of the film was Wayne and not the preachy Eastern lawyer.

  8. Also, the real hero of the film was Wayne and not the preachy Eastern lawyer.

    You know, I'm not so sure about that, and this is what I mean by the film having a schizophrenic quality. At the very least it's more complex than it appears to be on the surface, and there's always some ambivalence about the final shootout - you don't have to take it as a given that Tom was the one who killed Liberty.

    Besides, everything depends on the viewer, right? If we, as relatively "refined", "progressive" viewers, find Ransom admirable for those qualities, then it might not matter all that much to us that the film itself is on Tom's side.

    Just throwing some thoughts up into the air...I don't even remember my review of the film now, and I definitely wouldn't want to read it!