I’ve been discovering or rediscovering many of Kael’s finest reviews as well as the longer pieces on topics ranging from Cary Grant to Citizen Kane. In particular, I enjoy her enthusiasm for the early films of Brian DePalma, the most underappreciated of the American directors of the 1970s, and her perceptiveness about Satyajit Ray – especially creditable in an American reviewer who had little access to his films outside of one-off special screenings.
As early as 1962, in a review of Devi, she observed: “The concept of humanity is so strong in Ray’s films that a man who functioned as a villain could only be a limitation of vision, a defect, an intrusion of melodrama into a work of art which seeks to illuminate experience and help us feel.” She was also rigorous enough (and interested enough) to do some basic research into Ray’s life and understand that he didn’t himself come from a penurious background; that Pather Panchali wasn’t an autobiographical film (an assumption lazily made by some major western reviewers of the time, who then went on to say of Ray’s more urban films that he was dealing with a milieu he didn’t understand).
From the Introduction to For Keeps:
I tried to be true to the spirit of what I loved about movies, trying to develop a voice that would avoid saphead objectivity and let the reader in on what sort of person was responding to the world in this particular way.Love that term, “saphead objectivity” – it’s still so relevant today, decades after Kael fought with the New Yorker editors for the right to retain her very personal tone in her reviews. But I also like the bit about “the sort of person who was responding to the world in this way”. When I first became interested in movie-related writing many years ago, Kael’s reviews were the ones that best helped me appreciate viewpoints different from my own. She had trashed many of my favourite films (short list: 8 ½, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Lion in Winter) and initially I was all set to be prejudiced and defensive. But rereading those reviews I saw the passion behind them and realised that she was being completely honest in her assessment, based on her perspective and experiences. It showed me that there didn’t have to be a “right” or “wrong” way to look at a film, and that the best reviews necessarily told you as much about the people writing them as about the films themselves.
“I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs,” Kael said once, “but I think I have.” Read some of her reviews, especially the longer ones, and you’ll see why; they are truer, more personal and more revealing than most conventional autobiographies could ever be.
I’ve been more ambivalent about Anthony Lane's reviews, based on the scattered few I’d read – he came across as genre-intolerant and exclusive; not a true movie-lover in the sense that Kael was, more like a brilliant writer in love with his own writing. But reading a lot of his reviews end to end, I realise that he makes no bones about being a self-indulgent prankster, and he shows his hand every time. (Slamming Merchant-Ivory’s Remains of the Day, the story of an emotionally repressed butler, Lane admits: “I have an unfortunate and incurable problem with regard to this tale: having been drenched in P G Wodehouse from an early age, I find it impossible to take the master-slave relationship entirely seriously.”)
And yet, in the middle of all this, he actually does make many sharp, intelligent, well thought out observations about the films. His evaluations are still too strident for my liking, and I haven’t completely changed my mind about the genre-intolerance, but finally I’m not sure anyone who writes the following can be described as a movie-snob:
What we feel about a movie – or indeed about any work of art, high or low – matters less than the rise and fall of our feelings over time. The King Lear that we see as sons and daughters (of Cordelia’s age, say) can never be the same play that we attend as parents... Weekly critics cannot do justice to that process; when we are asked to nominate our favourite films, all we can say is, “Well, just now I quite like Citizen Kane or Police Academy 4, but ask me again next year.” By then we will have grown, by a small but significant slippage, into someone else, and we have yet to know who that person will be, or what friable convictions he or she will hold.Also, this (in the context of the many wrathful/exasperated letters he gets from New Yorker readers):
That is as it should be; there is no opinion I hold so ferociously that I would expect, or even want, a majority of people to agree with it.Bravo!