Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Notes on two critics: Kael and Lane

Have spent many joyful hours in the last few days poring through film reviews by Pauline Kael and Anthony Lane, thanks to a couple of books that a friend has left with me: Kael’s For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies and Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect. Both collections are strongly recommended for anyone interested in film criticism; unfortunately, most of these reviews aren’t available online (to the best of my knowledge) and the books themselves are hard to find in Indian stores.

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.


For Keeps

Nobody’s Perfect


  1. Lane is certainly the most entertaining film critic around but the problem is that he obviously doesn't love movies that much. He writes more to have fun with words and phrases rather than to try to engage with ideas, themes, questions etc raised by the films. It's not that he is not capable of doing so, he manages to sneak in great sentences full of serious insights in between all those wisecracks and puns, but he doesn't think movies should be taken seriously.

    Also, his reviews are highly ahistorical, he perhaps doesn't think that movie as an art medium is old enough to have an independent artisitic tradition and one job of critic is to judge a film from that point of view. Why bother when you can have some esay fun playing with words?!

    Just compare his essays on Sebald, Nabokov, Eliot, (I think there is one on Henry James too) with his writing on films and you will notice the seriousness of intent that is absent in his movie writings. He sees moviegoing more as a funny plebeian sport hardly worthy of his intellectual labour.

    Also I don't understand why should such an elite literary magazine publish reviews of such inane hollywood crap (Charlies Angels, Speed, Indecent Proposal... there are many more in the book). More than half of the reviews are of films of which I would rather read what Lane thinks of them than actually take the pains to see them! Well, I have already seen two of those three but anyway :)

  2. Throuroughly agree about Kael. She's a critic who can truly elucidate a film in one (or a few) sentences, and hence, its not surprising that she is one of the critics who has done greatest justice to Ray.

  3. Alok: that’s what I used to think about Lane myself, but I’m not entirely sure now. At one point he speaks with genuine affection about how, as a youngster in the 1970s when the last great era of American cinema was on, he was busy spending his pocket-money on films like Earthquake rather than on Nashville, etc. Or maybe he's more comfortable with movies-as-trash than movies-as-art.

    But yes, the seriousness of intent is often missing in the film writings – at times it reminds me of the very patronizing "film reviews" written in the New Yorker in the 1930s, when there was no real tradition of movie criticism and the writers couldn’t bear to take the medium seriously.

    Another thing I find interesting is that Lane is usually quite reverent while talking about the old masters (Hitchcock, Wilder, Lubitsch, even lesser known movies from Hollywood’s golden age), but when it comes to new releases he has no problem being snarky and over-clever.

  4. I enjoy reading Lane in the New Yorker, in fact when David Denby comes on the alternate weeks, I usually skip it. I still recall how Lane tore apart Revenge Of The Sith, comparing the imaginary names in there (I think he wondered aloud if Mace Windu was a colic medicine) with those of LotR (Saruman, Mordor et al). Full review at In his first para of the review for da Vinci Code is ths line: "His final act was to carve a number of bloody markings into his own flesh, indicating, to the expert eye, that he was preparing to roll in fresh herbs and sear himself in olive oil for three minutes on each side." The full review is at He is easily one of the best in the business today. Manohla Dargis of NYTimes (& before that LA Times), Village Voice's Mike Atkinson, SF Chronicle's Mick La Salle are the other ones that I seek out & read. Philip French & Peter Bradshaw from the UK Observer & Guardian respectively are also among those that I enjoy. I love reading film reviews, & so often they give me more enjoyment than the movie would have, especially when Lane is at it skewering pretentious crap.

    Sadly Kael is quite forgotten in the US bookstores. Most of her original books are out of print. ONly compilations like 5001 Nights At The Movies & the one you read are available. And 'I Lost It At The Movies'.

    From among the older crowd, James Agee is the grand dad of them all & one of my happiest Daryaganj moment in the 90s was finding both volumes of Agee On Film. Vol 2 was quite gone, not being able to survive the rain that Delhi monsoon. Graham Greene's film criticisms are also very fine, as is John Simon (comparatively newer), Andrew Sarris & I am told Dwight Macdonald (who alas I haven't read). David Thompson's "The New Biographical Dictionary Of Film" is not a book of film criticism, but is a very well written & researched work, & his love for the movies comesout very well. But be warned, he is a very opinionated man :-)

    I wish we had someone of that stature in mainstream Indian press to bring our Karan Johars & makers of pop patriotisms a notch or two down. I guess we deserve our Nikhat Kazmi, since good movies don't get a lot of playtime anyway. Back in 1998 I recall Priya (before it became a multiplex) was playing Soderberg's 'Out Of Sight' & the atrotious updation of 'The Avengers' TV show. Ms. Kazmi was all praise for Avengers & Uma Thurman, & called OOS missable. Huh!

  5. Any thoughts on Andrew Sarris?

  6. Interesting article, I have yet to read Lane.

    I can't quite bring myself to forgive Kael for her review of Last Tango in Paris. I have no objection to the most explicit of movies - an R/NC rating has never put me off - and I think a very good filmmaker knows how to move beyond the immediately titillating. But Bertolucci's films like Last Tango, Sheltering Sky, Dreamers just seem adolescent prurience. Granted prurience is a fact of life but there is nothing in the movies to illuminate the condition. One feels embarrassed for the director not the nudity.

    Cinema Scope ( has some good reviews/interviews - I loved the one they did on Garrel's Regular Lovers. On the other hand that may well be because Regular Lovers is a counter viewpoint to the Dreamers!

    I suppose the kiss of death for a critic is to appear on Rotten Tomatoes - I mean have the Spirituality & Health guys ever given a bad review :-)

    I seem to have got addicted to reading this blog. Keep up the good work.

  7. Just a stray observation: If you've seen all of Ray's films, it's amazing how apt the Westerners' misconception about him actually is. Obviously they were wrong in assuming Ray was a country feller and knew jackshit about the urban milieu. But that's exactly what a layperson would think about his city films. The few he cobbled together - Jana Aranya, Aranyer Dinratri, Mahanagar, etc - were spectacularly pedestrian. Not just in comparison with some of his other films, but on their own. Pratidwandi is probably the only quality 'city' film he made in that phase.

  8. [...] 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 [...]

    I haven't read any of those reviews (all that I have read were aware of his background I believe), but it's unbelievable and ridiculously funny!

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  10. The few he cobbled together - Jana Aranya, Aranyer Dinratri, Mahanagar, etc - were spectacularly pedestrian.

    Shamya: disagree with that. But then experience tells me that discussing Bengali cinema with Bengalis (who have grown up with the films and tend to be possessive/defensive/over-critical about them) is a bit pointless. We really can't look at the films from the same angle.

    Tipu: to be honest, I don't consider Lane's pieces on Sith or The Da Vinci Code to be reviews at all - they are very clever bits of writing, great fun to read, by a man who isn't particularly open-minded about movies.

    ALso, I don't think Karan Johar or any other popular filmmaker would be "brought a notch or two down" by a critic of stature, no matter how scathing the review. The critic could stew forever in his own bile but the films would continue to do well, and what would matter to Johar in the final analysis is audience endorsement - which, one might argue, is as it should be.

    bina007: No, have hardly read him.

    I can't quite bring myself to forgive Kael for her review of Last Tango in Paris

    Shama: I don't understand the concept of "forgiving" or "not forgiving" a reviewer for something they've written - at least not when the review was a self-evidently honest one. Disagreeing with Kael's assessment of the film is of course a different matter.

  11. But do we all agree that Peter Travers of Rolling Stone is the WORST reviewer ever? No, there's also that guy from Fox and that guy from NBC...

    To Alok: The reason New Yorker carries reviews of Charlie's Angels is because it is ironic and funny. Gives the magazine a personality (other than the twee Eustace Tilly one), don't you think?