by Rob Nelson
Getting film critic Pauline Kael and film director Jonathan Demme together to discuss the state of the art of filmmaking, and Demme's in particular, was something akin to "uniting the dog catcher and the dog." That's the way Bruce Jenkins, Director of Film and Video at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, phrased it before introducing his guests at a symposium held at the Walker late last month. "But if you're going to invite a dog catcher," Jenkins said, "you might as well get the best."
Indeed, Pauline Kael is widely respected within the field of film criticism. She has been writing for The New Yorker for twenty years, and has had ten successful and acclaimed books of her reviews published, including the classics I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, When the Lights Go Down, and her most recent State of the Art. A collection of the last three years of her work at The New Yorker, tentatively titled Hooked, is scheduled to be out before year's end.
Cherished by countless movie buffs and despised by almost as many others, Kael is at very least an original, deeply opinionated and passionate about the movies. A year away from age 70, she is still writing for The New Yorker and has lost very little, if any, of her knowledge of film, her acutely discerning eye, and her scathing wit. She adores adoring movies (the titles of her books illuminate her obsessive, incestuous relationship with film), but finds that amidst the Hollywood of the 1980's, a good film is almost as rare as true love.
There are those few exceptions, though; the movies she appreciates she defends vehemently. Among these are the films of Jonathan Demme, including Handle With Care, Melvin and Howard, Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, and his latest, the recently released Married to the Mob. Her influential and zealous support of Demme has, from the beginning, been inextricably linked to his success. When Kael's exaltant review of his 1977 Handle With Care ("It could be that Handle With Care is almost too likable a movie...its comic style has the touch of thirties Renoir - who would have thought there could be such a thing as redneck grace?") included a formal damnation of Paramount for lopping off the film's original ending without Demme's consent, the studio quickly restored the film for a subsequent re-release.
Demme revealed that he has been equally interested in Kael's work. "If you're a filmmaker, you read what Pauline Kael says about you, and you read it in a certain way. I've had my mind changed on several occasions by her. She has a point of view, an artistry that's extraordinary for a film enthusiast [to read]. When The New Yorker comes out and you see that, by God, she likes your movie, it's a spectacular feeling, and you read it over and over. When she doesn't like your movie, you read that one only once."
Demme is still affected by Kael's opinion of his work. In one of the more inspired moments of the evening, when Kael casually mentioned that she thought Married to the Mob was "a wonderful movie," Demme promptly stood up, threw his hands in the air and shouted "Yeah!"
Seated with Demme at a small table on stage just to the right of a movie screen (which would be used to show Kael's selected clips of Demme's films), Kael began the evening's conversation by summarizing her affection for the director's work. "What I love about Jonathan Demme is that he searches for the poetry in the tacky, the everyday. I value that much more highly than the so-called tasteful movies people make. It takes more courage to be as unhighfalutin and democratic as he. And movies are, or were intended to be ever since they were first shown, a democratic art form."
Demme, an energetically impulsive speaker by contrast to Kael's mannered reserve, responded with the first of his typically cryptic self-analyses: "I've been lucky enough to have been invited into a lot of different houses, and I guess I developed an eye for kitsch, to use your word, Pauline. The way I've applied that to movies is you try to get a good cast, a good script, and you don't screw it up."
After viewing the high school reunion scene from Something Wild, Kael described the Demme trademark of a mesmerizingly chaotic mise-en-scene. "I love the cluttered, messy screen in your movies. They're wonderfully busy." Demme: "I think that's one of things I learned from Roger Corman (the infamous B-movie producer of the '60s and '70s who sponsored the first directing efforts of Coppola and Scorsese, among others). "When I first started working with him he took me out to lunch, sat me down and said, 'Okay, Jonathan, we've got an hour. The most important thing to remember is that this is a visual medium, first and foremost. The eye is the primary organ, and if you can't keep the eye stimulated you're not going to keep the brain stimulated.'
"Working with Roger was just a great experience. It was like a big school. It was every bit as valuable as going to film school, only you were getting paid, not the other way around."
When the floor was opened for questions, an elderly man said he liked Something Wild's first hour, but then felt violated by the violence in the film's second half. (The man was referring to the dark, Hitchcockian turn the formerly lighthearted comedy takes when Audrey's high school sweetheart Ray begins to terrorize Charlie). "In Something Wild I was trying to show that if you behave violently, you will taste violence," Demme responded. "That people were distressed by the film was distressing for me, you know? And I feel there are definite signals in the first half of the movie that the characters had better straighten up or else."
Kael elaborated: "Part of what is wonderful about Scorsese's earlier work [Demme had earlier mentioned Scorsese as his favorite director] like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver is that it does upset you, and it doesn't apologize. I don't think the violence in Something Wild is gratuitous, and I think it's absolutely crucial to the movie. Without the second half the movie would make no sense."
Kael and Demme are asked to name their favorite movies. After eluding the question a bit, Kael manages to name D.W. Griffith's Intolerance as a film she can always enjoy. Demme says that if pressed, he would choose Alain Resnais' 1967 documentary Far from Vietnam. "To me, that film is proof that movies can effect positive change, even if it's only in one person."
"Most of what's been playing in theaters lately is dead," Kael said. "Of recent films there's been The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a movie that speaks to you in a different way than anything else I've ever seen. And The Dead. It's amazing that Huston was able to conjure such a powerful film so near the end of life. And that's about it. And Jonathan's film. But most of it is just awful.
"As a critic, I hate it much more than anyone else can. The major studios' films are generally so much worse now. Most of what's out isn't worth seeing. And having to write about this stuff, you feel degraded. It's occupying your head and it has no right to be there."