If Agnès Varda was the mother of the nouvelle vague, Alice Guy-Blaché (1873–1968) was the mother of cinema, period. She was an early viewer of the Lumière brothers shorts and was one of the first filmmakers of either gender to explore the narrative possibilities of the medium—influencing the work of Eisenstein and Hitchcock, to name just two. In addition to directing and producing, she founded and ran Solax Studio out of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Not that anyone would know these things, considering how her male colleagues in the fledgling industry erased her contributions. Her husband, Herbert Blaché, took credit for Solax, and her boss, Léon Gaumont, failed to acknowledge her in the studio records. Male film historians hardly picked up the slack during Guy-Blaché’s life or since her death.
“It’s appalling to read solemn academic studies of Hitchcock or von Sternberg by people who seem to have lost sight of the primary reason for seeing films like Notorious or Morocco—which is that they were not intended solemnly, that they were playful and inventive and faintly (often deliberately) absurd. And what’s good in them, what relates them to art, is that playfulness and absence of solemnity. There is talk about von Sternberg’s technique—his use of light and decor and detail—and he is, of course, a kitsch master in these areas… Unfortunately, some students take this technique as proof that his films are works of art, once again, I think, falsifying what they really respond to—the satisfying romantic glamour of his very pretty trash. Morocco is great trash, and movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them. The kitsch of an earlier era—even the best kitsch—does not become art…
“We are now told in respectable museum publications that in 1932 a movie like ShanghaiExpress ‘was completely misunderstood as a mindless adventure’ when indeed it was completely understood as a mindless adventure. And enjoyed as a mindless adventure. It’s a peculiar form of movie madness crossed with academicism, this lowbrowism masquerading as highbrowism, eating a candy bar and cleaning an ‘allegorical problem of human faith’ out of your teeth.” — Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” 1969*
“Not long before she died, Pauline remarked to a friend, ‘When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture.’ That’s exactly the point. [Kael] and her foot soldiers won the battle but lost the war.” — Paul Schrader, “Fruitful Pursuits,” 2002**
Pauline Kael (1919–2001) was the film critic for The New Yorker throughout the 1970s, when American film culture—if not the magazine—was at its peak, and the country’s preeminent writer about the movies was at the height of her powers. In the obituary he wrote for his colleague, Roger Ebert said, “Kael had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades. She had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her ‘approach’ to a film. With her it was all personal.”
Kael had her pet critics and filmmakers, and this coterie style of extreme subjectivity brought many detractors—most notably Renata Adler, whose 1980 takedown “The Perils of Pauline” (published in the New York Review of Books) sent shock waves through Manhattan media circles.
This week at the Newport Beach Film Fest, Rob Garver will present his documentary WHATSHE SAID—THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL.
Queer partners-in-crime stories are not a common cinematic genre, but in the 1940s and ’50s there were Rope and Compulsion—and in 1992 their “remake” Swoon, as well as Gregg Araki’s The Living End.
In 2000, from Argentina, came Plata Quemada (Burnt Money), and now—as that country’s Academy Award selection—we have Luis Ortega’s EL ANGEL, screening this weekend in Hollywood.
Starring Lorenzo Ferro, EL ANGEL tells the tale of teenaged killer Carlitos and his addictions to thrills, theft, and Ramón—his reform school buddy, played by Chino Darín. Once Ramón’s ex-con father shows the boys the ropes, they’re off and running in Ortega’s flashy, fast-paced drama, based on the life of Carlos Robledo Puch, the longest-serving inmate in Argentina.