Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Pauline Kael Rule strikes again

[Posts are like the hydra, every time you do the research for one post you end up with two more that you want to write. Maybe that's why so many journalists have given up fact checking.]
I once jotted down the names of some movies that I didn’t associate with any celebrated director but that had nevertheless stayed in my memory over the years, because something in them had especially delighted me—such rather obscure movies as The Moon’s Our Home (Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda) and He Married His Wife (Nancy Kelly, Joel McCrea, and Mary Boland). When I looked them up, I discovered that Dorothy Parker’s name was in the credits of The Moon’s Our Home and John O’Hara’s in the credits of He Married His Wife. Other writers worked on those films, too, and perhaps they were the ones who were responsible for what I responded to, but the recurrence of the names of that group of writers, not just on rather obscure remembered films but on almost all the films that are generally cited as proof of the vision and style of the most highly acclaimed directors of that period, suggests that the writers—and a particular group of them, at that—may for a brief period, a little more than a decade, have given American talkies their character.
                                                                from Raising Kane by Pauline Kael

A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing movies and the subject of films that cast Keanu Reeves in a lead role and emerge unscathed came up. Speed was one of the few names that came up.

Then yesterday when I was checking background for a post that mentioned Joss Whedon I came across this:
According to Graham Yost, the credited writer of Speed, Whedon wrote most of the film's dialogue
Whedon, of course, needs no introduction and (with the qualifier that I haven't had a chance to check out Homeland and Game of Thrones) Yost has created my choice for best show currently on TV.


  1. What strikes me about the Kael quote is how genre writing typically has lower standards than "real" writing. As short story writers and novelists, Dorothy Parker and John O'Hara were more than competent but were not giants. But as screenwriters they are excellent.

    I had a similar reaction after reading a Chris Ware story in the New Yorker a few years ago. Chris Ware is great, but if you were to evaluate his story _as a story_ (rather than in comparison to other cartoon stories), it's just OK.

    Good writing, when placed in a "genre" context, can look like excellent writing compared to the rest of what's out there.

    1. Of course, you also have to account for someone like Faulkner. Harlan Ellison observed that for every novelist who could "swing both way," (using Faulkner as an example) there were many others who could never get the hang of writing for other media.

      I suspect genre writers may fare better as screenwriters because in both cases you generally have to work within a more restrictive system of constraints.