Saturday, November 2, 2013

Weekend blogging -- Kael and the importance of context

Pauline Kael had a rare knack for pointing out things that you never realized had always bothered you, like the way so many analysts of pop culture get things so badly wrong because the lack adequate context and detachment and because they're completely oblivious of these limitations.

I was working on a post on the dangers of writing a serious socio/political essay from a fanboy perspective and I was reminded of the next to last paragraph of the following excerpt from Raising Kane. After I went back and reread it, I decided I needed (had an excuse) to print the whole passage:
In later years, Welles, a brilliant talker, was to give many interviews, and as his power in the studios diminished, his role in past movies grew larger. Sometimes it seems that his only power is over the interviewers who believe him. He is a masterful subject. The new generation of film historians have their own version of “Look, no hands”: they tape-record interviews. Young interviewers, particularly, don’t bother to check the statements of their subjects—they seem to regard that as outside their province—and thus leave the impression that the self-aggrandizing stories they record are history. And so, as the years go on, if one trusts what appears in print, Welles wrote not only Kane but just about everything halfway good in any picture he ever acted in, and in interviews he’s beginning to have directed anything good in them, too. Directors are now the most interviewed group of people since the stars in the forties, and they have told the same stories so many times that not only they believe them, whether they’re true or false, but everybody is beginning to.

        This worship of the director is cyclical—Welles or Fellini is probably adored no more than von Stroheim or von Sternberg or De Mille was in his heyday—but such worship generally doesn’t help in sorting out what went into the making of good pictures and bad pictures. The directors try to please the interviewers by telling them the anecdotes that have got a good response before. The anecdotes are sometimes charming and superficial, like the famous one—now taken for motion-picture history—about how Howard Hawks supposedly discovered that The Front Page would be better if a girl played the reporter Hildy, and thus transformed the play into His Girl Friday in 1940. (“I was going to prove to somebody that The Front Page had the finest modern dialogue that had been written, and I asked a girl to read Hildy’s part and I read the editor, and I stopped and I said, ‘Hell, it’s better between a girl and a man than between two men.’”) Now, a charming story is not nothing. Still, this is nothing but a charming and superficial story. His Girl Friday turned out joyously, but if such an accident did cause Hawks to see how easy it was to alter the play, he still must have done it rather cynically, in order to make it conform to the box-office patterns then current. By the mid-thirties—after the surprise success of It Happened One Night—the new independent, wisecracking girl was very popular, especially in a whole cycle of newspaper pictures with rival girl and boy reporters. Newspaper pictures were now “romantic comedies,” and, just as the movies about lady fliers were almost all based on Amelia Earhart, the criminal-mouthpiece movies on William Fallon, and the gossip-column movies on Walter Winchell, the movies about girl reporters were almost all based on the most highly publicized girl reporter—Hearst’s Adela Rogers St. Johns. Everybody had already been stealing from and unofficially adapting The Front Page in the “wacky” romantic newspaper comedies, and one of these rewrites, Wedding Present, in 1936 (by Adela Rogers St. Johns’s then son-in-law Paul Gallico), had tough editor (Cary Grant) and smart girl reporter (Joan Bennet) with square fiancé (Conrad Nagel). This was the mold that The Front Page was then squeezed into to become His Girl Friday, with Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy (already a favorite square from The Awful Truth) in the same roles, and Rosalind Russell was so obviously playing Adela Rogers St. Johns that she was dressed in an imitation of the St. Johns girl-reporter striped suit.

        Some things that students now, seeing films out of the context of the cycles they were part of, may take to be brilliant inventions were fairly standard; in fact, the public at the time was so familiar with the conventions of the popular comedies that the clichés were frequently spoofed within the pictures. But today, because of the problems peculiar to writing the history of modern mass-art forms, and because of the jumbled circumstances in which movies survive, with knowledge of them acquired in haphazard fashion from television, and from screenings here and there, film enthusiasts find it simpler to explain movies in terms of the genius-artist-director, the schoolbook hero—the man who did it all. Those who admire Citizen Kane, which is constructed to present different perspectives on a man’s life, seem naïvely willing to accept Welles’s view of its making; namely, that it was his sole creation.

        Howard Hawks must wonder what the admiration of the young is worth when he learns from them that he invented overlapping dialogue in His Girl Friday, since it means that they have never bothered to look at the text of the original Hecht and MacArthur play. Welles, too, has been said to have invented overlapping dialogue, and just about everything else in Kane. But unearned praise is insulting, and a burden; Welles sometimes says, “I drag my myth around with me.” His true achievements are heavy enough to weigh him down. Welles is a great figure in motion-picture history: he directed what is almost universally acclaimed as the greatest American film of the sound era; he might have become the greatest all-around American director of that era; and in his inability to realize all his artistic potentialities he is the greatest symbolic figure in American film history since Griffith.
Sidenote: this was also something of a swipe at the writing of  Peter Bogdanovich. Perhaps not coincidentally,  Bogdanovich has since engaged in a decades-long effort to discredit Kael and this essay. See here and here for examples.

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