Saturday, July 20, 2013

Weekend blogging -- Kael on Directors

From Trash, Art, and the Movies by Pauline Kael
The craftsmanship that Hollywood has always used as a selling point not only doesn’t have much to do with art—the expressive use of techniques—it probably doesn’t have very much to do with actual box-office appeal, either. A dull movie like Sidney Furie’s “The Naked Runner” is technically competent. The appalling “Half a Sixpence” is technically astonishing. Though the large popular audience has generally been respectful of expenditure (so much so that a critic who wasn’t impressed by the money and effort that went into a “Dr. Zhivago” might be sharply reprimanded by readers), people who like “The President’s Analyst” or “The Producers” or “The Odd Couple” don’t seem to be bothered by their technical ineptitude and visual ugliness. And on the other hand, the expensive slick techniques of ornately empty movies like “A Dandy in Aspic” can actually work against one’s enjoyment, because such extravagance and waste are morally ugly. If one compares movies one likes to movies one doesn’t like, craftsmanship of the big-studio variety is hardly a decisive factor. And if one compares a movie one likes by a competent director such as John Sturges or Franklin Schaffner or John Frankenheimer to a movie one doesn’t much like by the same director, his technique is probably not the decisive factor. After directing “The Manchurian Candidate” Frankenheimer directed another political thriller, “Seven Days in May,” which, considered just as a piece of direction, was considerably more confident. While seeing it, one could take pleasure in Frankenheimer’s smooth showmanship. But the material (Rod Serling out of Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II) was like a straight (i.e., square) version of “The Manchurian Candidate.” I have to chase around the corridors of memory to summon up images from “Seven Days in May”; despite the brilliant technique, all that is clear to mind is the touchingly, desperately anxious face of Ava Gardner—how when she smiled you couldn’t be sure if you were seeing dimples or tics. But “The Manchurian Candidate,” despite Frankenheimer’s uneven, often barely adequate, staging, is still vivid because of the script. It took off from a political double entendre that everybody had been thinking of (“Why, if Joe McCarthy were working for the Communists, he couldn’t be doing them more good!”) and carried it to startling absurdity, and the extravagances and conceits and conversational non sequiturs (by George Axelrod out of Richard Condon) were ambivalent and funny in a way that was trashy yet liberating.
On a related note, I read The Manchurian Candidate not that long ago and I was struck how faithful the movie was (the original, not the incredibly pointless remake), but also how much more restrained it was. The book was a full bore, pitch black, satiric farce. There is simply no way you could have gotten the sexual content (including an explicit incest subplot and a wartime incident that plays like something conceived by the Farrelly brothers) under even a fading Hays Code. More importantly, in 1962 the red scare was still fresh enough that no major studio film would have had the nerve to take the central joke as far as the book did and leave no doubt about who these murderous, sexually deviant communists agents were supposed to be.

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