THE WOMAN WHO LOVES GIRAFFES (Alison Reid, 2019)
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Opens Friday, January 10
Before Jane Goodall went to Tanzania to study chimpanzees and Dian Fossey headed to Rwanda to study mountain gorillas, Canadian biologist Anne Innis Dagg was in South Africa, studying giraffes. Her delightful yet infuriating story is told in Alison Reid’s The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, which opens January 10 at the Quad, where the eighty-six-year-old Dagg will participate in Q&As with Reid at six screenings on Friday and Saturday. Dagg fell in love with giraffes when she was three and first saw them at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. In 1956, when she was twenty-three, she set off for the Fleur de Lys ranch near Kruger National Park. That trip was quite a victory, based on a bit of subterfuge; in her application to manager Alexander Matthew, she didn’t identify herself as female because she had been previously rejected by many other locations that claimed that “Africa is no place for a young woman.”
She spent a year taking meticulous notes on the social and sexual behavior of giraffes, essentially making up her methods as she went. “No one had ever really studied an African animal in the wild, or pretty well any animal in the wild,” she says in the film. “So I was sort of breaking ground without realizing it.” But when she returned to Toronto, Dagg, the daughter of a university professor father and an economic historian mother, both of whom were widely published writers, was met with a frightening amount of misogyny in the scientific and education communities; she failed to get tenure or other prominent teaching positions, which led her to become a feminist activist in the 1970s. “She ran into the old boys’ network and I think it destroyed her career,” says former University of Guelph professor Sandy Middleton, the only member of the tenure committee that supported Dagg. All these years later, the head of the committee, former dean Keith Ronald, still adamantly defends his decision against Dagg.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Dagg, who uses “giraffe” as both a singular and a plural, reentered the giraffe fold, mainly because of women such as San Francisco Zoo curator Amy Phelps, who says, “I was the little girl that that woman was a hero for, and so it was really important to me that we be able to find her. . . . We were searching for Anne because we really didn’t know if she was alive.” Reid follows Dagg as she is celebrated at the Giraffe Care Conference in Arizona, then goes back to Africa for the first time since the mid-1950s to attend a Giraffe Indaba near Fleur de Lys, bringing her daughter, Mary, with her. Reid and editors Mike Munn and Caroline Christie heartwarmingly intercut footage Dagg took in 1956, photographs and 16mm film, with new scenes of her in the same exact places. Reid also includes narration of Dagg’s extensive letters and writings — she’s written more than twenty books, most importantly The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior, and Ecology, considered the bible on the subject — with the voices of Tatiana Maslany as Dagg, Victor Garber as Matthew, David Chinchilla as Anne’s husband, Ian, and Lindsay Leese as Dagg’s mother, Mary Quayle Innis.
The previously little-known Dagg — who in 1965 stumped the To Tell the Truth panel, a clip of which begins the documentary — revels in her newfound semicelebrity and has delved right back into her research. “I always wanted to be a scientist,” she says. The documentary has an inconsistent pace and treacly music, but it’s a thrill watching Dagg look back at her past as she heads into the future; it’s also hard not to think about what could have been had she not been thwarted time and time again because of her gender.
KUNG-FU MASTER! (LE PETIT AMOUR) (Agnès Varda, 1988)
Film at Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. between Eighth Ave. & Broadway
Monday, January 6, 9:15
Series continues through January 8
Film at Lincoln Center’s “Varda: A Retrospective” continues January 6 with a real family affair, Agnès Varda’s curiously compelling 1988 drama Kung-Fu Master!, the French title of which is the more appropriate Le petit amour, or “The Little Love.” Written by Varda and English actress, model, and singer-songwriter Jane Birkin from Birkin’s idea, the film stars Birkin as Mary-Jane, a divorced forty-year-old woman living with her fourteen-year-old daughter, Lucy, portrayed with wide-eyed innocence by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Birkin’s real-life daughter with French superstar Serge Gainsbourg, and her younger child, Lou, played by Lou Doillon, Birkin’s daughter with French director Jacques Doillon. Mary-Jane falls in love practically at first sight with one of Lucy’s classmates, fourteen-year-old Julien, portrayed by Mathieu Demy, Varda’s son with French auteur Jacques Demy. Birkin’s parents, actress and playwright Judy Campbell and fine artist and actor David Birkin, play Mary-Jane’s mother and father, while Birkin’s brother, screenwriter Andrew Birkin, plays her brother. And Varda’s daughter, costume designer, actress, and producer Rosalie Varda, will be at the Walter Reade Theater on January 6 to introduce the screening. Varda often liked to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, but don’t let all that reality confuse you: Kung-Fu Master! is most certainly not a documentary, thank goodness.
Somewhat reminiscent of Bertrand Blier’s 1981 Beau-père, in which thirty-year-old Rémi (Patrick Dewaere) falls for his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter, Marion (Ariel Besse), Kung-Fu Master! treads in dangerous territory, exploring a taboo love, even as it does so with care and sensitivity and a tender performance by Birkin. Mary-Jane is well aware that she should not be considering a relationship with a young boy, but she has a yearning to explore the furthest boundaries of desire. However, her choice of Julien is beyond strange, as he is an ordinary teen, who plays Dungeons and Dragons and the arcade game Kung-Fu Master! and has banal conversations with his peers; he is not some hulking, mature figure who is smart and sophisticated for his age. “I know I won't be around when you start shaving,” Mary-Jane tells Julien. The film also refers repeatedly to the AIDS crisis, which the teenagers are only just learning about and dismiss as somebody else’s problem. Varda never brings the AIDS subplot full circle; perhaps it’s there primarily to emphasize the dangers sex can bring, but she leaves that thread hanging. You’re likely to feel dirty watching Kung-Fu Master!, but you also won’t be able to look away. (Birkin/Gainsbourg fans will also want to check out “Birkin Gainsbourg The Symphonic Starring Jane Birkin” at the Beacon Theatre on March 6, with special guests Iggy Pop and Charlotte Gainsbourg.)
UNCUT GEMS (Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie, 2018)
MoMA, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Friday, January 3, 7:00
Series continues through January 8
“That was manic, pure mania,” the Safdie brothers narrate at the end of a trailer for their latest film, Uncut Gems. You can hear Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie say more about the film, a manic gem, when they discuss it following the January 3 screening at MoMA as part of the “Contenders” series, consisting of 2019 films that the institution believes will stand the test of time. Uncut Gems is a furious, unrelenting movie that sucks you into its claustrophobic frenzy and never lets go. Adam Sandler is a force, reaching new heights as Howard Ratner, a Diamond District dealer with a gambling addiction. He’s deep in debt to Arno (Eric Bogosian), who has sent his two goons, Phil (Keith Williams Richards) and Nico (Tommy Kominik), to make sure Howard knows just how much trouble he is in. His wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), is fed up with him, not in the least because he has an apartment with his mistress, the much younger Julia (Julia Fox), and is not the most reliable father to their children, Eddie (Jonathan Aranbayev, who was discovered on Forty-Seventh St. in front of his parents’ jewelry store), Beni (Jacob Igielski), and Marcel (Noa Fisher).
Howard has a master plan to break free of all his problems by selling a chunk of Ethiopian black opals at an auction, with the help of one of his assistants, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who has lured in Boston Celtics center Kevin Garnett (terrific in his acting debut), who is fascinated by the rare, uncut gems, which sparkle with promise. The last half hour of the film is a brilliant, claustrophobic tour-de-force in which everyone onscreen is physically trapped, just like the audience is pinned to their seats, holding on for dear life. The Safdies, whose father worked in the Diamond District, use a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors as well as famous people playing themselves; the cast includes sports-radio legend Mike Francesa as a bookie, Garment District legend Wayne Diamond as a big-time gambler, Judd Hirsch as Howard’s father, Natasha Lyonne and Tilda Swinton as phone voices, and restaurant owner Nino Selimaj, writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman, actor John Amos, the Weeknd, and others as themselves.
Written by the Safdies (Daddy Longlegs, Heaven Knows What) with longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein, Uncut Gems, which has been in process for ten years, is anchored by a career-redefining performance by Sandler, who previously revealed his significant acting chops in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 Punch-Drunk Love and Judd Apatow’s 2009 Funny People. In a performance that will make you forgive him for The Waterboy, Big Daddy, Little Nicky, and Mr. Deeds, among other silly effluvia, Sandler is a whirlwind throughout the film’s 135 minutes, which fly by. Darius Khondji’s camera is practically glued to him, Sandler’s unshaven, gruff face a character unto itself, Howard’s eyes always at least one step ahead of what’s happening in front of him. He’s a dreamer, and although you can’t not root for him, he is far from a likable hero. He is singlehandedly responsible for the dangerous mess he’s in, whether he admits it to himself or not. But he is also a kind of everyman, peering through the looking glass (in this case, the seductive, multicolored opals in the stone), trying to survive in a hectic, frenetic world that can be overwhelming and spin out of control at any moment. You can’t just sit back, relax, and enjoy Uncut Gems; instead, you can’t help but be fully immersed in its nonstop, feverish intensity. “The Contenders 2019” continues through January 8 with such other recent, well-received as Jérémy Clapin’s adult anime I Lost My Body, Sam Mendes’s WWI drama 1917, and Melina Matsoukas’s Queen and Slim.
TORMENT (FRENZY) (HETS) (Alf Sjöberg, 1944)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Saturday, January 4, 1:30, and Monday, January 6, 4:30
Series runs January 2-19
MoMA explores the treatment of adolescence on the big screen in “Show Me Love: International Teen Cinema,” a twelve-program series that begins January 2 with Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (Two Daughters) and Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love). You won’t find any John Hughes or American Pie flicks on the schedule, which focuses on a more global appeal; the US films in the lineup are Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves, Michael Schultz’s Cooley High, and Gregg Araki’s Totally Fucked Up. On January 4 and 6, MoMA will present Alf Sjöberg’s intense 1944 expressionistic noir, Torment, which had its US premiere at the museum in 1962. Although directed by Sjöberg, Torment, also known as Frenzy, was written by Ingmar Bergman, who also served as assistant director and made his directing debut in the final scene, which Bergman added at the insistence of the producers when Sjöberg was not available. A kind of inversion of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, the film is set in a boarding school where high school boys are preparing for their final exams and graduation. They are terrified of their sadistic Latin teacher, whom they call Caligula (Stig Järrel), a brutal man who wields a fascistic iron fist. He particularly has it out for Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), the son of wealthy parents (Olav Riégo and Märta Arbin) who think he should be doing better in school. One night Jan-Erik helps out a troubled woman in the street, tobacco-shop clerk Bertha Olsson (Mai Zetterling), who is being mentally and physically tormented by an unnamed man who ends up being Caligula. The stakes get higher and the teacher becomes even harder on Jan-Erik when he finds out the young man is having an affair with the wayward woman. When tragedy strikes, Jan-Erik’s soul is in turmoil as lies, threats, and danger grow.
The twenty-five-year-old Bergman was inspired to write his first produced film script by his experience in boarding school, which led to a public disagreement with the headmaster. In a public letter to the headmaster, Bergman explained, “I was a very lazy boy, and very scared because of my laziness, because I was involved with theater instead of school and because I hated having to be punctual, having to get up in the morning, do homework, sit still, having to carry maps, having break times, doing tests, taking oral examinations, or to put it plainly: I hated school as a principle, as a system and as an institution. And as such I have definitely not wanted to criticize my own school, but all schools.” Throughout his career, Bergman would take on institutions, including religion and marriage, but his defiance began with this hellish representation of education, which oppresses all the boys in some way, including Jan-Erik’s best friend, self-described misogynist Sandman (Stig Olin), and the geeky Pettersson (Jan Molander). While the headmaster (Olof Winnerstrand) knows how frightened the boys are of Caligula, he is willing to go only so far to protect them. The opening credits are shown over a dreamlike sequence of Jan-Erik and Bertha desperately holding on to each other, but Torment is so much more than a treacly melodrama, as if Sjöberg (Miss Julie, Ön) is setting us up for one film before switching gears into an ominous, haunting thriller.
Järrel, who played an evil, jealous teacher in his previous film, Hasse Ekman’s Flames in the Dark, is indeed scary as the devious, malicious Caligula, while adding more than a touch of sadness. Zetterling, in her breakthrough role — she would go on to star in such other films as Frieda and The Witches and direct such feminist works as Loving Couples and The Girls — brings a touching vulnerability to Bertha, a young woman who can’t find happiness. It’s all anchored by Kjellin’s (Madame Bovary, Ship of Fools) central performance, so rife with emotion it evokes German silent cinema. Torment suffers from Hilding Rosenberg’s overreaching score, although it is usually offset by Martin Bodin’s cinematography, filled with lurching shadows and deep mystery. The film was produced by Victor Sjöström, the legendary director of The Phantom Carriage, The Divine Woman, The Wind, and so many others in addition to his work as an actor, starring as Professor Isak Borg in another Bergman masterpiece, 1957’s Wild Strawberries, and as the conductor in 1950’s To Joy. “Show Me Love: International Teen Cinema” continues through January 19 with such other films as Jaromil Jires’s Valerie a týden divu (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), Diane Kury’s Diabolo Menthe (Peppermint Soda), Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Tenkousei (I Are You, You Am Me aka Exchange Student), and Claire Denis’s Nénette et Boni (Nenette and Boni).
ASH IS PUREST WHITE (Jia Zhang-Ke, 2018)
Museum of the Moving Image
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Saturday, January 4, 7:00
Series continues through January 12
Museum of the Moving Image curator Eric Hynes and assistant curator Edo Choi look back at the best of 2019 in its annual series “Curators’ Choice,” consisting of a wide range of works from different platforms, from movie theaters to streaming sites. On January 4 at 7:00, MoMI turns its attention to Jia Zhang-Ke, who reaches into his recent past, and China’s, in his elegiac Ash Is Purest White. In the film, the Sixth Generation writer-director’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao, stars as Qiao, a combination of the characters she played in Jia’s 2002 Unknown Pleasures and 2006 Still Life. It’s the spring of 2001, and Qiao is living in style with her handsome, ultracool jianghu boyfriend, well-respected local gangster Guo Bin (Liao Fan). She runs a gambling parlor, where she asserts her power with men who are in awe of her. But when a rival gang attacks Bin and Qiao pulls a gun, their lives take a series of unexpected turns as the story moves first to 2006 and then to 2018, when things are decidedly, and sadly, different for both of them in a China that has changed as well.
As in many of his fiction works, Jia includes documentary elements as he touches upon China’s socioeconomic crisis, primarily exemplified by the Three Gorges Dam project, which led to the displacement of families and the literal disappearance of small communities. Working with a new cinematographer, Eric Gautier, who has lensed films for Olivier Assayas, Walter Salles, Leos Carax, Alain Resnais, and Arnaud Desplechin, among others — his longtime cameraman, Yu Lik-Wai, was unavailable — Jia incorporates general footage he shot between 2001 and 2006 of everyday people and architecture that underscores China’s many changes. There are many gorgeous shots of towns and cities, at one point bathed in white volcanic ash, with costumes of bright yellow, red, and blue, as Gautier goes from digital video to Digibeta, HD video, film, and the RED Weapon camera to add distinct textures. (Jia took the title from what was supposed to be Fei Mu’s last work, which was later made by Zhu Shilin.)
Qiao and Bin try to go back, but little is the same, except for some of their old friends, who are still trying to hold on to the way things were. Zhao (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) is slow and deliberate as Qiao, her wide eyes telling a story all their own as she wrestles with disappointment, searching for some meaning in her life, while Fan (The Final Master; Black Coal, Thin Ice) is bold and forceful as a proud, powerful man who undergoes a radical shift. “The city is developing fast. It’s ours for the taking,” Bin says early on. But in Jia’s moving, heartfelt epic, there’s nothing for them to grab on to anymore. “Curator’s Choice 2019” continues through January 12 with such other gems as Apollo 11, with director Todd Douglas Miller in person; Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé, with editor Alexander Hammer; American Factory, with Julia Reichert, Steve Bognar, and Jeff Reichert; Hail Satan?, with director Penny Lane; and The Hottest August, with Brett Story.
DIAMANTINO (Daniel Schmidt & Gabriel Abrantes, 2018)
MoMA, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Wednesday, January 1, 2:00
Series continues through January 8
The Museum of Modern Art’s annual “Contenders” series consists of films released over the past twelve months that the institution believes will stand the test of time, regardless of how much money it made at the box office or how many awards it might win. On New Year’s Day, MoMA is screening two under-the-radar gems to welcome in 2020. At 2:00 on January 1, you can catch a documentary, foreign-language picture, political thriller, high-tech crime chiller, comedy, romantic melodrama, fantasy and sci-fi, and more — all in one wildly entertaining film. Diamantino, Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s full-length feature debut, is an absurdist multigenre mashup that is as tense as it is funny, an unpredictable romp that evokes Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Michel Gondry, Philip K. Dick, South Park, Cinderella, James Bond, Being There, Minority Report, and Au Hasard Balthazar while feeling wholly original. Carloto Cotta stars as the title character, Diamantino Matamouros, a Portuguese soccer star à la Cristiano Ronaldo (pre-sexual assault allegations) who sees giant fluffy puppies when he is on the field. After botching a penalty kick in the World Cup Final, the stupendously beautiful star learns that his beloved father and mentor (Chico Chapas) has died. His evil twin sisters, Sónia (Anabela Moreira) and Natasha (Margarida Moreira), become his agents and make a secret deal with the mysterious Dr. Lamborghini (Carla Maciel) and a government minister (Silva Joana). Meanwhile, investigators Aisha Brito (Cleo Tavares) and Lucia (Vargas Maria Leite) — lovers who are soon to be married — are looking into Diamantino’s finances and devise a plan to get close to him by having Aisha pose as a male refugee named Rahim who Diamantino adopts as his son.
Everyone except his sisters, who know better, thinks he is some kind of genius mastermind, but Diamantino is actually an addled simpleton who understands very little about life. He enjoyed playing soccer, likes eating Nutella and whipped cream sandwiches, and, following his tearful retirement, hangs out with his cat, Mittens, and dedicates himself to raising Rahim, who he does not realize is actually a grown woman. He’s reminiscent of Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) in Being There, but his airheaded statements — which are outrageously funny — are seldom mistaken for brilliance, except when he’s manipulated into making fascistic political statements he doesn’t understand. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes Critics’ Week, Diamantino is stunningly photographed by Charles Ackley Anderson, who quickly adapts the film’s visual style as it switches from fantasy to love story to futuristic thriller, with numerous memorable shots, including Lucia in a white nun’s habit on a motorbike, Diamantino and Rahim sleeping on pillows with large images of the soccer star’s head, and a huge fluffy puppy playing goal in the championship game. American-born directors and longtime collaborators Abrantes and Schmidt, who edited the film with Raphaëlle Martin-Holger, show a deep love and respect for movies, infusing Diamantino with charm and energy, humor and compassion, honoring, in their own way, the history of cinema. The rest of the cast and crew do their part as well, from art director Bruno Duarte and composers Ulysse Klotz and Adriana Holtz to the Moreira sisters and multidisciplinary Portuguese star Manuela Moura Guedes as television interviewer Gisele.
LITTLE JOE (Jessica Hausner, 2019)
Wednesday, January 1, 5:00
Emily Beecham was named Best Actress at Cannes for her role as a scientist and single mother who creates a different kind of monster in Jessica Hausner’s tense and gripping Little Joe, screening at MoMA at 5:00 on January 1. The Austrian director’s first English-language film was inspired directly by Frankenstein and Invasion of the Body Snatchers while evoking elements of Rosemary’s Baby and Little Shop of Horrors as it plays with horror, sci-fi, teen drama, and other genre conventions. Beecham is Alice Woodard, a plant breeder who is developing a flower she believes can make people happy through its “mood-lifting, antidepressant” scent. She names the new species Little Joe, after her son, Joe (Kit Connor), and even sneaks one plant home for him from the highly secured lab, which is blatantly against the rules.
She works at a science institute — a pristine environment with sterile-looking halls and researchers walking around in white lab coats — with Chris (Ben Whishaw), who has a crush on her, Bella (Kerry Fox), who goes everywhere with her dog, assistants Ric (Phénix Brossard) and Jasper (Andrew Rajan), and their boss, Karl (David Wilmot), who is hesitant to release the plant to the public until rigorous testing proves its safety, even though there’s an important plant show coming up where it would be perfect to introduce it. But after the lovely red blooms start emitting clouds of white spores, first Bella’s dog, then Alice’s coworkers and son, along with his friend Selma (Jessie-Mae Alonzo), begin changing.
Written by Hausner (Lourdes, Amour Fou) with Géraldine Bajard, Little Joe is thick with foreboding, as scenes play out slowly to creepy electronic music by late Japanese composer Teiji Ito, who scored films by Maya Deren. The film is set in a timeless world of brightly lit, vividly contrasting pastel yellows, reds, greens, pinks, purples, and blues that conjure the 1970s but there are cell phones; cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, editor Karina Ressler, costume designer Tanja Hausner (the director’s sister), and production designer Katharina Wöppermann invoke the atmosphere of such cult faves as auteurs John Carpenter and David Cronenberg and novelist Ira Levin — who wrote The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, and Rosemary’s Baby — as Alice soon finds herself fighting against what appears to be a spreading conspiracy, all the while exploring her fears with her understanding psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan). Alice’s bowl-cut red hair is reminiscent of Mia Farrow’s in Rosemary’s Baby (and her last name, Woodard, is similar to Rosemary’s, Woodhouse). Like that classic horror film, Little Joe focuses on the concept of birth and parenthood from a female point of view; even as Alice tries to protect her scientific creation, she is attempting to hold on to her pubescent son as he and his father, Ivan (Sebastian Hulk), become closer. “The ability to reproduce is what gives every living being meaning,” Bella says.
Perhaps the scariest part of the film is how realistic it feels despite its heavily stylized artifice. Hausner consulted with neuroscientist James Fallon, biologist Hanns Hatt, and other experts to research the validity of her plot, particularly in an age where there is global controversy over the efficacy of genetically modified food and animal and human cloning. Beecham (Sulphur and White, Into the Badlands) is superb as Alice, a stand-in for all of us, someone who just wants to bring happiness to the world but, in this case, may not fully understand the price it comes with. “The Contenders 2019” continues through January 8 with such other recent favorites as Uncut Gems, followed by a discussion with directors Benny and Josh Safdie; Sam Mendes’s WWI drama 1917; and Melina Matsoukas’s Queen and Slim.
I would love to read Pauline Kael’s review of Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a documentary about the influential and pugnacious film critic who wrote about movies in her own unique, highly subjective way for nearly forty years. But the California-born Kael passed away in 2001 at the age of eighty-two, and we’ll never know. But in the film, which opens Christmas Day at Film Forum, we do learn about what many of her supporters and detractors, colleagues, fans (known as Paulettes), and targets thought of her. “We’re not talking about film criticism here; we’re talking about Pauline Kael,” explains writer and director Paul Schrader, who referred to Kael as his “second mother” in a 2001 Film Comment essay. “And, in the end of the game, what Pauline Kael promoted wasn’t film. It was her.”
Garver traces Kael’s career from her early days writing (ever-so-briefly) for McCall’s and the New Republic before moving to the New Yorker, where she covered “The Current Cinema” from 1968 to 1991, aside from a six-month hiatus when she attempted to produce a film with Warren Beatty for Paramount. Garver combines new and old interviews with Kael’s home movies and private photographs, television appearances, and narrated clips from her reviews and letters; among those discussing Kael and her work — the two are inseparable — are filmmakers John Boorman, Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, and David O. Russell, actor Alec Baldwin, writers Molly Haskell, Greil Marcus, Stephanie Zacharek, David Edelstein, Camille Paglia, Michael Sgragow, Joe Morgenstern, and Lili Anolik, and, seen in archival footage, Woody Allen, Norman Mailer (who referred to Kael as “lady vinegar”), Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Evans, Jerry Lewis, David Lean, and others. “Pauline could be very combative and very provocative and she could be cruel, for no reason,” Pulitzer Prize winner Morgenstern notes; Lean stopped making films for several years after Kael excoriated him at a luncheon.
We hear a lot from Kael, who split her time between New York City and her country home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, through archival footage as well as narration by Sarah Jessica Parker, who reads excerpts from Kael’s personal and professional writings; in her last review, of Steve Martin’s 1991 film L.A. Story, Kael called Parker a “bouncy nymph.” While she was loathed by plenty of people inside and outside the industry, Kael was also beloved and needed by others. She says, “People don’t tend to like a good critic. They tend to hate your guts. If they like you, I think you should start getting worried.” Marlene Dietrich wrote to her, “I am quite lost without your opinions on films.” Directors such as Wes Anderson would send her their films even after she retired, just to hear what she thought. But her daughter, Gina James, notes, “There are times when people will tell me something that she said to them and I think, that’s impossible, and then I realize they couldn’t have made it up because it is just shocking.”
Garver (Comic Belief, The Man in the Yellow Cap) also includes snippets from hundreds of films; while the clips from such movies as Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, and Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War are effective because they are shown in context with her reviews of those films, the snippets are also overused as punctuation, adding an unnecessary exclamation point at the end of a sentence to drive home a point that is already clear. For example, when Edelstein states, “Pauline would write about something, and you would not only love reading it, but then you would want to see what she wrote about so you could argue with her, or you could relive it with her, you could see it through her eyes,” Garver follows that with a scene from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in which Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle puts his fingers over his eyes as he watches a movie. It might be cute, but it’s also extraneous.
Ultimately, Garver’s main point is that love her or hate her, Kael, who left behind a vast legacy of her writings, including thirteen books (I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and had several unsuccessful relationships with men, changed how we approach film criticism and experience films themselves. “She turned the movie review, which is this kind of flimsy vehicle — it’s a thumbs-up or thumbs-down endeavor — into this expressive art form. I mean, it was as expressive as the short story or the sonnet,” writer Lili Anolik says. Film Forum is hosting several Q&As and panel discussions during the scheduled two-week run, with Garver December 26 and 27 at 7:00, December 28 at 4:30, and December 29 with composer Rick Baitz as well at 2:30, with Zacharek and Monica Castillo on January 2 at 7:00, and with Owen Gleiberman on January 4 at 4:30.