With a Shine on My Shoes

“If Mozart had written an opera set in poverty, it might have had this kind of painful beauty.” So wrote Pauline Kael of Vittorio De Sica’s 1946 “Shoeshine,” which has finally been released in a decent region one disc from Entertainment One (though purists will no doubt prefer the region two release from Masters of Cinema). But the film hasn’t aged well, particularly in comparison to the eternally modern work of Roberto Rossellini, and it’s hard from the vantage point of 2011 to know what Kael was responding to. It remains a watchable film, as I write in this week’s New York Times column, but its compromises, sentimentality and aggressive metaphors make it seem a much lesser film than, say, William Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road,” made thirteen years earlier.

Meanwhile, Raro Video has released “Adua and Her Friends,” an intriguing 1960 feature by Antonio Pietrangeli that’s almost impossible to pin down, shifting as it does between wry social observation and romantic comedy, before finally settling into a stunning pessimism that recalls film noir. On the basis of this and “Io la conoscevo bene” (1965), Pietrangeli clearly seems a filmmaker worthy of further investigation. He died in an accident during the making of “Come, quando, perché” in 1969, and the film was finished by the gifted Valerio Zurlini (“Girl with a Suitcase”), a director with a similarly porous sense of genre.

The elephant in the room is Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” and while I’m reluctant to initiate a new flame war, I guess I’ll man up and admit it didn’t alter my sense of Malick’s regrettable decline. Peter Tonguette has a fine piece at his blog that deals with what I would also identify as the film’s most problematic aspect — the frantic, dissociated editing that needlessly fractures the narrative and prevents the emotions (already rather generic) from taking root. But I suspect there are those who disagree . . .

192 comments to With a Shine on My Shoes

  • Thank you, Brian! I think we all need to go gay all of a sudden after all the agonizing this week. But my convictions as a civil libertarian prevent me from naming names!

  • Blake Lucas

    Yes, light humor is good. And Dave, if I missed it a little in your account of that meeting, you must admit that I gamely and manfully owned up to the irony that I would have been in the Pauline Kael voting block. That maybe was the thing that actually rankled me most! Even though I liked the movie, I’m truly glad I wasn’t there to hear her lilting, little voice say “Oh, Good” when it won.

  • Glenn,
    Cinematic vegetables:
    MR BEAN and MRS WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH.
    Also THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR, THE ONION FIELD.
    Two by Ozu: THE BARLEY HARVEST SEASON, THE FLAVOR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE.
    And Roberto Rossellini’s RICE UNIVERSITY.

    (My contribution to light humor :)

  • Didn’t mean to run things off track, just being a little “jocular,” as is my wont. I have not the heart nor time, nor have I done enough digging, to really get into the discussion/defense of “Tree of Life, ” but I will say I have to admit I was less than impressed with Sam Wasson’s piece, which I intuit as a prime example of what I like to call the Marnin Rosenberg School of Film Criticism (see Drew Friedman’s “Warts and All,” specifically the panel reading “Marnin decided to straighten a few of them out…”).

    Look forward to getting into the Losey, about which I believe I can provide something a little more genuinely constructive.

  • Brian Dauth

    Dave: I would never want you to break your convictions (but I am imagining a scene out of the drag competitions I have known: the mother of the House of Xtravaganza urging her children to take on those from the House of LaBeija — though I bet the make-up was better at the drag balls).

    But speaking of FEDORA (like the segue?), any idea when Olive Films might release it or TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING? Or any chance that the two Fassbinder films they just released (DESPAIR was made in 1978) might get Kehr consideration in a future column? (you could tell your editor it was for Gay Pride Month — see how I bring it all together? LOL)

  • I’ve never heard of Sam Wasson, Glenn. What does he have to do with Bertrand Blier?

    Brian, I can assure you the make-up was much better at the House of Xtravaganza than Chez les Paulettes.

  • Barry Putterman

    Brian, I’m wondering if you’ve ever read the Wilfrid Sheed novel “Max Jamison.” The title character is a New York film critic (as, among many other things, Sheed was) and goes into the political infighting and jockeying among his fellows quite nicely. In fact, you will recognize people such as Sarris and Kael as characters in the book under thinly veiled aliases.

    It was pretty common knowledge that Kael had a number of her followers in well placed positions and that they had regular conference calls to discuss new films among themselves before reviews were written. I’ll just say that when I was going to the University of Maryland, our local critic in The Washington Post was a fellow named Gary Arnold, and he was known to be prominent in the Kael clan.

    is that enough critic gossip for the time being?

  • Sorry, Dave, awkward transition; Wasson’s got zip to do with Blier, but he did write that “Terrence Malick should do more interviews and by the way he’s not a POET” piece in L.A. Weekly which some folks on the thread seem to think highly of. Very much in the “why don’t you all grow up?” vein with respect to some of Malick’s more enthusiastic defenders.

    Barry, you should be more careful! I was once on a panel at which a bunch of critics described the time they “got the call” from Kael, and I made a joke to the effect that when my call from Our Lady came, “my mom told her I wasn’t home.” At least one person took this attempted Bob Hope homage rather more seriously than had been intended and chastised me for not showing proper respect to Ms. Kael.

  • Steve Elworth

    Phil Lopate’s rather fair portrait of La Pauline does name names and shows her making calls when Burton’s BATMAN was released. It is in Lopate’s excellent collection. I think it goes into depth on the Kael-Schrader relationship and how she got him a film critic position but he wanted to write his book, screenplays and become a director and she thought he was a traitor.

  • Brian Dauth

    Barry: thanks for the gossip fix and the novel recommendation. All I have to say is: conference calls to coordinate reviews — that is soooooo gay!! (and a bit creepy: “We’re taking the box office on Herzog this week. No support for Fassbinder — his films are not likable” [which she actually wrote]).

  • Gregg Rickman

    Yann, you’re correct (at 4:29 pm above); Kubrick’s films were usually popular. And I understand that of Malick’s films only THE NEW WORLD has lost money. So hard-eyed financiers can see these directors as relatively safe investments. But Kubrick and now Malick also have cultural cachet that in a world of appearances offer status (“priceless” as in that credit card commercial). BARRY LYNDON probably didn’t look like a commercial film and I don’t think DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE NEW WORLD or TREE OF LIFE did either. In terms of how they’re catered to, I was thinking of how the way a studio president supposedly flew to England specifically to gather up a single Kubrick scenario. Or the way both men avoided being forced to do personal publicity (when these days every young striver must have both Facebook, Twitter and a blog in order to establish their place in the cloud). Unfortunately Monte Hellman, say, has never achieved that level of clout, nor have many others.

    The joke Glenn Kenny told on Pauline Kael (““my mom told her I wasn’t home”) is particularly funny as Kael supposedly accused auteurists of living at home with their mothers. You didn’t explain your joke, Glenn. We’ll have to discuss this at our next all-auteurist conference call, when the final decision will be made about recent applications to the Pantheon. We’re afraid you’re not likable enough, Mr. Malick.

  • Brian, I could go on with the Pauline stories all day, but I don’t want to turn this into the House Un-Autuerist Activities Committee. But just one more, OK?

    At the 1980 National Society of Film Critics awards meeting, Hanna Schygulla was gathering a lot of support for the best actress prize for “Marriage of Maria Braun,” something Pauline was very much against. When the late Stuart Byron, a very gifted writer of the auteurist persuasion (and one of the first critics I remember to bring a queer sensibility to popular criticism) innocently volunteered that Schygulla’s heroic performance “reminded me of my mother,” Pauline sweetly replied, “Then your mother must have been a drag queen.”

  • Gregg, the joke was/is on me, kind of; as it happens, when I first started writing rock criticism for the Village Voice, back in the Mesozoic, I WAS living with my mother. Specifically, in the basement of the house she was renting. Christ, good thing there wasn’t an internet then, huh? And no, Kael never actually called. (Serves me right for writing about Peter Blegvad and Robert Wyatt and other not-then-au-courant obscurities.) My mom did take a message from Bob Christgau once or twice though.

  • Barry Putterman

    However, Dave, I’m sure that Pauline said that with all due respect.

  • In a New York Times profile of Andrew Sarris from a couple of years ago, he recounts how he magnanimously invited Kael to his wedding ceremony and she replied, “That’s OK, I’ll go to Molly’s next wedding.”

  • Brian Dauth

    Thanks Dave for the story. Stuart Byron was crucial to my evolving aesthetic when I was in my late teens/early 20′s. One cherished example (among many) of his insight and wit: writing about MOMMIE DEAREST, he began his piece by noting that Faye Dunaway probably resembled Broderick Crawford as much as Joan Crawford. He was also a great champion of Fassbinder, and was the first to blow the whistle on the homophobic aspects of Kael’s writings.

  • Stuart Byron was a gifted auteurist film critic. His piece on Hawks in FAVORITE MOVIES is outstanding.
    Most of Byron’s newspaper and magazine writing is inaccessible today.
    Wish someone would collect it, either in paper print or Internet form.

    Byron wrote a much admired article on Minnelli, I have never had a chance to read.

  • I clipped out all of Byron’s columns from the Voice as they appeared and have them saved in a file, along with his business wrap ups for Film Comment. He also did a terrific essay for New York magazine about the influence of The Searchers on the Movie Brats. I believe that he was working on a history of Variety but died before finishing it.

  • Brian Dauth

    For those who are interested: here is David Walsh’s take on TToL, published today on the WSWS website:

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2011/jun2011/tree-j20.shtml

  • D R

    I suppose the direction this thread has taken would make a little bit of sense if Kael had had an outsized influence on Malick’s reputation. But it appears to not be the case.

  • Barry Putterman

    D R, the conversations here are associative rather than linear. Kind of like THE TREE OF LIFE. And there is your connection.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Kael and her faction and their resistance to Days of Heaven was of major importance at the time. The film seemed just on the verge of breaking out beyond core cities/art houses, but it needed the extra push from critics’ groups (NY/LA/NS for best film) to gain traction at the Oscars, where it failed to get nominated beyond craft categories (and won cinematography). Paramount (because of Barry Diller, who was a huge fan of the film and Malick’s) was waiting to go wider when the nominations came, but when they didn’t (again in large part because of the lack of best film wins), they lost interest.

    Obviously Malick’s and the film’s reputation have survived and flourished, but I’ve never sensed it comes from critics until the reviews for TToL. But the early impact was considerable and detrimental, and if one believes all the anecdotal evidence that Kael’s opinion was followed by a number of major critics, then indeed her influence was outsized.

  • Robert Garrick

    I personally asked Gary Arnold about Andrew Sarris once, and he made it clear that he didn’t have much use for Sarris and that his critical hero was Pauline Kael. There is a fascinating story about Arnold and how he came to be relieved of his duties at the Washington Post, but I don’t think I should repeat it here. Arnold eventually found a job at the other D.C. paper, the Washington Times.

    I always found it odd that Arnold would identify with Kael, because to me he sounded like Sarris, and even vaguely resembled him.

    Back in 1975, while in college, I interviewed Sarris and tried to draw him out on Kael. He said, “Oh, I like Pauline” and pretty much let it go at that. By then he felt that he had won the battle and he didn’t want to make any more headlines.

    In 2000, shortly before she died, Kael was interviewed and said that what the auteur theory “originally meant was that a director conferred value on a film–that if a director was an auteur all of his films were great.” Then Kael said: “It was an untenable theory, and it fell from sight.”

    Well all righty then.

    Kael also said, of the films of the ’30s and ’40s, that “there was nothing personal or exciting in most of these movies.” She did single out Preston Sturges as an exception.

  • D R

    Barry, I understand how conversations work here, but it is wearying–as more of an onlooker than participant–that so much film history of the past five decades seems to somehow boil down to whether or not a film was ruined by Pauline Kael. I mean, I get that she was a terrible person, but she has also, as I understand it, been dead for ten years. The gossipy bashing is wearying, and at this point a little unseemly.

    Furthermore, to say that her backroom resistance to DAYS OF HEAVEN 33 years ago has not taken much of a toll on the film’s lasting reputation is an understatement–and Tom, while the details of its Oscar life are interesting, I’ve never put much stock in the Academy’s tastes (how many wrong turns have they taken over the years?). Malick is still quite influential, in spirit as well as technique, particularly on filmmakers under 40. Ask most of these directors what Kael thought of DAYS OF HEAVEN, and you’ll get a shrug. They mostly don’t know, or mostly don’t care. And so art marches on.

    Beyond that, and this is a big and thorny topic, but what exactly is “middle-brow” about the themes of nature, will, existence, God, etc? “Middle-brow” as a term to me implies pandering, and I just don’t see how Malick could be rightly accused of pandering–pandering to whom, exactly? Is it middle-brow because it’s so baldly ambitious? I honestly don’t get it. Big topics should be on the table, especially in this day and age, when even romantic comedies seem tediously frivolous.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    D.R. -

    I disagree not at all that Oscars don’t convey ultimate value on a film. But they can make a huge difference in a filmmaker’s immediate career (recent example: Kathyrn Bigelow, who is awhirl in topline production options at the moment) as well as the wider issue of how much money in the short term a film makes, which of course can lead to that filmmaker having more opportunities.

    Malick’s 19 year absence from directing of course has other reasons (not all necessarily openly known), but recalling that the Oscar winner that year was the latecomer The Deer Hunter (which actually only played one week in NY and LA right before Xmas and was unseen then until after the nominations came out, buttressed by its critics’ group wins) and Michael Cimino then became the 2nd-time out director du jour (and who knows how influenced he might have been with Heaven’s Gate by Days of Heaven) rather than Malick.

    I was the exhibitor who played the exclusive initial run in Chicago in fall 1978 (we had a great run, aided greatly by strong reviews from Dave as well as Ebert and Siskel – no backlash there). But later when I asked Paramount about a post-10 best list awards season run, and maybe even some 70mm dates, they had lost interest (it did actually play for one week in 70mm in another theatre on its own, but without Paramount advertising). What effect this had on Malick and his options, I don’t know. But it did seem very apparent at the time that his moment has passed and an opportunity (which included Oscar recognition) had been lost.

  • Barry Putterman

    D R, what exactly is your complaint here? That nobody should speak ill of the dead? That posts which don’t relate to film directors under 40 are irrelevant?

    Maybe some people found it wearying to hear the same ground regarding the “big themes” in THE TREE OF LIFE covered over and over again and wanted to move on to another topic. Such things happen with or without your approval.

  • D R

    Tom, have you read the GQ oral history of BADLANDS (it was mentioned here by someone)? It sounds like what did Malick in–or at least what derailed him momentarily–was a surplus of options, and too big a till. Certain powerful people had a great deal of faith in him–weirdly, it might have been a bit too much at the time. Not the easiest situation to sympathize with–if only certain contemporary filmmakers could inspire as much confidence!–but those were the times.

    Also interesting to note that Malick ALWAYS shot obsessively. From the beginning.

    Here’s the oral history:
    http://www.gq.com/entertainment/movies-and-tv/201105/badlands-oral-history

    And Barry: my complaint with the Pauline Kael stuff? Basically, the refrain is boring? It’s irrelevant? It’s nasty? Thought I was clear. And my point about under-40 filmmakers, which I also thought was clear: Kael’s influence simply doesn’t reach them. So, it’s not all bad. As traumatizing as her ill treatment of certain critics’ circles must have been, her influence is limited.

    My question on the “big themes” of TREE OF LIFE was basically addressed to Dave Kehr–not to you, as you haven’t seen the film yet, right? Kehr described Malick’s turn to “big themes” as “middle-brow”–I just wanted to know what exactly that meant. It seems that DAYS OF HEAVEN, per its title, was also concerned with big themes.

    And please, I’m not granting or pulling approval–I’m not sure why you’re positioning me that way. And I don’t think of myself as a “member” of this “group,” just a sometime participant, so…at ease, soldier.

  • Barry Putterman

    Fine D R. You find the Pauline Kael stuff boring. Thank you for sharing that with us. Your question is directed specifically at Dave Kehr. Maybe he will decide to engage you on it. Meanwhile, all who are not involved will move on to other things. Probably Joseph Losey. You are welcome to come along. And if you find that boring too, by all means let us all know about it. We aim to please.

  • Robert Garrick

    You can no more understand Andrew Sarris without Pauline Kael than you can understand Sherlock Holmes without Dr. Moriarty. Kael wasn’t all bad, either; Sarris wasn’t lying (I don’t think) when he said “I like Pauline.” He recognized that in a way, she helped to define him, and she also helped in a perverse way to promote and publicize the auteur theory. Other major critics at the time (Stanley Kauffmann, Bosley Crowther, John Simon, Dwight Macdonald) mostly ignored the Cahiers critics and Sarris. But Kael kept them in the spotlight. I could write the brief for Kael but I don’t want to do that here.

    For those of us who were alive in the 1960s and just starting to learn about movies, this history is anything but boring. Loving film while watching this critical war play out in real time was a galvanizing, and life-changing, intellectual experience.

    For those of you who are less than forty years old, some of this might be tiresome. But it’s important. Just for the record, I also think that Oscar history and box-office history are important. It’s all grist for the mill.

  • D R

    Will do, Barry, and if you ever get around to seeing the Malick film discussed here, do let us know. It’s been out for a month in New York, but we all know how distracting the summer can be, what with all those Kael capsules to mull over. And let me know when you receive my application for group membership…spent many nights on the personal essay.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    The Tree of Life opened in NY/LA on May 28, a good deal less than a month ago, and is still only playing in a small number of cities. The expansion will continue apace and will within the next couple weeks receive a wide US distribution.

    It still hasn’t opened in a number of countries posters here live in, including the UK, Japan and Adrian’s Australia.

  • D R

    Three and a half weeks in New York and LA…I got a C in statistics, granted, but in this case, not TOO far off.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Do you know where Barry lives? I don’t. The film still hasn’t opened in most of the country.

    It seemed that you were being condescending to him for not being an early viewer.

    I used to see most films before they come out. Now I am usually on the Netflix lag (except for screener season or a film that I absolutely need to see, which The Tree of Life was. Had I heard from people with whom I normally track in reactions what they now tell me they thought, I might have waited for this as well.

  • D R

    From prior lurking, I fell under the assumption that Barry lived in New York, but I could be mistaken. And condescension is in the eye of the beholder–it seems to me Barry was policing the thread–Sheriff Putterman–and in the process throwing some pretty thick sarcasm my way, and willfully misunderstanding any points I was trying to make (positioning me as a yawning impatient). Particularly frustrating in this case because he hasn’t seen the film in question, and so would perhaps welcome distractions from it–I don’t personally see the harm in getting a little heated from time to time, and such a thing is inevitable with something like TREE OF LUFE. Of course, I wouldnt insult someone for not having seen the film–don’t even understand how that kind of condescension would work, exactly–and moreover, I wasnt directing things to Barry in the first place.

    It’s a remarkably sensitive thread, that’s for sure. Did Sarris have a category for The Divisives?

  • Tom Brueggemann

    The sensitivity in part becomes of the hurt some of us feel over our disappointment in The Tree of Life, and frustration over not being able to find convincing reasons to change our minds. At least that’s what it is for me.

  • @Tom do you seriously think Malick being “overlooked” in favor of Cimino had anything to do with his absence? From what I’ve read recently (it very well may have been in that GQ article) Malick was granted an unprecedented “trust fund” from Paramount for monthly funds with which to shoot “Q” (the film that, supposedly, ended up becoming “Tree of Life”). Considering that, I can’t hardly imagine his absence had anything to do with being overlooked within the system. Is there a piece of the puzzle that I’m missing here?

  • Tom Brueggemann

    He was not present, but in 1978 that made less difference in the media than presently. That the actors were unknowns probably hurt more. My recollection is that Paramount played on his mysterious absence nicely at the time.

    Days seemed to run counter to the current popularity of people like Altman, Mazursky, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and others who were more in the “present” and all the rest they presented in fashionable attitude. Malick was sort of sui generis and tough to fit in with the fashion.

    The annuity (which I believe was authorized by Diller) was as I recall (this was known shortly after 1978) that he’d get $50,000 a year (which would be worth maybe $150,000 today) to do whatever he wanted (likely meaning living in Paris) and come up with the script for Paramount’s eventual use.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well D R, you are right about one thing. I do live in New York. As for the rest of it, I really wouldn’t even know where to start. But as I said, onward to Losey (and Brown) and may peace be with you.

  • Alex

    I have not read a more incisive statement on Malick’s “Tree of Life” than this one by Geoffrey O’Brien in his summary of his review in the July 14, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books: “Terrence Malick has never shied from grandiosity, and in The Tree of Life more than ever before he risks the humorless and overblown. Into what might in other hands have been the small-scale, melancholy tale—too elliptical even to be called a tale—of the not unusually eventful childhood of a boy in Texas, his two brothers, and his father and mother, he has managed to incorporate the creation of the universe, the origins of life on earth, the age of dinosaurs, and the prospect of future dissolution, with musical accompaniment by the powerful tonalities of Berlioz’s Requiem Mass.” I like the statements seeming ambivalence more than the seeming turn to high summary affitmation that follows, namely, “But he has made an audacious and magnificent film.” But “audacuious” is certainly appropriate, and “magnificenct” is at least ONE more apt term.

    O’Brien’s use of alluisions to “grandiosity,” “the humorless and overblown” and a “small-scale, melancholy tale—too elliptical even to be called a tale” strike do, hower, strike me as most acute, although I’d have signalled high regard for the elliptical, small-scale, melancholy near-tale and clearer displeasure with Malick’s “grandiosity.”

  • Alex, O’Brien’s piece is a rave review of TREE OF LIFE !! ‘Ambivalence’ might be your key note as regards this film, but it’s not his !! (Nor mine, by the way.)

    For those who read French, Stéphane Delorme’s pro-LIFE editorial in the latest CAHIERS DU CINEMA, which is on-line, is also terrific:

    http://www.cahiersducinema.com/Juin-2011-No668,1976.html

    With all due respect to Pruegegmann and Butterman, of course.

  • Alex

    “O’Brien’s piece is a rave review of TREE OF LIFE.”

    Adrian,
    I agree. O’Brien’s review is most straightforwardly regarded as a rave. (It is this, I judge, despite the caveats that wind through the review right down to its conclusion, where O’Brien writes “The Tree of Life is nonetheless not a neat movie. Malick is neither neat nor witty nor dry the way one might want so philosophically ambitious a filmmaker to be. But while I would not rush to read a verbal summation by Malick of his philosophical views, I would burn with irresistible curiosity to see the film of any text he might care to adapt, whether it were Spinoza’s Ethics or the phone book. He does his thinking by means of cinema in its full range of possibilities, and that is at any time a rare spectacle.”)

    What I write is that I find the ostensibly ambivalent introductory statement to the review (at http://www.nybooks.com/) incisive from the opening “Terrence Malick has never shied from grandiosity…” through to the powerful tonalities of Berlioz’s Requiem Mass,” but that I think O’Brien puts too much stress on his “magnificent.”

    In other words, I find the rhetoric of O’Brien’s cautious demur at the outset of the web summary incisive and on target beyond the “the high summary affirmation that follows.”

    I write “most straightforwardly’ a rave because O’Brien’s words can be read as quite canny. For example, his “not a neat movie” and “I would not rush to read a verbal summation by Malick of his philosophical views, I would burn with irresistible curiosity to see the film of any text he might care to adapt” can be read as less an endorsement of the film a great film or masterpiece than one deliverying wonders that O’Biren thinks swamp all else.” I have a very similar vieew of De Palme films, in all of which I find some real plasures, most of which I regard as not very good rush, many of which I regard as puerile junk. I don’t scome down like O’Brien decisievly pro TofL because I find the cosmic aspect of the film pretty much junk, albeit “grandiose” rather than merely “puerile.”

    )Liked the Cahiers review, especially the tactical demurs paralleling O’Briens like “Discréditer The Tree of Life en parlant de kitsch…”)

  • Larry Kart

    “With all due respect to Pruegegmann and Butterman, of course.”

    What a guy.