Pauline Kael is one of America’s best-known and controversial film critics. Her reviews in The New Yorker and her many books take delight in upturning conventional wisdoms, particularly about Hollywood and its “mediocre” films. Preferring films which emotionally confront and disturb an audience, Kael has promoted directors of independent spirit and obsession. It is not surprising her favorite Australian director is Fred Schepisi.
In the following interview, conducted by Sue Mathews as research for “American Movies, Australian Dreams”, a radio series produced by Mathews and Peter Hamilton, Kael discusses recent Australian films and, not surprisingly, offers some startling opinions.
by Sue Mathews
In one of your reviews you describe My Brilliant Career as being “essentially taxidermy”. What do you mean by that?
It is a Victorian or post-Victorian novel told in its own terms. It is very much a feminist princess fantasy because the girl has nothing to recommend her but her charms and wit, yet everybody wants her. Prince Charming wants her to be his wife but she says no, she’s going off to have her career. I didn’t know women novelists had more experience by not marrying; I rather thought they would have a good deal more.
We have no sense of what her life is going to be. It is a 16-year-old girl’s vision of the life of an important artist. That is partly why it was so successful here. It would be very difficult for Americans to take simple-minded American films, but when you get a beautifully-crafted Australian one, which is essentially an old-fashioned romance, it is easy for people to lull themselves into thinking they’re getting something new.
By “taxidermy”, I mean the same kind of nicely-crafted thing that you get in Masterpiece Theatre, which has a great following with the same people who go to art houses to see Australian films.
What’s wrong with well-crafted films?
There’s no essential excitement in them. The great thing about films is that they can break through academic barriers and take us to places that books can’t. They can really excite and involve us. Australian films arc like reading an old-fashioned novel.
I think there is an audience which is frightened of American films, because the emotions often are raw; they are not pre-digested. It is often true that the most honored films in this country are those in which the emotions are pre-digested, such as On Golden Pond and Ordinary People. There’s no sense of discovery. It’s all laid out.
When Australians take a novel, and just carefully and faithfully follow it, they are giving you a predigested experience. They make no discoveries. Well, that’s not what real filmmaking is about. It is about finding meanings as you go along and being open to the possibilities that the actors bring; it is about keeping the process alive. That is why I like Robert Altman’s films so much. You have a sense of self-fulfilment in the film itself. I think you get this sense with only one Australian director, Fred Schepisi.
And yet his films also have a straightforward, narrative structure . . .
Sure. But his films are full of personal obsession. You can feel it in The Devil’s Playground and perhaps a little less so in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, though the film is magnificent anyway. The way he uses landscape is very sensual; there is a way he looks at faces. It doesn’t come from the book. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is a marvellous novel, but it has a totally different sensibility. When you see a Schepisi film you are responding to his sensibility. When you see Bruce Beresford’s The Getting of Wisdom, you are responding to a craftsman’s view of something that is already finished.
In your review of one Schepisi film, you praise “the sanity’* of the way he presents his characters. What is the difference between that sanity and the carefulness of a Bruce Beresford?
His sanity is a sense of proportion, a wonderful sense of what is due people. People in his films can do some terrible things but you don’t sec them as villains; you see them in terms of what made them do those things. Take, for example, the minister in Jimmie Blacksmith. By the end, it is really his tragedy because he knows that he is responsible for what happened to Jimmie.
With other directors, it is very often pedantry, a learned thing, whereas with Schepisi it is a found thing. You feel that he is realizing his own vision. It is a great gift.
Jean Renoir also had this kind of balance and sanity. He never melodramati/cd people and turned them into monster villains.
The wonderful thing in Jimmie Blacksmith, which keeps it from being just an ideological film, is that you feel for each of the characters. They’re wonderful. The schoolteacher, for example, who could have been made to appear horrid, is quite heroic in his own terms.
You have criticized Chariots of Fire for being “the best Australian film made in England” and for what you call “its technological lyricism”. What’s the difference between that and Schepisi’s visual lyricism?
With Schepisi, I never feel the technology is what makes his lyricism possible. In Chariots of Fire, every race is lyriciml and the characters don’t mean that much to you. It is set up so that you want the two men to win and, when they finally do win, the audience is meant to feel good. But the values inside that film arc very old fashioned. That is why it can open so easily to a wide audience; it doesn’t upset people in any way. Good films tend to provoke a certain amount of resistance. They bug people because they tend to shoot you off in ways you didn’t know about. They make you feel things in a way that you hadn’t quite experienced before.
Several recent films I have liked are Shoot the Moon, about which a lot of people are arguing, point by point, and Pennies from Heaven, which has a certain audacity that disturbs people. People think it is cynical, whereas it is perhaps one of the least cynical films around.
Then there is a film like Personal Best, which deals with women athletes. You can feel the director’s obsession: he really loves those women. The camera seems to be carrying out the director’s infatuation.
In Australian films, you never have that sense of personality behind them, with the exception of Schepisi. Bruce Beresford is, for me, perhaps one of the most academic of directors. There is a certain gloomy, clumsy fidelity in his work. The sheer lack of imagination is perhaps his greatest weapon.
Yet, it is precisely a notion of integrity or authenticity that people seem to be responding to in Australian films . . .
Australian films are new and almost always set in the past. If they were set in contemporary circumstances, people would view them very differently.
Now, it is understandable that Australians, who have not had a strong cinema movement for many years, want to go back to their roots and see how Australia became what it is now. But I don’t think they’re showing that. They’re showing us what the Victorian novelist thought was going on.
Will you be more interested in the contemporary Australian films as they are released?
W’cll, The Last Wave is contemporary. but it is preposterous also. That is certainly not what I mean.
Yes, I would love to see films set in contemporary circumstances, because it is very exciting to see a new culture revealed. And one of the things that is wonderful for us in your films is the sense of the landscape, which is so different from our own. Now the little film Strange Behaviour (Dead Kids], which was shot in Australia [New Zealand), although it pretends to be set in this country, was great fun because the light is so different. I must say I enjoyed the film. For a little horror movie, it was very well done.
Do you get that sense of the landscape from other Australian films?
Oh yes. My Brilliant Career is very beautifully shot, and Don McAlpine is a fine cinematographer. Most Australian films arc terribly well done, including Caddie. Even there, and it is in period, we have a sense of a civilization different from our own. You see the pubs and the working-class districts, and they arc a little more interesting than the country estates. W’c have had an awful lot of the country-estate-approach-to-life in American films, 40 or >0 years ago.
How do you respond to the parallel made between the Australian cinema and the films of the old West?
I think they are very different. The Australian films are made, in general, with a high degree of craftmanship, self-consciousness and awareness, whereas the old Westerns were thrown together. They were shot quickly by people who didn’t think too much about what they were doing. The Westerns that were carefully planned, like those by John Ford, have a different ambience, of course. But much of the appeal of the Westerns was simply the quick shooting and the easy assumptions about bad and good men. and virtuous women.
I suppose the nearest to an American film I have seen from Australia was the little soft-core porno film, Alvin Purple, which is like a lot of cheap American exploitation films.
Most of the serious films have been rather laborious, careful restagings of the past, and done very honorably. Certainly people learn a lot of skills when making those films. But after that, you arc interested to know, “What are they going to do with those skills? Can they use those skills on contemporary material?”
Contemporary films have been made, but for some reason the period ones gel released in the U.S. What is it about the American audience that leads distributors to make those choices?
There are many different kinds of American cinemas, and generally a film from Australia has to open at an art house. The people who go to them are often the same people who go to very respectable French films or went to the very respectable Czech films 10 years ago. It is an audience which was basically trained on the theatre. They do not like the very qualities in films that make film hounds love them. It is not the audience which is going to go see what I thought was possibly the best American film of last year. Blowout, by Brian de Palma. That art house audience doesn’t like violence or anything emotionally affecting, unless those emotions arc very carefully controlled, as in Kramer vs Kramer, where they’re practically refined out of existence.
There is a security in a certain kind of film for an audience, and “Australia” is almost like a seal of good housekeeping on a film. If a young man goes out on a date, it is safe to take a girl to an Australian film, just as it is safe to go to Cousin, cousine or a Claude Lelouch film. These are films with a certain date appeal, because a film that is terribly exciting can be upsetting to people out on a date.
Surely there were a great mans French and Czech films that didn’t have that comfortable quality . . .
Well, look at Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro, which played at one theatre in New York for a year. That film is not only set in the past, it is also so careful. It is the cleanest view of the Nazi era I have ever seen. It seems the only terrible thing the Nazis did was to come late to the theatre and disturb the actors. There is no real passion in that film; no real excitement.
Take also The Woman Next Door, the new Truffaut film, which is enjoying a very long run. It is like a very’ carefully-made television show. There’s nothing in it. It is very dull technically, and you can hear the dialogue any night on television. But it is in French and it has a little bit of panache because Truffaut made it. The name of Truffaut is almost a guarantee that the film is not going to upset you. He makes you feel comfortable.
Well, I don’t go to the cinema to be made to feel comfortable. I go to sec something different and exciting.
Do you think that there is a tendency for Americans in general to have a fairly parochial view of culture?
No, sometimes Americans will rise to the occasion and go for something that is genuinely new and has social vision. Films like On the Waterfront, and the James Dean and early Brando films all spoke for a rebellious mood in the country, and the public responded well.
Also, you must remember that cinema-goers are not the same people they were 20 or 30 years ago. The people who go regularly now tend to be better educated. They have different expectations and desires to the old mass audience. Unfortunately, kids often respond with more honesty and vigor to good films than an educated audience does.
There is a sense that the Australian films fill a sort of gap. In Hollywood you seem to have either films that deal with disillusion, where the heroes are battling cynicism as their primary enemy rather than evil and adversity, or you have the simple, moral fables along the lines of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark . . .
That’s right. There is a gap, and it developed because of the Vietnam War, which tore up American culture and Americans’ view of themselves. American films became more cynical and knowledgeable, and people fled for escape to the European and the Australian films. That is very interesting because people used to go to foreign films for greater realism, particularly in terms of sex.
American films have simply not been the same since the 1960s. The change in American life affected our writers and directors profoundly, just as it affected almost every thinking person in the country. But it became too much for people who are worried about going out of their houses for fear of being mugged. They certainly don’t want to go sec a film that mugs them, and that’s how they feel about a lot of American films. The violence and the emotions simply overpower them, and they want to relax. And you can relax with a 19th Century story very beautifully.
It has been suggested that what we are seeing, especially in these 19th Century films, is some sort of new frontier. Do you have that sense at all?
No, truthfully. What we see is a culture that in some ways is plagued by problems similar to our own, although you have your Aboriginals so tucked away in some of the films that they’re not very visible. In some films, they are not visible at all.
You also have a huge, rough country that was settled by people who weren’t exactly nobility. The people who went to Australia arc very much like the people who came to the U.S. We are all aware of what we are descended from. We are people who are outcasts, exiles or bums, people with the excitement of going to a new place.
One of the things that is appealing about Australian films is that while they are very traditional in a lot of ways, there is a new sort of hero. The macho, sexist male has disappeared to some extent, and there is a greater degree of vulnerability and sensitivity . . .
Well, that is true in American films, too. There is a fear of showing the real conflicts. For example, a film like Kramer vs Kramer is a con job from the start. You have a husband who is so much like the child that of course he has to end up with him. If you had had a tougher male figure, the audience might not have been nearly so soft in its feelings.
At the start of the film the wife is so unhappy. What is she unhappy about? It isn’t really clear, except that she hasn’t found her own fulfilment. Well, when fulfilment is finally described to you, it seems that it is working for one of the women’s magazines as a graphic artist of some kind. I don’t really think that’s very fulfilling. Rationally, we know that an intelligent, gifted woman with a child is able to find some work at home, or is able to work part-time.
In that marriage there had to be some sexual tension and confusion, but none of that was spelled out. It simply became a tribute to the new wonderful male who wants to be a full parent.
That awful word parenting has developed in the language, and it stands for something which I think is essentially a vogue. After all, men were always fathers and a lot of women have worked before.
Well, the macho male now is only shown to us in American films as a villain. But we had that as early as Carnal Knowledge. The Jack Nicholson character was a monstrous portrait of the macho male, and he had to lose everything at the end. He had to be a real nothing. Well, a lot of macho men seem to do very well in their lives and careers, and they can be very smart in other areas. The films now tend to show us these men as totally ugly in spirit. They don’t show us a macho man with that as only one aspect of his personality.
What is your reaction to the treatment Of women and women’s issues in the Australian films that deal specifically with those things?
Well, they have been very sympathetic to women’s issues, as in The Getting of Wisdom and My Brilliant Career. But My Brilliant Career is really an absurd situation because the girl flirts with a man for most of the film, and we assume that she is in love with him. She publicly shows jealousy of him, but when he proposes to her she says no and pulls back in horror as if that wasn’t what she had in mind all along. I certainly thought that was what she had in mind.
It is a very confusing film because it doesn’t go into why she was flirting with him all that time. If it wasn’t sexual, what was it? Was she just looking for a friend, as she later claims? If so, she was a very odd, confused and misguided girl. I have never seen such outgoing flirting throughout a whole film and then total rejection. He had a perfect right to think, “Well, what were you teasing me for?’’
One of the things that is happening in the Australian films is that they use 19th Century settings but impose a sort of 20th Century gentility . . .
There is a gentility all right. In the case of My Brilliant Career I think that worked perfectly for the American audience. There haven’t been many feminist films come out of Hollywood, and that film seemed to satisfy every possible feminine fantasy. It shows how this girl by her own innate quality won an elegant man, who is quite a catch, but whom she then didn’t want. I mean, what could be more flattering for adolescent girls than the idea that even when they get the man of their dreams, they say, “No, I shall go out and forge my own destiny.’’?
There is an awful lot of nonsense in that notion. But it is exactly what girls at a certain age want to believe, and I fear what a lot of women who should know better want to believe. Hence the enormous popularity of Gothic and love romances in this country.
Well, the women who read those novels would find the same kind of pleasure in seeing My Brilliant Career because it says, “By my own superiority I can do anything.” And, finally, the girl is so superior she has no sex needs either.
You have chosen not to see a couple of Australian films. Is this a permanent state of affairs?
I hope so. I live in a country town which has a very good cable system. Often films that I couldn’t face seeing in a theatre I can watch at home on television. I have a good set in the kitchen and, while I’m fixing vegetables, I don’t mind watching these films.
At a certain point, for example, I decided I was not going to waste an evening seeing another film by Michael Winner. I simply hate what he does and there is something that offends me in his work.
I also don’t rush to see a John Alvidsen film because I think he’s a buffoon as a director.
So, you develop certain kinds of instincts for what you want to see. I would like criticism to be a pleasure; I don’t want it to be a duty. If you flog yourself to cover things as a matter of duty, you turn into a hack.
Do you intend to sec some of the new Australian films?
Well, it all depends on what they are.
How will you decide?
If you know who the director is and what his work is like, you can usually judge from the publicity material.
What about a film by a new director?
Well, I would almost always sec a film of a new director because you just can’t judge anything about a film if you haven’t seen some of the director’s work. But I have seen 20 films of some directors, and you gel a pretty good sense of what you are going to get in the twenty-first, although every once in a while a director totally surprises you. I was completely surprised by Alan Parker’s work in Shoot the Moon, for example. I had seen his previous three films and could not have guessed he would direct it as effectively as he did. It was only when I saw a photograph of him and his family, and realized how close they looked to Albert Finney and the children in Shoot the Moon, that I made the connection.
Are you aware of pressures from distributors as a member of the press? Are you courted by them?
They have given up on me. They gave me a very bad time when I was younger. They barred me from screenings because they couldn’t count on me for the reviews they wanted. It was difficult for me to write a review because I had to go to the theatre the first day a picture opened. Fortunately, I am a very fast writer.
The way they generally put pressure on critics is through the advertising department. The loss of theatre advertising has been a considerable factor in the collapse of certain American newspapers. But I am lucky enough now to work for a magazine that is sufficiently independent not to be concerned about me costing them advertising. But I have worked for other magazines where the loss of that advertising was significant enough for them to let me go.
Given the crucial nature of the reviews that a foreign film gets, how does that make you feel as a reviewer?
Well, if I don’t like a foreign film, I tend not to review it. There are plenty of big, bad films that you can kick in the head. So I won’t review a foreign film that doesn’t stand much chance. You use your discretion.
I do the same thing with small American films; if I don’t like them. I don’t review them. It is just too unpleasant to be hard on somebody who is having a rough time anyway.
What do you think the place of foreign films in the American cinema scene is, or should be?
Well, it should be even larger than it is; American films go all over the world, yet we don’t see enough foreign films here. There was a period when Japanese films were very popular, but that died away. A lot depends on a single distributor. For a while, we saw a great many Italian films and Indian films because Edward Harrison distributed them. When he died, there was nobody quite in his position.
Two or three people will make a difference to whether a national cinema is imported.
As you know, a critic can do only so much. You can give all your space in a magazine to an Indian film, but unless that distributor has the wherewithal to publicize a quote from your review, then next week people arc going to forget what you wrote.
It seems strange in a way that the U.S. has for 50 years been the world’s biggest exporter of popular culture and films, hut seems to import very little . . .
Maybe it is related to the fact that the greatness of American films is their crude vitality, and that Americans trained on that have a harder time adjusting to films from abroad which have a much slower rhythm and a different temperament. But, the people who were trained on those American action films now sit at home watching television, and newer generations and older people want something that seems more cultured. So they often reject American films, which are caught in the middle. Sometimes wonderful action films don’t have anything like the audience they should in this country.
There’s an interesting line in Wim Wenders’ “King of the Road” about American culture: “They colonized our sub-conscious” . . .
I think that’s true. When I meet foreign directors I am often amazed at their over-evaluation of Hollywood. They feel like stepchildren of the Hollywood industry. They want desperately to work there, because for them that’s real filmmaking, whereas what they do in Europe or South America is just playing around. They want to help colonize the world. They don’t realize how bad a lot of Hollywood filmmaking is in its effect. But even when they realize that, they still want to be in Hollywood because it represents glamor and excitement to them.
Cinema Papers, October 1982