Classics Reprinted: 5001 Nights at the Movies
by Pauline Kael
Belatedly, almost sheepishly, Picador’s sturdy, gorgeous new reprint of Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies comes lumbering in the wake of a paroxysm of Kael-venerations that recently made its way through the chattering classes like a particularly determined spirochete. Long, adoring profiles appeared in every print and online venue from here to Mongolia, all of them praising both her productivity and her sensitivity – and outdoing each other with ingenious clarifications of how the former never, just never, undercut the latter. The best of these profilers considered it sufficient to write about her punchy, memorable prose and basically leave things at that; the rest sought with increasing desperation for arcs, concerns, and even, God help us, philosophies.The results of such over-reaching were often messy, like trying to make a Faberge egg out of ice cream.
As a movie reviewer, Kael was pure ice cream: irresistible, addictive, and apt to bring on a headache if consumed too quickly. She’d been reviewing movies for thirty years when this 1991 revision of 5001 Nights at the Movies appeared (it’s the size of a Manhattan phone directory, and like the bad old days of Ma Bell, there’s only one operator, and she’s very often in a bad mood), but in this one key way movie-reviewing defies stature: you could be God Herself and The New Yorker still won’t want your review of the new James Bond movie if it’s three weeks late. So generally, even at the height of her fame, Kael had to adhere to deadlines – which, like the prospect of one’s imminent hanging, concentrates the mind wonderfully. There are close to 3000 reviews in this enormous book, and virtually every one of them has at least one great line, one telling quip, one really thought-provoking insight – but there’s hardly any bloated pondering to be found. Usually, Kael simply didn’t have the time for it (and when she wasn’t constrained by time, she was often even more fearfully constrained by space, in the rigid confines of the old “Talk of the Town” column).
The reader benefits, because what’s left is some luminous word-play, an encyclopedic cinematic cross-reference system (the book could practically double as a film studies course – not because our guide was a pedant, but because she was in her youth lonely enough and maladjusted enough to have seen positively everything ever put on film), and, best of all, a vaudevillian delight in performing up on stage.
The mighty and the minor get equal treatment here – even when she was older and more set in her ways, there was very little Kael would refuse to see in principle – and cinema fans will instinctively use the book just as it should be used: hopping around from show to show rather than reading sequentially. Reading sequentially is in fact to be discouraged, since Picador has seen fit to reprint the book with William Shawn’s original Introduction (“When Pauline Kael sits down to review a new film …”) without so much as a new squib from Anthony Lane to give the thing a 21st Century bow.
Instead, it’s an Easter egg-hunt for Kaelisms. About Christopher Reeve in the appalling 1987 film Street Smart, she writes: “… as an actor he’s physically too inexpressive to play inexpressiveness.” While condescendingly bashing the great 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story, she spares a knockout aside for its director, George Cukor, who “has never been more heartlessly sure of himself.” Of the beloved Gene Wilder film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “It’s stilted and frenetic, like Prussians at play.” This kind of stuff ages extremely well.
Of course she was whimsical, in her bitter and determined way. The 1984 Tanya Roberts vehicle Sheena gets three times the verbiage of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for instance, and this is a pattern throughout 5001 Nights at the Movies: if a thing so monstrously over-abundant can have a flaw, the flaw here is a too-close topicality. Actually living and writing in the 1980s is no good excuse for not always seeing how vapid and awful most of that decade’s movies were, and yet every single one of them is dutifully represented in these pages. She thus gives performers like Dustin Hoffman the attention due a serious actors, but such eccentricities are almost counter-balanced by her legendary pottings of uppity actresses.
Her damnings are thorough in the way that only disappointed love can make them. When she digs into the 1986 Tom Cruise movie Top Gun (“a shiny homoerotic commercial”), she reveals exactly the kind of simplicity she hated: “It’s as if masculinity had been redefined as how a young man looks with his clothes half off, and as if narcissism is what being a warrior is all about.” And when examining 1984’s Buckaroo Banzai – specifically John Lithgow’s ultra-hammy turn as the show’s villain – she reveals exactly the kind of simplicity she loved: “White-faced, with bloodshot eyes, dark greenish teeth, and a wild foreign accent, Lithgow’s Dr. Lizardo can make you crazy with happiness.” She’s not seeking your approval, so you tend to approve; she’s not seeking agreement, so you tend to agree. Even after all these years, it’s mesmerizing that she could do this week in and week out without letting the cracks show.
The key was not perversity, although she was often called perverse. Rather, the key was a willingness to chase quality through even the thickest brambles of junk – even if that junk won Oscars. She got to the heart of the matter in a line from her summary of the great 1950 movie All About Eve: “The scriptwriter-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s bad taste, exhibited with verve, is more fun than mousy, dehydrated good taste.”
As always, the key was fun. There’s a philosophy for you.