I just came across this youtube clip from 2011, of a wonderful New York Film Festival panel to celebrate the publication of Brian Kellow’s biography ‘Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark‘…
It’s great fun if – like me – you’re a fan of Kael’s writing. Camille Paglia, David Edlestein and James Toback are on particularly fine form. Not only entertaining and informative (just as Kael herself was), I think this nails – almost accidentally – Kael’s problem with/aversion to the work of Alfred Hitchcock (and probably Kubrick too).
Kael always had a blindspot for Hitchcock. His movies weren’t for her. Paglia, Edlestain etc al discuss this in the latter parts of the panel, offering a number of reasons as to why, but also raising a few qestions about it… she didn’t like Hitchcock, but she loved De Palma, and raved about DRESSED TO KILL, perhaps his most overt hommage to Hitch’s ouvre.
The panel doesn’t nail it off the bat. But with a follow up question in which Paglia tears into Meryl Streep (as Kael herself had done), they identify what it was that Kael (and Paglia) did not – and do not – like in Streep’s performances: it’s planned. It’s over rehearsed and carefully thought out, and you can see it. It’s an act in the sense that it typifies a certain falsity.
Where cinema at it’s greatest is alive and sensuous, Streep is intellectual and cold. Her performance, for all it’s technical precision, is dead behind the eyes.
This is what I think Kael deplored in Hitchcock too, but LOVED in De Palma. De Palma may have learned some moves from Hitch, but De Palma’s cinema is always alive. In motion. Of the moment. He connects to society and culture and the art of his chosen medium. He has to, because De Palma’s primary mode is satire. He’s playful. His camera moving and alive, sinuous and sensuous; dancing with the actors and through his sets. His cinematography is lush, and hot, and vivid.
De Palma comes alive in the moment; in the making. It doesn’t exist until he shoots it. it isn’t ‘real’ until he’s rolling film on living bodies, people in action, satirising their action/context with his camera.
For Hitchcock the shooting was a formality. An excercise. The film lived in his mind. It was dying from the moment he turned film, each shot a compromise to what he could imagine. The films were rarely connected to the culture the way De Palma’s are. They’re planned, precise, and sometimes (I like them too much to say ALWAYS) cold. Empty…
Dead behind the eyes.
In talking about Hitchock, Kael and Streep, I realised also why it was that I have problems with some of Hitchcock’s films – and much as I genuinely love Hitchock, some of his most celebrated movies leave me cold.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST in particular is hollow. I’m bored when I watch it. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth and a sickly emptiness in my stomach, the way that artificial sweetners do.
For all that Cary Grant is having a pretty good time up there; for all that isolated seqences are masterful (when watched in isolation I still find them thrilling) they’re drained by what surrounds them. The movie is an excercise. Hollow and empty. There’s nothing of LIFE in it. It’s dead behind the eyes.
And I think THAT is what Pauline didn’t like in Hitchcock’s films. Even at their best, there was that element.