Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Some Raw Kael


When you're in the game blog game, what you're doing is writing nonfiction where you are describing fictions.

That's also what movie reviewers do--including Pauline Kael, the New Yorker's old critic--widely regarded as the best. Is she? She's interesting, but often wrong and gross. But whatever--either way, she had a way with prose and there's a few RPG-adjacent Pauline Kael lines that will stick with me til my grave.

Her take on Boorman's too-late-to-be-psychedelic Excalibur is about right, spotting its best images for what they are:

When Mordred is fully grown, he wears golden spiked armor and, on his head, a gold gargoyle mask that his own sneering mouth completes. This apparition of evil comes closer to mythological scale than Arthur or Lancelot or Guenevere or any of the others do.
The Dark Ages section, with its armored brutes—they’re like crustaceans tearing each other apart—is a thrilling piece of moviemaking.

Her Time Bandits review not only actually explicitly references D&D, but actually kinda reads like a review of a D&D campaign:

Time Bandits
UK (1981): Fantasy/Comedy

110 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Written by two members of the "Monty Python" group, Michael Palin and the American expatriate Terry Gilliam, who also directed, this surreal adventure fantasy has been conceived as a movie for children and adults. It's about a little English boy who is hurtled from one era to another by a pack of six dwarfs who have stolen The Supreme Being's map of the holes in the space-time continuum, and it's as picaresque as you can get, with Ian Holm as Napoleon, John Cleese as Robin Hood, Sean Connery as Agamemnon, Ralph Richardson as The Supreme Being, who's too busy to get his three-piece-suit pressed, and David Warner, who's a great-looking Evil Genius--he wears talons and a Nixon nose out of a David Levine drawing. (The light shining up from hell makes his nostrils red.) All this seems to do something for the 8-to 12-year-old boys in the audience-the ones known to be very high on d & d (Dungeons and Dragons)-that it may not do for adults, who will probably see and hear a lot of jokes without feeling much impulse to laugh. The whimsical rhythms of the vaudeville-skit humor often seem to be the result of mistiming; the interludes with Palin and Shelley Duvall as wonky sweethearts are especially musty--the two of them seem more amused than the audience. Gilliam has a cacophonous imagination; even the magical incongruities are often cancelled out by the incessant buzz of cleverness. It's far from a bad movie, but it doesn't quite click together, either. The director doesn't shape the material satisfyingly; this may be one of those rare pictures that suffers from a surfeit of good ideas.

"Suffering from a surfeit of good ideas" that haven't been satisfyingly shaped and wasting "magical incongruities" is definitely how you feel trying to wade through all the RPG material that's been put out over the years. And many is the GM who has piled on another goblin when theres too much going on to fully freak everyone out with the one they already have.

...though if pulp entertainment tells us anything, it's that the other problem is there are no bad ideas--which Kael alludes to in her review of Godard's kinnnnda heist movie Bande à part.:

It's as if a French poet took a banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines.

 There's a reason Tarantino named his production company after it.

Kael was notoriously hard on Stanley Kubrick's films--not dismissive, but still hard--but she had a way of moralizing about their creepiness that only made them seem more unique:

She said cyberless-punk classic A Clockwork Orange might be "....the work of a strict and exacting German professor who set out to make a porno-violent sci-fi comedy."

On Barry Lyndon, the greatest treasure-trove of D&Dable NPCs in the history of cinema, Kael opines: "The film says that people are disgusting but things are lovely."

Fair enough, but look at those sheep, neither people nor things.

She made the same mistake with Blade Runner--her Nexus 6 eye identifying everything about the film's virtues except for the fact that that's what they were:

"Ridley Scott isn’t great on mise en scène—we’re never sure exactly what part of the city we’re in, or where it is in relation to the scene before and the scene after."

Spoken like a true Manhattan bumpkin just dropped off in downtown LA.

Noir is mystery and mystery means you don't know where you are, or why. Even gamers know that--that's why even though D&D is all about maps, Call of Cthulhu isn't. It's also why Manhattan--the orderly little isle of named neighborhoods and numbered streets--isn't where Hammett or Chandler lived.


At other times, Kael's descriptions are like the stylish picture on a disappointing VHS box--they evoke way more than the thing she's reviewing.

Her take on Vampire's Kiss-- "This may be the first vampire movie in which the modern office building replaces the castle as the site of torture and degradation."

That is 100% a Demon City mini-campaign. Or Call of Cthulhu if you don't have 20 bucks.

Same for this stray shot from her review of Octopussy:  "The picture doesn't deliver on the chic perversities suggested by the inelegant title (and some of the decor)."

I don't know what would, but I know James Raggi would publish it.

For more chic perversity, here.





Matt said...

I'd never heard of Pauline Kael before this. Now I want to know more. Both Boorman's Excalibur and Gilliam's Time Bandits were just two of the (in our view) essential films you had to indulge in if you were a fan of D+D and First Edition Warhammer. Reading her words makes me want to dig out these classics and watch them over again. At the same time, it's now sad to know that she passed away in 2001 - such sharp insight would have been welcome right now when aimed at some of the dross churned out by both the American and British film industries. (I've just searched to see if she ever reviewed my other favourite John Boorman film, 1974's Zardoz. Unfortunately it doesn't seem the case!).

Floatyboats said...

The subtle aesthetic feud between Eternal New York and Eternal Los Angeles, and the proponents of both, fascinates me.
Even if I can't really define it in a particularly clear way.

Zak Sabbath said...


she did review Zardoz


NY vs LA:

1. Industries in both overlap, so everyone with a classic career in either place will be asked if they want to move to the other one, sooner or later. So we all have to make a mental list of why we chose one over the other.

2. New York is commentary capital of the world

3. LA is mythmaking capital of the world

4. Thus New Yorkers will often (see Kael) be asked--sometimes for money, to comment on LA.

5. Myths aren't true. Journalists--ideally--seek truth.

6. Thus the industries that dominate these places are either:
-in competition for the same work and personnel
-in opposite industries (newspapers vs mythmakers)

7. New Yorkers justify the bad weather and superficial unfriendliness of their city with reference to its Realness

8. Angelenos justify the superficiality and thoughtlessness with reference to how fun it is

9. So: opposing industries and value systems being forced to occupy the same space and talk to and about each other.

Matt said...


I'm enjoying reading through her reviews you linked. Though she pretty much destroys the film (Zardoz), she has a great style and sharp insight. Again, thanks for posting.

Zak Sabbath said...


glad you're enjoying