Saturday Editor’s Pick: Pauline Kael plus Fingers (1978)

by on October 8, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Oct 15 at 7:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Panel discussion following screening of FINGERS


On the occasion of a new biography by Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (reviewed recently by Todd McCarthy), and a Library of America anthology The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, Paulettes, dissenters, and conflicted admirers all unite to once again look back at one of the most undeniably vital voices in American film criticism.


Announced panelists are David Edelstein (Film Critic, New York magazine), Brian Kellow, Geoffrey O’Brien (Editor in Chief, Library of America), James Toback (film director), Camille Paglia (University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies, University of the Arts), Todd McCarthy (Chief Film Critic, The Hollywood Reporter).


The panel follows a screening of Jame’s Toback’s film Fingers.



Kael’s original New Yorker review in March 1978:

In Fingers, the first film he has directed, James Toback is trying to be Orson Welles, and Carol Reed, Dostoevski, Conrad, and Kafka. The film is a howl of ambition, and you get the feeling that at least two-thirds of it is still locked up on the writer-director’s head – that he simply did not have the experience, the cast, or the budget to get more of his exuberantly melodramatic fantasy onto the screen. Still, what’s there has the wild self-dramatization that one associates with the young Tennessee Williams, or with Mailer when he gets high on excess. Insanity, violence bouts of sex, Jacobean revenge killings – nothing is too much for Toback in his exhilarated state. There’s almost a swagger in the way he consciously goes beyond the rationally acceptable: he’s looking for art in that beyond, wanting the unknown – the dangerous – to take over. It’s a willed hysteria. We’re used to it in the work of young poets and young novelists who are trying to feel as intensely and recklessly as possible, who want to be electrifying, but it’s startling to see this hunger for extremes nakedly revealed on the screen. James Toback doesn’t just risk self-parody in Fingers – he falls into it. Yet the film never seems ridiculous, because he’s got true moviemaking fever.


Fingers tries to create the screen equivalent of a tropical region of the mind; it’s an educated man’s high-powered masochistic fairy tale, the story of a descent into madness. Toback is trying hard for purgative effects; he wants to show us man stripped down to a covering naked animal waiting in the jungle. Normality doesn’t interest Toback; he’s playing the literary-adolescent’s game of wanting to go crazy so he can watch his reactions. And because he doesn’t censor his masculine racial fantasies, his foolishness and his terrible ideas pour out freely. This movie is a true oddity: it could stand as the perils of the “personal” film. Yet is streak of euphoric humor suggests that Toback could take romantic screwball comedy to a new, high plane, where excess could become rhapsodic.


Manohla Dargis on Kael, in LA Weekly:

Her readers have always tried to figure her out, film critics in particular, and they’re still trying. As so frequently happened when she was alive, most of us have been trying to figure her out in relation to our own lives and work, to position ourselves next to or apart from her. It couldn’t be any other way, really. Kael wasn’t just the most important film critic in America, she was one of the most personal. You were always reading a human being, not a byline or an ideology, which is what made her work so distinct and sometimes maddening. Her tsunamis of words and rhetoric were forcefully intimate, at times bullying, and she never stopped taking prisoners, not once. The key to her persuasiveness was her voice — a self-revealing writing voice that continuously and effortlessly slid between two registers of the first person as if they were the same. With Kael, they were. In one sentence she would write “I think,” and in the next inject an insistent, devouring “we,” sweeping her readers up with her. After a while, the I and the we were inseparable, a flourish that both reinforced her authority, in the way of a father, and bound readers close, in the way of a mother.


Kael became a talisman for me, something to hold onto. It mattered that she was a woman. Born in 1919, she was a late bloomer by male standards, but she was also a pioneer, a woman intellectual and California original, like M.F.K. Fisher or Joan Didion. Kael was 34 when she first began reviewing; she was in her mid-40s when, in 1965, she published her first volume of essays, I Lost It at the Movies. (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had been published two years earlier.) Part of Kael’s radicalism was that she took on tough topics and tough directors, including those steeped in a clubby, often violent masculinity that shuts women out, and from which many women gladly recoil. She wrestled them — and other lesser opponents — to the ground like a barroom brawler, and while her posturing could sometimes seem like macho braggadocio, it was clear from the start that she was the equal to any film or filmmaker. She drew from literature, art, opera without blinking, duked it out with Norman Mailer and wrote about Brando not simply as an actor, but as an icon of male sexuality. She’d probably hate this, but often when I think of Kael, I think of Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and the scene in which Dorothy Parker, dead drunk, has just typed, “I wish I could write like a man.” I don’t like the line, but I understand it. I never wanted to be Kael; I just wanted her guts, and some of her words.


Howard Hampton for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 2001):

She was that good, and that much of an original, even if, like Citizen Kane, she had influences, predecessors: Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Leslie Fiedler. (Manny Farber was perhaps not so much a source as a parallel universe: his gnomic, inscrutable Thelonious Monk chords to her endlessly wending, omnivorous Charlie Parker riffs.) In the end, she wasn’t just the best American movie critic, she was our best critic period.


Like Welles, she practiced an imperfect art and was not immune to the temptations of excess. But what counted was that she attained the same level of joy and illumination and sheer giddy nerve-at times she missed the mark or the boat (Raging Bull comes to mind), but even then she was vastly more enjoyable to read than most of the critics who got it “night.” I may prefer Pauline’s ecstatic reactions to Brian DePalma’s movies to some of the movies themselves, but how can folks who slobber over practically every second-class, slapdash one-week wonder Fassbinder ever churned out complain about the incoherence or inanity of The Fury? What sane person hasn’t sometimes prayed for the sour, hysterical cut-out characters in a Fassbinder flick to explode the way DePalma’s do? And what could be more poetically just than having psychodrama’s glowering dark prince John Cassavetes, in the wonderfully ungrammatical mantra of SCTV critic Billy Sol Hurok, “blowed up real good.”


Sometimes good trash can be more stimulating than empty, sterile art about Big Issues like emptiness and sterility. And sometimes-more often than criticism’s killjoy elite cares to admit– high art can be just as fraudulent, evasive, and pandering toward its own constituencies as the lowest, most shameless Hollywood blockbuster. If Pauline Kael taught us one crucial thing, it’s that pleasure really matters: in the emotions evoked by the Taviani brothers or in the Borscht-belt schtick of the Ritz Brothers, in the screen presences of Paul Newman and Cary Grant, in the satisfaction a Pamela Reed gave whenever she turned up in a supporting part and of Rip Tom grabbing the brass ring at last on The Larry Sanders Show. And, yes, there was Robert Altman, through all his ups and downs, but Satyajit Ray as well (despite all the rhapsodic things she wrote on behalf of them both, she wasn’t able to make hits of either Thieves Like Us or Distant Thunder). Her sometimes grandiose claims and pronouncements were a way of throwing down a gauntlet, as movies themselves are at their best: bolts of lightning meant to shake people out of their habits and complacency, reminding them not only of how rich art ought to be but life as well. Pauline was the most vital, joyous, tough-minded person I’ve ever known or writer I’ve read. The beautiful contradiction at the heart of her responsiveness was that she was able, with some of the grandeur of Melville by way of Leslie Fiedler, to say “No! in Thunder” to pious respectability, Eurocentric aesthetics, and the compromises of Hollywood. But in the same breath, she said Yes to the movies, and an appetite for playfulness, vision, and rapture, “The Glamour of Delinquency,” that special capacity for the subversive and the operatic, the everyday and the impossible.


Michael Atkinson for the Village Voice:

Kael occupied an utterly unique throne in the nation’s cultural consciousness: a film reviewer as high priestess, a self-invented demagogue who often garnered more attention than the movies she reviewed and seemed, by virtue of her combative style of argument, to elide any subsequent opinion. She was never the nation’s eyes and voice, as much as she had wanted to democratize the filmgoing community; rather, she was the cognoscenti’s peppery permission slip to love their love of trash. Her public profile was a stunning balance between notoriety and highbrow respect, and so she reached readers many other critics could not. Her 12 volumes of collected pieces were routinely lauded in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and other pivotal venues that rarely, if ever, reviewed film books of any other stripe.


I loved her for her chutzpah. She launched at a movie like a feckless boxer, taking as long as she needed to rationally explain her wholly irrational reactions, and caring little if the process was bloody, aimless, and cruel. (Kael’s castigation of directors for making obvious thematic statements could just as easily be aimed at Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Renoir.) More than anything, Kael’s ham-and-egger energy opened a conversational loop in your head, and in the ’60s and ’70s, conversation was what movies were for. (She was particularly awake to the gritty American New Wave, believing as we all did that Hollywood had finally, irrevocably grown up.) Virtually Whitman-like in her rangy meanderings and obsession with the visceral and sensual, she was a critic who’d found her moment—imagine Kael trying to make her special sort of sense of this year’s movies. Her breathless blathering about a movie she adored—and no one’s world ever shook, rattled, and rolled after a good movie like Kael’s did—was emblematic of its present: a lovely lost age when a love for movies was a Romantic passion, a lantern-lit children’s crusade that went with first love, sex, dope, and freedom like cigarettes go with coffee.


Greil Marcus for Salon:

Many people today live far more fully than they would have if Pauline Kael had never written. As a Petaluma-born, at first Berkeley-based movie critic whose first piece, “Some Notes on Chaplin’s Limelight,” appeared in the occasional journal of the San Francisco bookstore City Lights in 1953, she was kin in her ’50s way to both idol-smashing literary critic Leslie Fiedler (born in Newark, working out of Missoula, Montana) and then shockingly frank and funny lovelorn columnist Dear Abby (born in Iowa, first publishing in the San Francisco Chronicle). From places that on the media map did not exist, people were speaking without care for what people would think of them—or, maybe, trying as hard as they could to piss people off, to rattle their cages, to wake them up.


Still, Fiedler cultivated a certain archness and Dear Abby had responsibilities—to all the abused, desperate, suicidal people writing her in hopes that she might save their lives. Kael was neither arch nor responsible: she responded, then dove down deep into her own responses—I hate this, I love this—and came back with stories, analyses, wisecracks overheard in the theater, with a picture of the U.S.A., or Europe, or anywhere else, in which she was the citizen and the movie in question the charter for the world to come or the world that was already lost. Her credo—“Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply,” she wrote in 1963, “just because you must use everything you are and everything you know”—brought countless readers, and countless people her readers talked to, argued with, scorned, laughed at, dragged into theaters to see movies they would never forget or never forgive, into the action. Embarrassment in the face of a movie—of anything you care about—is a sin, her pieces said, one by one, year after year; pretending to like a movie or anything else you’re supposed to like is worse. Making that case is a battle that’s never won, but Kael turned up the volume. I don’t know if the world is a better place because for more than 40 years she wrote, but I know it’s more of a place.


Louis Menand puts Kael in a greater context, in his book American Studies:

The kind of approach Kael promoted is antiessentialist. It is a reaction against the idea, associated with modernist literature, painting and architecture, that the various arts have their own essential qualities – that poetry is essentially a matter of the organization of language, that painting is essentially a matter of figure and ground, that architecture if essentially a matter of space and light. The undoing of these assumptions is often taken to have been the work of high critical theory, of semioticians, Derrideans, and postmodernists. And that undoing is associated with highbrow, avant-garde art and literature – it is thought of as a distinctly elitist cultural movement. In fact, the cultureal work was done long before “postmodernist” became a theoretical concept in the academy, and it was done by people whose audience was entirely mainstream. If we need to give it a brow, this reaction against modernist formalism and essentialism was a middlebrow phenomenon. Its champion practitioners were Warhol, Mailer, and Tom Wofle – all perfectly accessible figures who played to a large, nonintellectual audience. Its “theoreticins” were people like Susan Sontag, who was a freelance writer, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who were architects, and Kael, who never finished college. For the notion that serious art must be appreciated formally before anything else was actually not so much a feature of modernist art itself – it’d not something most of the major modernists would have claimed about what they were doing – as it was the result of the way modern art and literature were taught to people like the people who read the New Yorker in the 1950s and early 1960s. Formalism was a middlebrow oppression. It didn’t frighten poets, it frightening moveigoers. It made them think there was something they ought to know about called the “grammer of film.”


The liberation of art from a priori principles was one of the great achievements of American culture in the 1960s. It has since been attacked for encouraging the dangerously relativist notions that “It’s art if I say it’s art” and “Anything goes.” People said those things in the sixties, and I suppose people say them now, but those are not the necessary conclusions of the lesson Kael helped to teach. A dislike of formalism does not entail a dislike of form. And openness to mass culture does not entail identification with the mass audience, it doesn’t requite an attitude of epater les intellectuels, or a belief that if it’s “of the people,” it must be counterhegemonic. The critical attitude Kael represented only means approaching a work of art without bias about what “a work of art” is supposed to be. It is predicated on the notion that modern culture is fluid and promiscuous, and therefore that nothing is gained by foreclosing the experience of it – particularly if you are a critic. Pauline Kael understood these things, and she consciously built her practice as a reviewer around them.



David Denby sums up some of the drama surrounding the Kael and the film, for New York Magazine:

Pauline Kael wrote a mixed review of Fingers, the first film directed by James Toback, who was – and is – a friend of hers. Kael was excited by the film and by Toback’s potential as a director, but she was also very firm and extremely funny on the film’s many lunacies. Because she is a great critic, and remarkably vivid writer, one got a better idea of the movie’s faults from the piece than from the outright attacks on Fingers by critics who hated it. When she resigned from the New Yorker two weeks ago to produce some films for Warren Beatty and a new picture written Toback turned out to be one of the possible projects, her friendship with Toback became the lead item in a piece by Jean Kasindorf (“The Great Hollywood Tea Party”) – the clinching example of the writer’s thesis about reviewer-industry incest. But actually, when I spoke to Toback, Warren Beatty and Toback were not acquainted at the time that Fingers came out; after they met, Beatty became interested in a screenplay that Toback had written earlier and decided to buy it. “Pauline Kael has absolutely nothing to do with that,” says Toback. “And Kasindorf’s implication that Kael wrote that way about Fingers in order to enter film production is ludicrous. She has been courted by Hollywood producers for years, and has always turned them down.” Its also worth pointing out that in Kael’s first piece that summer, she made a few savage remarks about Beatty’s summer hit, Heaven Can Wait.


Nick Schager on Fingers for Lessons of Darkness:

James Toback’s Fingers has an only-in-the-movies premise – a debt collector for his small-time mobster father aspires to be a classical pianist – yet through sheer force of filmmaking will, the director and star Harvey Keitel turn this somewhat ridiculous plot into a penetrating portrait of tortured, impotent masculinity and the foolishness of attempting to be something you’re not. Jimmy (Keitel) is a two-bit thug who roughs up lazy debtors by day and passionately tickles the ivories at night (or does he?), and just like his conflicted protagonist, Toback’s mise-en-scène – defined by an interplay between light and dark, interiors and exteriors, and the Bach and ‘50s-era Bebop and R&B blasting from Jimmy’s portable radio – is defined by contrast. Jimmy yearns to leave behind crime for art, and thinks he discovers an opportunity to transcend his dingy, immoral life via a piano audition with his professional musician mother’s former manager. Unfortunately, his romantic pursuit of a woman named Carol (Tisa Farrow) ends only in disaster (during a tension-wracked scene in which Jim Brown teaches Jimmy a thing or two about virile machismo), and his piano dreams are, in typical noir fascination, shown to be nothing more than the dangerous illusions of a man who doesn’t know his rightful (lowly) place in life. It may have been forgotten amongst the era’s more notable NYC crime sagas (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), but Toback’s underappreciated 1978 neo-noir boasts a gritty splendor, and Keitel’s simmering volatility is a sight to behold – especially in the film’s mesmerizing final shot, which encapsulates all the dashed hopes and misery of its socially and emotionally trapped protagonist.


David Thomson originally declared it “the best film by any American director since Badlands,” and reflects later for Salon:

Made 24 years ago, “Fingers” is still the best thing writer-director James Toback has ever done, and one of the most startling debuts in American film. Long before people had the idea of making movies from graphic novels, “Fingers” is like the screen treatment of a comic book that might have been written by Sigmund Freud and illustrated by Lucian Freud. It is pulp raised to the level of the rarest brie cheese, which is to say that it hovers over the boundary between gourmandise and pure nausea. It is a great film, made by a brilliant young man who was taking “movie” then as if it were the most dangerous drug in the pharmacy.


It is sometimes wildly pretentious. But it knew it had grasped a profound truth — the marriage of intellect and instinct — in the parentage that Jimmy suffers from. And it knows how possible it is, right there in Manhattan, to have Jimmy undergoing a desperate search for psychosexual maturity. The film is very violent, deeply imbued with racist paranoia, and so conceived and made that virtually every glance and interaction is sexual.


It only flirts with the obvious to say that the picture is autobiographical. No, Toback is not a concert pianist or a collector. But his head is full of great music, and he has sometimes been on the run as a gambler who owed too much. But “Fingers” is most valuable as the lurid yet beautiful imaginings of a kind of infant savage, torn between sublimity and depravity, and knowing that in the American way you owe one foot, one hand and one ball to the swamp and another to the magic mountain. That Toback has never since matched “Fingers” attests to the passion and exultation, the shame and the triumph, that compete in this delirious confessional movie.

Kael and Toback, photographed by Robin Holland

– Compiled by Brynn White

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