Sunday, September 10, 2006


(1919 Sonoma County, CA - Sep. 3, 2001 Great Barrington MA)

Education: University of California, Berkeley (philosophy)
Prolific, enduring columnist for The New Yorker magazine, Pauline Kael remains the most influential American film critic of the last 50 years.

Kael settled in Berkeley after graduating, made some short films, and wound up managing movie theaters and broadcasting for the Pacifica radio station. She reached national attention in the 60s, first in a brief stint as critic for The New Republic, finally as a longtime fixture at The New Yorker (1968-1991). Along with Andrew Sarris and John Simon, she helped to shape the new film culture of the 60s and 70s. While Sarris championed the French auteur theory and Simon eloquently represented the conservative, literate tradition, Kael reminds us constantly of the personal, emotional, visceral excitement of movies. This is a quintessentially American approach to the art that continues the tradition established by Vachel Lindsay in the 20s. For Kael, movies are near-sexual experiences, as the titles of her critical anthologies suggest: I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady, Deeper Into Movies, Reeling, When the Lights Go Down, Taking It All In, Movie Love. Her general guidebook, 5001 Nights at the Movies, was revised in 1991.
Kael's career has been almost as passionate and dramatic as her approach to movies. She was notorious in the 60s for her controversial opinions, especially in defense of gutsy American movies (like Bonnie and Clyde) versus intellectual European films (like Blowup). In 1971, her essay Raising Kane, critical of the received opinion of Orson Welles, created an historical controversy in the film community. In 1972, her rave review of Last Tango in Paris caused a public stir. In 1974, her angry - and much-discussed - essay On the Future of Movies sketched a cynical picture of the American film industry as a battleground between venal businessmen and pusillanimous (albeit talented) directors. A year later, she offended fellow critics by scooping them, reviewing Robert Altman's Nashville from a rough cut several months before it was released. (She hailed it as "an orgy for movie-lovers.") In a final affront to accepted critical mores, she jumped ship in 1979 to take a job at Paramount in Hollywood as "Executive Consultant." It was a measure of both her remarkable power and her engaging sense of life as a work of art. Five months later, she quit to return to the pages of The New Yorker, where she lived out the 80s - like the movies she had to write about - quietly, commercially, and without much controversy, as the focus of film criticism shifted from the sensuality of the printed page to the thumbs-up consumerism of TV. When she retired from The New Yorker in February, 1991, she told The Hollywood Reporter: "I was lucky enough to work in that great period of filmmaking between the 60s and the early 70s when filmmakers took chances," although she concluded that, when she began writing reviews, "films were as dull as they are now."
Pauline Kael was the first critic to see through the opportunistic self- righteousness of Midnight Express. She wrote in The New Yorker: "This story could have happened in almost any country, but if Billy Hayes had planned to be arrested to get the maximum commercial benefit from it, where else could he get the advantages of a Turkish jail? Who wants to defend Turks? They don't even constitute enough of a movie market for Columbia Pictures to be concerned about how they are represented." ( reprinted in Pauline Kael,"When The Lights Go Down," 1980, p.499 and "For Keeps" 1994, p.796)


Midnight Express puts the squeeze on us right from the start. First, there are titles explaining that the movie is "based on a true story' that began in 1970 in Istanbul. Before we see anything more, we hear ominous percussion music: the thump thump of Billy Hayes's heart. We're inside this college boy's chest, pulsating with his panic as he straps two kilos (about four pounds) of hashish around his torso and goes out to the airport to catch the flight that will take him home to New York. By the time he gets to customs, he's sweating in terror and his chest is about to burst, and then, at the very moment of boarding the plane, he is apprehended.

For the next two hours, this innocent American is subjected to the most photogenic brutalization that the director, Alan Parker, and the screenwriter, Oliver Stone, can dream up. The "true story" of Billy Hayes-that is, the relatively simple account given in the book by Hayes and William Hoffer, which was probably already somewhat heigbtened-is used merely as a taking-off place for the moviemakers' sadomasochistic and homoerotic imaginations. Parker and Stone pile on the horrors, and, together with the composer, Giorgio Moroder, and his synthesizer, jack them up to a frenzy. The film is like a porno fantasy about the sacrifice of a virgin. When he's arrested, Billy (Brad Davis)-the beautiful male ingenue, with his well-fed, muscular American body-is stripped, in a smoky room, for the delectation of the cruel Turks. He's cast as Lawrence of Arabia, for the roughest of rough trade. Surrounded by these garlicky, oily men with hairy nostrils who talk in their incomprehensible language, like members of another species, he's isolated with his fear, and the pounding in his chest is joined by electronic buzzing and heavy bell sounds. He's thrown in jail and, on his first night, he's hung up by the ankles and clubbed-and there's the strong suggestion that he's also sodomized-by the head guard, Hamidou (Paul Smith), a huge, sadistic bullock of a man with great clumps of hair growing from the rims of his ears, like outcroppings of lust. When Billy meets another American inmate, Jimmy (Randy Quaid), a hothead whose thoughts pop like firecrackers, be says, "I'm Billy Hayes--at least, I used to be."

We watch him deteriorate as the film rushes from torment to torment, treating his ordeals hypnotically in soft colors-muted squalor-with a disco beat in the background. The prison itself is more like a brothel than a prison; the film was shot mostly in a nineteenth-century British barracks in Malta, which was turned into a setting worthy of this de Sade entertainment. (It even has a flooded catacomb.) When you see Max (John Hurt), a drugged-out, emaciated English prisoner, caress a kitty~ you wait for something terrible to happen to it; it does, and you get to see that, plus Max's stricken face. When you observe that there are child prisoners, you brace yourself, and, sure enough, they're cold-bloodedly tortured. Yet this picture, which represents itself as an unsparingly realistic, hard-hitting view of the brutalities of prison, has an interlude to tease us. Suddenly, a steaming sauna appears in a patch of sunlight in the middle of this foul dungeon, and an amiable Swede is giving Billy a lyrical scrubdown. The Swede kisses Billy solemnly and the music rises for a triumphal wedding celebration, but the marriage isn't consummated: with a Madonna smile, Billy gently-one might say with polite regrets-declines the offer. That's the only overt sexual advance in the movie; you'd think sex among prisoners meant whimsical, tender friendships-among Westerners, that is. (The dirty Turkish prisoners are sodomites, who also keep knifing each other.) This Billy-the-pure scene is part of the director's preparation for his big number. Billy is so lacerated by deprivation and torture that his mind snaps and he goes wild and attacks a Turkish informer, chasing him back and forth, beating him, and then grabbing him for what at first appears to be a horrifying, harsh kiss. Billy bites the Turk's tongue off and, in sensuous slow motion, triumphantly spits it out. By that time, the electronic hype has been so effective-the audience has been coiled so Light-that there are people in the theatre cheering this insane revenge. Billy's gleeful bloody madness-his face drips gore-marks a new, stepped-up phase. He's dragged off to the section for the criminally 'insane, where the misery is so decorative it's almost Felliniesque. When his girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle), comes to see him in this Turkish snake pit, he is a gibbering, whimpering animal, masturbating with desire for her. It's five years, all told, before he escapes.

Midnight Express is single-minded in its brutal manipulation of the audience: this is a clear-cut case of the use of film technique split off from any artistic impulse. Parker seems almost vindictive in the way he prods the viewers-fast, efficiently, from one shock to the next. You get the feeling that what he and his team set out to do was to take this darling American boy Billy and subject him to the most garish tortures they could without running into an X rating. The moviemakers are British, but with virtually no film industry in Britain now, they're working with American financing and with Peter Guber (of The Deep) as executive producer; they're demonstrating that they can be vivid and ferocious enough for the international "action" market. There's a mean-spiritedness in this fake-visceral movie which has got mixed together with the cause of imprisoned young pothead smugglers like Billy Hayes.

It's symptomatic that the director's control is least effective with the actors. Brad Davis's Billy is a standard young actor's imitation-James Dean performance, without much assurance. There's a heroism of physical force in most of the powerfully built American men stars; Davis-unlike the actual resourceful Billy Hayes-exudes weakness. This may be what attracted the moviernakers to him; their Billy is conceived as a victim-they deify weakness. But Davis isn't a strong enough actor to hold the screen when he plays scenes with Quaid or Hurt. And the director damages both of them by zeroing in on them as soon as they're introduced; he seems to be saying, "Perform." Quaid grabs attention simply by his usual overacting, which he tries to pass off as Jimmy's nuttiness; it isn't until late in the movie that we respond to the way Jimmy's one-cylinder high-combustion mind works and feel the comedy in the doggedness of his attempts to escape. Hurt, however, as he demonstrated on television-as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, and as Caligula in 1, Claudius---is a truly great interpreter of eccentrics; he has such inner force that he can play the most passive of roles, as he does here (he barely moves a muscle), and still transfix the audience. Hurt has some good lines as Max, and he delivers them in a dry deadpan, like a wasted English Buck Henry. Max is so spiritually exhausted that he doesn't have the emotional energy required for facial expressiveness: he's an almost burned-out light bulb with just a few dim flashes of the filament left. Yet he's the most moving character in the film.

The director works in xenophobic, melodramatic terms: the Americans, the Englishman, and the Swede are civilized and sensitive, and the Turks are bestial, sadistic, filthy. There are no ambiguities, there is no depth. Alan Parker doesn't waste his sympathy on Turkish prisoners, and his idea of irony is to have the hairy-eared Hamidou (the actor is actually an American with degrees from Brandeis and Harvard) whipping Jimmy with a leather belt while the Turks are at their prayers to Allah-Jimmy's yells of pain provide the melody to the praying chorus. The film is a crude rabble-rouser: like a wartime atrocity movie, it keeps turning the screws to dehumanize Billy's jailers, and even his lawyer, who's a fat nose-picker. At the same time, it's sanctimonious about Billy's victimization: he writes florid, high-toned letters to Susan which we hear him read, and, worse, at a hearing he makes a messagey speech to the court, lecturing it on the meaning of crime and punishment and mercy, and denouncing the Turks as "a nation of pigs." The facts of Billy Hayes's case as presented in the book (which is by no means as anti-Turkish as the movie) make a solid, strong claim on our feelings: sentenced to four years and two months for possession of hashish, he had almost completed his term and was awaiting release when he was sentenced to an additional term of thirty years for smuggling-all for the same two kilos. But the film's cheap grandstanding-indicting a whole people on the presumption that the brutality of prison guards represents the national way of life-destroys those feelings. (It is not made clear that it was the American government which put pressure on the Turks to keep dope from being smuggled into the United States: we gave them an assistance program in criminology and trained their customs officials. The Turks have been trying to oblige us.)

Why are people lining up at theatres to see this picture? I assume that there are others besides me who felt squeezed so much that they grew to hate the picture more and more. (I didn't hope for Billy and his friends to escape-just for the movie to be over.) But Midnight Express may be something close to an all-purpose fantasy. For those who are part of the drug culture (which is by now almost the national culture), it can serve as a confirmation and extension of their fears. This movie is being sold as a journalistic expos6-the ads say, "Walk into the incredible true experience of Billy Hayes. And bring all the courage you can." And even if people who have read the book know that most of the juiciest episodes in the movie were invented, they can still respond to it emotionally, because it's what they want to see-the worst that could happen, and the depths to which they could be driven. What could be more satisfying to students and young dopers than this intoxicating view of the horrible pitfalls of smuggling dope-an ultimate romantic horror show. (The Billy of the movie doesn't just go biting-tongue-off mad; he also becomes a murderer.) Confinement in foreign prisons constitutes the martyrdom of the drug culture, and it's about the only part of that culture which the movies had missed until now. This story could have happened in almost any country, but if Billy Hayes had planned to be arrested to get the maximum commercial benefit from it, where else could he have got the advantages of a Turkish jail? Who wants to defend the Turks? (They don't even constitute enough of a movie market for Columbia Pictures to be concerned about how they're represented.)

And this picture is not only a full-scale fantasy for the drug culture but the cautionary tale that parents have been waiting for. Here, at last, is the movie that puts Vietnam behind us. It has-been a long time since middle aged people could say to their kids, "You don't know how lucky you are to be Americans, safe and protected." Billy's shame when he writes to his parents for help rehabilitates the shame that disobedient children used to feel in movies of the twenties and thirties. In prison, Billy feels totally abandoned, forsaken left to rot. The love that fills his being when his father (Mike Kellin) comes to try to help him is so traditionally boyish that it recalls Lon McCallister in his doughboy uniforms, and Van Johnson waving to Mom as he went off to war. Billy is never more James Dean-like than when he weeps and his father weeps. There hasn't been this kind of reconciliation-between-the-generations scene in many years. (It recalls East Of Eden.) When Billy's father says that his bowels are running because of the Turkish food he ate, and that for the rest of his stay "I'm not takin' any more chances-I'm gonna eat at the Hilton every night: steak and French fries and lotsa ketchup," he's making the fundamental point of the movie (as older people will see it). Stay out of Turkish jails, don't do anything you shouldn't, eat right, this is what can happen to you if you're not a good boy. Midnight Express, with its sadistic sexual current, is a there's-no-place-likehome story, of a very peculiar variety. Hysterically sensual on the surface but with basic honor-thy-parents-and-listeD-to-them glop at the center, it manipulates cross-generationally. I

This fantasy even has a special appeal to liberals: the package is presented as social protest, as a modern J'Accuse There's a final crawl title: "On May 18th 1978 the motion picture you have just seen was shown to an audience of world press at the Cannes Film Festival ... 43 days later the United States and Turkey entered into formal negotiations for the exchange of prisoners." And ringing upbeat music-exaltation music, like slow disco Muzak accompanies this remarkable piece of journalistic self-congratulation. The producers sell this prison rhapsody as an example of bold muckraking that had immediate results-so, in a sense, the film claims that it has already proved its worth. Actually, the United States and Turkey have been talking about a prisoner-exchange agreement for several years, and last January the United States sent a draft proposal to Turkey, which is still under negotiation; no prisoners have yet been transfer-red. (What happened in forty-three days? Nothing.) The music that says "Rise and salute our accomplishment" is really telling us to salute bunko artists.

The actual Billy Hayes, who has been out flacking for the film on the talk shows, was quizzed about that accomplishment in a recent interview in the Los Angeles Harald Examiner. Here are his answers:

HAYES: I believe, and certainly hope that to some degree, how great or how small is very hard to say, that [the film] Midnight Express has been instrumental in making this prisoner-exchange treaty happen.

QUESTIONER: Did you have anything to do with that?

HAYES: No, I don't think I had anything to do with it, directly. But I think anybody who's spoken about it, who's tried to spread an awareness of the fact that there are people who are being beaten, tortured, and thrown into prison for years for what is not even a crime in some places, had something to do with it. If Midnight Express does nothing else, it's making people aware that this kind of thing happens.

It's wonderful-isn't it-that there are young dopers coming along who have already mastered the politician's art of squirming off a hook and floating in a sea of generalizations.

The New Yorker, November 27, 1978

(Posted September 26/2001)
For Keeps
Author: Pauline Kael
Binding: Paperback, 1312 pages ISBN: 0452273080
Publisher: Dutton/Plume
Published Date: 09/01/1996
Also available in hardcover "A William Abrahams Book ISBN: 0525938966

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