Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Interesting Emendations: Pauline Kael's "The Long Goodbye"


It’s interesting to examine the artful surgery that Richard Brody performed on Pauline Kael’s capsule review of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Kael’s version, 321 words long, is collected in her 5001 Nights at the Movies (1991). Brody cut it to 182 words, deleting the first and seventh sentences, and skillfully merging the fifth, sixth, and tenth lines. Here’s Kael’s version:

In his novel, set in 1953, Raymond Chandler situated his incorruptible knight Philip Marlowe in Los Angeles, the city famed as the place where you go to sell out. And Chandler wrote to his agent that what he cared about in this book was “how any man who tried to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or plain foolish.” Chandler’s sentimental foolishness is the taking-off place for Robert Altman’s heady, whirling sideshow of a movie, set in the early 70s L.A. of the stoned sensibility. Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is a wryly forlorn knight, just slogging along; still driving a 1948 Lincoln Continental and trying to behave like Bogart, he’s the gallant fool in a corrupt world—the innocent eye. Even the police know more about the case he’s involved in than he does. Yet he’s the only one who cares. Altman kisses off the private-eye form as gracefully as Beat the Devil parodied the international-intrigue thriller. Less accidental than Beat the Devil, this picture is just about as funny, though quicker-witted and dreamier, in soft, mellow color and volatile images. Altman tells a detective story all right, but he does it through a spree—a highflying rap on Chandler and the movies and L.A. The film drives you a little crazy, turns you on the way some musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret) and some comedies (M*A*S*H, parts of Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) do. Gould gives a loose and woolly, strikingly original performance. With Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Jim Bouton, Henry Gibson, Jack Riley, and Ken Sansom. Vilmos Zsigmond is responsible for the offhand visual pyrotechnics (the imagery has great vitality); John Williams’ score is a witty series of variations on the title song; the script is credited to Leigh Brackett, but when you hear the Altman-style improvisatory dialogue you know you can’t take that too literally. Released in 1973.

Here’s Brody's version, published in the April 25, 2016 New Yorker:

Raymond Chandler’s sentimental foolishness is the taking-off place for Robert Altman’s heady, whirling sideshow of a movie, set in the early-seventies L.A. of the stoned sensibility. Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is a wryly forlorn knight, just slogging along; still driving a 1948 Lincoln Continental and trying to behave like Bogart, he’s the gallant fool in a corrupt world—the innocent eye. Even the police know more about the case he’s involved in than he does. Yet he’s the only one who cares. Altman tells a detective story all right, but he does it through a spree—a highflying rap on Chandler and L.A. and the movies. Altman gracefully kisses off the private-eye form in soft, mellow color and volatile images; the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is responsible for the offhand visual pyrotechnics (the imagery has great vitality). Gould gives a loose and woolly, strikingly original performance. Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, and Jim Bouton co-star; the script is credited to Leigh Brackett, but when you hear the Altman-style improvisatory dialogue you know you can’t take that too literally. Released in 1973.

With the exception of “heady, whirling sideshow of a movie,” all the words in both these versions are sourced in Kael’s great “Movieland – The Bum’s Paradise” (The New Yorker, October 22, 1973; included in Kael’s 1976 Reeling and her 1994 For Keeps), which I remember for this exquisite image: “When Nina van Pallandt thrashes in the ocean at night, her pale-orange butterfly sleeves rising above the surf, the movie becomes a rhapsody on romance and death.” As for the words “heady, whirling sideshow of a movie,” Kael inserted them when she condensed the 4000-word “Movieland – The Bum’s Paradise” to her 321-word capsule.

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