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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman": Brody v. Kael

Richard Brody’s recent capsule review of Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (The New Yorker, July 24, 2017) spurs me to see this film again. I first saw it in 1978, when it was released. That’s thirty-nine years ago. Today, my only recollection of it is a vague image of burly Alan Bates slathering a canvas with paint. Brody calls the movie an “instant-classic drama.” He writes,

Mazursky’s achievement is distinctively choreographic: for all the trenchant conversation, he sets the characters into mad motion, alone and together—jogging, dancing, fighting, strolling, embracing—and even the static set pieces, in bars and at dinner tables, have the sculptural authority of frozen ballets.

This seems to contradict Pauline Kael’s view of it. In her “Empathy, and Its Limits” (The New Yorker, March 6, 1978; included in her 1980 collection, When the Lights Go Down), she says,

The cinematography, by Arthur Ornitz, which features windows and skyline views, doesn’t have anything like the sun-spangled vivacity that Gordon Willis brought to the New York of Annie Hall (a film with related states of anxiety). Ornitz is an inexpressive realist; he makes images “real” by sapping the life out of them. (There is no dynamism even when the camera moves.) But his work here is more delicately muted and less grungy than usual – the SoHo streets seem to spark him.

Kael’s response to An Unmarried Woman was mixed. She says, “It’s an enormously friendly, soft-edged picture. Yet there’s a lot of hot air circulating in it.” She’s critical of Mazursky, one of her favorite directors, for suppressing his sense of satire, particularly in relation to the character Erica, who Kael finds “puny and a bit of an idiot” (see Kael’s capsule review in her 5001 Nights at the Movies).   

It’s likely Kael’s review influenced my response when I first saw the movie back in ’78. Brody’s review provides a fresh take, focusing more on the film’s design than on its characters.

Interestingly, when Kael collected what she considered her best reviews in For Keeps (1994), she excluded “Empathy, and Its Limits.” Maybe she had second thoughts about its validity.  

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