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« In Which We Are Disappointing To Our Mothers »

Genteel or Gentile?

by PAULINE KAEL

The people in Woody Allen's Interiors are destroyed by the repressiveness of good taste, and so is the picture. Interiors is a puzzle movie, constructed like a well-made play from the American past, and given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, without, however the eroticism of Bergman.

Interiors looks so much like a masterpiece, and has such a super-banal metaphysical theme (death versus life) that it's easy to see why many regard it as a masterpiece: it's deep on the surface. Interiors has moviemaking fever, all right, but in a screwed-up form — which is possibly what the movie is all about.

The problem for the family in the film is the towering figure of the disciplined, manipulative, inner-directed mother (Geraldine Page). She is such a perfectionist that she cannot enjoy anything, and the standards of taste and achievement that she imposes on her three daughters tie them in such knots that they all consider themselves failures. Alvy Singer, the role Woody Allen played in Annie Hall, was just such a compulsive, judgmental spoilsport, and Allen's original title for that film was Anhedonia — the lack of the capacity for experiencing pleasure.

Among the many puzzling aspects of Interiors: How can Woody Allen present in a measured, lugubriously straight manner the same sorts of tinny anxiety discourse that he generally parodies? And how intentional is most of what goes on under the friezes and poses? Are we expected to ask ourselves who in the movie is Jewish and who is Gentile?


The characters are so sterilized of background germs that the question is inevitably raised, and one of the film's few overt jokes is an overheard bit from a television show in which an interviewer asks a boy, "What nationality were you at the time of your birth?" and the boy answers, "Hebrew." Surely at root the family problem is Jewish: it's not the culture in general that imposes these humanly impossible standards of achievement — they're a result of the Jewish fear of poverty and persecution and the Jewish reverence for learning. It's not the joy of making cinema that spurs Woody Allen on (as he made clear in Annie Hall, he can't have that kind of joy), it's the discipline of making cinema.

The movie, with its spotless beaches, is as clean and bare as Geraldine Page's perfect house: you could eat off any image.

The prints of Interiors were processed on a new film stock, and during the showings for the press and people in the industry in Los Angeles, Allen had the print returned to the lab after every screening to be washed. Which makes this the ultimate Jewish movie. Woody Allen does not show you any blood.

The father (E.G. Marshall) asks his wife for a divorce and then marries a plump, healthy, life-force woman (Maureen Stapleton), and so there are two mothers. The tall, regal first mother, an interior decorator (who places a few objects in a bare room), wears icy grays and lives among beiges and sand tones; the plebeian stepmother bursts into this hushed atmosphere wearing mink and reds and floral prints. This is the sort of carefully constructed movie in which as soon as you see the first woman caress a vase and hover over its perfection you know that the second woman will have to break a vase.

The symbolism — the introduction of red into the color scheme, the broken vase, and so on — belongs to the kind of theatre where everything is spelled out. But under this obviousness there are layers of puzzle. The two mothers appear to be two side of the mythic dominating Jewish matriarch — the one dedicated to spiritual perfection, the other to sensual appetites, security, getting along in the world, cracking a few jokes.

It's part of the solemn unease of the film that no one would want either of them for a mother: they're both bigger than life, and the first is a nightmare of sexual austerity, the second an embarassment of yielding flesh and middle-class worldliness. If the two are warring for control of Woody Allen, the first (the real mother) clearly has him in the stronger grip. She represents the death of the instincts, but she also represents art, or at least cultivation and pseudo-art. (As a decorator, her specialty, like Woody Allen's here, seems to be the achievement of a suffocating emptiness.) Maureen Stapleton, the comic life force, lacks class. The film might be a representation of the traditional schizophrenia of Jewish comics, who have had the respect for serious achievement planted in them so early that even after they've made the world laugh they still feel they're failures, because they haven't played Hamlet. Groucho Marx talked morosely about not having had the education to be a writer, and said that his early pieces for The New Yorker were his proudest achievement. For Woody Allen, the equivalent is to be the American Ingmar Bergman.

The three daughters represent different aspect of the perfectionist neurosis. The oldest (Diane Keaton) is a well-known poet, determined, discontented, struggling with words while unconscious of her drives; the middle one (Kristin Griffith) is a TV actress, dissatisfied with her success, and snorting cocaine; the youngest (Mary Beth Hurt), who looks like a perennial student, rejects sham and flails around, unable to find herself. In plays, the youngest is generally the one who represents the author, and whenever you see a character who's stubbornly honest you know that you're seeing the author's idealized version of some part of himself.

With Mary Beth Hurt, if you have any doubts all you have to do is look at how she's dressed. (You'll also notice that she gets the worst — the most gnomic — lines, such as, "At the center of a sick psyche there is a sick spirit." Huh?). She's unsmiling — almost expressionless — closed in, with specs, hair like shiny armor (it says hands off), and schoolgirl blouses and skirts. She's like a glumly serious postulant, and so honest she won't dress up; determined not to be false to her feelings she actuallys dresses down for her father's wedding to the "vulgarian," as she calls her. (She's there under duress, and her clothes are an explicit protest.) She's the Cordelia, the father's favorite who refuses to lie, even to the mother, whom she alone in the family truly loves (she guiltily hates her, too).

The men's roles are relatively minor; Sam Waterston's part, though, is the only one that's unformed in the writing and doesn't quite fit in to the formal plan. Geraldine Page is playing neurosis incarnate, and the camera is too close to her, especially when her muscles collapse; this failure of discretion makes her performance seem abhorrent. But Maureen Stapleton livens things up with her rather crudely written role. Hers is the only role that isn't strictly thematic, and you can feel the audience awake for its torpor when she arrives on the scene and talks like a conventional stage character.

Diane Keaton does something very courageous for a rising star. She appears here with the dead-looking hair of someone who's too distracted to do anything with it but get a permanent, and her skin looks dry and pasty. There's discontent right in the flesh, while Kristin Griffith, the TV sexpot, appears with fluffy hair, blooming skin, and bright white teeth — the radiance that we normally see in Keaton. This physical transformation is the key to Keaton's thoughtful performance: she plays an unlikable woman -- a woman who dodges issues whenever she can, who may become almost as remote as her mother.

For Allen, who is a very conscious craftsman, it is surely no accident that the mother's impoverished conception of good taste is sustained in the style of the film. But what this correlation means to him isn't apparent. Interiors is a handbook of art-film mannerisms; it's so austere and studied that it might have been directed by that icy mother herself — from the grave.

The psychological hangups that come through are fascinating, but the actors' largo movements and stilted lines don't release this messy material, they repress it. After the life-affirming stepmother has come into the three daughters' lives and their mother is gone, they still, at the end, close ranks in a frieze-like formation. Their life-negating mother has got them forever. And her soul is in Woody Allen. He's still having his love affair with death, and his idea of artistic achievement (for himself, at least) may always be something death-ridden, spare, perfectly structured -- something that talks of the higher things.

(If this, his serious film, looks Gentile to people, that may be because for Woody Allen being Jewish, like being a comic, is fundamentally undignified. This film couldn't have had a Jewish-family atmosphere — his humor would have bubbled up.)

The form of this movie is false, yet it's the form that he believes in, and the form of Interiors is what leads people to acclaim it as a masterpiece.

People like Woody Allen for a lot of good reasons, and for one that may be a bummer: he conforms to their idea of what a Jew should be. He's a younger version of the wise, philosophic candy-store keeper in  West Side Story. His good will is built partly on his being non-threatening. He's safe — the schlump who wins, without ever imposing himself. People feel comfortable with him; the comedy audience may even go to Interiors — to pay its respects to the serious Woody. Woody Allen's repressive kind of control — the source of their comfort — is just what may keep him from making great movies. Interiors isn't Gentile, but it is genteel. He's turned the fear of movies — which is the fear of being moved — into a form of intellectuality.

September 25th, 1978

pauline kael"Maybe Baby" - The Shivers (mp3)

"Do You Got The Shivers?" - The Shivers (mp3)

"Kisses" - The Shivers (mp3)

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    Response: 123
    this is a good post

Reader Comments (6)

How did Pauline Kael ever become a well-known, respected name in film criticism? She doesn't get it. She doesn't get anything. She was way more manipulative than any film she called manipulative, and she tricked multiple generations of filmmakers into thinking her opinion mattered more than anyone else's. Piss off, Pauline. All hail Renata Adler.

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey

she is so fun to read

I love how she talks about people's faces as if it is the only important thing about them

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteralex carnevale

Everybody agrees with somebody. I like Pauline for a lot of reasons, but mainly because she tried very hard to improve and grow as a critic throughout her writing days. That effort was evident on the page. Not many film writers try that hard anymore - most spend a couple years finding their schtick and then death grip it to obsolescence. It'd be nice to have her, or someone like her, back. If only to light a fire under everybody else's ass.

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBen

"The movie, with its spotless beaches, is as clean and bare as Geraldine Page's perfect house: you could eat off any image."

The review isn't totally just, but this line is made of iron.

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteven augustine

Way to go Pauline. Very few critics would have the courage to pierce King Woody's veil. The man is not funny, nor is his film a masterpiece. Woody, take the money and run.

July 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Hughes
Pauline Kael was a TERRIBLE critic, and a lazy one, to boot. I've read a substantial number of her reviews when I was still signed up for The New Yorker archive, and they pretty much followed the same format: a proto blog post that *sometimes* discussed the film in question, but more often than not, merely related a personal vendetta, philosophy, or set of ideas that had little to do with the art, and everything to do with Kael's narrow impressions of things OTHER than art.

Steven:

#####

"The movie, with its spotless beaches, is as clean and bare as Geraldine Page's perfect house: you could eat off any image."

The review isn't totally just, but this line is made of iron.

#####

No, it isn't. "Iron" implies that it's a good metaphor or image, but what do you see, exactly? First eating off the floor of a character's home, and then-- what? Eating off the screen? A still? A photograph? It is clunky, forced, and as silly as the entire review, which gets not only the details wrong (including a howler about Joey being the youngest child, when she is in fact the middle, obviating an entire 2 paragraphs of ridiculous, psychoanalytical text thru this blunder), but the bigger, evaluative stuff, as well.

If anyone is interested in a point-by-point, review-by-review dissection of Kael's work, this is what I wrote elsewhere re: her take on Allen's INTERIORS:

http://woodyallenreel2real.com/critics2.html

http://alexsheremet.com/

Pauline Kael’s review of Interiors is full of the same holes, but goes a step further in the way it reverts to her classic brand of ad hominem, faulting Woody Allen for his supposed Jewish (or non-Jewish?) undertones in a way that simply has nothing to do with the film, itself. It begins with the typical word-dumps (“Interiors is a puzzle movie, constructed like a well-made play from the American past, and given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, without, however the eroticism of Bergman”), moves to strain for insight (“has such a super-banal metaphysical theme [of] death versus life”), and rounds things out by trying to make connections to Allen’s earlier films, re: the character of Alvy Singer (“a compulsive, judgmental spoilsport”), who is again conflated with Allen, himself. Kael complains of the lack of ‘eroticism’, but the film that Interiors has been compared most to is Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, a flamboyant little work wherein the sex is full of overt, clunky symbolism, and merely exists as a stylistic device amidst the narrative slack, thus damaging both. The complaint, then, seeks to turn the film into what it’s not, merely for the sake of personal preference, recalling Adler’s comment that Kael’s reviews are “paeans to the favored product, and diatribes against all other brands”. Then, there is the contention that “death versus life” is somehow “super-banal”, when in fact there is no such thing as a banal theme, merely one that is handled in a banal way. I mean, think: how many classic books, plays, and films develop this idea (among others) to great effect? And how many wannabe classics attempt the same, but fail? It is the failure, then, rather than the attempt that’s the issue, a fact that simply eluded Pauline Kael for much of her writing career. Then, the film’s Eve -- a profoundly sick, cold, and lifeless woman that slowly destroys everyone around her -- is compared to Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), whose worst sin is his utter immaturity. One wonders why such a connection is even made, unless, of course, Kael is merely ‘painting by numbers’ in her reviews, knows that connections between films must be made, for this is how reviews go, and therefore strains to do so, no matter how improbable in the specifics really are. She then ends her de facto introduction with a question that comes literally out of nowhere: “Are we expected to ask ourselves who in the movie is Jewish and who is Gentile?” Well, I don’t know, for almost everyone in the film is a well-sketched WASP, and it’d therefore make about as much sense if Allen were a former Hindu, and the film’s conflict propped up as a matter of Sikh vs. Mohammedan. Yet the fact that Interiors has as little to do with either as it does with the “Jewish” question would, apparently, be just as elusive, and immaterial.

Kael presses on, however, in exactly this direction. The characters are “sterilized of background germs” (Ok, but how? Can we have a scene, a snatch of dialogue for proof? And what import does this have re: cinematic appraisal?), the family’s issues are rooted in their “Jewish fear of poverty and persecution” (in fact, it revolves around an incredibly sick and nutty woman, and three selfish ones with metaphysical, not material, concerns), and that Woody Allen, himself, has no “joy” in cinema, for “as he made clear in Annie Hall, he can’t have that joy” -- yet another trite conflation of the persona and the man. Eight paragraphs in, however, Pauline Kael finally starts to discuss the film proper, and she makes a good point re: the film’s symbolism: it can be heavy-handed, at times, to its detriment. Yet this is not seen in the example she herself proffers (that of a broken vase), but earlier on, at the film’s start, wherein the three women are putting their hands on the windows, as if to ‘break free’, sort of like the cage Jack Nicholson looks to be trapped in at the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger. In short, while Kael argues that it seems obvious Pearl will end up breaking a vase, this is not only not obvious, but irrelevant, too, since the arc -- predictable or not -- is well-done throughout. If anything, it is surprising, even, given that it occurs when Pearl is dancing and having fun, with most watching her with approving smiles -- hardly a lead-in to something ‘bad’. Nor does Kael mention the great parallel between Joey’s explosion at Pearl, and Eve’s own explosion at Joey (“Stop breathing so hard!”) when Arthur first announces the separation, probably because there is no opportunity -- alas! -- to notice such ‘frills’ in Kael’s infamous refusal to watch any film twice. Nor is Eve a symbol of the Jewish mother’s “spiritual perfection”, as she claims, since spirituality implies openness and warmth, but of a contrived, static, and purely aesthetic (not ‘artistic’) one. No, Pauline Kael does not ‘like’ Allen’s symbols, but her solution is to therefore invent a few new ones, not only vis-a-vis the characters, themselves, but even through Allen’s off-screen choices. She notes, for example, that Allen would return the film’s print to be washed after every screening. But what does she make of that? Not much, apparently, for it “makes this the ultimate Jewish movie. Woody Allen does not show you any blood.” The last line, especially, is the kind of non sequitur she was routinely praised for writing, but one that -- being a non sequitur, and an offensive one, at that -- makes exactly zero sense. Indeed, it is the kind of “surface” Kael accuses Allen of, but one that she, herself, unwittingly flails upon.

Kael ultimately reveals her feelings (and her biases) about the film when she discusses the two mother-figures. She correctly points out that no one would want Eve for a mother, but errs when she throws Pearl into the same category as “an embarrassment of yielding flesh and middle-class worldliness”. But she is “embarrassing” how? That she is not smart enough to pick up on the symbolism of a play, or that she has a fun time dancing when almost everyone approves? (“Yielding flesh” is simply inaccurate, for there is no evidence of such in the film, merely a desire to further bolster Kael’s own argument.) Pearl is a better human being than most here, and is nurturing, supportive, and warm -- the very meaning of the word ‘mother’, and a type that most people simply do not have. To suggest otherwise is Kael’s own new-found “worldliness”, as she’s merely butting heads with her past -- if I’m allowed to psychoanalyze in the manner of Pauline Kael! -- and does not like what she sees. More real-world conflation follows (“If the two [mothers] are warring for control of Woody Allen...”), alongside a howler that shows how much a second viewing would have helped. Although she starts with a good point re: each daughter representing a “side” of Eve’s neurosis, she derails a potentially rich examination by a tangent of her own making: that the “youngest” daughter, Joey, represents Woody Allen, since “in plays, the youngest is generally the one who represents the author”. (Ok, let’s try this: Cordelia is Shakespeare; the childlike Irina is Anton Chekhov; and the rapist Chaerea is...Terence?) Allen, therefore, is a “glumly serious postulant” and “dresses down” to piss people off in the midst of self-expression, just like Joey, herself. Yet what Pauline Kael doesn’t realize is that Joey is the middle sister, NOT the youngest one, which obviates her perceived need for the two whole paragraphs in which she argues exactly that, and shows how willing she is to detour and ‘nose around’ for meanings that aren’t really there, all the while missing what is.

The entire review, in fact, devolves to these sorts of attacks on Woody Allen, the man, even when the evidence is quite lacking. This is because -- as with Sleeper and Shoeshine -- she refuses to engage any real particulars, except the occasional prosaic line that fills in some plot details, but says nothing of the film qualitatively. Sam Waterston’s role, for example, is “unformed”, but Pauline Kael confuses her pejorative with the word “minor”. In fact, Sam Waterston is pure ‘sanity’, wherein the good-hearted guy is simply unable to deal with Joey’s deeply-rooted immaturity, which is, in turn, all the more fleshed out by his very presence, and Joey’s inability to appreciate it. If anything, he is the film’s least selfish character, and serves as a corrective (albeit an impotent one) to everything around him. Geraldine Page’s performance “seems abhorrent”, but while Kael criticizes the (infrequent) close-ups, did she watch Page’s tics during Arthur’s revelation? Or her sudden, hyper-realistic knocking-over of the candles in the church? Or -- perhaps best of all -- the nigh-ritualistic manner in which she prepares for a kind of ‘cosmic funeral’, replete with the black and white tape that mirrors her own dress, aesthetician, as she is, all the way to the grave? No? No, as such insights would have inevitably made it into Kael’s review. Her sarcastic attacks on Diane Keaton’s appearance (“She does something very courageous for a rising star…”) are irrelevant and petty, while Allen’s view of Jews -- according to the words she puts into Allen’s mouth -- is that they are “fundamentally undignified”, “conforming”, as he does, “to the [Gentiles’] idea of what a Jew should be”, even as Kael spends much of her own essay arguing the exact opposite: that Judaism is openness and laughter, and therefore ill-fitting a “Jew” like the one Allen unconsciously depicts. I mean, can one seriously read such horribly dated ‘insights’ today with a straight face? It seems that Kael, by being a Jew, herself, was as ‘free’ to be as tribal and narrow-minded as she damn well pleased, provided, of course, the object of her invective was a Jew, as well. A ‘bad’ Jew, she would argue in self-justification; a Jew that needed to break out his own self-stereotyping, yet when he does exactly that, she pouts, for it is not the way she’d do it, herself.
October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Sheremet

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