In 1978, I experienced my first foreign epic, Bertolucci’s 1900 (Novacento). A propagandistic saga about class and coming of age, at a shortened 4.25 hours it was still a luxurious, grand folly. De Niro and Depardieu as childhood friends then competitors; the gorgeous Dominique Sanda; Burt Lancaster as a family patriarch; Donald Sutherland playing a Fascist as “only a very dedicated liberal” could: “hyperbolic … grotesque … curling of lips, baring of jagged teeth, and flashing of demented eyes …”
Next day, I found a copy of the New Yorker at the local library with “Hail, Folly!”, a review that praised Bertolucci’s “crazed utopian romanticism” while still being appalled by his vision, its flaws and the occasional horrific scene (one featuring Sutherland and a cat, hence that line above). The review was equally epic, flamboyant and unforgettable. The final lines were: “… a grand visionary folly. Next to it, all the other new movies are like something you hold up at the end of a toothpick.”
The critic was Pauline Kael, the issue was 31 October 1977, but the review is collected in her 70s anthology When the Lights Go Down. A new Kael collection and the first biography are about to be published, and the New Yorker has marked the occasion with an essay by Nathan Heller. The magazine’s astute sub-editor of its film reviews Richard Brody also blogs about Kael’s foibles, includes links to other tributes, and directs the reader to her collection of capsule reviews 5001 Nights at the Movies for the nearest she ever got to declaring her canon. When Kael died 10 years ago, Brody provided links to other tributes, at Salon and The Cooler; on her 80th birthday in 1999 Salon published “A Gift for Effrontery”, a profile of Kael, and they have just published a slideshow of their selections of great film books.
Without visiting the library though, we can spend half an hour in the company of the woman herself: