Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Favorite Film Critics Series #1: Kim Morgan

For me, nothing is more exciting--and occasionally upsetting--than discovering another writer who not only thinks as I do and writes similar to my style, but does it better, and started doing it earlier. The writers who inspired me originally--in high school libraries mainly caught my eye because they loved good movies in an infectious, uncorny manner: Robin Wood writing about Howard Hawks or horror films; Pauline Kael writing about Taxi Driver and Last Tango in Paris; Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Encyclopedia. The love these writers felt was palpable and strong. Manny Farber and James Agee were next for me, as manly men writers of the American abstract 1950s style, showing how criticism could sing with a poetry and zing that was almost macho.

Kim Morgan, however, is to me perhaps the best and most fearless of them all... and my favorite. It's especially vexing (in a good way) that she's, by all accounts and photographs, a smokin' hot blonde babe who drives a Gran Turino, but she'll turn around and champion a film like IRREVERSIBLE or stick up for a media whipping boy like Nic Cage, and do so with a trenchant alacrity and snappy journalistic rhythm (explained perhaps by her origins as a film critic at the Oregonian in Portland). Compared to Kim, most film writers--and certainly editors--are completely unconscious, dutifully doling out what they thing writing "should" be about and not daring to say what they really feel, down in their dark heart of hearts.

There's some unwritten expectation that once a woman breaks "free" -- ala Thelma and Louise and Camille Paglia--she can't survive and thrive in our sleepy mall society. She has to crack up, overdose, become, as they derogatorily put it, a Suicide girl (tm) or worse, become a Stepford mom. Any female not safely contained in labels and square holes is a genuine threat to them. They want their female writers to dye her hair black and wear glasses. To use VERTIGO as a template, the Jimmies of the world want Midge in one corner and Madeline far away in another, quiet and remote. Give them the beauty and style of Madeline matched to Midge's sharp two-fisted intellect and they start getting defensive.

I love that Kim loves Camille Paglia and isn't afraid to talk about the appeal of primal rape fantasies in film. I'm the kind of guy who will never see IRREVERSIBLE, for example, but I'm thrilled that Kim Morgan sticks up for it, that she gets Gasper Noe, that she doesn't let Laura Mulvey's male gaze hysterics ruin her appreciation, that she's tapped into the primal masochism of the original pre-code female movie viewer, the depression-era sweethearts who wanted their women suffering and bleeding from their stigmata one minute and wearing dynamite fur wraps and seducing Clark Gable the next. It's the sort of evolved, Batailles-style sex and violence okayness that sends half of liberal arts academia running for the torches and pitchforks and the other half mistaking it for a come-on. She can swoon over Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood like a rabid fan yet stay a damn good woman writer and ass-kicking chthonic feminist. Through her mix of journalistic brevity, intellectual cajones, and rock and roll daring, her cinematic lust is alchemically transformed into prosaic gold, enabling her to venture deep into the darkness without dimming her wattage, such as her sympathy for the twisted car fetishists in Cronenberg's CRASH:

Though the novel's relentless descriptions of bodily fluids and organs coalescing with twisted steel ("his semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered forever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine") are rendered less graphic by Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard's vision of the "liberation of human and machine libido" remains potently intact. In both novel and film form, Crash takes a non-moral and non-celebratory approach to its subject matter, creating an alternative perception of the physical world that is as beautiful as its is horrific.
Not unlike the characters in CRASH, Kim Morgan creates a strange beauty out of the sometimes repulsive cinema she discusses. Being a woman is inherent in her style and we realize in reading her site Sunset Gun that we don't really know too many women who tell it like it is in such a no hold barred but colossal way. For most feminist academes, for example, REPULSION (pictured below) is perhaps a clinical disturbing study of patriarchy's damaging effect on a mentally ill vixen. But Kim isn't going to be hung up on dogma; her eye can find poetry in places most of us are terrified to even look:
Deneuve's loveliness makes Carol's madness more palatable (her unfortunate suitor thinks she is odd, but he can't help but "love" this gorgeous woman), but eventually it becomes horrifying. Carol is not simply a Hitchcockian aberration of what lies beneath the "perfect woman," she is the reflection of what lies beneath repressed desire -- in men and women.

What poor Deneuve in REPULSION really needed, of course, was her own blog and something that she was passionate about, a place to vent and express the twisting serpents of her mind (perhaps Polanski is expressing what the nightmare of life without movies would be). Because Kim trusts her own equilibrium, rather than leaning on feminist dogma's ropes, we finally begin to understand the Svengali-like powers of artists like Roman Polanski and Roger Vadim, as in her praise of IF DON JUAN WERE A WOMAN:

(Bardot) let herself age without surgery. And now everyone thinks she's nutty. And some even recoil at her face, even though it was that very lifestyle men so desired -- bikini on the beach, ciggies, wine, sex and song, that lined it so. Again, this is a feminist -- not whiny Naomi Wolf and her boring "Beauty Myth," or all those sensitive men who lust on and on about Helen Mirren (who is hot, don’t get me wrong) but to the point where they simply want women to pat them on the back for digging an older gal. Mirren’s easy. Tell me you want some Judi Dench action and I’ll give you credit. And like Ms. Dench (though never a raving beauty and one whose career flourishes) in that bathtub scene during her genius performance in Notes on a Scandal, BB says, fuck you, this is me.

In a single paragraph she takes feminism past the tired materialism of the third wave and out into the desert on a vision quest; she swoops down like an angel to pluck Thelma and Louise from their falling cadillac. She's the redeemer of rock and roll noir, the return of all the great stuff we lost when the 1970s ended. She's freedom, love, and speed. She's the Amelia Earhart of the desert roadside attraction. Visit her site, Sunset Gun, and dig the cool crazy glamor, exhaustive film knowledge and high octane wit that is my favorite critic, Kim Morgan.


  1. please check out the united kingdoms best film critic mark kermode

  2. I have, but there's not much about film there, just BBC TV and a lot of male vanity. Kermode makes Harlan Ellison seem like a humble Buddhist monk, not that there's anything wrong with that.

    Kim, by contrast, LOVES movies, cars, music, whereas Kermode is more like a solid British deadpan wit who talks about movies because that's what BBC assigned him. Still, his impression of Renee Zellweger is spot on.

  3. Wow! What a dreamboat! I mean that in a strictly intellectually stimulating way, of course.

  4. Damn right, Chimpbo. You should check out her site as she has a great piece on Mike Tyson right now