Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

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 in high school caught my eye because they could convey their love for movies in an infectious manner: Robin Wood writing about Howard Hawks or Stephen King on horror films; Pauline Kael on Taxi Driver and Last Tango in Paris; Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Encyclopedia. The love these writers felt was conveyed with far more punk rock energy, film history savvy, and intelligence than any of the tired reviews I read in my dad's newspapers and old Times. By comparison, the self-satisfied wit of the bourgeoisie mainstream critics seemed stuffy, stale and far less intelligent than it thought. 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. But they weren't around in book form yet, that I knew. It took a long long while... and then Kim Morgan.

She is 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 in the grand noir tradition 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 of their own subtextual motivations, dutifully doling out what they think writing "should" be about and not daring to say what they really feel, down in their dark heart of hearts. Kim's heart of darkness is wide open... just follow her breadcrumb trail yellow highway dash words straight through it.

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 Grrl worse, a Stepford mom. Any female not safely contained in labels and square holes is a genuine threat to the ensconced bourgeois patriarchal journalist status quo. They want their female writers to dye their hair black and wear glasses --how else can we know they're intelligent? 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 Great 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 and then getting pissy when you turn them down. Kim can swoon over Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood like a rabid fan yet stay a damn good woman writer and ass-kicking chthonic feminist and bring both things infectiously together with far less words than I would use, to mean twice as much. Through her journalistic concision, intellectual cajones, and rock and roll daring, cinematic lust is alchemically transformed into prosaic gold, enabling her to venture deep into the void without dimming her wattage. Take 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 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, deliverance from bourgeois dogma and PC sexism. She's the Amelia Earhart of the desert roadside attraction. Visit Sunset Gun, and dig the cool crazy glamor, exhaustive film knowledge and high octane wit that is my beloved 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


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