Open-Hearted Pauline Kael Would've Liked Two Can Play That Game

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After Pauline Kael's death there's one less person in the world who understands what matters. I felt that most painfully after a press screening of Two Can Play That Game where most of the white reviewers stared in stony silence at this charming romantic comedy about African-American dating habits. Whatever social gap was evident from their apparent resistance to black people's humor and beauty, there also has been, unmistakably, a collapse of the idea that movies could, in Kael's phrase, "reach the vast audience [and] express it, to make of the young movie art a true democratic art." That's the joy of seeing Vivica A. Fox's star turn in Two Can Play as she revives the Everybabe sass of a classic movie comedienne like Carole Lombard?the kind of achievement Kael was primed to notice and professionally poised at The New Yorker to legitimize. In doing so, she helped American pop culture to grow up and expand into what she called "the great, bastard, cross-fertilized super art."

No doubt some distinct cultural movements (such as the inroads made by impudent hiphop) undergird Two Can Play with its reveling in African-American behavior. But you need Kael's (or your own) openhearted approach to popular culture to recognize the significance of a bauble this sparkling. Fox doesn't have the automatic eminence a white actress like Julia Roberts takes for granted; but because Fox is the most gregarious actress in Hollywood today she gamely flirts with the audience to win its assent, working to show how her character Shanté Smith ideally embodies the desire for romance, the wish for absolute confidence, the All-American right to love and stardom. Appreciating elan like Fox's is part of Two Can Play's point?part of the progressiveness Kael often demonstrated as when she, alone of mainstream movie critics, praised the 1976 Sparkle (with its incandescent performances and original Curtis Mayfield song score). There's similar excitement in the way writer-director Mark Brown has finessed Two Can Play's slick and tickling black romance. Fox plays a successful marketing executive who counsels her three girlfriends' love troubles until her own rules backfire. Tangling with a buppie prince, Morris Chestnut, tests all her too-glib presumptions, catching the temper of today's sex wars?but so energetically it makes up for all the years Hollywood denied screwball comedies to black lovers.

Reassessing her priorities, Shanté looks right at the camera and breaks her principles down for us: "If you haven't noticed, I'm a sister. An educated, strong sister who knows where she came from and where she's going." But instead of giving sentient modern audiences their bearings?and preparing for the movie's exercise of contemporary mores?this conceit, instead, alienates those benighted viewers who have become less responsive to democratic expression than they like to pretend. It was almost 30 years ago when Kael observed of Ossie Davis' Black Girl, "I liked watching the people on the screen. They embody different backgrounds and different strategies for survival, and the phenomenal strength of the...actresses in the cast said more than the script itself... This has happened at the same time that black performers on TV and in movies have got close to us, just as white performers in the past got close to blacks. Despite racial fears, whites obviously accept black performers as part of American life, and respond to them in a new way. (I am told that big-city white families with several kids often have a black child; that is, a kid who wants so badly to be black that he or she talks as if he were, so that if you overhear him you assume he is black.)"

That last amazing quote shows what made Kael an extraordinary cultural commentator; the social awareness she applied to film-watching (while explicitly addressing The New Yorker's white readership) enlivened the national discourse itself. She could translate what seemed ineffable in pop culture so that one's half-conscious instinctual responses not only made sense but were elevated, and became culturally ideal. Without such a guide few people will grasp the significant way Shanté's narrative does the same. Her upgraded "ghetto" behavior, 'tude and smarts (as when her admiring phrase, "She work with a brother," describes a helpful black woman) are a challenge to this emotionally constricted movie era with its shrill, childish heroines like Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance, Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary and Marisa Tomei in Happy Accidents. In Two Can Play, the buppie fantasy is no longer a matter of black assimilation into white society (or white movie genres). Mark Brown forges Shanté's crisis and her love wisdom from past examples of upwardly mobile romanticism like For Love of Ivy and Boomerang. Shanté and her three chicly employed girlfriends Karen (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Tracye (Tamala Jones) and Diedre (Mo'Nique) gotta have it and they wait to exhale. But they also know how to dress and aggress. As Conny, the clique's ponytail-tossing, man-hunting nemesis, Gabrielle Union (Bring It On) makes a sensational entrance that Brown shoots from her legs up, detailing a red suit that exposes her bellybutton when the jacket flaps open. Like Shanté, she spectacularly confirms the big-screen arrival of the sexy black comedienne. Conny's faceoff with Shanté is as exquisitely feminine, yet tense and funny, as Garbo battling Ina Claire in Ninotchka. (Two Can Play taps Fox's full-out emotionalism and street skills; Shanté sizes up Conny with a superb "hold-that-thought" gesture?one finger held high in warning.)

By now, American movie culture should have accepted the belief in movie democracy and social democracy as part of the value of expressive entertainment that Kael championed. In 1973, she argued that "The movies for blacks have something that white movies have lost or grown beyond. I point this out because I think it's something that whites miss." Commenting on The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Kael reasoned, "There is probably no imaginable way that at this point in American history we could be as deeply moved by a white woman's story?no matter how much truth there was in it?as we are by this black woman's story." And these statements also describe why Two Can Play delights?perhaps not for ethnically segregated audiences but for culturally liberated ones. I take white critics' indifference to it as a sign that the culture has discarded cross-cultural sympathies of the past for a new kind of group isolation (relegating black performers to noninstructive stereotypes). A culture that celebrates the ribald Sex and the City as heterosexual amusement (despite its drag-queen subtext) but ignores Two Can Play suffers a cultural segregation that Kael's boldest writing sought to vanquish. Kael understood movies the way some people understand soul music?enjoying rhythm, kinetics, sensuality, vivid imagery. She never mistook the hokey for something new, as most colleagues do. And she avidly appreciated black film performers. That's why she could sensibly praise movies like Sounder and Sparkle and The Landlord in non-condescending terms.

Critical neglect of Two Can Play suggests those terms have been lost?and with them, the capacity to glean pleasure and insight from Shanté and her friends hashing out romance better than today's forgettable teen sex comedies. When the men (Chestnut as Shanté's lover Keith and Anthony Anderson as his confidant Tony) take the screen, discussing "Vulnerability?that's the big dick of emotion!" or plotting to "Give her a little of that Denzel eye thing, that L.L. lip action," Two Can Play fulfills the balance promised in its title. (The hilarity recalls recent traveling vaudeville shows like Beauty Shop, but Brown obviously means to evoke August Wilson's folkloric Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars.) Other characters?whites?don't violate Shanté and Keith's game or the film's pact with an audience's romantic inquiry. These buppies-in-love work out personal and political problems not seen in other Hollywood romances. There is subtle class consciousness in Shanté talking to the audience from her sleek office and plush home; her dreamlife maintains a populist emotional connection while revealing the need for realness?that's definitely something white movies have lost since the Depression. Two seduction scenes happen during business affairs (Coca-Cola and Miller Genuine Draft media parties meant to pace love progress by commercial progress?a true buppie fantasy) but equally credible?and even more revealing?is a sequence when Shanté retreats from love wars and goes to church. Singing "It's Me Oh Lord (Standing in the Need of Prayer)" amidst a congregation of mostly hat-wearing sisters, she deploys church as a black female bastion (meanwhile Keith exercises, boxes, dribbles). It's a more recognizable view of black middle-class survival strategies than most movies ever allow.

Two Can Play is never as compelling as R. Kelly's "A Woman's Threat" and Aaliyah's "We Need a Resolution," the most extraordinary pop songs this year, but it echoes the sensibility of each one while expressing the vast movie audience's common yearnings. My guess is that Pauline would have enjoyed Two Can Play's combination of lusty entertainment and good counsel.

?I wanted the above to pay tribute to Pauline Kael without being a fan's notes. Even before her retirement in 1990, acolytes had reduced Pauline's ideas and phrases to a simplistic pleasure esthetic. I prefer to recall the principles within her criticism?not watching films exactly as she did, nor repeating her vivid, ardent phrases or corrupting her personal esthetic, but appreciating aspects of movies to which she more than any other critic was sensitive. She changed the way people watched film by exciting them to respond in fresh, openhearted ways. It was her true erudition that made Bertolucci's career as surely as it made Morgan Freeman's, Brian De Palma's and inspired a movie-struck kid from Detroit...

Pauline gave a young reader connection to a world of culture and enlightened social responses?a combination that made her the greatest and least narcissistic of New Journalists. Lots of her passions have been corrupted by glib regurgitation?most of all her 1968 "Trash, Art and the Movies," a polemic as completely misunderstood today as her own underrating of Von Sternberg was then. (Still, she got almost everything else in it right.) Less easy to confuse was her prophetic 1974 "On the Future of Movies"?a cri de coeur too radical to be widely anthologized, it distilled the moral rigor within Kael's strictest standards. And though her followers think they had her sussed, fact is many of them fell for The Piano, Pulp Fiction, American Beauty while she knew better. They didn't get Beloved or Mission to Mars but it was a blessing beyond my ability to express to know her and discover that she did. If cinema from here on continues to hold interest it's partly because Kael explained why (just read her on Intolerance, L'Avventura, McCabe & Mrs. Miller or her epigraph on Samson Raphaelson). She made it possible for others in the world to understand what matters.

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