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

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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.

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
’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
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
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
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
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
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,
, McCabe & Mrs. Miller or her epigraph on Samson
Raphaelson). She made it possible for others in the world to understand what