How many critics get a biography? Ruskin, though he was rather more than a critic. Eliot, though he was also a rather important poet. Leavis, though he invented the idea that criticism might be more than a gentlemanly hobby. Of the weekly pundits, though, only Kenneth Tynan has had his life written up – and it has to be said that the attention was less for his prose style than for his anal fixation: all that spanking, all those vodka enemas.
Nothing so sordid and/or scintillating finds its way into the pages of Brian Kellow’s biography of the movie critic Pauline Kael. The book is subtitled ‘A Life in the Dark’, though don’t get the idea that Kellow has done the dirty on his subject. There isn’t any dirt. For all her salacious book titles – Taking It All In, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, I Lost It All at the Movies – and for all her salty vocabulary – ‘soft’, ‘whorey’, ‘pulpy’ – Kael was a devoted mother and grandmother who spent the bulk of her life doing nothing more exciting than watching, talking and writing about the cinema. It wasn’t so much that she lived a life in the dark as that she went into the limelight only to talk and write.
So it is that Kellow’s book is largely given over not to synopses of movie plots but to synopses of synopses of movie plots. The pages blur as you read about Kael’s dismissal of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or her rapture over Barbra Streisand’s turn in Yentl – not because what Kael had to say was otiose or dull, but because nine of the 10 books in which she collected pretty much all her pieces are still in print. And if you don’t want to go the expense of buying them all, the Library of America has just published The Age of Movies, an 856-page selection of her work that – with one striking exception – contains everything the non-movie-buff could need. Even if Kellow’s style matched that of his subject – and it doesn’t – this would be the place to start.
Hemingway once said that all American literature came out of Twain. Certainly Kael’s criticism did. Though her heroes growing up were Blackmur, Burke and Trilling (about whom, one learns from Kellow, she wrote an early, unpublished essay), her slangy, off-the-cuff rhythms grew out of her loathing of what she thought of as hackademia. (At Berkeley, where she majored in philosophy, she was chastised for writing ‘I’ rather than ‘one’ in her essays.) Her loose, buttonholing style, in which she doesn’t so much try to get readers on side as assume that they already are by addressing them in the second person (‘you’ think this about Steven Spielberg’s E.T., ‘you’ feel that about Cimino’s The Deer Hunter), sounds like Huck Finn would have done had the movies rather than the medicine man come to town. Even Dwight Macdonald, with whom she shared a distaste for the idea that art might be thought good for you, and to whom the young Kael wrote what Kellow calls ‘a kind of fan letter’, was a little stiff for her taste. Aggressively sure of herself, Kael would never start a sentence with a ‘Perhaps’, as Macdonald was wont to do, much less muddy its flow up with an ‘of course’ or an ‘in fact’. In fact, of course, there was no perhaps about it: thanks to the Pauline conversion, we all agreed with her and that was that.
Certainly a lot of editors did. During her 24-year tenure at the New Yorker, one after another of them wrote asking her to recommend a critic for their own publication. Often enough she helped out, because Kael got a lot of fan-mail, too, befriending the writers of some of the more percipient letters into the bargain. She pushed David Denby (himself now a New Yorker film critic) into his first job, on the Atlantic Monthly, and she was instrumental in the careers of James Wolcott, David Edelstein and this parish’s Steve Vineberg. Kellow doesn’t say so, but part of her disappointment at the removal of her protégé Michael Sragow from the New Yorker’s Current Cinema column was surely that Tina Brown replaced him with Anthony Lane – a lovely writer, to be sure, but just the kind of mocking, Belles Lettres ironist Kael had taken it as her duty to see off.