A critic with her finger on America’s pulse

The late New Yorker film writer Pauline Kael may have got some judgements badly wrong, but she grasped how movies reflected wider society.

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Though her heroes growing up were Blackmur, Burke and Trilling (about whom, one learns from Kellow, she wrote an early, unpublished essay), her slangy, off-the-cuff rhythms grew out of her loathing of what she thought of as hackademia.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.

Kael was the first film critic to feel in her bones that movies needn’t to bow down at the altar of high culture. Earlier critics had either thought film inferior to the novel or the theatre, or sought to bolster its reputation by drawing parallels between movies and music or poetry. Kael thought both approaches snobbish, the product of people who had come to the cinema late in life rather than grown up watching (a key Kael word) ‘trash’. She didn’t think movies stood alone, but she did think they were capable of standing on their own two feet. That meant that you judged a movie by the same essential criterion you judged an opera (her other favourite medium) by – whether it transported you, made you feel more alive, more vital.

And yet she always fought shy of calling the movies art. Indeed, she was so disdainful of the Sixties idea that cinema might be up there with Shakespeare and Mozart, that in a notorious essay she trashed Orson Welles for suggesting that Hollywood was no place for genius such as his. In ‘Raising Kane’ (the piece that’s missing from the Library of America selection) she not only took the critics’ chart-topper Citizen Kane down a peg or two, but also suggested it was the work not of Welles but of his screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. This was hooey, and not just because Mankiewicz never wrote anything else of note. Like it or not, Welles’s fingerprints – themes, motifs, compositions, characters – were all over the movie. It might not have been his alone, but his it emphatically was. Kael’s antipathy to the auteur theory – the theory that directors were to movies what writers were to novels and composers to symphonies – had blinded her to the fact of Welles’s astonishingly multifarious talents. Worse, it had blinded her to the truth. Peter Bogdanovich, who knew rather more than Kael about how movies were actually put together, published a lengthy rejoinder in Esquire in which he dismantled her argument point by point. ‘How am I going to answer this?’, Kael asked Woody Allen. ‘You don’t’, he said. She didn’t.

Why did Kael hate the auteurists? Largely because she thought of them as intellectuals and would-be scholars keen to carve out a bailiwick for themselves in a field hitherto untouched by academe. Certainly she distrusted anyone who had come to the movies late in life. She said that you had to have grown up loving kitsch – sickly sweet musicals, low comedies, cheapie thrillers – if you were to have any chance of judging movies later in life. Getting off on Antonioni at college wouldn’t do.

There is something to this philosophy. Open-eyed wonderment is the foundation stone of all aesthetic appreciation. (If you really want to appreciate what Titian and Tintoretto were up to, take a look at some bad paintings first.) But a foundation stone isn’t a building, and Kael’s influence has turned out almost entirely malign. She came to tell us that you could have as much fun at junk movies as you could at the established masterpieces. And so you can, but only if you know that there really are masterpieces out there, too. These days, few young film fans do.

Kael was lucky enough to have her career take off just as the American cinema entered its last great phase with the release of Bonnie and Clyde. (William Shawn hired her at the New Yorker on the strength of a spec piece she’d written on the movie.) She was at her peak in the days of The Godfather, Nashville, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull – days when it was mighty easy to take time out to watch a piece of junk because you knew it wasn’t all you had to watch. Not so today, and Kael must take some of the rap. Her suggestion that it was okay to like trash has too often been taken as an excuse for liking nothing else.

So why bother with her today? Because for all her numerous, knuckleheaded individual judgements – her devotion to the work of Brian de Palma, her dismissal of Meryl Streep – Kael had her finger on the cultural pulse. She saw how movies fitted into the bigger picture, saw how their plots and players embodied and expressed movements within society, saw, crucially, that movies needn’t merely be reflectors of that society. For all her double-entendres and tough-guy razzle-dazzle, she was a moralist and, at her best, she helped pin down the jive and jitter of a country in turmoil. Wilde said that all criticism is a form of autobiography. Pauline Kael’s criticism was biography, too. It told the life-story of her country as it began its long decline into imperial fantasy. And though she was often wrong about the movies that fictionalised that journey, she was right about the journey itself. Whether she merits a biography or not, she merits re-reading.

Christopher Bray is a freelance journalist and film writer. He is the author of Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man, published by Faber and Faber. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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