There is [Renata Adler's] famous Pauline Kael review. It is hard to remember what a cultural despot Kael, then the New Yorker‘s film critic, was when Adler took her down in 1980. Kael was bully, drama queen, suck-up, disciplinarian, hysteric, and — taking jobs and inducements from the people she promoted — a bit corrupt, too. Still, opprobrium yet attaches to Adler for her sweeping emperor’s-new-clothes leveling of Kael; and it certainly earned her no points with the New Yorker, their mutual employer.
But the rightness of Adler’s view of Kael as nasty, self-promoting gasbag only become more obvious as Kael’s reputation disappeared after she lost her New Yorker post and power. She was unreadable, said Adler; and indeed, Kael isunread now.
- Michael Wolff, in an obvious hit job on Kael, masquerading as an appraisal of Renata Adler. “Suck-up” is ridiculous, though I suppose you could call it a matter of opinion. Suggesting that Kael was fired from the New Yorker and that she is now “unread” — well, those are just blatant lies. As usual, I blame the writer here less than I blame whoever it was that edited this garbage. All I can come up with here is that:
a) said editor doesn’t know who Pauline Kael is, so would not think to challenge such ridiculous assertions;
b) said editor is so thrilled to be editing a writer of Wolff’s stature that they dare not challenge such ridiculous assertions;
c) for purely economic reasons, said editor (the kind, I mean, who isn’t employed merely to check for grammar and spelling mistakes but to actually critique the writing itself, work to make it better) doesn’t actually exist. Said editor, in this case, might actually be an unpaid, straight-out-of-college intern.
But I especially like this shirt as a symbol. Just the idea of people wearing t-shirts of a film critic makes me happy. I know a few of you wear a shirt of my logo, which is obviously the best thing you could do ever. But this one is amazing because it looks like a rock t-shirt. It treats analysis of film art as rock ‘n roll. It says “Fuck you. I’m wearing a shirt of Pauline Kael.”
Come on, one of you guys must be in a band or something. I want to see you up there playing bass and you got fuckin chromed out PAULINE KAEL glimmering on your chest. And the kids gotta look it up to find out what it is. And then they’re gonna scratch their heads. You need to do this for me, and for the world.
- Vern, Outlaw Critic
Spreading the love, and the logo, where and when I can. (I wonder if he takes special orders; wouldn’t mind a “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” hoodie.)
From Brian Kellow‘s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. The argument here seems to be “Let them grow up” (Kael) vs. “Use what you know to help shape their tastes” (Barra). I’m with Kael on this one, but it’s murky ground, especially when you consider the impulse to proselytize, which is part and parcel (well, to some degree, and not to the same degree for everyone obviously) of being a critic.
And there was one more moment between us. She called me. She was in the hospital, although she didn’t say that. Her voice was weak, this writer whose voice was always so strong, all brass section, all parade. ‘What will become of all of you?’ she asked. ‘What will you do with no good movies?’ How do you answer that? I tried to keep it cheery. ‘Have you heard about this movie In the Bedroom?’ I had seen that, a few weeks earlier. It was the first movie that came to mind. ‘Oh, someone sent it to me,’ she said. For a moment she sounded like herself, confident, more than a little bossy, sexy in her very personal way.’It’s just a piece of shit, honey. That’s all it is. That’s all anything is, mostly.’ Then I could hear her starting to fade. ‘Except for Sissy Spacek, of course. Who has ever been like her? Or Diane Keaton! Or Streisand, in Yentl. God, I adored that strange girl in Carrie —’
Something I’ve said more than once over the years is that the three biggest influences on me among writers are Pauline Kael, Bill James, and Greil Marcus. I consider myself lucky to have had some contact with two of them. I interviewed Marcus back when I first started writing, and he later contributed a few comments to my old fanzine; the past couple of years I’ve submitted the occasional question to the “Hey Bill” section of James’s website, and he’s responded to most of them. Something I often regret, though, is that I never sent any of my writing to Pauline Kael. I’ve primarily written about music the past 25 years, but I wish I’d sent her a piece I wrote about the best uses of pop music in Scorsese’s films—an idea that I bet has been done to death now, but which I think was fairly novel when I wrote it up for Scott’s Popped website in the late ‘90s—or a couple of pieces I did for Cinemascope around the same time, which would have been a couple of years before Kael’s death. I have no idea whether I would have had any success in getting anything to her, whether she would have liked any of it if I had, or even whether she would have bothered reading it in the first place. I’m guessing she was bombarded with stuff on a constant basis and from all directions—from the now infamous Wes Anderson solicitation to see Rushmore, to fan letters and invitations and everything in between.
Letter from Kael arrives in the mail: “Thank you for the Scorsese article, Phil. I don’t know what you’ve got here, young man…”
Wasn’t meant to be. Some consolation arrived this past year by way of A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael. If you check in regularly with rockcritics.com, you’ll know that Scott recently posted a number of links to reviews of Kellow’s book (sometimes reviewed in tandem with The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, the third career overview of Kael’s reviews). I’m tempted to say that it’s amazing the amount of interest—often rawly contentious—that Kellow’s book has generated, but I suspect that anyone who has ever strongly felt the pull of Kael’s writing would not be surprised. People have been arguing about Kael since the mid-‘60s; the arguments didn’t stop with her retirement in 1991, and they didn’t stop with her death in 2001. There are a couple of ILX threads devoted to Kael where I’ve been posting the last couple of years, and while (to the best of my knowledge) no one on there ever personally knew Kael, some of the back and forth can get very barbed on occasion. That’s Kael. That readers can still feel so strongly about her in 2011—and I can’t think of another writer I’ve ever argued about so much; a couple of music writers are close—is, to me, the truest barometer you’ll find of just how strong that pull was. (Or, if you aren’t a fan, of how strong your aversion is. Kael’s detractors have always been fierce. But as I say in the accompanying interview, “the circle of people I travel in”—Jesus, where do I come up with this stuff?—is almost exclusively made up of fans.)
Between the message board, Kellow’s book, reviews of the book, and James Wolcott’s Lucking Out (in which Kael figures prominently) on top of all that, I’m a little Kaeled out at the moment, but before I hand it over to Brian, let me say that I think A Life in the Dark is excellent. Its portrayal of Kael did not in any way conflict with my sense of her as a reader (I feel like I have to stress that; some reviews written by friends of Kael’s—some, not by any means all—disagree), and my recognition of her influence on me has deepened. A lot of Kael’s own words make their way into A Life in the Dark via review excerpts, and I liked that: as I wrote on the message board, these excerpts—and the almost month-by-month timeline of the films that caught Kael’s attention—construct a parallel story, the story of American film from the late ‘60s through to the late ‘80s (but American films in the ‘70s especially, which has always been my own frame of reference), that is inseparable from Kael’s. Does Kellow always agree with Kael’s verdict on specific films? No—he’ll sometimes say so. Did I? No. Do I always agree with Kellow’s occasional disagreements with Kael? No. Does any of that detract from the book for me? No. The main thing was that it always felt like I was reading someone who’d been as permanently shaped by the likes of Reeling and Deeper Into Movies as I’ve been, ever since first discovering Kael at some point near the end of high school. There’s an oft-quoted line of Kael’s (a friend has it on the masthead of his blog) from her introduction to For Keeps, one of those earlier career overviews: “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” True—I wouldn’t try to argue that Kael’s body of work did not leave behind a complete world. But I’m still very glad that A Life in the Dark exists.
“One of the most powerful truths to be gleaned from examining Pauline’s life is that it was, throughout its span, a triumph of instinct over an astonishing intellect. Her highly emotional responses to art were what enabled her to make so indelible a mark as a critic. On the surface, it might seem that any critic does the same thing, but it’s doubtful that any critic ever had so little barrier between herself and her subject. She connected with film the way a great actor is supposed to connect with his text, and she took her readers to places they never could have imagined a mere movie review could transport them.”
Phillip Lopate reviews the bio in Film Comment: “Anyone who has hung around film critic circles will know that narrowing human thinness and provincialism that can set in when there is no other focus but movie talk.”
Nick Pinkerton pans the book at Sundance Now blog: “I doubt I would’ve read Kellow’s Kael bio were it not for the fact that I was paid to do so…”
Interview with Kellow by Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running: “Her nephew, Bret Wallach, told me that when he was participating in campus demonstrations at Berkeley, she was very much against it. He was stunned because he had always thought of her, I guess, as rebellious Aunt Pauline, constantly giving the finger to the establishment. But she was not in favor of anything that was going to lead you to a point of alienation or isolation. She wanted to be in it. In the vortex, at the vortex.”
Jill Krementz covers a celebration of Pauline Kael (Krementz photographed Kael often during the seventies, and many of her photos are featured in Kellow’s book.)
Bronx Banter interview with Sanford Schwartz, editor of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael: “Kael made reading movie reviews a more intimate and personal experience than it had ever been before. Little criticism of any kind conveyed a comparable sense of there being such a powerful, funny, opinionated, scarily shrewd, and common sensical voice there, talking to you. You wanted to know what she thought about everything. You don’t feel this with most journalists, whether they are reviewing an art of doing a political column.” (Link also includes a number of PK quotes from various interviews and some cool scans.)
Reflections on Pauline Kael, by Steve Vineberg (Critics at Large): “Kellow’s misreading gets in the way when he tries to psychoanalyze Kael through her reviews — a temptation that probably no biographer of a writer could resist, but perhaps particularly misguided in this case, since Kael was so nakedly autobiographical in her writing. (It’s unlikely that anyone who confesses that she saw Vittorio De Sica’s devastating Shoeshine after a terrible, unresolvable quarrel with her boyfriend needs to have her judgments examined for hidden motives.)”
I know, I said I was done with all this, but there’s just too much good stuff to ignore (someone could compile a book of interesting reviews about this book)*. I strongly recommend reading all of these, they are not perfunctory.
It’s becoming pretty clear to me that I’m not going to be able to keep up with the incredible deluge of Kael stuff floating around the web right now, so this may or may not be the last roundup for a bit. Teaser alert, though: we have some original content slated for here as well, but that’s a little down the road. Anyway, here’s a snapshot of some of the recent reviews, interviews, etc.
Tom Carson: “Unlike those sturdy adolescents whose sexual initiation (‘Tante Alice wasn’t a blood relative’) or political primal scene (‘The Pinkertons shot Pops at noon’) made their fifteenth birthdays memorable, the most transformative event of mine was neither erotic nor radicalizing. Except, perhaps, in totally figurative senses of both words. Having noticed I liked movies, my parents gave me a Bantam paperback called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. If either cake or a baseball bat was in the picture, they’ve both ended up on memory’s cutting-room floor.
“Published the year before she turned fifty, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was Kael’s second collection of criticism. Her first had been 1965′s I Lost It at the Movies, which I quickly devoured as well. Mind, lots of the time, I didn’t know what she was talking about, from her demolitions of my adolescent canon — why wasn’t The Longest Day even in the index? Who were François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa, Joe McCarthy, Bertrand Russell? — to the aphorism that led off her killer job on West Side Story: ‘Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider.’ I just knew I wanted to think like that, live like that. (Write like that, too — and fat chance.) Though it wouldn’t be released until later, I fear the most appropriate movie for me to have watched in Pauline’s company just then would have been Truffaut’s The Wild Child.”
Roger Ebert: “That was her influence, and you can see it reflected all over the web, probably by some critics who have never read her. It is all first person. Before the auteurists, when France was already the center of film criticism and theory, the critics of the important newspapers and magazines reflected the policies of the publication. In America, reviews were usually more sedate and removed (Manny Farber here being the exception, as he was to everything). Pauline Kael blew those attitudes out of the water. In my reviews and those of a great many others you are going to find, for better or worse, my feelings. I feel a responsibility to provide some notion of what you’re getting yourself in for, but after that it’s all subjective.”
Camille Paglia: “What excited me anew about Kael’s work is that, even though she was writing solely about movies, she was constantly inventing fascinating paradigms and templates for talking about the creative process as well as the audience’s imaginative experience of performance. Because most of my career in the classroom has been at art schools (beginning at Bennington in the 1970s), I am hyper-aware of the often grotesque disconnect between commentary on the arts and the actual practice or production of the arts. Kael had phenomenal intuition and gut instinct about so many things—the inner lives of directors and actors, the tangible world of a given film, the energy of film editing.”
Self-Styled Siren (on Kael and James Wolcott): “Reading Lucking Out before A Life in the Dark is a good idea. You go from Wolcott’s time when ‘there was no happier calling than making Pauline laugh,’ to a view of her whole life. I was familiar with Kellow’s calm, meticulous writing and research from his biography of the Bennett sisters, which I also recommend. It’s good to see Kellow bring his determined ‘on one hand…on the other hand’ approach to Kael in this excellent biography. Because with Kael, there is always another hand. She was controversial from the moment she picked up a pencil.”
Jason Bailey, Village Voice: “While Kellow’s analysis is often trenchant (‘The life was seeping out of the film movement of the 1970s, and she knew it. All the more reason, then, to intensify her advocacy for the movies she loved, even for those that she thought simply showed promise’), his conclusions are frequently puzzling. He slams Kael’s appraisal of Ellen Burstyn’s performance in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore for ‘speculating on the private thought processes of the actress’ and engaging in ‘crystal-ball gazing, pure and simple’that is ‘quite out of critical bounds.’ According to whom?”
Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly: “As for Kellow’s second strength, it’s an elegantly simple one: He’s a movie lover but not a professional critic. Kael had many axes to grind, but Kellow appears to have none. He just pays attention — an asset for anyone who loves life in the dark.”
Somewhat related: Richard Brody, in this New Yorker piece uses Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson’s Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood 1979-1983 (edited by Kevin Avery) as a launch pad to discuss the hostility between Kael and Clint Eastwood. Nice to see Brody giving the Nelson/Eastwood book its due, but his axe-grindey conclusion is something else: “P.P.S. The returns have long been in, and, despite the friends and followers who colonize the columns of publications across the country, Pauline Kael has lost. Clint Eastwood is rightly recognized as one of the most distinguished directors of the last forty years (and his career continues to advance from strength to strength); the same is true of Woody Allen (she preferred the early, ‘funny’ Woody). Alfred Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, John Cassavetes, Otto Preminger are justly considered consummate artists; The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a locus classicus of the political cinema. Ishtar was welcomed with ecstasy at its 92nd Street Y screening last spring, and its creator, Elaine May, was received like the exiled heroine returning. Nobody would mistake Nashville for the cinematic second coming of Ulysses or Last Tango in Paris for that of “The Rite of Spring”; when Shoah returned last year, it was not discussed as a ‘long moan.’ And the list could go on for quite a while.” (Is this guy a critic or a scorekeeper?)
Kellow writes from the point of view of an admirer of Kael’s — like many of us, he came under the spell of one of her review collections when he was a movie-mad teen and then followed her week-by-week for the rest of her tenure at The New Yorker.
The book explores some of the critic’s eccentricities — she would never see a film more than once — and some problematic ethical areas (she became very close to filmmakers but did not disclose that fact in both positive and negative reviews).
Pauline is very fortunate in her biographer. Kellow, an erudite movie lover, features editor at Opera News and author of a book about another formidable woman, Ethel Merman, writes beautifully and dexterously interweaves the story of a career long-thwarted with a sensitive reading of his subject’s youthful enthusiasm and intellectual growth. To an impressive degree, he gets inside the head of a precocious, fearsomely smart young woman from small-town California and is able to describe what drove her, which authors turned her on (James, Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Woolf, Proust), her love of jazz and her distaste for aesthetic, religious and political dogma. So thoroughly does he portray the development of Pauline’s character and passionate engagement with matters aesthetic that it comes as no surprise she was able to burst onto the scene, at the relatively advanced age of 48, as one of the most dynamic cultural arbiters of the past century.
I saw Pauline Kael give a talk once, back in the spring of 1976, when she had just begun her latest six-month “vacation” from The New Yorker. She spoke for awhile, maybe half an hour, I can’t recall. Her topic was masculinity in movies, and she might have recalled her still-fresh essay on Cary Grant, although again, my memory isn’t much good for this. After she’d spoken, there was a question-and-answer period, and one by one, people from the audience (it was in Zellerbach, for folks who know about Berkeley), given the chance to say a sentence or two to Pauline, would inevitably call up the name of some movie they loved that Kael hadn’t reviewed, asking her what she thought of that movie.
Thirty-five years later, I feel like that night I got an early preview of what it would be like when she died. You see a new movie, and you wonder what Kael would have thought.
He’ll only be recognized here, I suspect, by Canadian movie lovers, but his impact can’t be dismissed: for 25 years, from 1974-1999, he hosted TV Ontario’s “Saturday Night at the Movies,” a showcase for so many classic, brilliant films of all genres and eras and persuasions (during the ’80s, especially, I practically had my VCR set on automatic record every Saturday night at 8:00).
He was no critic: He seemed to relish everything, and his interviews with filmmakers and movie stars were breathless — not to say gushing — encounters. Elwy could hardly wait for the subject to finish the answer before he was saying how marvellous or interesting it was. It was that pure joy that made Elwy such a reassuring and refreshing TV presence.
True enough, “he was no critic,” but his show certainly provided a critical function of sorts; it was a repertory cinema in your living room, basically (sans commercials; TVO is publicly funded). Also, he did interview movie critics, including Kael. (There are clips from that interview in this documentary on the auteur theory.) I e-mailed a program director at TVO several years ago, not long after Kael died, asking if they might consider replaying the entire interview, but I never heard back. It’d be great if it came to light at some point.
The rest of [Adler's] essay is consumed with relentless, lawyerly citations of Kael’s alleged critical sins, argued with the fervor of a causist possessed. A 1979 graduate of Yale Law School, the 41-year-old reporter laboured on the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment staff and secretly wrote speeches for Chairman Rodino. Kael, in a sense, became her Nixon.
Pauline Kael died 10 years ago this summer, only a few days before 9/11; most remembrances of her were lost in the haze and fury. I’ve been thinking about Kael a lot recently, missing her bawdy and crackling voice, wondering what she’d say if she were alive to weigh in on, say, Black Swan or The Social Network. (I suspect she’d have smacked both around, while finding things to enjoy about David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s work in the Facebook movie.)