May 16, 2015 by admin
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a documentary in the works; see the trailer.
Category: Kael, Movies
I’ve heard Kael say critics other than her were afraid to give bad reviews, and now I’m seeing it repeated in this trailer. What does everybody think of this claim, does she stand out particularly in this regard? Or does she just stand out in terms of certain specific movies, which is….not quite the same thing. I see bad reviews all over the place, and have for as long as I’ve been cognizant of film reviews (i.e. the 70s).
Vic, I’m guessing this is a true enough idea, though within a specific context, perhaps? (And allowing for the fact that it’s clearly not an absolute.) Obviously, I would say it was more true in Kael’s earlier years as a critic than in her later years (and probably even moreso when her criticism was heard on radio and not read in magazines). Also, I assume she was referring to certain streams of reviewers, i.e., those in the daily newspapers, whose copy may not have been anthologized in books the way hers and Sarris’s and Kauffman’s et al. were, but who dominated movie coverage in terms of exposure, i.e., having their positive words splattered across the ads and so forth. I’m just taking a stab at this.
It’s interesting what a big deal having strong opinions was for critics back then. It’s far down the list of what I look for now.
Just to clarify, I’m suggesting that by the time you (and I) were old enough to know anything about movie reviews, this does no longer remotely apply– and I’m assuming Kael either said such a thing much earlier, or was referring back to an earlier period when she did say it. The comment almost certainly predates the ’70s, maybe even the ’60s.
That makes sense, Scott.
I’m out of my depth again (keep the pole handy), but I get the impression that she had some major shifts in taste too between the 60s and 70s? Some of her early 60s remarks sound like they come from a traditional, even stodgy, aesthetic (strong binary between serious art and trash expressed often). Anyway I’ll be interested in seeing the movie, I’d imagine in about 4 years when it shows up on Netflix.
I’m with Vic on this, Scott — as I told you in my email earlier, I had this romantic idea (gained from your and so many other people’s fandom toward Pauline Kael) that she was something of a movie-critic predecessor of Lester Bangs, i.e., a populist rebel against conventional critical thought. Then I did my first real reading of Kael, her early “I Lost It at the Movies” anthology, and was shocked by how reactionary she comes through in so many of the pieces.
It seems like the theme of the collection is contrarianism for its own sake, especially directed at the male film critics dominating that scene in the early ’60s — throughout, if Bosley Crowther and the other august dons find a given movie too avant garde, she condemns them as hopeless philistines. But if these same authorities happen to praise a modernist movie, then all of a sudden Kael is on the side of the traditional values of her father’s small-town Republicanism. I mean, I can see why she might want to be so automatically oppositional, trying to break through an old boys’ club like that, but in some of these reviews she’s so busy pulling Bosley Crowther’s whiskers that she forgets to tell us much about the movie itself.
And when Kael falls back on that main-street-knows-best argument, as she seems to do so often in “I Lost It at the Movies”, she says some things I find pretty creepy, as on “A View from the Bridge”: “The problem is right at the center of [Arthur] Miller’s conception: in some peculiarly muddled democratic way he is trying to make a tragic hero out of a common man. But a hero cannot be a common man: he must have greater aspirations, ambitions, drives, or dreams than other men.” I’m sorry, perilous Pauline, but that’s just pure Ayn Rand, sez this muddled democrat. Kael’s relentless negativity toward homosexuality throughout this book is even more offensive to me; I realize that at the time she was writing these pieces, homosexuality was still not widely acceptable, in fact not even legal in many places, but you would think someone like Kael, with her acquaintance with the arts and a general bohemian scene, would have encountered enough gay people by then to learn to appreciate them as fellow seekers.
Kael’s definitely a fine (prose) writer in “I Lost It at the Movies”, as in her comment about novelist Henry James, to the effect that he “chewed more than he could bite off” (sorry, I can’t find the exact quote now, but the concept is perfect.) I could really go for Kael IF she gets over that kneejerk conservatism as she goes on through the ’60s and ’70s — Vic hints at that transition, and I’m counting on it.
In the meantime, if the “What She Said” documentary requires crowdfunding to get off the ground, I’m going to have to respectfully decline making a contribution, as I’m sure the ghost of Pauline Kael ’64 would find that gesture far too COMMUNISTIC.
For whatever it’s worth, Richard, I’ve encountered a few readers online in the last few years (usually through chat boards) who loathe Lester Bangs, precisely because he was no stranger himself to racial and same-sex epithets–and writing in a supposedly much more enlightened (i.e., later) era than the one you’re discussing (and it’s not like Creem, under Bangs’s tutelage, was a bastion of right-thinking equal-rights non-sexist liberalism either). Yes, I’m avoiding thoughts on Kael and throwing Bangs back in your face, in part because these things are not always as reducable as they appear, and also because I never really wanted to get in to it about Kael anyway; I’m a fan, but don’t have the heart (or the time) to try and convince the unconvinced (my frame of reference for her is also fairly limited–she wrote about so many movies I’ve never watched, or heard of, inevitably I gravitated towards her reviews of some of my faves, while conveniently forgetting much of the rest).
No, you’re right about Bangs, Scott, in fact some guy was fussing about Lester’s “homophobia” on the Rock’s Backpages Facebook page just recently. I don’t think he gave any examples there, but he wouldn’t have to go far, he could simply cite Lester’s notorious “Johnny Ray’s Better Whirlpool” meditation on David Bowie (January 1975 Creem) which invokes both the N-word and the F-word repeatedly. I’d just met Lester a few months before, and I couldn’t figure out what he was up to in ranting out those hateful words, whether it was some kind of new “punk” rhetoric that was beyond my ken. Later, of course, came those anecdotes of Lester Bangs, the great lover and explicator of black music, especially jazz, making obnoxious racist remarks in bars, sometimes necessitating his handlers having to hustle him out to avoid violence. I can’t defend any of that side of Lester, and don’t really understand it, unless his undoubted verbal genius meant that all sorts of words (both proper and improper) were zooming around his brain all the time, and making themselves into phrases that sometimes got shot out into the open, as though he had a touch of Tourette’s Syndrome. No excuse, I just don’t know.
After posting my piece on Pauline Kael above, and before you responded, it occurred to me that I’d let her political stances get me off the track of the comparison to Lester Bangs I’d originally had in mind when I picked up her book, namely that she might have written in the confessional style Lester had picked up from the Beat writers. Kael was of exactly the same generation as Kerouac, Ginsberg, et.al., and the title of her first collection, “I Lost It at the Movies” teases us that some sort of interesting confession is coming, that even if Kael didn’t lose her virginity in a movie theater, maybe some comparable epiphany had happened there. Except for her famous account of going to see the movie “Shoeshine” right after “one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair,” there’s not a lot of personal experience (or at least not as much as I’d like to read, just to understand who she was) recounted in “I Lost It,” not when she wanted to use those column inches for all her polemical points.
Speaking of Lester’s “touch” as I did above, I think reading “I Lost It” triggered a touch of PTSD in your reporter. As it happens, the 1961-64 original publication dates of most of the pieces in Kael’s book coincide exactly with my high school years in Fayette County, Ohio, which had a heavy concentration of John Birch Society and other “lunatic fringe” right-wingers active at the time. They lost much of their steam after LBJ crushed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, but they did a lot of damage until then, including something I will never forgive, running my high school’s football coach out of town. His “crime” in their eyes? Using the academic courses he taught to cite the United States’ membership in the United Nations as a good investment toward world peace. And this was a guy who’d fought the Commies by serving as a Marine officer in the Korean War, for crissake! Anyway, finding Pauline Kael echoing a lot of that early-’60s right-wing mindset in her movie reviews, with exceptions (she didn’t seem to have a problem with fluoridation of public water supplies, while the Birchers in my home town weren’t complaining about homosexuality — at least not yet at that point), really rattled my liberal cage.
Don’t worry, Scott, I intend to continue studying Kael’s writings, I’m impressed that so many people like you and good grey Greil admire her so much, and I want to get in on that if I can. I think I started on the wrong end of her oeuvre, will try the latter-day stuff next time and hope for an epiphany.
Richard, thanks for the response. I’ve never really put a lot of thought into what Kael’s actual politics are, but my sense is that she was a liberal who was not immune to skewering the more bleeding heart and/or sectarian segments of the left — a tendency I share to some degree, as do many of my intellectual heroes. It’s a complex issue, again one I haven’t given enough thought to, to really comment on.
I would, however, almost caution against working your way backwards with Kael. For me, she lets some of her worst tendencies slip through in her later reviews (the need to denigrate anything perceived as too “serious,” for instance)–not enough to ruin them for me, but I’m already a fan. If I was being paid to “school” someone in Pauline, I’d say go right to her best collection, Deeper Into Moves, followed by Reeling. Both books cover the most interesting period, in my opinion, of her writing as well as of the movies (late 60s through to the mid ’70s). If her reviews of The Godfather, Mean Streets, some of the Altmans, Godards, etc. don’t captivate you in any way–I’d give up. Just my two cents. (“Give up” on Kael, I mean! Not life itself.)
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