Pauline Again (Naturally)

By Phil Dellio

I’m writing about Pauline Kael again. Cue Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III (one of Kael’s last reviews before her retirement, one that was perhaps a little too forgiving—I think she would have eviscerated that film in 1977).

I don’t really want out; I still enjoy talking and writing about her, and I expect I’ll be doing so for as long as I live. I had a flurry of Kael activity about 10 years ago, first when I interviewed Brian Kellow about A Life in the Dark, his Kael biography, and—an offshoot of that—also an intense and lengthy message-board argument with someone who didn’t like the book and ascribed all sorts of nefarious motivations and shortcomings to it that I found rather hysterical. Must have gone on for at least a couple of hundred posts; it was exhausting.

A year ago, another flurry. There was What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, a documentary that was a good companion piece to Kellow’s biography; not sure when it was released exactly, but I made the two-hour drive into Toronto to see it on Feb. 12 (I still have the ticket stub sitting on my desk). At the same time, I finally obtained a copy of Talking About Pauline Kael, a book I had been coveting for a few years. That must sound weird: if you’re so devoted to Kael, why would you covet rather than just buy the damn thing? Without getting into too much detail, it’s pricey—very pricey, as books published by smaller academic and university presses generally are. But, in a very Kael-like display of heedless spunk—kidding, kidding—I contacted the publisher and asked if they’d send me a copy if I promised to write about on my homepage. Which they graciously did. I read the book immediately, saw the documentary, and, come March, I was all set to go.

At which point, I got badly sidetracked for the next few weeks—no explanation necessary, right? By the time I re-focussed, enough time had passed that, with my very faulty short-term memory, I wasn’t really up to writing about either anymore. Life went on.

(God, I get bogged down in process…I really ought to be in the U.S. Senate.)

Sparked by Charlie Kauffman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and also by long-lingering guilt, I ordered a copy of the documentary, reread some of Talking About Pauline Kael, and I’m again all set to go. The Kauffman film, if you haven’t seen it, takes a very bizarre detour—bizarre for almost any other film, that is; it may be one of the less bizarre things about I’m Thinking of Ending Things—where one of the two principals begins quoting Kael’s review of A Woman Under the Influence (before or after which, there’s glimpse of Kael on a bookshelf—not Reeling, the book in which the review appeared). What did I think of that? Same thing I think after every film that gets a strong reaction from me, good or bad: what would Kael have thought of that (both the film and her inclusion)? 

Anyway, I’ll start with Talking About Pauline Kael. I wasn’t quite up to re-reading the whole thing—the two weeks that would have taken more than anything—so I limited myself to three chapters: Ray Sawhill’s, which I singled out in a message-board post when I read the book last  year; Steven Rubio’s, because I’ve come to know Steven over the past few years (we’re currently collaborating with Scott Woods on a series of Zoomcasts about various films and TV shows); and Brian Kellow’s, because, as I mentioned, I interviewed him when his biography was published. I also think that’s a very good cross-section of writers in terms of their relationships to Kael: a close friend (Sawhill), a fan (Steven), and a biographer (Kellow).

I’ll start with Steven’s essay, and a (probably self-aggrandizing) note that this kind of reminds me of the ending of Kael’s Sunday, Bloody Sunday review, where she was writing about a film written by Penelope Gilliatt, her rotating partner at The New Yorker: “Miss Gilliatt and I are ships that pass each other in the night every six months. It is a pleasure to salute her on this crossing.” (Reportedly, they were far from actual friends.) I first got to know Steven close to 15 years ago via I can’t remember the exact details, but I soon started reading and posting reader comments on his blog, we were involved in a Facebook project once, we joined Scott in a long podcast on Robert Christgau’s memoir, and he’s been supportive above and beyond with my own self-published books ever since.

Steven’s chapter zeros in what he designates as Kael’s “expansive subjectivity,” which is a great description of the critics I tend to gravitate to, and also of what I hopefully get into my own writing. Eliminate either part of that and the writing loses out: too subjective, leaving the work behind and making it solely about the critic (I can think of examples I won’t mention), that can wear you down; the other extreme, a critic whose own self disappears and writes only of the work, well, I know that approach is viewed by many as the only legitimate approach to criticism, but it doesn’t really work for me, either as a reader or a writer. Here’s Greil Marcus describing in an interview what he was after in his old “Speaker to Speaker” column: “What does it mean to be a listener? What are we doing when we listen? What happens? What doesn’t happen? What could happen? I really am a critic in the sense that I don’t give a shit what the artist intended, or what he meant. I couldn’t care less. What I’m interested in is what happens when you listen.” (Italics mine.)

For me, that means I’m not all that interested in how important Vertigo is to Hitchcock’s obsessive lifelong quest to find the perfect blond. I’d rather read about what it feels like to sit there and watch Vertigo, or what place it has in the writer’s life. And then connect that to the film, and its meaning, and go from there.

As other Kael observers have noted, Steven also writes of how Kael was never boxed in by a theory or prescriptive rules (the immediate contrast being Andrew Sarris’s auteur theory, which Kael methodically dismantled in a famous early piece of hers): “So how does a writer who lives in the moment by her wit, style, bombast, and immediate passions influence others?…I see what I got from her was less a way of looking at movies than a way of looking at life. Challenge everything, I hear her say in the lines, and often between them.” I like that: “A way of looking at life.” I’d apply that equally to Bill James, another writer I know I share a passion for with Steven.

Ray Sawhill’s piece, “A Memoir in the Style of a Long Blogposting About a Friendship with Pauline Kael” (also the title of a great Primitive Radio Gods song, by the way), is both a remembrance of Sawhill’s friendship with Kael, and also an attempt to dispel some assumptions and myths about her. As a friend and sort-of mentor (i.e., Sawhill resisted), Kael was always pushing him (or nudging; was he pushed or was he nudged?) to get on a career path as a critic, and she would help him by way of contacts and/or recommendations wherever she could. He wasn’t particularly ambitious, though, and that would create some tension in their friendship. Actually, if there’s one minor quibble I have with Sawhill’s piece, it’s that, in an almost passive-aggressive way, he gives an idealized version of himself as a drifting pure spirit resisting the blandishments of success being dangled in front of him. I’m not saying this isn’t an accurate portrayal of their relationship–I’m sure it was, and how would I know anyway?–just that he might have deemphasized that a bit.

Sawhill’s attempt to set the record straight on Kael comes in the form of nine numbered statements:

    • Best not think of Pauline as a normal person.

    • Best not to think of Pauline as complicated and/or neurotic.

    • Best not to think of Pauline as someone who made a lot of sense.

    • Consistency was not one of her defining characteristics.

    • Don’t worry about whether she was a radical or a feminist.

    • It may not be best to think of Pauline as an intellectual.

    • Although her dissidence was frequently internalized, Pauline always remained a leftie.

    • Pauline was also, it can’t be stressed enough, an extrovert.

    • Best not to think of Pauline as a film critic, let alone a film geek.

Each is expanded upon, of course, with an explanation and examples. Best not to think of Pauline as a film critic–obviously, provocative and counter-intuitive, but Sawhill expands (there’s that word again) on these ideas in a way that will fascinate any Kael reader who’s wondered about these very things.

(Subjective interlude. As I read Sawhill’s sketch, at times I had this overwhelming sense that I was reading about another critic who has influenced me, one whom I have a personal relationship with. “Consistency was not one of her defining characteristics”—words that, if I had formulated and accepted such an idea 20 years ago, might have saved me from some self-induced trauma.)

The title of Brian Kellow’s chapter, “Detective Story: Notes from a Biographer,” says it all: where exactly do you begin if you’re writing a biography of Kael (or anybody, for that matter), especially someone whose biographical asides in her own writing, while certainly there, were still scattered far and wide across 40 years of writing? Kellow begins by visiting a couple of Kael’s old homes in California—actually, he begins by waiting a few years after Kael’s death, convinced that someone else will write the book he’d like to write; no one does—and by getting an interview (a not very successful one) with Edward Landberg, Kael’s husband for a short time who ran the Cinema Guild theatre in Berkley with her. And it builds from there, piece by piece—minus the participation of Kael’s daughter Gina, who politely declines (she’s heard from frequently in the documentary)—until he runs up against the awkward reality that Kael’s famous “Raising Kane” essay borrowed liberally, and without attribution, from the work of film professor Howard Suber. One of Kael’s confidants accuses Kellow of making it all up—bringing it back full circle to that message-board argument I found myself trapped in 10 years ago, I empathize.

Kellow turns up a few times in What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, which I’ve now seen three times—had to watch it once more since I started this piece. The film seemed to get a mixed reaction, but with no real preconceived notion about what kind of Kael documentary I’d want, I thought it covered all the signature controversies of her life—her reviews of Bonnie and Clyde, Last Tango in Paris, and Shoah; “Circles and Squares”; her brief Hollywood sojourn, etc.—reasonably well, excerpted key passages from lots of reviews (including autobiographical detours from her Hud and Casualties of War reviews; Sarah Jessica Parker provides Kael’s voice), and was not a work of deification. You hear from Molly Haskell, Andrew Sarris’s wife (she actually seems to be an admirer, if, obviously, a conflicted one), avowed non-admirers like Ridley Scott, Robert Evans, and William Peter Blatty (whose Tonight Show clip is in fact rather embarrassing), and wry ex-Paulettes Paul Schrader and David Edelstein (a “Paulinista,” he clarifies). The almost wall-to-wall assemblage of film clips seems arbitrary at times, and occasionally altogether wrong—narration suggesting you’re seeing something Kael celebrated matched with images from Network, Blow-Up, and other films she didn’t like at all—and sometimes they respond to the narration in gimmicky fashion. But most belong to that loose core of films one most immediately associates with Kael: Nashville, Shoeshine, Weekend, The Godfather, Carrie, etc.

A few things I really liked. The film begins and (almost) ends with an interview conducted by Allen Barra’s then 10-year-old daughter Maggie—Kael’s last, as it were. So many beautiful moments right there:

Barra: “What was your favourite time of your life?”

Kael, in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s and near death: “Now.”

(Something that made me laugh: when Kael described her famous Limelight review to Barra as a “con.” She meant that in the sense of a negative review paired with a positive one; at first I thought she was saying the film was a con, and that she was about to launch into a Kael-like diatribe to a 10-year-old.)

I loved the little montage of letters-to-Kael that flashed by, including correspondence from Carol Burnett, Marlene Dietrich (wanting to know where she can pick up The New Yorker in Paris), Spielberg, unpleasant ones from George Roy Hill and Gregory Peck, and even Bill Clinton (complimenting her on her Brubaker review). I share Lili Anolik’s reverence for Kael’s Casualties of War review, which is granted an extended close-up. Near the end of the film, there’s a fascinating few minutes of speculation on how Kael would fare in today’s media landscape. Carrie Rickey thinks she would have thrived on Twitter, with her gift for the acerbic, one-sentence dismissal. Maybe. Two of my very favourite things in the film suggest otherwise to me, that she came along at a moment—or rather, helped bring that moment into being more than anyone—when film criticism had a prominence in the culture that feels like science-fiction today: a two-page ad for Last Tango in the Times that consists of her review in its entirety, and, even more eye-opening, a TV commercial for her “Raising Kane” piece in The New Yorker. A TV commercial selling film criticism…not the world we live in. And while Rickey may be right, my own guess (or hope, maybe) is that she would have loathed Twitter’s character-count nonsense.

“I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.”

Steven quotes that regularly—it’s on the masthead of his blog—and does so in his “Kael’s Influence: Expansive Subjectivity” piece. As the Hud and Casualties of War reviews I referred to earlier (and also, maybe most famously, Kael’s review of Shoeshine, excerpted in the documentary) attest to, autobiographical passages do indeed expertly weave in and out of her criticism. If you want to venture outside of her own writing, though, there’s a body of work beginning to emerge: along with Talking About Pauline Kael and What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, there’s Kellow’s biography, Conversations with Pauline Kael (edited by Will Brantley), Francis Davis’s Afterglow: A Last Conversation With Pauline Kael, and Craig Seligman’s Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me. I like them all. The final piece of the puzzle will appear when my own Kael biopic finally gets off the ground, with Meryl Streep as Kael, Ed Harris as John Huston, and Wallace Shawn as somebody (because you can’t make a Pauline Kael biopic without getting Wallace Shawn in there somewhere). Start date yet to be determined.

More by Phil Dellio


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