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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Deeper into Kael

"Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know." -- Pauline Kael, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris" (1963)

"She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. And I don't mean that facetiously. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising." -- Woody Allen, to Peter Bogdanovich, quoted in the introduction to the book This is Orson Welles (1998)

The imminent publication of two books devoted to Pauline Kael -- "A Life in the Dark," a biography by Brian Kellow, and a collection of reviews and essays called "The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael," both due Oct. 27 -- has provided an excuse to recycle all the old arguments about her. And that's not something I can imagine being said for many of her American contemporaries, mostly because nobody argues about them. Is there another American film critic who has inspired such a biography, published 20 years after her retirement? Does anyone still read, say, Vincent Canby, the powerful, impressively independent but rather lackluster successor to Kael's much-ridiculed Bosley Crowther at the New York Times? (Canby covered the film beat at the Times during the height of that institution's "make-or-break" authority from 1969 to 1993, when he switched to theater, succeeding Frank Rich.)

Some have pointed out that Kael was often wrong. Well, I should bloody well hope so. What critic isn't? By "wrong" these critics evidently mean that she did not agree with them about which movies were good and which weren't, or that her verdicts did not align themselves with the Judgments of History, lo these many years later. Were "Bonnie and Clyde," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Last Tango in Paris," "Shampoo," "Nashville" and "Casualties of War" really as great as she claimed? How could she be so dismissive -- even contemptuous -- of "La Dolce Vita," "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," "Shoah," "L'Eclisse" (and all Antonioni after "L'Avventura"), "2001: A Space Odyssey" (and all Kubrick thereafter) and Cassavetes pretty much across the board? (If you don't find at least a couple things in those lists that raise your hackles, you should be worried about the integrity and independence of your own critical values.)

Kael may have been the Velvet Underground of movie critics (she inspired so many to take up criticism). She's also the quintessential example of a generalization I like to make about all critics, which is that whether they *like* or *don't like* something, that had better be the least interesting thing they have to say about it, or they're not worth reading in the first place. Kael was hailed for her snappy, conversational style (though I got awfully tired of her promiscuous labels, "kitsch" and "schlock" and "trash"; she reinforced outmoded distinctions between "high" and "low" culture even as she pretended to transcend them), her infectious enthusiasms, and her refusal to adhere to some all-encompassing Theory. And she was (just as rightly) criticized for her sloppiness, her over-reliance on generalizations, her claim that she wouldn't see movies more than once (except, occasionally, to double-check for inaccuracies before a review went to press), and her temperamental inconsistency, something that goes along with a reliance on spontaneous reactions. (Renata Adler's 1980 massive attack on Kael in the New York Review of Books was both generally true -- and irrelevant to why she matters.)

As Nathan Heller writes, considering both the new Kael volumes in the October 24, 2011 issue The New Yorker:

Courage is not a virtue frequently associated with the criticism beat, but it lies near the heart of Kael's achievement -- not because she was unsqueamish about praising and slamming movies (though she was) but because, from the time she wrote her first review until the moment she retired, in 1991, her authority as a critic relied solely on her own, occasionally whimsical taste. This was not the norm in the milieu where she started writing. Kael cut her teeth reviewing for small, specialized or highbrow journals at a moment when criticism aimed at being systematic, intellectually lucid, and tightly defended. "Intuition" was a gooseflesh-raising word in this context -- it still is in many circles -- but it was one that Kael flaunted in the face of formalism. At inspired moments, she performed her criticism like a driver cruising down a familiar mountain road: braking rarely, speeding around the tricky turns, and swerving, with the faith of instinct, through a maze of potholes. It's an approach that accounts for a lot of paradoxes and self-contradictions in her taste. It also made for a thrilling, inimitable ride.

I'm not sure "courage" is exactly the right word for Kael's combination of recklessness and flair (is it courage if you simply believe you're right?), but as Roger Ebert recently said, "Above all it was her personality." In his blog post, "Knocked Up at the Movies," he wrote of Kael:

She was the most powerful, loved and hated film critic of her time, but her work cannot be discussed objectively by simply reading it. She challenges you on every page, she's always in your face, and she functioned as the arbiter of any social group she joined. She was quite a dame.

She might have liked that "quite a dame." She wrote with slangy, jazzy prose, always pepped up, spinning on the edge of a whirlpool. She never saw a movie twice, and wrote her reviews first-draft, in longhand on yellow legal pads. In her years at the New Yorker, she had no apparent restrictions on length. Reading her was like running into her right after a movie and having her start in on you. More than anybody else, she captured what those heady days of the 1970s were like, when the directors seemed to be running the Hollywood asylum and the cinema seemed to be shaping a generation. [...]

She responded strongly to movies, in love or hate. She didn't mince words. For her a movie was like a lover --good or bad in the sack.

That's as good a description of Kael as I've read. Her colloquial voice and her defiant fervor (rapturous or disdainful, well-targeted or misdirected, contagious or bewildering) were indeed what made her exciting to read, and even addictive. At the time, it made her seem like an iconoclast. She was the irreverent outsider, the pomposity-skewering, anti-establishment rebel (from 1968 to 1991 in the pages of The New Yorker, of all places) who took movies seriously, but didn't buy into the stodgy ways of academe, the pseudo-intellectual snobbism of the museum crowd, or the stilted prose of the fuddy-duddy press (chiefly Crowther, whom she characterized as stodge personified).

Today it's easy to see what she lacked -- not so much judgment, as Woody Allen said, but rigor (which isn't the same as being dull or rigid -- though she could be as intransigent as anyone). She was ruled by her gut, and while that was often refreshing, it made her a slave to her own emotions, which were all she ever trusted. Of course movies are, among many other things, emotional experiences, but we hardly need critics to tell us that.

To paraphrase her notorious remark about "Citizen Kane" as "a shallow masterpiece," Kael herself might be seen as a "a famous shallow critic," by her own definition. She claimed that "Kane" "isn't a work of special depth or a work of subtle beauty... [It] is conceived and acted as entertainment in a popular style (unlike, say, 'Rules of the Game' or 'Rashomon' or 'Man of Aran,' which one does not think of in crowd-pleasing terms)." It's hard not to see this as a form of self-critique (intentional or not), since her writing is likewise very much in an American pop style, full of "fun" and "gimmickry" (including the habitual use of that "royal you" pronoun) and "penny-dreadful popular theatrics" (she loved "good trash," especially the disreputably bloody and/or sexy kind). Consistency was not her thing, but she had, as they say, a whim of iron.

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Over time, this emphasis on heat over light, attitude over analysis, has been magnified on the Internet, where "everybody's a critic," ready to express a passionate opinion (or, at least, a knee-jerk one), but so few seem to have the faintest idea of how they arrived at it. (And yet I think there's more insightful criticism to be found in select web blogs and journals today than there ever was in newspapers and mainstream magazines. There are more opportunities for more voices to be expressed and exposed.)

That Kael positioned herself as an anti-auteurist (in her famous jibes at Andrew Sarris) was ludicrous. Like so many writing for print and web today, she never displayed an understanding of what auteurism is. Next to Sarris, no American critic's work placed greater emphasis on the director as author of a film than hers.

(Auteurism doesn't even insist on that. Don't blame Sarris or the Cahiers du Cinema critics for the cheesy and deceptive "A Film by..." credit. Auteurism does not deny the collaborative nature of filmmaking; when it evolved in the 1950s, it grew out of observations that certain directors displayed recognizable concerns and sensibilities in film after film, no matter what studio or genre they were working in. But while the director, today more than ever thanks to union rules, is usually the dominant author of a film -- the one who guides and approves choices made from pre-production through marketing, in many cases -- nobody's seriously going to argue that, say, "Gone With the Wind" is Un Filme de Victor Fleming. That's obviously David O. Selznick's baby, with a heavy assist from William Cameron Menzies. And Selznick's got the memos to prove it!)

And yet, there are reviews of hers that made such an impression it's hard to picture certain movies without recalling something she had to say about them -- the famous raves on "Nashville" and "Last Tango," for sure, but I can't think of "The Godfather, Part II" without remembering her description of the rot in Michael Corleone's face and her feeling, midway through watching it, "that the film was expanding in my head like a soft bullet." I often think of her admiration for Bertolucci's epic "1900" (1977), flaws and all: "Next to it, all the other new movies are like something you hold up at the end of a toothpick."

And I'll always be grateful for her delirious description of the explosive conclusion of DePalma's "The Fury": "This finale -- a parody of Antonioni's apocalyptic vision at the close of 'Zabriskie Point' -- is the greatest finish for any villain ever. One can imagine Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Spielberg still stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter." (Spoiler: It surely didn't lessen her delight that the villain doing the exploding was none other than John Cassavetes, a filmmaker she did not adore.)

Probably the worst and most damaging single thing Kael ever did was the aforementioned "Raising Kane," her under-researched essay on the making of "Citizen Kane" that reportedly began as the introduction to "The Citizen Kane Book" (an edition of the screenplay) and also ran as a two-parter in The New Yorker. She didn't talk to anyone who'd actually worked on the picture, and there were plenty of them around in 1970-71 -- including Orson Welles himself. She aimed to elevate Welles' often-overlooked co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz to co-auteur of the film, and to assert that the Boy Wonder had taken too much of the credit for himself.

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Outraged rebuttals came from all corners, but one of the most memorable was that of Andrew Sarris in April, 1971:

"Raising Kane" itself bears the by-line of Pauline Kael and of Pauline Kael alone. Yet thousands of words are directly quoted from other writers, and thousands more are paraphrased without credit. Miss Kael deserves her byline because she has shaped her material, much of it unoriginal, into an article with a polemical thrust all her own. Her selection and arrangement of material constitutes a very significant portion of her personal style.

Similarly, Orson Welles is not significantly diminished as the auteur of "Citizen Kane" by Miss Kael's breathless revelations about Herman J. Mankiewicz any more than he is diminished as the auteur of "The Magnificent Ambersons" by the fact that all the best lines and scenes were written by Booth Tarkington. It is only by virtually ignoring what "Citizen Kane" became as a film that Miss Kael can construct her bizarre theory of film history, namely that "Citizen Kane" along with all the best moments in movies of the '30s must be credited to a consortium of New Yorker writers gathered together by Harold Ross at Chasen's, the West Coast auxiliary of the Algonquin. Indeed, Miss Kael writes of Harold Ross in "Raising Kane" with much the same awed tone employed by General Lew Wallace in writing of Christ in "Ben Hur."

Sarris illustrates something I said before, which is that Kael frequently failed to understand what made an auteur an auteur. But when it came to the quintessentially (though not uniquely) American impulse of creating and destroying of idols and icons, nobody relished it more than she did.

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One of the directors she held up as a totem was Sam Peckinpah, and her review of his review of "Straw Dogs" (1971) is remembered for pronouncing it "the first American film that is a fascist work of art." And yet it wasn't a "negative review" by any stretch -- something Peckinpah himself understood. As he told critic Andre Leroux in 1974:

I like Pauline a lot. We are very good friends and I enormously respect what she writes. Her articles are full of thrust and reflect a real love of cinema. I detest critics who never take a position and who do not have a passion for what they see. Without passion, there would never be any great Art. Great works emerge out of passion, of interior fervor, and of a very great degree of coincidence between the artist and the society in which he lives. It is that which makes the strength and the greatness of a cinéaste such as Robert Altman, for example. [...]

But let's get back to criticism. It is an activity I respect when it allows the artist to better understand what he is doing. Unfortunately, interesting and penetrating critics do not abound in this country. Some are very intelligent but do not like cinema while others love cinema but are not very bright. A critic like Pauline Kael fulfills these two functions essential to all fruitful critical activity: intelligence and a passion for cinema. She is one of the rare fascinating people to read because she is, before all, passionate. Contrary to what some believe, she has never said that "Straw Dogs" is a fascist film.

She has written that I was a fascist director. Which is after all quite different! Anyway, I do not like the word fascist, which is used senselessly nowadays. I consider myself first of all a liberal democrat who believes in real democracy and not the one which we know presently.

Kael has also been condemned for "fraternizing" with filmmakers she championed -- and expressing bafflement when they were hurt by her censure, which could be expressed in very personal terms. (Speaking of fascism: I can't help but think of that shot from the "March of Time" newsreel of Charles Foster Kane and Adolf Hitler together on a balcony: "No public man whom Kane himself did not support, or denounce. Often support... then denounce." Put Kael on that balcony and imagine who might accompany her at one time or another.) And, of course, there are the "Paulettes" -- the young critics she nurtured personally and professionally, and who are said to have come under the sway of her cult of personality, adapting (or adopting) her style and aping her opinions.

Kael's judgments tended to fall heavily on one side or the other: good or bad, black or white. Her criticism itself, however, is rightfully regarded with passionate ambivalence.

I never met Kael, never corresponded with her. But her writing did excite and provoke me as a high schooler and a young man. (It still does.) Before the Internet, it wasn't easy to find compelling criticism in the popular press. I avidly read Kael, John Hartl in the Seattle Times, Paul Zimmerman and Jack Kroll in Newsweek -- and, later, Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice (subscription copies of which would arrive a week or two late in Seattle)... and, in books and journals, Robin Wood (whose "Hitchcock's Films," found on a remainder table at a mall Crown Books, would change my life), various contributors to Film Comment, and above all, Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy in the indispensable, irregularly published Seattle Film Society magazine, Movietone News (some of which is now available on the web at Parallax View).

For what it's worth: I'd read biographies of any of these people! I haven't even had a chance to get started on Roger Ebert's memoir yet (it's on top of the "to read" pile over there), but I've already placed my order for Kael's bio. Something tells me I'll have more to say about it later...

UPDATE: I enthusiastically recommend this essay by the Self-Styled Siren on Kael and the new biography.

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