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Pauline and Renata Go Showboating


Pauline Kael by David Levine, for NYRoB.

This is a continuation of the discussion about the legacy of critic Pauline Kael, five-plus years after her death (Art and Trash: Critics on/of Pauline Kael). It's particularly for those who don't remember or have never read Renata Adler's 7,646-word massive attack on Kael in the New York Review of Books, which was ostensibly a review of Kael's 1980 collection "When the Lights Go Down."

Lots to consider -- and I say that as a kid who originally got into film criticism (and "deeper into movies," as her National Book Award-winning anthology put it) in no small part because of Kael. Some excerpts from Adler (who for a time alternated with Kael as the New Yorker's film critic in the late 1960s) -- followed by samples from letters the piece generated:

From Renata Adler, "The Perils of Pauline":

Movies seem to invite particularly broad critical discussion: to begin with, alone among the arts, they count as their audience, their art consumer, everyone. (Television, in this respect, is clearly not an art but an appliance, through which reviewable material is sometimes played.) The staff movie critic's job thus tends to have less in common with the art, or book, or theater critic's, whose audiences are relatively specialized and discrete, than with the work of the political columnist—writing, that is, of daily events in the public domain, in which almost everyone's interest is to some degree engaged, and about which everyone seems inclined to have a view. Film reviewing has always had an ingredient of reportage. Since the Forties, The New York Times has reviewed almost every movie that opened in New York[1] —as it would not consider reviewing every book, exhibit, or other cultural event, or even every account filed from the UN or City Hall. For a long time it seemed conceivable that movies could sustain, if not a great critic, at least a distinguished commentator-critic, on the order, say, of Robert Warshow, with the frequency of Walter Lippmann. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, it seemed likely that such a critic might be Pauline Kael. [...]

Now, "When the Lights Go Down," a collection of her reviews over the past five years, is out; and it is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture. Over the years, that is, Ms. Kael's quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse. To the spectacle of the staff critic as celebrity in frenzy, about to "do" something "to" a text, Ms. Kael has added an entirely new style of ad hominem brutality and intimidation; the substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.

She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials. Whether or not one shares these predilections—and whether they are in fact more than four, or only one—they do not really lend themselves to critical discussion. It turns out, however, that Ms. Kael does think of them as critical positions, and regards it as an act of courage, of moral courage, to subscribe to them. The reason one cannot simply dismiss them as de gustibus, or even as harmless aberration, is that they have become inseparable from the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael's writing now, almost wall to wall, consists. [...]

She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favorite words, which occur several hundred times, and often several times per page, in this book of nearly six hundred pages: "whore" (and its derivatives "whorey," "whorish," "whoriness"), applied in many contexts, but almost never to actual prostitution; "myth," "emblem" (also "mythic," "emblematic"), used with apparent intellectual intent, but without ascertainable meaning; "pop," "comicstrip," "trash" ("trashy"), "pulp" ("pulpy"), all used judgmentally (usually approvingly) but otherwise apparently interchangeable with "mythic"; "urban poetic," meaning marginally more violent than "pulpy"; "soft" (pejorative); "tension," meaning, apparently, any desirable state; "rhythm," used often as a verb, but meaning harmony or speed; "visceral"; and "level." These words may be used in any variant, or in alternation, or strung together in sequence—"visceral poetry of pulp," e.g., or "mythic comic-strip level"—until they become a kind of incantation. She also likes words ending in "ized" ("vegetabilized," "robotized," "aestheticized," "utilized," "mythicized"), and a kind of slang ("twerpy," "dopey," "dumb," "grungy," "horny," "stinky," "drip," "stupes," "crud") which amounts, in prose, to an affectation of straightforwardness. [...]

The writing falls somewhere between huckster copy (paeans to the favored product, diatribes against all other brands and their venal or deluded purchasers) and ideological pamphleteering: denouncings, exhortations, code words, excommunications, programs, threats. Apart from the taste for violence, however, which she takes to be a hard, intellectual position, there is no underlying text or theory. Only the review, virtually divorced from movies, as its own end... [...]

Three last quotations, as another kind of symptom:

It's quite possible that [he]…wasn't fully conscious that in several sequences he was coming mortifyingly close to plagiarism.

It's as crude as if [he] had said, "Things were really bad in Berlin in '23," and, asked "How bad?," he had replied, "They were so bad even a black man couldn't get it up."

(Paul Schrader may like the idea of prostituting himself more than he likes making movies.)…. For Schrader to call himself a whore would be vanity: he doesn't know how to turn a trick.

Now, it doesn't matter whom these quotations are "about"—although the middle one concerns
Ingmar Bergman. They are not "about" anything. Each marks a kind of breakthrough in vulgarity and unfairness. Look at the "It's quite possible" in the first, and the "mortifyingly." Look at the "as if" in the second, and the "even." Consider the parenthesis in the third, and the "would be." All three involve a perfectly groundless imputation to another (plagiarism, racism, corruption) and a pious personal recoil (mortifyingly, crude, vain). The strategy is characteristic of Ms. Kael's work. I can hardly imagine a reader who would sit through another line.

Cumulatively and in book form, these reviews have an effect different from anything that was even intimated on a weekly or desultory basis. It occurred to me when I had read a few hundred pages that the book assumes an audience composed partly of people who know nothing about the movies, and partly of people who read only film reviews....

- - - -

From letters to the New York Review of Books in response to Adler's piece:

Erhard K. Dortmund (Monmouth, OR): I want to assure one and all of the obvious: I'm a grown-up and Pauline Kael's reviews don't bully me. She's often wrong in what she says and how she says it—and I've told her so, with glee. I read her precisely because her columns are both reviews and confessionals....

Matthew Wilder, age 13 (Des Planes, IL): How dare she lash out at Kael for using masturbatory slang and "we" or "you" for "I"? Can't the little viper see the beauty, poetry, hilarity, and straight-forwardness in Kael's critiques? Oops. I'm using "Kaeline" rhetorical questions! What a crime! You'd think I or she killed Kennedy or something!

Oh—while R.A.'s at contradictions,…she berates Kael for demanding punishment and crying guilt of her unfavored movie folk when she herself acts as if Kael knifed Gary Coleman—oops! I used a "violent" and "sadistic" metaphor! Okay, heat up the electric chair! So "line for line, 'When the Lights Go Down' is worthless," eh? What about the titles of her critiques of "Seven Beauties" and "Carrie"? I cracked up just reading them. And how about her punchy opening and closing lines, especially her closing line of her critique of Satyajit Ray's "Distant Thunder"?...

Jennifer Dunning (NY, NY): After reeling through pages of phrases ripped—with commendable assiduity—from the context and rhythms of the reviews under discussion, one arrives at summary statements that rival Kael's reported excesses for spite, their tone of disappointed generosity notwithstanding....

Arthur J. Cox (Hollywood, CA): [...] One needn't lay claim to any preternatural shrewdness to see that what lies behind Ms. Adler's (can it really be?) 8,000 words is Kael's disturbing essay, "Fear of Movies," and perhaps also her recent criticisms made in speeches on the West Coast, and I suppose elsewhere, of the crippling gentility of some of the staff of The New Yorker and, by implication, much of its audience. It was in the cards that someone somehow connected with the magazine should reply…and what better choice for that Someone than Renata Adler? I like The New Yorker—I have been reading it even longer than I have the NYR—and I am made uneasy by some of Kael's criticisms; but, nevertheless, the tone and temper of Ms. Adler's Reply—the forced, the fudged, quality of some of her criticisms, as demonstrated above [Cox cites an example of Adler's distortion]; her preoccupation with what she sees as the excessive violence of diction and opinion in Kael, and which she exaggerates both by direct statement and by too-selective quotation; and her nervous shrinking from the very pages of the book she is reviewing […] would seems to confirm the accuracy of Kael's diagnosis.

A host of Kaelian links at

And, finally (as if in reply to Gary Indiana's Artforum piece), there's this by Kael's friend Craig Seligman, author of "Sontag & Kael":

I didn't want to write a book with a hero and a villain, but Sontag kept making it hard for me. She is not a likable writer-but then she doesn't intend to be. She's elitist and condescending toward those less informed than she is (i.e., everybody) and gratingly unapologetic about it. Intimidation, which I'll grant is an indispensable critical weapon, she uses remorselessly. So does Kael. The difference is that Sontag uses it charmlessly-but then she doesn't intend to be charming. (Charm, she almost seems to feel, is for pipsqueaks.) All that erudition impresses me, though there's a big difference, as anyone who's hung out with academics can tell you, between erudition and insight, erudition and taste. I'm getting off on the wrong foot by even using the phrase "my quarrel with Sontag." She is a critic I revere, a magnificent critic. When I complain about her, you should keep in mind the caveat Nietzsche proffered once at the end of a (much more bitter) attack on Wagner: "When I use harsh words against the cretinism of Bayreuth, the last thing I want to do is start a celebration for any other musicians. Other musicians don't count compared to Wagner." Obviously I can't be that categorical, since for me there is one critic who counts compared to Sontag, and though my aim in putting them side by side is to illuminate the work of each, honesty and ethics command me to admit right here what will be obvious anyway, which is that I don't feel the same way about them. I revere Sontag. I love Kael.

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