Kael brought a combination of common sense, sensibility, a love and understanding of acting and a dense and detailed comprehension of all the arts to her reviewing. And her opinions were blessedly unshackled by orthodoxy on the one hand (the reverence for entrenched filmmakers or prestige film making or Academy Award winners; the confusion of moralizing and solemnity with profundity) and theory on the other. Her prose was forthright, colloquial and rhythmic; she was a gifted and completely original stylist. She got people thinking about movies in new ways and inevitably she exerted a powerful influence on the generation of critics that followed her, those who (like myself) were in high school or college when we, too, first encountered Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Godfather. That influence stirred up controversy, one of several in Kael’s career. God knows she infuriated people. Unsurprisingly, directors and producers who felt slapped down in some of her reviews disliked her, and studio publicists would punish her for bad notices by cutting her from screenings. But though she had devoted fans both inside and outside the business, the passion of her conviction, the confidence with which she rendered her opinions and the strength of her arguments often unsettled her readers, especially when the movies she targeted were the ones they loved. I don’t know whether Kael was the first movie critic to discover how venomous moviegoers can become when confronted with carefully worked-through arguments against a beloved film, but some of her judgments elicited violent, menacing letters. And she had her enemies among her fellow critics – like Andrew Sarris, long associated with The Village Voice, whom she incited when, in one of her earliest (pre-New Yorker) pieces, she attacked his auteurist approach to writing about movies; Renata Adler, a peripatetic reviewer who used the publication of one of Kael’s collections, When the Lights Go Down, in 1980 to launch a lengthy and hysterical attack on her writing in The New York Review of Books; Stuart Byron, also at the Voice, who, inflating flimsy evidence, branded her a homophobe.
A Life in the Dark is a conscientious piece of work. Kellow is an excellent writer and evidently a tireless researcher. The first hundred pages uncovers a vivid story about Kael’s northern-California upbringing (to Polish-Jewish émigrés who settled in a Petaluma chicken-farming community and then, when Isaac Kael lost his money in the late twenties, in San Francisco), her life among bohemians in both the Bay Area and New York in the 1940s, her scrambling among a wide range of jobs in the late forties and the fifties to support herself and her daughter (whose father, the documentary filmmaker James Broughton, threw Kael out when she told him she was pregnant), and her days managing the Berkeley Guild, a revival house, and reading her movie reviews gratis on the KPFA radio station in San Francisco. The letters he quotes reveal her spiky, jocular, anti-conventional personality, already apparently fully formed in her twenties, and occasionally an observation that prefigures her focus on disparate elements and moments in all sorts of movies once she began writing about them. In a 1941 letter to her friend Violet Rosenberg, she urges her to see So Ends Our Night for “the most beautiful shot of Frances Dee, standing in a European marketplace.”
|Director Sam Peckinpah|
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.) A glaring instance is his discussion of her review of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah, a movie almost everyone else praised to the skies and Kael hated. (Though she had legendary fights with Shawn over her copy, it was the only time she submitted a review that he refused at first to publish at all.) Kellow pointedly prefaces this section with a paragraph on her “unsentimental attitude toward her Jewish background” and a story about her balking at a dinner party when another Jewish guest refused to eat ham and ends it with the statement, “[I]t was difficult to shake off the feeling that her thinking was influenced by other factors, of which she was only partly conscious.” But he takes the sentence that provokes this response – “If you were to set [Lanzmann] loose, he could probably find anti-Semitism anywhere” – out of context. “It was a stunning lapse of judgment,” Kellow writes, “considering that Lanzmann was looking for anti-Semitism in the most obvious of places – the death camps.” Well, no: Kael is referring not to the Nazis but to his indictment of the Polish Gentiles whom he persists in depicting as callous to the fates of the Jews thrown in the death vans. I haven’t seen the film since its release (I wrote one of the few other dissenting reviews of it), but I remember that the movie clearly conveyed Lanzmann’s anger at Polish peasants who gestured at Jews on the vans by drawing their hands across their throats. He’s sure those gestures must have been mocking; given the evidence I think it’s just as likely they were trying to warn the victims. (A friend who is fluent in Polish told me after seeing the film that Lanzmann mistranslates some of the testimony of the Poles he interviews to make them sound more insensitive.)
|Peter Lorre in Mad Love (1935)|
Kellow handles some of the controversies in Kael’s career more with a surer hand than others – I think he’s particularly good in both explicating and diffusing the charge that she was a homophobe. At other times, though, the emphasis his text places on the testimony of some of his interviewees and the absence of a strong counterargument allow their point of view to stand, even when it’s suspect. The book is dotted with comments by detractors who claim that once Kael took exception to a director he was dead meat as far as she was concerned, that she always put forward her pet directors, that she often overrated them, and that ironically her favoritism was just as blind as the devotion of the auteurists to their chosen directors. But Kael’s objection to the auteur theory was that it elevated mediocre work by praising it for illuminating elements of a director’s style and for reflexively conferring greatness on any picture, no matter how drab, that carried a credit to one of certain directors. She never denied that some directors – Griffith, Renoir, De Sica, Satyajit Ray, Godard – were masters, and she never genuflected before a movie just because she’d loved the director’s previous work. She adored Altman’s work but she hated every movie he turned out between Nashville in 1975 and Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982. She adored Peckinpah’s work but not Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid or The Getaway, De Palma’s but not Obsession, Scarface, Body Double or The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Generalizations simply don’t work on Kael, because one of her great qualities as a critic was that she weighed every movie on its own merits and could see it in all its aspects – a virtue that links her to James Agee, the signal movie critic of the forties, whom she much admired. So when Kellow argues that she thought moviemakers did their best work when they were young and energetic, you think, Well, except for John Huston, Kon Ichikawa and Luis Buñuel, and how about De Sica’s return to greatness with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis? And when he puts forward the theory that she had a Magellan complex, that she found it easier to get behind filmmakers she’d discovered, you think, Well, except for Renoir and Preston Sturges and the German Expressionists. She was notoriously – and to many, not just publicists, exasperatingly – unpredictable because she didn’t believe the movies themselves could be predicted. So while she was unkind to David Lean’s epics, she loved several of his early, smaller pictures (Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Hobson’s Choice) and she shocked everyone by giving his last, A Passage to India, a rave. She bemoaned the big studios’ chasing after the success of The Sound of Music (a picture she loathed) by turning out musical behemoths in the late sixties, but she sometimes found things to praise in them – the early scenes in Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow, the performances in Goodbye, Mr. Chips – and she always acknowledged the times when old-style Hollywood filmmaking worked, as it did in Fiddler on the Roof. She found all of Ingmar Bergman’s work between the late fifties and the late sixties tiresome and overrated but she wrote rapturously about his apocalyptic war film Shame in 1968. She could excoriate a movie but find something marvelous hiding in one of its corners – Anthony Perkins’s performance in Play It as It Lays or Austin Pendleteon’s in Billy Wilder’s vulgarized remake of The Front Page.
|A scene from Shoeshine (1946)|
This disturbing hint comes at the end of a chapter, which gives it considerable weight, even though it seems to come out of the blue and Kellow never says what sort of homework might have confirmed Brown’s accusation. Did he do it himself and then decide not to share it with us? The previous chapter ends with a quote from Owen Gleiberman, who has been for many years the film critic at Entertainment Weekly, in which he claims that while he was friendly with Kael he applied for admission to the National Society of Film Critics and was initially turned down. When he asked her to tell him why, she gave him an answer that he knew immediately wasn’t the truth so he decided to break with her because “I realized that she would lie to her critic acolytes in order to keep them in line.” But nothing in the story suggests how lying to Gleiberman would keep him in line; the story is melodramatic and implausible and seems to promote his presentation of himself as intuitive and perceptive. You’d think Kellow would be smart enough not to quote this sort of nonsense, at least not without some editorial commentary. Instead he adds, “Gleiberman always considered himself the truest of all the Paulettes because he had realized that he had to be himself. ‘To be true to what Pauline taught us,’ he said, ‘you had to break with her.’ ” Gleiberman paints himself as a hero, a man of singular integrity, and by giving him the final word on the subject and refusing to challenge it Kellow lets this self-promotion stand.