Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Still Swinging: Why Pauline Kael Still Angers So Many Critics

Film critic Pauline Kael
It's astonishing and quite craven how often people have to wait until somebody's dead, sometimes long dead, before they dare to start taking a strip off them. Since her passing in 2001, The New Yorker magazine film critic extraordinaire Pauline Kael has been flayed by former 'acolytes,' enemies and competitors. Just when you think the noise is dying down and people can just read her brilliant criticism for what's on the page, not the way she may have 'treated' someone, another rift erupts. For a woman who stopped writing criticism in 1991 and died of Parkinson's disease in 2001, she sure still stirs up a shit storm of emotion amongst current critics.

In the very early 1980s, I met Kael at a book signing in Toronto at a now defunct store called Cine Books. She was in town to promote and sign her then-latest collection of essays compiled from The New Yorker. I arrived a bit late and found that there were only a handful of people left. As circumstances played out, the small crowd thinned and I found myself essentially alone with Kael. I don't know how long we talked (my memory says an hour, but I don't think so), but I remember, if not the details of it, at least sensing her seeming enthusiasm as she listened to me talk about my own desire to be a film critic (I was writing for a now-defunct student newspaper at the University of Toronto called, unimaginatively, The Newspaper). Never once during our chat, even when other people came up and then left, did I feel I was wasting her time. She restarted the conversation and on we talked. It was the sort of thing I needed as a young writer to hear words of encouragement from a critic I admired. Don't get me wrong. I was never a “Paulette,” as her supposed band of young writers who became part of her literal or figurative circle were derisively called. I had my own mind. For all the reviews she wrote that I admired, such as her stunning piece on Brian de Palma's misunderstood masterpiece, Casualties of War (1989), I found others with which I did not agree, such as her lukewarm review of Philip Kaufman's fine The Right Stuff (1983). (It was her review though of Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers that made me want to be a critic in the first place.)

As much as she was admired, she was despised. Groundless accusations of her being homophobic, or even anti-Semitic, were often thrown at her based on a misreading of her work, or by wilfully ignoring sentences that came after the bits her critics isolated as “proof.” How she was anti-Semitic is beyond me since she was Jewish, but it stemmed mostly from her denunciation of Claude Lanzmann's overrated, languid and stupefying Holocaust documentary, Shoah (1985). There's a school of thought that believes that there's no such thing as a bad Holocaust film because the subject is so important. Ridiculous. Give me Renais' harrowing and horrifying Night and Fog (1955), Max Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) or Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) over Lanzmann's self-important work any day.

And now it all begins again. Tomorrow, a book called The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Library of America) will be published followed four days later by an unauthorized biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking) by Brian Kellow. Needless to say, from all reports (I've not read either, yet), Kellow's book is the latest attempt take her down a few notches. As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis says disdainfully about her, ”Given how badly she comes across in the biography – palling around with filmmakers she reviewed is merely the beginning – she doesn't set a good example [as a critic giving everything she had to what she had to say].” Manohla is yet another contemporary critic who feels the need to destroy the “mighty” Kael. Why? So that her own opinion can shine?. More from Manohla: “If she still casts a shadow it's less because of her ideas, pugilistic writing style, ethical lapses and cruelties (and not merely in her reviews) ...” Sorry, Manohla, but I've been reading you off and on for years and I cannot remember a thing you've written about movies. Kael? I still remember the great and the infuriating, because she, as A.O. Scott (the other New York Times critic) said in the same article, “She will not lead you to correct positions, but she is an example of the right way to do criticism, which is with everything you have.”

Kael, in later years
Ironically, critics who continue to attack Kael for being a bully end up using bullying tactics themselves. It was two years after her death before one of her eventual replacements at The New Yorker, David Denby, felt safe to take his own shots at her in that very magazine. He claimed to be a Paulette himself in the late 1960s, and then he supposedly fell out of favour with her in the late 1970s because he, first, didn't sycophantically agree with her all the time (which he claimed she required); and secondly, when she supposedly accused him of copying her style. Maybe he should have agreed with her more often because he might have ended up being half the critic she was. Denby is another critic whose work I sometimes read only to have little memory of it afterwards. I doubt very much she wanted to be surrounded by ass kissers. I often felt in reading her writing that if you gave back a good, reasoned, solid, personal and truthful argument, she may not have agreed with you, but she would have respected your opinion. It's just that she didn't suffer fools gladly. If she disagreed with your point of view, as she did with Andrew Sarris' slavish devotion to the auteur theory where even a 'great' director's bad work was worthy of consideration, then she did it with all her might (much to Sarris' anger). I agree with Kael here, too, because there were directors whose work I greatly admired, such as Howard Hawks (one included in Sarris' pantheon), but I wasn't blind to the fact that his bum films could be just as bad as, oh I don't know, a Michael Winner movie (Death Wish). Ever heard of A Song Is Born (1948)? Neither have I, but it's a musical remake of Hawks' great Ball of Fire (1941); ever tried sitting through Land of the Pharaohs (1955)? Good luck with that.

Even the local media has been getting in on the bashing Kael act. The Toronto Star's Peter Howell takes Kael to task for a comment she made in 1980 about the state of films. She wrote: “[T]he movies have been so rank the last couple of years that when I see people lining up to buy tickets I sometimes think that the movies aren't drawing an audience – they're inheriting an audience.” He then goes on to say how wrong she is and then lists the 'good' films that came out in the two years before she was growing weary. He's right. There were good films, such as Manhattan and The Last Waltz, but then he also includes Days of Heaven (the pretty locust movie as I call it), The Deer Hunter (anybody tried watching it lately?) and The Shining (which Critics At Large's Kevin Courrier recently called “Kubrick's folly”. I don't agree with Kevin's assessment and will address it at length once winter comes, but Kevin's sure not alone in that opinion). Then Howell tries to say how many “great” movies there have been this year, such as, The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, both of which have received mixed reviews at best.

It's as if these critics need to take the mickey out of Kael in order to justify their own existence as critics. No you don't. Just do what she always did. Write from the heart. That is what I learned from Kael from reading her and in that conversation I had 30+ years ago. I have never tried to imitate her style (who could?), but I have tried to make the personal public as she often did. Bring your guts, your life, and your point-of view into everything you write. Don't just try to appeal to the masses as when a well-known critic put Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) on his Top Ten not because he liked it, but because he just didn't want to be bothered with the angry mail. That is just plain old cowardice. If you cannot say what you really thought of the film, then quit. Me, I loved the Jackson films (and I'm no fan of the Tolkien books) as I have said here. My opinion is always my own (another thing Kael 'taught' me), not some vain attempt to try to satisfy my peers, or some special interest group who might write you a nasty note when you diss a film they love.

Kael is still causing controversy and stirring up the shit because of what she wrote and the passion in which she did it. She still stirs up the shit because so few critics have ever managed to measure up to the quality of her work and few ever will. That's why she still delights and angers so many.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

1 comment:

  1. Like most critics, Kael was overly impressed with herself--just more so than most.