Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reflections on Pauline Kael

The simultaneous publication of Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking) and The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, a Library of America anthology of her movie criticism edited by Sanford Schwartz, restores Pauline Kael's status as the most important film reviewer in the history of the medium. All thirteen of her books, including the last cross-section, For Keeps, which she assembled herself in 1994, are out of print; movies no longer generate the excitement, the intellectual debate and generational ownership, that they did while Kael held her post at The New Yorker – especially in the first decade (1967-1976) of her tenure, when the “Current Cinema” column passed back and forth at six-month intervals between her and Penelope Gilliatt. (Kael got it to herself when she returned to the magazine in 1980 after a brief stint in Hollywood; in the last few years before she retired in 1991, she shared it with Terrence Rafferty.) Reading Kellow’s book and dipping into the Library of America volume brings back some of the feeling of movie-going during the Vietnam era, when Hollywood was undergoing a renaissance no one could have anticipated and the latest imports from Europe enhanced the sense Kael had – and communicated eloquently to her readers – that we were living in a charmed period for the medium. Kael always acknowledged her luck at beginning to write regularly about movies (her appointment at The New Yorker, at the age of 48, was her first extended paying gig) just at the moment when old Hollywood was collapsing and younger, hip directors and screenwriters who sparked a connection with the new, counter-cultural audience were slipping into the crevasses. We were lucky because she understood the cultural significance of what she saw up on the screen and had the critical astuteness that allowed her to evaluate its quality.

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.

I knew Kael well for the last seventeen years of her life. My hero among movie critics during my college years, she became a mentor and then a close friend. Reading Kellow’s book (he interviewed me for it) and thinking about reviewing it have been, I confess, odd experiences. Anyone who knew Kael, in a sense, knows too much to read a biography of her with the calm that arises from emotional distance. But my feelings about her work didn’t alter when we became friends. She knocked me out when I read her on Barbra Streisand’s performance in Funny Girl in my first semester at college in 1968; she knocked me out again when, at the end of my third year as a college professor, I read her review of Brian De Palma’s Vietnam picture Casualties of War. And this isn’t the first time I’ve written about her: I published an essay on her work called “Critical Fervor” in The Threepenny Review a year after she retired from The New Yorker, and The Boston Phoenix ran my obituary on her in September 2001. The dual publication of Kellow’s book and the Library of America volume has rekindled some of the old controversies and has brought out of the woodwork a variety of people who – like many when she was alive, and some after her death – have evidently been champing at the bit to get in a few potshots. Frank Rich, for example, writing in The New York Times Book Review, claims to have been an admirer yet manages to re-imagine Kellow’s scrupulously fair-minded account of her post-Hollywood years at The New Yorker as retribution for her many sins (he includes the notoriously mean-spirited Adler piece in this accounting, introducing it with the phrase “Someone had to cry foul,” as if Adler were the voice of justice speaking out at last). He even accuses Kael of hypocrisy because, having mocked Dwight Macdonald for comparing Alain Resnais’s art-house darling Hiroshima, Mon Amour to Joyce and Stravinsky, she evokes Ulysses and Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps in her reviews of, respectively, Robert Altman’s Nashville and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. It seems pretty clear that Kael’s complaint about Macdonald’s praise of the Resnais picture was that it didn’t deserve the comparison, not that it is intellectually reprehensible to allude to Joyce in a discussion about a movie.

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
Most of the book, of course, centers on her criticism. She writes her famous review of Bonnie and Clyde for The New Yorker on page 100, less than a third of the way in, and its editor-in-chief, William Shawn, hires her as a regular reviewer four pages later. And that makes her story, as Kellow acknowledges, a somewhat bizarre one for a biography, because at that point she stops having adventures and settles into the position she will hold, except for the sabbatical in Hollywood, for nearly a quarter of a century. She doesn’t live the kind of life that a typical biography thrives on; aside from her complicated relationship with her daughter Gina James, which Kellow can only report on indirectly through random observations by her friends, since Gina declined to be interviewed for the book, there isn’t anything for him to write about besides her writing and the controversies it sometimes provokes. He makes a concerted effort to do so squarely, and his reportage is objective, but it doesn’t contain a great deal of substance. Kellow is intelligent but he isn’t a movie critic, so he doesn’t have much of his own to add to his re-enactments of the high and low points of each new season. And when he does throw in his own opinion it’s unhelpful and sometimes baffling, as in his head-scratching comments about her championing of De Palma’s movies and his branding as “peculiar” her claim, in her second collection of published pieces, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, that Katharine Hepburn is “probably the greatest actress of the sound era.” (Surely that’s not a controversial pronouncement, especially considering the context is Hepburn’s staggering performance in Long Day’s Journey into Night.) It wouldn’t be a problem that he sometimes takes issue with something in one of her reviews – it doesn’t arise very often – if those flaws he spots didn’t always seem to be based on a misreading. For instance, he balks at “Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah,” an anomalous piece of analysis (and I would say one of her most amazing) that sees the conflicts in Peckinpah’s movies as a symbolic representation of the way he perceived his own struggles against producers and studio heads. Kellow calls the piece “a lengthy mash note” that “all but turn[s] Peckinpah [one of her favorite filmmakers] into a Christlike figure.” He misses the crucial distinction that it’s Peckinpah, not she, who’s presenting himself in that light: “Peckinpah is surely one of the most histrionic men who have ever lived: his movies (and his life, by now) are all gesture”; “Peckinpah has become wryly sentimental about his own cynicism”; “going so far into his own hostile, edgily funny myth – in being the maimed victim who rises to smite his enemies”; and so forth.

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)
I think that’s a failure of interpretation on Kellow’s part, not a failure of intention, but it’s not the only time in the book when his attempt to be balanced is hamstrung by what he doesn’t know or doesn’t see or doesn’t understand. Take “Raising Kane,” her famous essay on Citizen Kane, which raised the hackles of Orson Welles enthusiasts like the director Peter Bogdanovich because it aimed to restore the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s role in the film’s triumph after Welles had spent three decades claiming, with increasing vociferousness, that he was the main writer. Kellow reads the essay as a crusade against the auteurist theory she’d slammed Sarris for a decade earlier in the article “Circles and Squares,” and it’s certainly a confirmation of her belief that movies are the work of too many hands to be purely the reflection of a single penetrating vision. Yet he also protests that when she “speculated that Gregg Toland, Kane’s cinematographer, had played a previously unsuspected role in the picture’s overall look . . . point[ing] to an obscure thriller from 1935 called Mad Love” that Toland shot, that “she had no real evidence for [this] theor[y]” and “the part about Mad Love was basically the same sort of movie detective work she had accused the auteurists of peddling.” Well, no: actually she comes up with pretty strong visual evidence (look at Mad Love) and identifying Toland’s contribution as consistent with his previous work is no more “auteurist” than saying that you can spot the origins of Brando’s performance in Last Tango in Paris in his early, groundbreaking work in movies like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront.

Kellow handles some of the controversies in Kael’s career with a surer hand than others – I think he’s particularly good at 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)
Kael was often taken to task for her personal relationships with directors whose work she loved. Kellow shows that those friendships didn’t prevent her from writing disparagingly about one of their movies (though it sometimes cost her the friendship). So it’s puzzling when he suggests that had Robert Getchell – who’d sent her his screenplay Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore before it ended up in Martin Scorsese’s hands – given it to Altman, as she recommended, she might have been in some kind of professional quandary when the picture came out, or when he criticizes her for not admitting, in her rave review of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, that she promoted the screenplay during her time in Hollywood. Presumably she promoted it because she liked it, then praised it when Lynch shot it because she still liked it. Perhaps most of us couldn’t look at a friend’s work with clear eyes, but Kael could; that’s why, as many of the young writers she encouraged attest, she was such an invaluable editor. Her relationships with the critics she mentored – who acquired the unfortunate nickname the Paulettes – is another bone of contention, and since I was one of them I find this controversy rather weird to discuss. Mostly Kellow takes a liberal perspective on it, essentially saying that some of those relationships turned out better than others (true enough) and that some of her acolytes – his chosen word – behaved more admirably than others (equally true). He’s careful to point out that though she liked her friends to agree with her on movies, she also courted people who fought with her and she found younger writers who imitated her creepy. He doesn’t give credence to the persistent rumor that she attempted to orchestrate others’ opinions or galvanize them for purposes of voting in the New York Film Critics’ Circle, to which she belonged, or the National Society of Film Critics, of which she was one of the founding members. But then, close to the end of the book, in a reference to an article by the Village Voice critic Georgia Brown that accuses her without evidence of doing just that, Kellow writes, “[S]he strongly suggested that Pauline was guilty of . . . organizing her acolytes in a voting bloc – a point she might have been able to prove had she done her homework . . .”

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.

Perhaps it’s unfair to expect Kellow to do for Kael’s writing what, say, Sanford Schwartz does in his fine introduction to The Age of Movies, because Schwartz isn’t a biographer and Kellow isn’t a critic. But how do you write the life of a movie critic if you don’t have much to offer on the subject of movies? I realize that it’s unfair to single out all the problems I had with A Life in the Dark and discuss them at such length because it gives the book’s considerable virtues short shrift. But the lacunae in Kellow’s book seem to me to be precisely in the areas where Kael’s accomplishments are always underappreciated and where the traditional complaints against her need to be placed in a context that he doesn’t seem equipped to provide. The book is fair, if weighing everyone’s opinion is fair, but it isn’t always accurate. Schwartz argues that Kael’s body of work “sometimes has the impact of a single long, indirect, and utterly original kind of autobiography” and I suppose that, in the end, that’s the biography of Pauline Kael that I prefer.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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