They don’t make movie critics likes this anymore.
If Pauline Kael had ever reviewed her life, she might have labeled it “a mess,” her favorite rebuke for a film that had failed to measure up. Yet Kael often reveled in movies she thought were a mess, just as anyone who reads Brian Kellow’s incisive, detailed biography of America’s most impassioned and influential movie critic, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking, 417 pages, $27.95), is sure to be absorbed, sucked in, by Kael’s cluttered hodge-podge of a life—personally, professionally, emotionally, aesthetically.
Like many larger-than-life public characters, Kael was a jumbled contradiction of traits and motives. She was a vibrant, autocratic, quotable, quirky critic who elevated movie reviewing to an art but broke ethical journalistic rules left and right, as if she were above the fray and the law. Kael’s brilliant, penetrating mind had a startling command of movie history and pop culture, undercut by schoolgirl crushes on certain actors and directors. She launched personal crusades for films directed by friends and felt no troubling pangs palling around with screenwriters, directors, and actors whose films she later reviewed—often negatively (perhaps her rationale for engaging in flagrant outlaw behavior). No other major movie critic could have gotten away with it. She was a diva.
Kael, a tough cookie, brazened through it all as she had everything else in her life until she landed at the New Yorker at 48 after knocking around for years as a low-paid critic for esoteric film journals. Before that, she worked at everything from seamstress and cook to violin teacher, and once spent the night at Grand Central Terminal with a poet friend (and bisexual lover) she had traveled with to New York. Kael hated New York and soon returned to the Bay Area, where she wound up co-owning a twin art house in Berkeley, the Cinema Guild & Studio, which showed the American classics she adored and emerging new films from Europe and Asia that excited her. She had found her calling, and serious moviegoers had found her.
With her husband Ed Landberg, Kael programmed the films and wrote movie notes that first displayed her compelling, informed, highly readable style—slangy, knowledgeable, hyperbolic, often more entertaining than the films themselves. She mixed highbrow theories with lowdown lingo (“lousy,” “crummy,” “stinker”). The tiny movie house on Telegraph Avenue (which I frequented in the mid-1950s) was a pair of black boxes, among the first double-screen theaters. Kael’s biting, pithy movie notes later got her on the air at KPFA, Berkeley’s leftwing Pacifica radio station, where she delivered reviews in her pugnacious, persuasive, quavery voice and distinctive speech patterns (she pronounced movies “mewvies”); Kael spoke as bluntly as she wrote.
As Kellow reveals in his even-handed, anecdote-jammed biography, Kael was a rebel Westerner. Her mother and father, Polish-Jewish immigrants, landed in Petaluma, north of San Francisco, and ran a chicken ranch. Pauline, the youngest of five, doted on her father, a prosperous serial philanderer who lost his money in 1929. Kael liked to cite, even flaunt, her rural roots in reviews, as if to separate her from the elite Eastern critical bloc. She went to (but didn’t graduate from) the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in the philosophy of history and minoring in pop Americana, which she absorbed through her pores. In Kael’s reviews, there are references from Proust to Popeye. Her tossed-off review of Ten from “Your Show of Shows” is maybe the best thing ever written about Sid Caesar; she also loved TV, especially prize fights.
There is so much packed into Kellow’s rich book (maybe a tad too much—rehashes of old movie plots and tussles with other critics, fascinating to me and other journalists but maybe nobody else) that her life story seems an epic script. The juiciest parts involve Kael’s in-house maneuvering at the New Yorker with Penelope Gilliatt (with whom she shared reviewing chores) and editor William Shawn, who tried to tame her, to calm her street lingo and sexed-up descriptions.
Her editor William Whitworth says she pushed Shawn to the red-faced limit, and a later editor Daniel Menaker adds, “She loved to provoke [Shawn]. She’d even say, ‘This will get his goat.’” Shawn refused to let her review Deep Throat and objected to her bored dismissal of Shoah, the film about Nazi death camps. Kael, only nominally Jewish, was unmoved and never kowtowed to Shawn, or to anybody, notably her nemesis, the respected Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris, as benign and warm a soul as Kael was embattled and chilly, although many who knew her glimpsed a gentler, generous, motherly side hidden beneath the brash exterior.
She and Sarris feuded for decades over his “auteur theory” of filmmaking that maintains that the director, not the screenwriter, is a movie’s true author. Kael’s masterful lengthy 1971 essay on Citizen Kane—in which she claimed that the movie was mainly the work of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles—was a carefully wrought deconstruction of the classic, but it was later revealed that much of her scholarship had been swiped without credit from an unknown UCLA film scholar.
“RAISING KANE,” ALAS, ISN’T INCLUDED in a companion book published by the Library of America, a bulging anthology of pieces reprinted from ten collections of Kael reviews and essays. The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Library of America, 828 pages, $40), edited by Sanford Schwartz, is a bit top-heavy with lengthy pieces on abstract themes. The rants and raves in her reviews are by far the most fun, despite some dubious choices (High School and Used Cars?), along with her lush but perceptive valentines to Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando.
I would have liked more of her precision demolition jobs on junk like Airport 1975 and the shrill, overrated Network; nobody could destroy pure schlock and overblown icons with such sardonic scorn. Often she couldn’t wait to get into print and at screenings sighed audibly, howled at dialogue, or talked back to the screen. She claimed she never saw a new movie more than once (or ever changed her mind) but took copious notes.
Usually there is nothing moldier than a collection of ancient movie reviews from 35 years ago. Who cares? But once you plunge into these, Kael makes you care again, because they’re not just reviews of old movies, but of American life and culture at a certain time, a cinema history of a kind, a reminder of what films engaged us during her reign, 1968 to 1991; her rise perfectly coincided with the 1970s renaissance in filmmaking. She left the New Yorker at 71, exhausted and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She died in 2001 at 82; her final review, perhaps aptly, was L.A. Story.
Few critics of any art form have been so influential, powerful and widely read by the cognoscenti, but the rise of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s popular TV series, At the Movies, eclipsed her power. Before that, Kael was the last word on new movies, and you had to read her if you cared about them at all, even if (or maybe because) you disagreed violently. I never read Kael for her thumbs up or down but for how boldly she laid out her argument, for her enlightening insights and entertaining style—for her, really. Asked to write a memoir, she said, “I already have.” Her emotional and intellectual life was in her reviews; Kellow neatly fills in the messy personal blanks.
At a slow point in her reviewing life, which became the low point of her career, she took a leave from the New Yorker to work as a consultant for Warren Beatty (one of her screen faves) and soon found herself in over her head in the very heart of the commercial Hollywood she loathed. Says Newsweek’s David Ansen, she wanted to “change movies themselves, and us with them.”
She naively had hoped to set producers on the straight and narrow—part of her savior complex. Kael loved movies so much she wanted to be in the very thick of them, flattered by Beatty’s bold invitation to work for him for $150,000 a year; equally naively, he may have hoped to co-opt her. It was a dumb idea all around that wound up a sour joke on both of them. One studio executive said Kael “did a masterful job of alienating everyone within six weeks.” She was impatient with studio dawdling and soon discovered she had no real power, as she had had as a critic.
Equally startling, the New Yorker’s principled Shawn let her work for Beatty, a measure of her star power, and reluctantly let her return after she crept out of Hollywood, an embarrassing escapade that tainted her but didn’t faze her. She shrugged it off as an effort to observe the industry from within. Sue Barton, ex-Robert Altman publicist, told Kellow: “She was slightly star-struck…. She was this little person with her little glasses and her little bowl haircut. She was far from beautiful, and this aspect of her personality allowed her to be with beautiful and interesting people and have a lot of clout.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online