Taking Her All In

The long reach of Pauline Kael.

I’m writing these words on February 11, the same date that storied film critic Pauline Kael published her final column for The New Yorker in 1991. Hobbled by illness and, worse, uninspired by the crop of movies coming out of Hollywood—her final column was devoted to brief takes on Awakenings, L.A. Story, and the Julia Roberts thriller Sleeping With the Enemy, a far cry from the nineteen-seventies landmarks like Nashville and Last Tango in Paris and Mean Streets that used to inspire two-thousand- word torrents of jazzy praise—Kael couldn’t be faulted for calling it a day.

Pauline Kael, courtesy of Slant Magazine

Pauline Kael, courtesy of Slant Magazine

There were occasional transmissions from Kael’s home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the years that followed, most notably a Q&A that appeared in a special 1994 movie-themed issue of The New Yorker, and an informal “final interview” with jazz critic Francis Davis published in 2002 in a slim volume called Afterglow. But that was nothing like the deluge of fresh Kaeliana that has been released during the last four months. In addition to The Age of Movies, an anthology of her best writing, published by the Library of America, Kael fans have two more books to feast on: Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, the first major Kael biography; and Lucking Out, James Wolcott’s lively evocation of his youth in nineteen-seventies New York, in which the future Vanity Fair culture critic devotes a long, affectionate chapter to his friendship with Kael.

Taken together, these books provide the most rounded picture of Kael’s personality away from the movie theatre that’s ever come to light. In her introduction to her career-retrospective anthology For Keeps, Kael famously wrote, “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” But Kael’s reviews constitute a very circumspect memoir. Such details of her private life as the romance with the gay poet and filmmaker James Broughton that produced her daughter Gina, or her intimate, borderline-unprofessional friendships with tough-guy directors such as James Toback and Sam Peckinpah, or her failed stint in the late-seventies as a creative consultant for Paramount Pictures went understandably unexplored in her writing. However, they get a full airing from Kellow.

When we first meet Kael in Kellow’s book, she’s the precocious daughter of a Jewish chicken rancher in Petaluma, California, with vague ambitions towards a career in the arts, perhaps as a playwright, perhaps as some kind of literary critic. It’s easy to forget that Kael didn’t land her job at The New Yorker until she was nearly fifty, and she spends the first hundred pages of Kellow’s book knocking around the bohemian scene in San Francisco and New York, often sponging off her older sisters while trying to put together a livelihood managing movie theatres and submitting articles to low- or non-paying film journals.

By contrast, when she pops up in Lucking Out, arriving late to a press screening of Bob Fosse’s Lenny and immediately sucking up all the oxygen in the room, she is already a legend, basking in her fame and influence, her reward after all those long years of professional frustration. (Indeed, the articles Kael wrote before The New Yorker hired her were peppered with resentful takedowns of the opinions of the New York literary establishment. When editor William Shawn demanded, upon taking her on, that she quit using the pages of his magazine to throw eggs at her fellow critics, it was supposedly the only stylistic concession he ever won from her in all their years of working together.) In Wolcott’s account, Kael comes across as one part mentor and one part pal, not just the tough-but-inspirational teacher but also the delinquent classmate with whom you share private wisecracks while huddling together at the back of the school bus, smoking shoplifted cigarettes.

Kael didn’t appear in my own life until the mid-eighties. I was fifteen and slowly working my way through the two shelves’ worth of film books stocked at my local library; Kael was the woman whose face stared out from the cover of Taking It All In with the level, serenely intelligent gaze of a Tolkien elf. I can’t remember if I borrowed it because I connected with her picture, or because it was the most recent book of hers and therefore contained reviews of movies I’d actually seen, like E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I added it to the pile of books I brought with me during my family’s annual two-week sojourn in northern Ontario cottage country. Maybe it was the setting, but I particularly relished Kael’s skewering of On Golden Pond, a film that had been a particular favourite of my mother’s, but which Kael found cloyingly manipulative. I read and reread her review’s most merciless lines (“The movie is like a striptease without nudity—it’s a death tease”), delighted to feel every bit as sharp and wised-up as she was.

The feeling didn’t last long. About a hundred pages later came Kael’s triple-decker review of Gandhi, Tootsie, and Sophie’s Choice, all of which had opened within a couple of weeks of each other, just in time for the 1983 awards season. Her opening salvo remains a pomposity-puncturing classic: “Leaving the theatre where I saw Gandhi, I felt the way the British must have when they left India: exhausted and relieved.” Gandhi won the Oscar that year for Best Picture, but the world has since come around to Kael’s opinion that it’s a respectfully made bore, and rare indeed is the person in 2012 who voluntarily sits down in front of the Blu-Ray player to watch it. Sophie’s Choice, however (and especially Meryl Streep’s performance), remain sacred cows to this day, and Kael’s dismissal of the film as “an infuriatingly bad movie” and her assessment of Streep as an overly self-conscious, “neck-up” actress incapable of physically inhabiting a role, are startlingly contrarian even today. The reviews scandalized me. These were the kinds of films teachers showed us in class as examples of “important” moviemaking, often literally so. One afternoon, our drama teacher showed us Sophie’s Choice, and the entire class made quite the show of sitting silently in our seats throughout the closing credits, all the better to impress upon him how shattering we had found the whole experience.

If there was one thing Kael hated more than the sentimentality of On Golden Pond, it was the reverence that so many supposedly intelligent people felt obligated to pay towards dreary exercises like Gandhi and Sophie’s Choice. For Kael, true artistry was to be found in movies like Tootsie, which she put in the same category as Bringing Up Baby and Pat and Mike and Bombshell with Jean Harlow, “films that were factory products and commercial as all hell but took off into a sphere of their own… that continue to give so much pleasure that they have a special glamour.” Kael often praised her favourite movies for their “nose-thumbing” qualities. Perhaps my favourite sentence in all of Kael’s work is from her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies” where she observes, “An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense.”

Yet, for all her vaunted influence, surprisingly few of the films Kael endorsed most passionately have ascended into the canon: the New York première of Last Tango in Paris did not, as she hoped, become the cinematic equivalent of the night Le Sacre de Printemps was performed; Robert Altman’s Nashville did not become the through-the-roof box-office smasheroo that she predicted; and Brian de Palma’s Vietnam drama Casualties of War, the last film she really campaigned for in print, is now virtually forgotten.

But if Kael’s writing didn’t necessarily change the way that people reacted to specific movies, it did affect how people reacted to movies in general. Her jazzy, idiomatic voice; her allergy to even the smallest trace of stuffy academic jargon; her unapologetic appreciation for low-down comedy, trashy thrillers, operatic melodramas, and ripely sensual actresses (“Oooee,” she whooped upon seeing Anjelica Huston in Gardens of Stone, “she’s a harlot, she’s a princess!”); her willingness to speculate upon the inner lives of actors and directors as reflected in the images they projected onscreen; the relentless forward energy of those long, long paragraphs… it is an intoxicating brew. When Kael writes a line like, “I don’t trust critics who say they care only for the highest and the best; it’s an inhuman position, and I don’t believe them,” you want to sigh with relief and gratitude to have a person in such a position of critical authority give you permission to enjoy a little bit of trash once in a while. But then, just as quickly, she yanks back on your leash with a reminder that this permissiveness doesn’t extend to The Sound of Music or Dances With Wolves. (Hey, there’s trash, and then there’s crap.)

I found Kael’s tastes bewildering during that initial reading of Taking It All In, but she expressed them with such confidence and verve that I was wholly seduced. I inhaled the book, little realizing how completely her voice would ventriloquize through mine when I began trying my hand at criticism not long after. To this day, my writing remains shot through with Kaelisms—quick asides shoved into the middle of sentences with em-dashes or tucked between parentheses and paper-clipped to the ends of paragraphs. I can’t stop addressing my reader as “you” the way Kael liked to do.

Kael was famous for nurturing a close circle of young movie-critic protégés, so-called “Paulettes” like David Edelstein and Elvis Mitchell, whose prose style and aesthetic tastes so closely mirrored Kael’s that one often had to wonder if agreeing with Kael was a condition of their friendship. In truth, though, Kael’s voice was so persuasive that you didn’t need to be a Paulette to find yourself thinking and writing about movies the way she did. As Salon film editor Andrew O’Hehir recently wrote, “When I was a younger critic and someone accused me of writing like Kael, I was enraged and responded that I’d never read her, which was almost literally true. When I did read her, I had to admit the guy had a point: I had absorbed some elements of her style and outlook without realizing it, as if through osmosis, because they were so ubiquitous in film criticism.”

Back in the day, your Paulette membership card was seen as an easy pathway to a career as a movie critic, but Kellow and Wolcott’s accounts of life with Kael make it clear just how hard it was to stay on the great woman’s good side. There are numerous stories in these pages of Kael breaking off contact with onetime colleagues for failing to follow her career advice, or disassociating herself from friends for expressing unacceptable opinions about certain movies. Wolcott quotes the ex-girlfriend of a critic friend as saying, “I think Pauline cooled on me after I told her I didn’t like Yentl. In retrospect, that was the Beginning of the End.”

Talk about inhuman positions! Once, after an operation to relieve a congested carotid artery, Kael heard the surgical team talking about Matthew Modine. Still groggy from anesthesia, Kael still felt compelled to chime in: “He’s never any good,” she whispered. Another time, during a conversation with Kael, the writer Craig Seligman mentioned the challenges of becoming an editor. “It never ceases to amaze me,” he said, “how many people who call themselves writers actually can’t write.” To which Kael replied, “Yes—they say things like ‘It never ceases to amaze me’.”

Kael died in 2001, just as the era of online film criticism was taking off, and it… er… never ceases to amaze me how no truly towering Kael-like figure has yet emerged among internet movie writers—even though the internet is probably the only medium nowadays where a film critic might get the freedom and the unlimited space that The New Yorker bestowed upon Kael. Critics like Some Came Running blogger Glenn Kenny and the New York Press’ Armond White have some of Kael’s combative, argumentative spirit, but they don’t have Kael’s ability to challenge the reader while keeping her  common touch—White’s tastes, especially, are so perversely, alienatingly contrarian that his reviews often seem like pieces of performance art. Bloggers like Dennis Cozzalio (Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule), Sheila O’Malley (The Sheila Variations), and Kim Morgan (Sunset Gun) write about film with a witty, iconoclastic joy that Kael would have heartily approved of, but, without the imprimatur of a publication like The New Yorker, their reviews and essays have but a fraction of the reach and influence Kael enjoyed at her peak.

In his own tribute to Kael, Cozzalio himself speculated how Kael might have fared in the rough-and-tumble world of the internet. “Maybe she wouldn’t have survived as well in an online world,” he writes, “where her every argument would be subject to round upon round of contrary opinion.” That’s what makes paging through The Age of Movies such a bittersweet experience: I’m not sure that the movies have gotten worse since Kael stopped writing, but I definitely think that audiences have. Who reads a movie review anymore expecting to have their minds provoked, let alone changed?

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