[15 September 2013]
One of the many curious changes social networking has wrought is that anybody with half a thought and a willingness to share it can now be a critic. This has led a majority of the critical establishment—people who write about the arts for a living—to adopt a tone that cannot be mistaken for that of a “normal” moviegoer, music listener, or book reader. This often results in critics distancing themselves from the movie/book/album at hand. Why risk sounding amateurish by reacting emotionally when one can tackle it coolly, intellectually?
Would Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs have deemed it necessary to change their approach in the era of Twitter? Neither of them was capable of writing anything that didn’t sound like a gut reaction. This isn’t to say their work wasn’t frequently, dazzlingly intelligent, just that they couldn’t bear to sound sterile and academic. Today, 31 years after Bangs’s death and 12 years after Kael’s, the level of passion and excitement the two of them brought to the task of reviewing is largely missing from the scene. One might admire Pitchfork‘s dedication to taste-making, but their cooler-than-thou writing could do with some Bangsian directness. And Kael, who was always on hand to take Bosley Crowther or Sight & Sound down a peg, would have surely raised the alarm on the sort of cozy consensus that exists between top film critics today.
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In a 1970 review of the Stooges album Funhouse, Lester Bangs wrote: “I still hear a horde of sluggards out there whining: ‘Are you putting me on?’ Or, more fundamentally, haven’t the Stooges been putting us all on from Yelp One? And the answer, of course, is Yes. Because, as beautiful Pauline Kael put it in her characteristically epigrammatic way: ‘To be put on is to be put on the spot, put on the stage, made the stooge in a comedy act. People in the audience at Bonnie and Clyde are laughing, demonstrating that they’re not stooges—that they appreciate the joke—when they catch the first bullet right in the face’.”
This is the only proof I have that at least one of my two favourite critics was aware of the other’s existence. When I first read the piece around ten years ago, I was only familiar with Bangs, and wondered why he’d paused during such a magnificent rant of a review to quote another critic from a different field. What did “characteristically epigrammatic” mean anyway? And who was the beautiful Pauline Kael?
Pauline Kael was the film critic for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. She published her first review in City Lights exactly 50 years ago: Chaplin’s Limelight, which she called “Slimelight”. Before that, she did cinema-centric broadcasts for a Berkeley radio station, wrote detailed, opinionated program notes for a two-screen theatre there, and eventually started reviewing films for magazines like McCall’s and The New Republic. McCall’s panicked after her merciless pan of The Sound of Music and fired her. In 1967, she wrote a lengthy rave for Bonnie and Clyde, which was published in the New Yorker. They hired her soon after, and she worked there until Parkinson’s and a growing disenchantment with the movie scene hastened her retirement.
Lester Bangs was a rock critic and editor of Creem. His first published review was in 1969, an angry letter to Rolling Stone. The magazine had run a review of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams which Lester didn’t agree with. He responded with a submachine blast, which, to their credit, the magazine printed. Bangs started freelancing regularly for Rolling Stone after that, until editor Jann Wenner let him go four years later for being “disrespectful to musicians”. He moved to Creem, where he got the space and freedom to work out his feelings in rambling, quasi-stream-of-consciousness pieces. He died in 1982 of an accidental prescription drug overdose. In death, he’s been very alive, turning up in a R.E.M. number, getting name-dropped by Kurt Cobain, and being impersonated by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous.
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I know that suggesting Kael and Bangs were similar birds might lead to ruffled feathers in both camps. After all, one of them was a straight-shooting, heart-on-her-sleeve writer who was born in Petaluma, California and later moved to New York, the other a straight-shooting, heart-on-his-sleeve writer who was born in Escondido, California and later moved to New York. There were, I concede, some differences. Kael did the majority of her writing in the rarified environs of the New Yorker, Bangs wrote for Rolling Stone, Creem, Village Voice, and dozens of smaller, less distinguished zines and rags. She was a late bloomer, publishing her first piece at 34; he died at that age. He was way crazier than her; despite Kael’s claims to a “bohemian lifestyle” in her early years, it’s unlikely she ever ended up in a drunken shouting match with an artist she admired, like Bangs did more than once with Lou Reed. Apart from this, though, they were kindred spirits.
As mentioned at the start, the most evident link between the two is the straightforward, non-academic nature of their writing. Leave it to Andrew Sarris—or his musical counterpart, Robert Christgau—to lead the reader on an aphoristic dance. Neither Bangs nor Kael ever left you in any doubt of their feelings towards a particular record or movie. Though Kael’s writing was precise and beautifully constructed, and Bangs generally carried on like an offended windmill, both generated prose that strained and seethed and yodeled with passion. In a 2001 radio interview, Sarris took a dig at Kael, saying that she made it seem like filmmakers “weren’t just making bad movies, they were setting out to torture her.” He wasn’t wrong. Four years after she called Antonioni’s L’Avventura “easily the best film of the year”, here was Kael on his 1964 film Red Desert: “If I’ve got to be driven up a wall, I’d rather do it at my own pace, which is considerably faster than Antonioni’s.”
If Kael resembled a gunfighter out to avenge cinema, Bangs was more like Michael Douglas with his baseball bat in Falling Down. He cussed and called out musicians in his pieces, wrote openly about the machinations of corporate rock, and generally made life very difficult for himself and artists he wasn’t fond of. The Beatles were “dandelions in still air”, Bob Dylan’s Desire was “an exploitation record”. He championed anything that sounded maladjusted: The Rolling Stones, Iggy and the Stooges, skuzzy garage bands like the Troggs and the Godz, the Velvet Underground. His best pieces—“The White Noise Supremacists”, about racism in punk rock; the affectionate Jamaican travelogue “Innocents in Babylon”; the obituaries he wrote for John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and Peter Laughner—were messy, thrilling affairs, grasping for truths that most rock reviews never bothered with. He was part Burroughs, part Beat lit, part cough syrup-fueled madness—easily the most rock ‘n’ roll of rock ‘n’ roll writers. (His wildman persona aside, it’s worth noting that Bangs wrote with great insight about more contemplative albums, like Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.)
Both were known for boiling things down to their basics. One of Kael’s books was titled Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—a distillation of cinema’s basic impulses and a pretty good indicator of her approach to the subject—while Bangs’s article on the skronk bands of the late ‘70s was simply called “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise”. Their prose also shared a rhythmic quality, leaving one to wonder whether Kael ever wrote with music on in the background (references to music—from swing bands to rock ‘n’ roll—frequently appear in her reviews). Bangs, more given to self-mythologizing, described his own writing thus: “I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own, and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus…” Kael, who liked to dance and who spent a good deal of her time railing against academic snobbery, would probably have concurred.
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Perhaps it was because their reviews were often more entertaining than whatever it was they were reviewing, but Bangs and Kael were (and still are) treated with kid gloves by the more academically minded sections of the critical establishment. There’s more than a hint of jealousy in a lot of this, with rival critics citing populism and crowd-pleasing bombast as reasons for their popularity. Bangs certainly did not cultivate a reputation as an intellectual—addictions to alcohol and Romilar came in the way—but he was no lightweight; a 1979 piece of his daringly points to common ground shared by free jazz and punk rock, and his unbearably intense tribute to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks—one of the great stand-alone pieces of rock criticism—ends with a juxtaposition of verses by Morrison and Garcia Lorca. Kael, who had neither addictions nor the indiscretions of youth to distract her by the time she started her career, was an even sharper critical mind. She was a keen observer not only of movies, but also the people who watched them; unlike most other critics, she regularly mentioned how the audience in the hall reacted to a particular film. Her “trash versus art” argument, a recurrent theme in her writing over the years, was provocative and influential. (“Technique,” she wrote, “is hardly worth talking about unless it’s used for something worth doing.”) And she was always on the lookout for new trends and hot young talent—hardly common practice for someone past the age of fifty.
It was in her reviews of the early 1970s that readers started encountering unknowns like Altman, Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, and Coppola. The same thing was happening in the music press, with Bangs writing about Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Television, and the Clash. The important thing to note is that, with New Hollywood and punk, Kael and Bangs weren’t riding a wave. They were there first, which is why their names will forever be associated with landmarks like Horses and Mean Streets, Blank Generation and The Godfather. Kael actually wrote a review of Robert Altman’s Nashville before it released, calling it “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen”. It was as if she’d been waiting for these films all her life. As for Bangs, he was a punk before punk existed. As he wrote in a 1977 piece about the Clash, “As far as I was concerned punk rock was something which had first raised its grimy snout around 1966 in groups like the Seeds and Count Five and was dead and buried after the Stooges broke up and the Dictators’ first LP bombed.”
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There’s a parlour game that some music fans like to play. It’s called ‘What would Lester have said?’ Would he have liked the Hold Steady? (Yes.) Would he have offered to eliminate the members of Coldplay, like he did James Taylor? (No, but only because he’d have been in his fifties, too old for death threats.) Would he have kept a blog? (A definite yes, Lester’s style was made for blogging.) The same game happens less with Kael. That her absence isn’t felt as keenly might stem from the fact that even after she retired, younger critics kept adopting aspects of her style; as a result, it still doesn’t feel like she’s truly exited the scene. Bangs, on the other hand, no one even tries to imitate. It’s too much work—put yourself on the line, fight with your editor, make enemies of the artists. There are no Lesters out there, which might account for the underwhelming nature of a lot of popular music criticism today.
One of the few writers with a healthy appreciation for both Kael and Bangs is Greil Marcus, a legendary rock critic in his own right. This is what he wrote after Kael’s death in 2001: “Her credo…brought countless readers, and countless people her readers talked to, argued with, scorned, laughed at, dragged into theaters to see movies they would never forget or never forgive, into the action.” He was even more emphatic in his forward to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the first collection of Bangs’s writings, published five years after his death. “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to accept that the best writer in America could write almost nothing but record reviews,” Marcus wrote. I think there’s a corollary to that statement. Maybe if one writes reviews like they’re the only things that matter, the way Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs did, then writing reviews is enough.