The Critic As Artful Gadfly: Pauline Kael

Photo from the jacket of the hardcover edition of Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

At her best, Pauline Kael was everything a film critic should be: passionate, knowledgable, in love with the movies and writing about them, willing to defend her reviews, and vicious. She was also everything movie goers despise in a critic: well-educated, argumentative, stubborn, and vicious.

Pauline Kael approached her subjects predatorily: she called Clint Eastwood a “tall, cold cod” and a “fascist”; accused auteur theory proponent Andrew Sarris of being a closeted homosexual because he wouldn’t offer a rebuttal to her drunken quarreling at a party; and likened Stanley Kubrick to a sadistic, “strict and exacting German professor” who created “porno-violent sci-fi comedies.”

No can ever fault her for self-censorship, and her voice flowed effortlessly, sanguine and lively, alternating between carnivorous and pensive. Her prose seemed to spill straight from unfiltered thoughts. She was subversive, never submissive, and rarely pretended to peddle in objectivity, particularly when she vehemently defended “her boys”—the directors whom she found unflinching admiration for (Robert Altman being the archetype). She mingled casual and emotive musings with wry observations rooted in her formal education, which she wore loosely, like an old concert t-shirt.

Her words are at once ethereally beautiful and corrosive; they linger in the mind— sometimes like spirits, sometimes etched in acid—long after the page has been turned. Hers was a passionate kind of criticism, the kind that lead to arguments— feuds that lasted for years and seeped into countless articles by the most influential and well-respected critics. At Kael’s peak, her reviews and articles had real consequences, real impact. If she loved a movie, it got a bigger audience. If she hated it, other critics were forced to respond loudly for fear of being drowned out by the deluge of her overwhelming following. Her readers were legion, and her detractors nearly matched her supporters in both size and fervor. Save for Roger Ebert, who has offered gratitude to Kael for paving the way, no modern critic even begins to approach the kind of power Kael had.

If any of this sounds embellished, then I’m on target: Kael wouldn’t settle for anything less than hyperbole.

In October of 2011, Viking released the first official book-length biography of Pauline Kael, titled A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow. Kellow, who is responsible for well-regarded biographies of Ethel Merman and Eileen Farrell, dedicates only about one-third of the book to Pauline’s early, pre-critic days. A chapter covers her childhood, another two or three touch upon her education and familial situation, and swiftly we’re thrown into her days broadcasting at KPFA. As much in real life as in her writing, Kael was a confrontational woman, starting fights in her reviews and at parties over matters as minute as a disagreement of opinion on the latest Antonioni movie (which she probably loathed) and cutting friendships off via phone due, arguably, to jealously (as was the case with David Denby, who received a desirable offer from The Atlantic that, for reasons that remain ambiguous, irritated Kael enough that she severed all ties with Denby). Her fights, both personal and professional, always left ripples.

Though only 4'9" in height, Kael, akin to a small, vicious dog, did not back down to anyone, and her confrontations make up the most captivating aspects of the biography. Kellow finds the emotional core of Kael’s persona during her early years with The New Yorker, when she began her ascent to the top of the criticism world, covered over the span of approximately 150 pages. Kael’s writing gains a new layer of meaning and her often angry and bitter comments make more sense, though still chill the spine at their most potent, after Kellow reveals the goings-on of Kael’s personal life, which seeped onto the pages in subtle and obvious ways.

* * *

Kael was the first real contrarian film critic (her first published piece, a slaying of the pious Chaplin’s Limelight, appeared the same year Armond White was born). Her opinions were solely her own, seemingly influenced by her and her alone. She decried studios for churning out commercial films in lieu of “good movies”, claiming a “good movie can take you out of your dull funk… make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city.” Yet Kael, whose tastes were never cohesive, was often frustratingly difficult to anticipate: she also railed against “art” movies (sometimes), and directors who favored stylish aesthetics and self-indulgent visual lavishness (sometimes).

She found Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which Eric Rohmer considered to be perhaps the most important post World War II-film, pretentious and manipulative. Hiroshima, in contrast to Kael’s beloved Breathless (1960), had a self-consciously “hypnotic tone” and stilted, premeditated dialogue, whereas Godard’s film possessed an inexplicable impulsiveness in its writing and characters that care about nothing; yet, they retain some familiar sense of empathy. She was fascinated with Godard’s ability to capture how “real people” felt; he was able to convey to viewers that he came from the same kind of background as they did.

It’s Godard’s keen observations and relatability that enticed Kael, and she aspired to reach the same kind of anti-scholarly timbre in her prose. Luckily, we get to read many, many large chunks of Kael’s writing in Kellow’s biography. Seeing her writing placed within the context of her personal life only adds to its impact; her words take on new meanings that were previously elusive. It’s sometimes more satisfying to read sections of Kael’s work and then read a page or two of Kellow’s analysis and deconstruction than it is to read Kael’s 15-page essays on their own.

Kellow is quickly becoming a film fan’s dream biographer. The guy does his research; the amount of people he interviews and the sources he pulls is admirable enough, but it’s who he interviews—Altman, the late Sarris, Kael’s former coworkers—that continuously shifts our perspective of Kael. The best pop culture-savvy biographers—David Thomson (who wrote a biography on Orson Welles as well as the definitive film book, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film), Richard Ben Cramer (who wrote about Joe DiMaggio— twice), Todd McCarthy (Howard Hawks), Patrick McGilligan (Fritz Lang)—always find a way to make their prose sharp without overshadowing their subject. They treat their subjects as characters and create personas for them.

In Rosebud, Thomson writes of Welles, “He had always been the most important person in his own drama… he was uncommon in the lucidity with which he knew that, and acted on it.” Thomson, stands out amongst biographers in that his criticism stands on its own merits and displays an understanding of cinema’s intricate complexities and subtleties. As critic, scholar, and lyricist he is peerless, and his contrarian ways are only surpassed by Kael’s (flip to any page of his Dictionary and you’ll find some startling, jarring argument that goes so far and hard against the grain it nearly starts a fiction fire). He can write on Welles and on Welles’ films and always feel authentic and articulate. His is not a collation of abilities and talent; his is a fluid, beautiful amalgamation.

Conversely, Kellow seems a little unsure when writing on films, akin to someone trying to contribute to a conversion in which they’re slightly behind; he usually relies on calling works “great” or “masterpieces”, not really making any difficult or challenging claims of his own, generally sticking with agreeable adjectives instead of pulling the cinematic threads apart and digging around, as Kael or Thomson do. But his job is to profile Kael, not to criticize movies, and it’s as a biographer that he finds great success. That Kellow chooses to write in calm, unshowy prose is both astute as a journalistic endeavor and integral to the book’s aesthetic success: the freight and accessibility of the biography comes from Pauline’s own writing— it lends a feeling of self-introspection, perhaps in a sociological way, which befits Kael’s own tendency to delve into societal observations and voyeuristic digressions over the course of her long (upwards of 10,000 words sometimes) reviews; Kellow’s short, declarative sentences veer towards minimalist but don’t delve into the Carveresque (it was be hyperbole of a Kael-like magnitude to place Kellow beside Carver or Hemingway in the Pantheon of minimalist gurus). They’re exact and exacting, like small needle pokes compared to the slang-laced verbiage of Cramer’s lacerating biography of Joe DiMaggio.

Kellow doesn’t try to dislimn Kael’s zealous writing, for which we can all be very grateful. While a literary bloodbath would have suited Kael’s contentious nature, Kellow allows the voices of Kael’s peers to account for opposing views, a smart and safe tactic. His adoration of Kael’s writing is translucent, and he has fanboy moments which reveal his Paulette sympathies (“Paulette”, Kellow points out, was first uttered, with slight malcontent, by Time critic Richard Corliss). Kael would have loved to be loved in such a large, pretty book, but one could wonder if she would have preferred something fierier. Kellow ultimately avoids controversy; Kael basked in it.

Kael saw her first sudden escalation of nationwide popularity after the release of her first book, I Lost it at the Movies (1965). It greatly differed from the writing of most critics at the time in its striking language, which was tinged with slang and steeped in unprecedented cynicism towards the mainstream. (Bosley Crowther was one critic whom Kael perennially fought with; she found him to be out of touch with modernity and representative of the old school method of morally stringent, family-friendly film criticism.) Her writing style was so informal that readers would actually send letters to The New Yorker, where Kael served as the film critic for six months every year, asking when she would learn proper English.

I Lost it at the Movies was a sleeper hit, connecting with audiences who were bored of the academic approach to film criticism that was found in Film Comment (in which Andrew Sarris, Robin Wood, and Richard Corliss all published seminal works) and consequently moving 5,227 advance copies, an impressive feat for a book of criticism, then and now. She then took on Andrew Sarris and the auteur theory, which proposed that the best filmmakers have motifs and perennial themes and stylistic choices that permeate all of their works, weave through the core being of each cinematic entity like an artery. Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Bergman—three giants of film—were early recipients of the auteur label, and unsurprisingly Kael responded coldly to their films. Hitchcock fans will fondly recall Kael’s dismissal of the Master’s 1958 thriller Vertigo, now widely considered the crowning achievement of his illustrious career and, oh yeah, the Greatest Film Ever Made, according to the 2012 Sight and Sound poll. She deemed the movie “stupid,” though she did love Kim Novak, who was “touching in the dreamy-floozy Marilyn Monroe-like role.”

The discernible whirring of the gears at work in Hitchcock’s films felt amateurish to Kael. She viewed his motifs as indulgences, not intellectual or emotional echoes. The sorrowful delirium of the would-be hero (a disheveled, mentally ravaged Jimmy Stewart, in a role that’s partially a spiritual successor to his George Bailey—perhaps an alternate path in which Bailey never met Clarence the Angel?) was too labored for Kael. Even Bernard Herrmann’s exalted score— at once sensual and devastating, a consort of Jimmy Stewart’s character, reflecting upon and responding to his lustful obsession; the spiraling strings and ascending scales lament Stewart’s singular affliction as the pulsating rhythm section compulsively returns to the root note again and again—had no impact on Kael.

Of course, Vertigo’s reputation has only grown over time. But Kael, who famously refused to re-watch movies (she called anyone who changed their opinion “wrong”), never came around to Vertigo or any other Sarris-approved, auteur-labeled film.

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