The Critic As Artful Gadfly: Pauline Kael

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.

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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.

Beautiful and Corrosive

Kellow’s Kael transcends mere artistic contrarianism and resembles a sort of impassioned duelist, shooting it out with her New Yorker editor William Shawn and trying, futilely, to get her fellow New Yorker film critic, Penelope Gilliatt, fired. Kael first came to the New Yorker after The New Republic (whose editors frequently doctored Kael’s long reviews) refused to print her ecstatic review of Bonnie and Clyde. Kael had panned virtually every commercial film she reviewed during her one-year stint at The New Republic, including Lawrence of Arabia, A Hard Day’s Night, and Dr. Zhivagho, and was consequently fired. But William Shawn obtained her Bonnie and Clyde review and ran it unedited.

Shawn offered Kael something very few critics are ever privy to: no word limit. Kael could finally unspool her provocations on the page without limitation or restriction. The catch, however, was that Kael would split her review duties 50/50 with Gillatt, whose relationship with The New York Times’ Vincent Canby and unrestrained drinking habits (she was, more than once, escorted from film premieres due to her drunken buffoonery, according to Kellow) made her an immediate adversary of Kael. For six months, Kael would reviews films every week for the magazine; while Gillatt was reviewing, Kael would travel the country giving lectures and publishing books to pay her enormous Manhattan bills.

Kael’s job seemed desirable, even enviable, to her peers and fellow critics. She had minimal interference from her editors and as much room as she needed, which very likely contributed to her sudden ascension to the top of the criticism world. But her brash writing style and anti-commercial sensibilities often spurred fights with Shawn. Kellow’s loyalty to Kael is never questionable, and he often echoes her opinions in swift asides, which can grow irksome as he sometimes delves into slavish praise. In certain instances he almost seems intent on painting a portrait of an angst-ridden community of jealous, less-talented critics who conspire against Kael; his heaping of praise sometimes mirrors Kael’s adoration for early Altman.

But when he does dispute her, Kellow starts to dissect Kael’s literary competencies and afflictions, peeling back the dense layer of verbiage and revealing Kael’s foundation of film theory and knowledge. When Kellow talks of Kael’s “weakness” in discussing European movies, he brushes up against themes of aesthetic isolation; as lionized by the 29 March 1976 New Yorker cover, New Yorkers—and the staff and readers of the New Yorker—are sometimes prone to placing New York at the center of the universe. Kael, while a strong detractor of New York, nonetheless personifies this ethnocentric approach to writing. For all of her depreciation of New York and her peers at the New Yorker, Kael fit in perfectly, whether or not she was self-aware enough to notice this paradox. Kellow spends a lot of time discussing Kael’s preference of California over New York’s “elitist” intellectuals, but the irony of Kael’s anti-east-coast-elitism is left untapped.

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In November of 2011 The Library of America released a new selective collection of Kael’s works, The Age of Movies, gathering her early pieces (“Limelight”), her reviews from The New Yorker and other magazines, her profiles (Brando and Cary Grant), and her searing polemical essays (“Trash, Art, and the Movies”) in one concise package. It was the latter of these essays, the 1969 Harper’s essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies”, in which Kael comes the closest she ever ventured towards crafting her own manifesto for aesthetics. Kael dissembled and beat up classic films like The Red Shoes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Graduate. She didn’t like her movies to be harbingers of violence, as she found Kubrick’s to do, but she didn’t like them to pussyfoot. A Clockwork Orange was too violent and too sadistic, and Dirty Harry was “fascist propaganda”, but Last Tango in Paris, which infamously features butter as a lubricant, was a “landmark” that “altered the face of cinema”.

“Tango,” her review of Bertolucci’s film, is a long, sprawling piece that touches upon Brando’s growing as an actor, Bertolucci’s virtuosity with a camera, several French and Italian films that are in the same art-house vein as Tango, and the daring performance of Maria Schneider (who later accused Bertolucci and Brando of “raping” her). While it meanders quite bit, the review is strangely one of Kael’s most engaging as her voice is surprisingly restrained. She doesn’t seem on the verge of shouting, as she does in her Altman reviews. Perhaps necessarily, a contemplative aura envelopes the prose and, though very long (ten pages in the new Age of Movies collection), the review never drags, never delves into self-indulgence. Even stranger, the review features far more plot synopsis than most of her previous pieces do; one gets the feeling that she wanted so badly to relive the movie (though she was strictly against re-watching movies, as we know) that she sat down and began to type impulsively, pouring her anatomization onto the page:

“The script (which Bertolucci wrote with Franco Arcalli) is in French and English; it centers on a man’s attempt to separate sex from everything else. When his wife commits suicide, Paul, an American living in Paris, tries to get away from his life. He goes to look at an empty flat and meets Jeanne, who is also looking at it. They have sex in an empty room, without knowing anything about each other—not even first names. He rents the flat, and for three days they meet there. She wants to know who he is, but he insists that sex is all that matters. We see both of them (as they don’t see each other) in their normal lives—Paul back at the flophouse-hotel his wife owned, Jeanne with her mother, the widow of a colonel, and with her adoring fiancé (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a TV director, who is relentlessly shooting a 16-millimeter film about her, a film that is to end in a week with their wedding. Mostly, we see Paul and Jeanne together in the flat as they act out his fantasy of ignorant armies clashing by night, and it is warfare—sexual aggression and retreat and battles joined.”

Her fascination with the graphic sexuality unnerved William Shawn, who fought to have her review considerably cut down, but, as per usual, Kael emerged with her review undoctored and her popularity stable. In “Tango” Kael’s greatest asset—her undying love for movies she considered truly great—flourishes and noticeably absent are the cumbersome political and psychological commentaries she sometimes allowed to hijack her review. She considered “Tango” to be the most important piece she had written to that point, and published her review months before anyone else (she based her review off of the original festival cut of the film, from which at least one major scene was cut), which angered fellow critics who chose to wait until the official release of the film to print their reviews. (Kael would repeat this practice with Altman’s Nashville, another film she fell in love/lust with.) The Criterion Collection published “Tango”, with Kael’s permission, on their website in 1991, where it continues to draw comments and arguments from film fans.

All of the essays that Pauline Kael is best known for—“Tango”, “Trash, Art, and the Movies”, “Raising Kane” (a factually-challenged denouncement of Orson Welles and the auteur theory), “The Man from Dream City” (a long, fascinating dissection of Cary Grant’s magnitude)—are open, wavering affairs, as if written while Kael was taking a stroll through the gardens of her mind. She wrote fast and furiously, often scrawling her essays (always by hand) in long sittings when she couldn’t contain her provocation.

The Library of America gathers most of her important pieces, but it’s definitely not a complete or apt representation of Kael’s philosophies and personality. “Raising Kane” isn’t included due to its length, but clearly it’s a more significant contribution to the film community than her review of China is Near. And many of her great retorts via letter, or in person, are not present, for more obvious reasons. It’s a shame (or perhaps simply a fascinating character detail) that one cannot fully appreciate Pauline Kael—Kael the critic, Kael the sociologist, Kael the anti-feminist, Kael the socialite—through her reviews alone. Her writing, as personal as it is, doesn’t work as a substantial vessel to her own personal demons and afflictions. It would seem inherent, then, that any collection of her work will not satisfy ardent Paulettes. A few critical pieces on Kael or maybe some of the retorts of her peers (Sarris’s many pieces on Kael would absolutely help create a full portrait) could have made this collection a must-have for movie buffs and scholars, but as a BEST OF for the Kael beginner, it works exceedingly well.

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At her best, 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 modern movie goers despise in a critic: well-educated, argumentative, stubborn, and vicious. From Roger Ebert (Chacago Sun Times) to A.O. Scott (New York Times) to Dana Stevens (Slate), serious critics are ultimately descendants of Kael; no one seems capable of expunging her lingering presence. Amateur and professional critics, bloggers and newspapermen and magazine writers, continue to mention her in their writing, both in adoration and abhorrence.

New Yorker critic and blogger Richard Brody— whose proclivity for gaudy writing and fervid defense of divisive, often arcane films seems to repel many readers much in the same way Kael’s unchained fervor did— often finds reasons to decry Kael in his posts on the New Yorker’s website, if only for a moment. In his obituary/profile of Andrew Sarris, Brody calls Sarris “the one indispensible movie critic.” Brody rightly praises Sarris for his influential and steadfast defense of the auteur theory, and Brody’s genuine love of Sarris’s work is admirable. His praises aren’t forced, and his knowledge of Sarris and Sarris’ theories is vast.

Where he begins to lose focus is ¾ of the way through the piece, when he inevitably brings up Kael, whose “acolytes—who seem to put their hands on the Ouija board to consult with her before writing—continue her grudge against the ‘a’ word.” Brody could have discussed the rivalry between Kael and Sarris as a defining aspect of both of their careers, since neither one of them made a secret of it; in all actuality, they thrived on it. But Brody makes it sound like Kael had far fewer readers than Sarris, and those who did follow her—her “acolytes”—were cultish and uneducated, uncouth and, dare I say it, mainstream. He goes out of his way to attack a woman who has been dead for a decade, whereas Sarris, “for his part, was resolutely independent. His following came not from the cultivation of a club or a clan but from the allure of the ideas he put forth… Whether he’s read or not, he’s the dominant figure of film criticism in the last half century.”

In the wake of Kael’s reemergence in Kellow’s biography and her numerous write-ups in Time, The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc., Brody actually offered some praise for Kael: In a review of Kellow’s book, he says, “One of the most remarkable and salient aspects of Kael’s career is that she didn’t get a position worthy of her talent (with her hiring at this magazine) until she was almost fifty.” But even here, he goes on to say, “…It’s worth considering that she was self-consciously building herself a fortress of allies and disciples who could serve as a strike force against her detractors and could, in case of disaster, insure an easy landing.”

This is what Brody wanted to get out of Kellow’s book: An explanation for Kael’s deep-seeded, paranoiac penchant for gathering readers, like a battalion of ardently loyal film-geeks, to give her the support to publicize her contrarian views. Brody seems interested in Kael’s influence, even if he tries to disparage it; he wants to know what made her so much more popular than Sarris, the “dominant figure of film criticism in the last half of the century.” Brody doesn’t point out that he’s unable to avoid her when discussing Sarris, that someone would eventually do it on the comments at the bottom of the page; regardless of her views and her mannerisms and her habits, she remains a subtle but undeniably dominant figure in Brody’s writing. It’s the kind of irony Kael would savor.

As Brody points out, a biography of Kael innately conjures many unanswerable questions: Would Kael fight for film criticism to regain its mass appeal? Or would she bask in the smaller spotlight, revel in her small, devoted following? Would she like being a cult icon as opposed to a hugely polarizing popular figure? Since Kael was known to rebut many of her detractors in print, how would she respond to the thousands of anonymous internet trolls who lurk on forum pages?

Why was she so popular?

These questions are too large, too delicate for Kellow, or anyone, to answer, but they may start to plague an obsessive reader—and Paulettes usually are obsessive. If nothing else, reading Kael’s reviews and reading about her as a person helps to illuminate the binary that is film criticism. Some may feel a sudden deluge of nostalgia for the days when film critics “mattered”, when the written word of a reviewer held freight. Kael would probably take great joy in knowing that the golden age of criticism died alongside her.