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Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark   

Richard Porton


  Commissioned by a now-defunct webzine, this brief report on a 2011 love fest celebrating the late American film critic Pauline Kael, occasioned by the publication of Brian Kellow’s biography of her, is a humble addition to a small number of anti-Kael ‘rants’ (and I don’t use that word as a pejorative) by disgruntled American writers. While the vast majority of American film critics invoke Kael as – to use that atrocious American phrase – a ‘role model’, a small dissident camp which includes Renata Adler, Gary Indiana, Jonathan Baumbach and Jonathan Rosenbaum has proved more or less immune to her prose’s supposed charms. The extent of Kael’s influence in the U.S. might be measured by the fact that even the noted ‘contrarian’ Armond White, expelled from the New York Film Critics Circle in January 2014 for heckling Steve McQueen during an awards ceremony, is a devoted Kael fan. Perhaps White’s continual genuflection towards Kael’s legacy merely illustrates that the line between rebelliousness and conformism is indeed thin. (R.P.)    

It is difficult to have a conversation about the late Pauline Kael with a group of film critics or cinephiles without generating a certain amount of rhetorical overkill. Ever since the publication in 1965 of I Lost it at the Movies, her first anthology of film criticism (I still have the dog-eared Bantam paperback edition I pilfered, circa 1967, from my parents’ bookshelves), Kael has been a polarising figure. With the publication of the Library of America’s selection of Kael’s writings – The Age of Movies (2011) – and Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, a scrupulously well-researched biography, the hyperbolic encomiums and vehement denunciations that went with the territory during her career as a supposedly ‘must read’ reviewer have resurfaced with a vengeance.


On the book jacket of the Library of America volume, Roger Ebert compares her with George Bernard Shaw, Phillip Lopate terms her one of America’s ‘best nonfiction prose writers’ and, perhaps most hyperbolically of all, Greil Marcus claims that ‘[M]any people today live more fully than they would have if Pauline Kael had never written’. From the opposite vantage point, a fair number of audience members who emerged in a slightly shell-shocked state from the New York Film Festival’s panel discussion on Kael’s legacy (15 October 2011) no doubt agree with Gary Indiana’s 2002 postmortem in Artforum: ‘It is […] the absence of any real sensibility rooted in any consistent method of analysis that makes Pauline Kael’s collections of reviews the kind of books I don’t like having in my house’. (See here.)

Why is it so difficult for many commentators, particularly other film critics, to discuss Kael in a nuanced fashion? Why do her acolytes swoon over her – mentioning occasional misgivings with the greatest reluctance – while her adversaries dismiss her as little more than a petulant, overrated hack? Unfortunately, there was not much of an effort to provide a reasoned assessment of her strengths and weaknesses at the NYFF panel discussion that featured such Kael cheerleaders as New York magazine film critic David Edelstein; Kellow; ‘cultural critic’ Camille Paglia who, in her characteristically hyper-caffeinated line of attack, flirted with, and often achieved, luminous self-parody; and James Toback, a director whom The New Yorker’s onetime star critic both championed and attacked as the spirit moved her. Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter’s chief film critic and an avowed Sarris disciple, represented, according to moderator Scott Foundas, the ‘loyal opposition’. Unsurprisingly, perhaps out of sheer politeness, McCarthy and Geoffrey O’Brien, the Library of America’s general editor, who has occasionally written on Kael’s work with considerable skepticism, seemed reluctant to come off as interlopers at Lincoln Center’s Kael love fest.


What became clear as the panel progressed was that, in order to sing Kael’s praises, it became (or was assumed to be) necessary to demolish her critics – and ignore many of her precursors. Although Parker Tyler and James Agee were mentioned in passing, the name Manny Farber (the recipient of another Library of America tribute volume several years ago that was much more groundbreaking, since great chunks of material had never been anthologised) was never uttered. Since both Paglia and Edelstein praised Kael’s colloquial, ‘jazzy’ prose, Farber’s ‘absent presence’ was especially glaring.


It is a truism that a critic’s opinions on specific films are less important than the aplomb with which he or she conveys those opinions. Yet one of Kael’s most notable failings, especially after her status as a tastemaker appeared to go to her head during the 1970s, was her tendency to make ex cathedra pronouncements – that thrilled her acolytes – concerning the supposed greatness of certain films, most notably Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), that now seem something less than masterpieces to many astute critics. While Farber was an equally contentious critic who often shot from the hip, unlike Kael, he always left room for engaging in a dialogue with his readers and, on many occasions, a dialogue with himself. His best pieces include a dialectical tension that Kael’s reviews, whether raves or diatribes, rarely possess. For example, ‘The Power and the Gory’, Farber’s review (co-written with Patricia Patterson) of Taxi Driver, oscillates between admiration and disdain for Scorsese’s film without seeming at all incoherent. Kael’s critical universe was much more Manichean and claustrophobic; either you were with her in her over-the-top enshrinement of Brian De Palma and Bertolucci – or her one-note derision of, among others, Bresson, Cassavetes, Resnais and a host of other significant directors – or you were against her.


Kael was always more interested in settling scores and making Olympian judgments than participating in any sort of critical dialogue – which probably explains the adulation she still elicits from disciples such as Edelstein who, at least during the panel, rejected the appellation of ‘Paulette’ and, with more than a modicum of self-awareness, self-deprecatingly christened himself a ‘Paulinista’. This tendency is apparent as early as I Lost it at the Movies, which includes a number of jabs at Dwight Macdonald, Stanley Kauffmann and, of course, the most popular bête noire of the 1960s, The New York Times’ stodgy Bosley Crowther. (In his biography, Kellow points out that, once she arrived at The New Yorker, her editor, William Shawn, strictly forbade ad hominem attacks on other critics.)


In her efforts to honour Kael and disparage her critics during the panel discussion, Paglia raised the stakes by spouting vitriol that Kael would at least have had the good taste not to commit to print. Extolling Kael’s impatience with academic film studies, the abrasive author of Sexual Personae reduced all of academic criticism to a preoccupation with ‘the male gaze’. (You do not have to be enamoured of much of the jargon-filled sludge that comes out of academia to find that a simplistic caricature.) She and Edelstein also, rather cryptically, referred to an ‘infestation’ of ‘Stalinists’ at the Village Voice. Although those would have been fighting words during the 1930s, they were presumably referring to what they deemed an ungenerous, putatively authoritarian stance towards Kael – not a tendency at the Voice to defend, say, the purging of Old Bolsheviks during the Moscow trials.


These odd remarks also provided a subliminal reminder that Kael’s politics were always tantamount to what is commonly labeled ‘Cold War liberalism’. To cite only one example of her critical and political myopia, she mercilessly attacks Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954) as ‘communist propaganda’ in a review collected in I Lost it at the Movies. It is true that Biberman and many of Salt’s personnel were once associated with the Communist Party. And (according to Larry Ceplair) Paul Jarrico, the film’s producer, ‘did not question the rationale for the series of show trials that had commenced in the Soviet Union in August 1936’. This being said – and despite Salt’s admittedly clunky aesthetic – it seems like something of a slur to assert that the film, which has inspired scores of non-Communist, anti-Stalinist leftists over the years, amounts to little more than a farrago of Communist bromides. (In a posthumously published article in Cineaste, Jarrico claimed that much of Kael’s critique appeared to be based on her reading of the shooting script, not the film itself.)


Of course, any criticism of Kael, whom Paglia compared, without a smidgen of irony, to the ‘pyramids of Giza’, was more or less verboten during the panel’s protracted hagiography. Paglia and Edelstein, however, gingerly raised the quandary of Kael’s near-total dismissal of Alfred Hitchcock’s career despite her fawning adulation of Brian De Palma – whose films, especially Dressed to Kill (1980) and Obsession (1976), would have been unimaginable without the influence of Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). While attempting to explain this conundrum, Toback unwittingly revealed the source of Kael’s critical Achilles’ Heel. She abjured ‘stasis’ and preferred ‘elegant motion’, explained Toback. Even though there is nothing wrong with a taste for kinetic editing, her abhorrence of what she at least perceived as stasis probably explains her aversion towards a raft of seminal films - Last Year at Marienbad (1961), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Shoah (1985), Au hasard Balthazar (1966), The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and Husbands (1970) would constitute a mere provisional list of her blind spots.


Despite Kellow’s ostensible alliance with the Kael cheerleading squad during the panel, his biography is quite unsparing in its account of the fiasco that became The Citizen Kane Book, a sloppy assault on Orson Welles’ reputation that originated as a lengthy two-part piece in The New Yorker. It can only be interpreted as misplaced reverence that neither Kellow nor the other panelists focused on this travesty, riddled with errors that all, quite mysteriously, escaped the scrutiny of The New Yorker’s supposedly eagle-eyed fact checkers.


Kael is often hailed for her passionate engagement with movies – the unabashedly sexual frisson she experienced while grappling with what excited her in screening rooms. Indeed, Paglia’s groupie-like enthusiasm notwithstanding, when Kael wrote about certain actors or genres – say Cary Grant and screwball comedy – her work bristled with an intelligence that could almost erase sour memories of her more tendentious critical edicts. Her criticism, especially if savored in small doses, is certainly not without merit. But the New York Film Festival’s tribute did Kael a disservice by glossing over her flaws and inflating her importance. (In a disturbingly, although predictably Americentric fashion, the panelists did not even mention any distinguished foreign critics such as André Bazin, Serge Daney or Shigehiko Hasumi.)


It is understandable that, for many filmgoers who discovered movies through reading Kael at an impressionable age, she remains the premier American critic of the twentieth century. That does not excuse, however, Lincoln Center’s deification of a problematic figure. She was, when all is said and done, just another working critic. And in a desperate attempt to be hip during her tenure at The New Yorker, she now seems much more dated than Bazin, Farber or Agee.


from Issue 5: Shows


Richard Porton 2011/2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.