Odd Couple

Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael: a curious combination

Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael were not really opposites—even if, as sisters, they might have driven parents to leave home. Sontag, with her sheer intellectual brilliance and youthful glamour, became a feminist heroine before the movement opted for "hero." Kael, once she found her nest at The New Yorker, was central to young Americans' coming to regard their movies (not "films," please) as records of everything and anything they were feeling.

My Delta paperback of Against Interpretation (1966, and already then in its ninth printing!) has a knockout picture of Sontag on the back. It's a photo, by Harry Hess, of a seductive brunette who knows how not to notice the camera so that we have an open corridor straight into her dreamy eyes. She looks like Susan Kohner! That comparison isn't going to mean much nowadays, but Kohner was a real movie stunner of the late 1950s—she played the "colored" daughter in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959).

Sontag (who was thirty-three in 1966) has changed a lot. You'd never pick her now as someone who might have had a chance in old-fashioned movies. She has come through so much: not just her own early life as the pre-eminent bluestocking of the 1960s, but Vietnam, cancer, Sarajevo, and a belated bliss as—can it be?—a romance novelist (one fit for Douglas Sirk?). One of the most penetrating and suspicious critics of the allure of photography, she still gives terrific head shot. As The New York Times Magazine said of her in the 1990s,

Wrinkles and creases run wild on her unadorned face. Her skin is as pale as a monk's. Her long, unruly, onyx-black hair is rent by a dramatic slash of pure white that runs like an ice floe over the crest of her head.

You can call this gossip (and Craig Seligman elects not to mention it), but the same Sontag once wrote and directed a feature film, Unguided Tour (1983), that was no more than a love letter to the soulful splendor and unyielding inner life of the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs. More recently Sontag has been the lover of the Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz.

I mention this because of the acute observation by a fond Seligman that no one ever took a really good photograph of the woman who was swept off her feet by imagery and unrivaled at describing its sexy thrall: Pauline Kael. Kael was small and never threatened beauty, but she was passionately animated, and there was clearly a time in her life when she was as much a hound for men as her chatty prose was later attuned to the erotics of that skin substitute known as movie. But show her a camera and she took off her spectacles, screwed up her eyes, and grinned into the blur of light with a defiant lack of sophistication (or pretense) that bespoke a chicken farmer's daughter from Petaluma, California.

So don't bother Don King with this program: Sontag versus Kael is no contest. A single Sontag portrait is the kiss of death in any matchup of personality or charisma. The most remarkable point of all, however, is to absorb that crushing advantage before one is bound to agree with Craig Seligman that in every other respect Kael-Sontag is a walkover in which Kael is Benny Leonard and Sontag is Max Baer (Jewish boxers both), with Pauline the hip, cool ringmaster who can jab you with a left lead quicker than you can count, and Susan just a bear, shuffling along in pursuit of a lightweight's speed and sizzle.

Which makes Don King the loser. It's not that Sontag and Kael were ever a scrapping couple (like Mailer and Vidal); it's not that the choice of which to read hangs that heavily on many young people today; it's not even that Seligman quite gets away with saying, Look, a whole book on my ruminations over these two interesting women. The work is divided into four chapters, or parts, and although it includes an unobtrusive pursuit of their politics and their sexuality, the first part—the overview—actually delivers everything to be had here. Sontag & Kael is a magazine essay stretched out to book length.

But that sleight of hand is forgivable. Seligman is smart, gracious, and so good a writer that you know he needs to get a first book out of the way so that he can turn to something more compelling or grounded. He has been a critic and editor for nearly twenty years now, and he is far too generous and self-effacing to push himself very much. But there are plenty of times in this odd mismatch when Seligman the referee is the most absorbing person in the ring, not least when he's encouraging himself to make the most of Sontag. He does come to his book as a longtime friend to Kael (someone happily in love with her imperious intimacy in life and her brilliant, conversational gotchas in print). He admits that he's ducked several opportunities to meet Sontag, and he announces himself with this charming confession:

I didn't want to write a book with a hero and a villain, but Sontag kept making it hard for me. She is not a likable writer—but then she doesn't intend to be. She's elitist and condescending toward those less informed than she is (i.e., everybody) and gratingly unapologetic about it. Intimidation, which I'll grant is an indispensable critical weapon, she uses remorselessly. So does Kael. The difference is that Sontag uses it charmlessly—but then she doesn't intend to be charming. (Charm, she almost seems to feel, is for pipsqueaks.)

Seligman likes charm a lot, I'm glad to say, and he knows well enough that this cunning overture is politely blind to the fact that neither of his ladies asked to have this contest arranged. Long before the end of the book Seligman is admitting to us (he likes owning up after tricking us; hence charm) that putting them together is most useful as a way of drawing out what it meant in the second half of the twentieth century for an intellectual woman with an instinct for culture, high and low, to be serious—or, shall we say, on the pulse.

Presented by

David Thomson's The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002) will appear in paperback in November. His new book, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, will be published in January. He lives in San Francisco.

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