Odd Couple

Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael: a curious combination

But first let's admit the inviting similarities between the two writers. They are female and Jewish. They both owed a lot to the West and then made it in New York. Both were moviegoers. Each came away from a failed marriage with a child to support. And they were contemporaries, more or less—though Sontag, the younger by fourteen years, had made an impact in advance of Kael. I'm sure Kael felt for much of her life that she had missed the boat. It's one of the things that help account for her vengeful attitude and the strident determination that you were for her or against her. Sontag, I imagine, has never expected, or cared much about, followers. As Seligman puts it, very nicely, she is a thinker inclined to add "but ..." after her own most searching statements. Kael, on the other hand, liked to pull off a breathless dunk and then turn, ecstatic, for the high fives of her young followers, the Paulettes (all crouching to match her height).

Sontag slipped into her destined career so much more easily than Kael. Born in New York, but raised in Tucson and Los Angeles, she went to the University of Chicago, where she got a degree and a husband (Philip Rieff, one of her instructors). She then ticked off Harvard, Oxford, and the Sorbonne, and was soon publishing the essays that would be gathered as Against Interpretation. There was a novel, The Benefactor, published in 1963, when Kael was still trying to find her niche as a magazine writer and was most at home (I'd say) as an iconoclastic voice in the British film magazine Sight and Sound.

Kael really was raised on a chicken farm in Marin; she was eighteen before the Golden Gate Bridge was opened. By then the family (Polish) had moved to San Francisco, though Seligman doesn't say where in that class-conscious city they lived. She went to Berkeley at the age of seventeen and studied philosophy, but it's clear that she was mixed up in avant-garde artistic circles in the Bay Area. She lived with the poet Robert Horan, and she had a daughter by the experimental filmmaker James Broughton.

Like other Kaelites, Seligman (who has lived in San Francisco in his time) neglects these years—in part maybe because the older Kael put them out of bounds. It's not just that the young Kael led a wild life, or wrote plays (though she did, and where are they?). Rather, it's that by the age of forty, say, she was nowhere really, except that she had a child and a head buzzing with ideas and ambition. Was she content? Was she a hippie before that word was current? Was she easygoing? Did her anger begin in those years, or only later, when she realized how much she had neglected her start?

With the problem of limited material, it's odd that Seligman hasn't filled these years in more. Equally, one might not appreciate from this book that Sontag made her first movie, Duet for Cannibals, in 1969, and her second, Brother Carl, in 1971. I don't like those pictures; I don't feel they are the work of a natural filmmaker. But Sontag had made a start in literary fiction, too, and it's clear now that she had an old-fashioned storytelling energy waiting to be released. The lack of commentary on this is notable, just as it is hard to believe that anyone who admires Kael's prose as much as Seligman does would not die to read one of her plays. I'm sure they're "bad" (or other than good)—but how did Kael characters talk?

One of the most appealing things in this book is the way in which Seligman yields, slowly, to Sontag. Yes, he knows she can be ponderous and humorless, but he is frank and very intelligent on that Sontagian clarity with ideas in Against Interpretation, On Photography (1977), and Illness as Metaphor (1978). More than that, anyone has to honor the ways in which Sontag has steadily enlarged her given terrain. So the later novels, the romances, The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000), are surprising, astonishing even, yet plainly from the same woman. Further, In America—more than Seligman says—is very much about acting and performance, in ways that are more intriguing than any performance in a Sontag film.

To make a last complaint about omission (and you may begin to see a pattern here), Seligman leaves out entirely the occasion, in the late 1970s, when Kael went to Hollywood to work for Warren Beatty and Paramount, to ... well, what, exactly? To earn movie money, for one thing: her frustrating relationship with The New Yorker never made her financially secure. To be a pal to guys—like Beatty and the young director James Toback—who moved her. And surely to get that last chance (she was sixty) at doing the thing itself, putting on a show, making the screen's skin rock and roll. It didn't work; it became a humiliation—yet Kael had risked that, which was as brave as it was needy. Was there also a way in which the deceptions in Hollywood (of the self as well as of others), the sheer playacting, struck Kael as wasteful and even stupid? Much as she loved movies, I'm not sure that fantasy was her trip.

In several ways the Hollywood excursion marked the beginning of her decline as a critic. Seligman says (without amplifying) that she lost her nerve. I'd love to hear why. But most of all, Kael lost the kind of films—from Bonnie and Clyde to Taxi Driver—on which she rode to glory.

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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