Odd Couple

Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael: a curious combination

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.

Sontag has lived in her own head, but in the larger political panorama, too. Yes, she has written about a few current things, notably Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and his 1978 film Our Hitler, but her real subjects are matters of eternal intellectual debate. She said rock-and-roll changed her, but who could feel that? Kael, on the other hand, spurned by fate for so long, hit a lucky streak beyond equal in that she came to The New Yorker just as adult, tough, new films were being made in America. She was there for Coppola, Altman, Scorsese, and so on—but they were there for her too. It was also the moment when film education took off in America, when suddenly millions of kids were ready to read film criticism that had the smack of good sportswriting.

Seligman dotes on that Kael, and rightly so. His book ends with a touching flash of memoir as he recalls where he was (and how he was) as he read different Kael reviews. That experience is shared by many, and it captures why Kael is still being read decades after the immediate impact has gone from "her" movies: that immediacy wowed her. It was why she started writing the reviews as she watched the films, and it was the reason behind her dotty habit of seeing a film only once.

Sontag takes it for granted that the Bresson films she cherishes and the literature that has made her are there for all time. So, of course, one re-reads, and goes in for subsequent viewings. And as one grows older, so the works change; new doors open within them. But Kael lived by this diktat: Don't see a movie, even one you love, again—in other words, don't let it grow, don't let yourself grow old, don't let movies pass into the cultural bloodstream except as sudden and shocking injections. And in a way, that was both the cross Kael elected to bear and the most interesting problem her career raises. Are films for keeps, or are they chance epiphanies that shine light on the moments of our lives?

Kael was an intellectual—I'm sure the chickens in Petaluma knew her lectures. But put down in the intellectual cockpit of New York and movie criticism in the mid-1960s, she took off against the theories and dogmas of Cahiers du cinéma and Andrew Sarris, just as she predicted that film in academia would grind away that momentary, seizing wonder.

Well, Kael died sad—for many reasons. Illness took away vitality and the confident command of her own language. And just as she had dreaded, a changed film business stopped making the movies she loved: if you doubt that, wonder what the rhapsodist of Last Tango in Paris (1972) would have thought of Bertolucci's gelid, pretty, and utterly danger-free The Dreamers (2003). The history of the movies is short, and we forget how rapidly the medium has changed in what it expects of us. Only briefly has anyone in America thought movies might be art or serious or keepers. Kael embodied that moment, but she was suspicious of it. That was her "but ..."—that movies were most reliable as trash, as throwaways, as one-night stands. Kael had sex with those movies; there's no better way to put it.

Will that thrill last? I hope so, but I'm not sure. I believe Kael emerges as both a writer on her times and a veiled autobiographer. But her own stress on the moment predicts the fate of much reviewing—so it was odd and damaging that Kael was such a godmother of younger opinions, leaning on them for agreement. This is where the tiny woman had weight. Her films were for this evening, yet she hungered for lasting fame. It's a struggle that found voice in her "attack" on Citizen Kane (1941) and the overbearing manner of Orson Welles. For she half guessed that the only way to save that masterpiece from the tedium of always being voted supreme was to start knocking it. (By now, of course, it needs to be banned.) Seligman sort of knows that Sontag is, if not the better writer, then the dealer in ideas for the ages. Staid, maybe, she was the more adventurous. In contrast, Kael was like Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), the reporter in Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940)—itching for a story, a deadline, and a Cary Grant to flirt with. Susan Sontag is ready to be the same film's Ralph Bellamy figure, a little laughed at but endearing and honest and serious to the point of solemnity.

So we have made room for them both—but leave space for Craig Seligman. He will do better than this entertaining book, once he knows we like anyone who writes as well as he does. I think he guesses that at some point the writer in Kael fell upon the movies. It could have been jazz or boxing (imagine Kael on Don King; wonder if Sontag has ever heard of him). The great continents of charm (or its enemies) are wide open to an observer as good-natured as Seligman. His admiration for Kael has raised him to be a valuable social commentator, and not just a Paulette.

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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