A Critic and a Poet

Pauline Kael showed us how to talk about popular art and fall in love with movies.
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Deborah Feingold/Corbis

When she was at the height of her fame, in­fluence, and accomplishment as a film critic at The New Yorker, I thought the world of Pauline Kael. After I met her, I thought rather less of her, mainly because she seemed to nurse inexplicable hatreds that were bodied forth as voodoo spells. I spent one evening at her house in Great Barrington when she chanted the name of the actor Hal Holbrook as if intent on reducing him, at long range and by the power of thought waves alone, to the size of a mouse. In the sulfurous light of such a close-up reve­lation of weirdness, I later found it no surprise when she went to Hollywood to be courted for her opinions as part of the filmmaking process, and was forced to retreat when she realized that she was only a critic after all.

The New Yorker took her on again, but her status was somewhat diminished. Now this selection from her writings reveals that no real diminishment was possible, that thinking the world of her was the proper way to think, and that one’s original judgment of her prose was accurate: her film criticism, though not stylish in the usual sense, was the triumph of a thoughtful manner. What a woman, although in some respects possibly a bit batty.

Kael was in her mid-40s before she succeeded in contributing to any publication that would pay her enough to live on. Until then she did all kinds of jobs—nanny, cook, violin teacher, seamstress—while writing scattered pieces that improved only in the sense that she learned to get more in. William Shawn, whose most original single move as the editor of The New Yorker was to take her on, deserves eternal commendation for hiring a writer who was unlike any other that the magazine had ever had. In any piece she wrote, the argument could go alarmingly sideways in search of corroborative material. She exaggerated so wildly that it was tame: the reader soon learned that a construction like “[Jeff Bridges] may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived” meant that Pauline Kael thought Jeff Bridges was pretty good. Going overboard about Last Tango in Paris, she did not aid her case by saying, “It may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made.”

Exaggeration, in fact, blurred her argument instead of focusing it: a reverse effect, of which those who never take the trouble to refine their rhetoric tend to be unaware. In conversation we all say that the latest movie we liked is the best movie we’ve ever seen, but if you write things like that down, they sap your authority. Famous as a prose stylist, she actually wrote a prose riddled with stuff that would have weakened it fatally if she had not been so passionately full of fact and judgment. Luckily she was, and the presence of so much intelligence made up for any absence of witty concision.

She could show wit in flashes. Occurring quite early in this collection, a stroke like “the worst of the past is preserved with new dust” is almost funny. But she never quite gets you laughing, even when she spots the facial resemblance of Klaus Kinski to Bette Davis. She escalates the idea, so that Kinski resembles Bette Davis playing Rutger Hauer, but still the laugh doesn’t come, because she paid no attention to timing the observation so that it would end with a snap. It’s a pity, because the funny judgment is usually the one that packs the most information. But she has so much information crowding sentence after sentence that the absence of vaudeville timing is a side issue, and indeed while she was going at full steam you would swear there was no other means of transport: this, she convinces you, is the way to talk about popular art.

She could talk well about popular art because she had not only seen all the movies that there were, she would have gone to all the opera performances that there were if she had not been so burdened with tickets to the cinema. When she talked about Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, her remarks were up there with the professional dance critic Arlene Croce’s because she, Kael, had been a connoisseur of dance all her life. She knew her way around a jazz band. Apart from mental equipment like that, her reading was prodigious in its volume, and fully serious in its content. Her house had all the Oz books in first editions—I saw them, and marveled; they looked as beautiful as her Tiffany lamps—but she was by no means restricted just to film-linked popular literature. When she reviewed a Russian movie based on a Dostoyevsky story, she could refer with daunting ease to anything by Dostoyevsky, including all the major novels chapter by chapter. Toward the end, this collection includes an outstanding piece about the Michael Cacoyannis movie of The Trojan Women: she draws, apparently without effort, on what seems a wide knowledge of Greek tragedy.

It’s important to note that none of this erudition seems dragged in. If she had dragged it in, there would have been furrows. Hers was the style least calculated to conceal pretension. In fact, in that sense, there was no style there at all. One thing you can trust her for throughout her work is a genuine enthusiasm for the arts, of which she so resoundingly took cinema to be one: something new, but something that fitted right in there beside the high traditions and that might include them all. You can trust her for that, and you can trust her diligence. The question is whether you can trust her judgment.

Hal Holbrook, on the night he shrank to the size of a mouse, might not have agreed with me; but I think—at this late stage, after years have gone by—that her judgment was, on the whole, pretty good. It was always firm: you always knew what she thought. When she hailed Last Tango in Paris as the greatest thing since sliced bread, I thought she was bonkers. Today I think almost anyone agrees that the film was yet another opportunity for Brando to hog the screen while brooding darkly, but with the help of this collection, it’s easier to see the outlines of the battle she thought she was fighting by backing Brando even at his most absurd.

She thought Holly­wood was fundamentally distorted by a mindless business ethic and that Brando was helping to straighten it out. You and I might have thought that he was demonstrating the muscular connection between sinuses and eyebrows, but she thought he was in a war against the suits. This was a worthwhile argument, and she marshaled the evidence in a permanently useful way. She didn’t just get on with her pioneering work of taking original movies seriously; she gave the Hollywood movies that were unjustifiably proud of their seriousness the kicking they deserved. She knew exactly how the Hollywood movie of West Side Story betrayed the concept on which it was supposedly based.

The irony of this hyped-up, slam-bang production is that those involved apparently don’t really believe that beauty and romance can be expressed in modern rhythms—for whenever their Romeo and Juliet enter the scene, the dialogue becomes painfully old-fashioned and mawkish, the dancing turns to simpering, sickly romantic ballet, and sugary old stars hover in the sky.

Not exactly a whiplash of a sentence, but it does the job.

The would-be serious movies didn’t have to be made in America. She saw through Antonioni’s Blow-Up at a time when it was still thought that Antonioni could do no wrong. On the other hand, she saw instantly that Bonnie and Clyde, made in America, was the full equivalent, for inventive brio, of anything that had been done abroad. Shawn gave her extra room to rave about that movie, and the result initiated her career-long love affair with Warren Beatty. Beatty’s acting style was based on modifications to a basic look of puzzlement, but from Kael’s fervent encomiums, you would have thought that he, to borrow Kael’s favorite formulation, may have been the most expressive actor since Laurence Olivier.

The book has large arguments and smaller perceptions. Some of the large arguments were adventurous at the time and remain sound. In the grand scheme of things, she could see that Holly­wood was pursuing the wrong course by continuing to develop a system in which very little that was original could happen. She could see that most of the standards of originality were provided by foreign movies. She wanted Holly­wood writers and directors to be as liberated as their European contemporaries, and she helped to bring this about. She had an unrivaled eye for what she called “pleasure-­pain bookkeeping,” the mechanism by which conventional movies ensured that every sin was expiated with suffering. In an ethos where no illicit joy, no matter how fleeting, may go un­punished, the ruling spirit is not morality, but opportunism. The great playwrights of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg—had known all that, but Kael got it into the discussion about movies, where it was sorely needed.

She loathed what she called Hollywood’s “big-shot show-­business deep thinking.” She could spot it when it infected a movie she otherwise liked, as with Bad Day at Black Rock, in which the Japanese American victim of race prejudice has to be a war hero instead of just an ordinary farmer. On the other hand, she would not forgive a young American rebel’s movie if one of the things it was rebelling against was America. Easy Rider, Petu­lia, and Midnight Cowboy were all found guilty in that regard: they were the kind of movie that you might have guessed she would have liked, but she loathed them all, and especially Petulia, despite the presence of Julie Christie, who, when she appeared in McCabe & Mrs. Miller or in Shampoo, was hailed by Kael as the greatest thing since you-name-it.

But already we’re getting down to details: she was good on the big trends, but on the individual movies, she was unbeatable, even when she was wrong. And usually she could identify quality, no matter how it was wrapped.

Kael wrote a prose riddled with stuff that would have weakened it fatally if she had not been so passionately full of fact and judgment.

Her range of appreciation, however, shows up in its full generosity when she heaps praise on a movie that had less-­prominent initial billing and might have been lost in the shuffle. There are scores of examples. She knew straightaway that The Battle of Algiers was a cinematic masterpiece about which you had to argue the aesthetics as well as the politics, which would have dominated the discussion if she had not stepped in. A movie could go all wrong in most departments and she could still see through to its creative center if it had one: of Lady Sings the Blues, she said, “Factually it’s a fraud, but emotionally it delivers.”

Suitably impressed, she could go against her own inclinations: Pennies From Heaven, a clear case of Hollywood stealing a British idea, knocked her out, so she said so. She also must have had to summon some nerve to praise Tootsie, since it was a Hollywood factory product in almost every sense, with Dustin Hoffman bringing in his own writer to join all the other writers—so many of them that the arbitration for screen credits went on forever. But she loved Tootsie the way she loved Yentl, and not just because both of them were drag acts. She was yielding to the soul of the movie, which with Yentl was made more difficult by the awkward fact—here her musical sense was not to be denied—that the songs were dull.

Kael’s enraptured acceptance of Streisand, however, gets us down to the last detail, the detail that underlies the individual movies: the individual creators and performers. On this level she is possibly, as she might have put it, the most fully informed person since the creation of the universe. In his excellent introduction, Sanford Schwartz tells us that Kael was watching silent movies in the 1920s from her parents’ lap. She had seen everything, starting with Intolerance (“perhaps the greatest movie ever made”), and she had remembered every­one. This head full of performances grew a perfect set of antennae for judging performers, and she is scarcely ever to be faulted about any of those faces up there in the light.

Listen to Kael giving the works to Ali MacGraw. “She is a truly terrible actress, of the nostril school. (Did she study under Natalie Wood?)” That’s a double-barreled blast that takes care of Natalie Wood as well. But really the attack mode wasn’t typical. She was too full of admiration.

She adored Robert De Niro right from his first appearance, and the adoration gave her the nerve to say, truly, that his fat-boy transformation in Scorsese’s Raging Bull was a mistake. (“Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn’t pleasurable.”) Her negative remarks about actors add up to a long proof that love is a better basis for criticism than scorn.

Always with the exception of Godard, whom she thought brilliant even at his most infantile, she could have a refreshingly picky way with an icon. Orson Welles was one of her great heroes, but in her famous New Yorker essay “Raising Kane,” and in the book on Welles that grew out of it, she went out of her way to give the writer Herman J. Mankiewicz a more-than-fair share of the credit for Citizen Kane, almost as if the brilliant young Welles had needed his hand held and couldn’t have made the movie without the guiding vision of a New York wit. Alas, the essay hasn’t been included here. There are a few remarks on Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, however, to prove that she knew his qualities: reading those remarks, I wanted to see the battle scene again straightaway. But underneath his uniqueness, she could sense his weakness. Though she professed to blame Hollywood for wasting his potential, she knew he was a giant with nothing bigger about him than his inability to protect his gift.

Cary Grant, on the other hand, knew everything about protecting his. Perhaps, according to her, he knew too much. Grant emerges as the star of this book, the star of stars, because Kael can find nobody better at looking the part while controlling his career. She thought he overcontrolled it toward the end, but toward the end is where some of the great Grant movies came. Her praise for him in North by Northwest is all the more striking because she had no automatic regard for Hitchcock. I share that suspicion, and I was always delighted when she mentioned Charade as at least equal with the Hitchcock movies it was copying. Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade are a dream of winter-spring romance that Hollywood shouldn’t have been still having, and Kael, of all people, shouldn’t have been falling for, but she couldn’t help it and neither can I. Kael says that Grant should have taken more chances in order to show us what he could do as an actor, but it’s not much of an argument, because Grant knew from long experience that the whole thing was already a chance.

Actors are wanted men, or wanted women. Critics are just critics. But Kael was one of those exceptional critics who could write almost as entertainingly in praise as in attack, and her piece on Grant in this book is the best profile ever written about him. She writes delightfully about him because she’s delighted.

So, always granted that she didn’t really do wisecracks, just how well did she write? The answer is that she wrote well, and all the more so because she wasn’t looking for the gag. She was looking for the thought: her body of work, of which this book is a mere sample, is closer to Platonic Athens than it is to Broadway. Here is the proof that the texture of thought can be exciting in itself, as long as it has a subject that means a lot to us.

In the modern era, formal philosophy, as it has steadily become more technical than most of us can follow, has been accompanied pari passu by a body of critical work that talks more deeply about the world than we might have expected. In the English language, George Bernard Shaw was the great example: his six volumes of criticism from the end of the 19th century (two sets of three in the Standard Edition), Music in London and Our Theatres in the Nineties, are models of how resonant regular weekly criticism can be. They are certainly more full of life than his big set-piece books on grand themes written later on. Reporting on the ephemeral event, he dealt with what was permanently true. Kael was firmly in the tradition that he established, although I doubt if she was consciously influenced by him. She didn’t need a predecessor. She just reacted naturally, in her own voice, to an unusually rich plethora of stimuli: she gives the sense that from the cradle onward, she was never not taking notes.

But the marvelous thing about her is that she could go off in all directions and still produce a local effect of intense concentration. Although she had a bad tendency to talk about movies as if she knew how to make them, at her best she achieved the voice of authority. She could do it because, at a given moment that only she could judge, she could focus her mind, and her prose along with it.

Biblical spectacles convey magnitude of character by magnitude of close-up.

It’s a good example of how she could get the product of years of observation into a single sentence. And there’s something like that on every page. Summing up the message of “mature” Westerns, she says,

The message is that the myths we never believed in anyway were false.

You can’t get neater than that. Talking about actors being interviewed on air to enhance their market­ability, she catches the absurdity in a short space.

Talk shows are becoming amateur hours for professionals.

So really, she doesn’t ramble. She coruscates, which is a different thing.

Some of her judgments about Holly­wood spread right out to cover the whole of American society.

This is one of the big hurdles that defeat artists in Hollywood: they aren’t allowed to assume that anybody knows anything, and they become discouraged and corrupt when they discover that studio thinking is not necessarily wrong in its estimate of the mass audience.

Kael wrote well, and all the more so because she wasn’t looking for the gag. She was looking for the thought.

Right there is one of the differences between the American and, say, the British cultures. In Britain, an editor will permit a writer to make an allusion if he, the editor, understands it. In America, an editor might well understand it but he will want it taken out, for fear that the readers won’t.

Kael got away with a lot of allusions and references under Shawn that she might have had trouble, had she lived earlier, getting past Harold Ross. Kael knew about flattering the reader by putting in a few things that are just out of reach, but still intelligible when you think about them. It is, after all, how the best kind of education happens. Plenty of young people are going to be starting their intellectual careers by reading this book, and precisely because it is not just about the movies: it’s really about every­thing.

In a recently published edition of his biographical dictionary of film, David Thomson floated the notion that the Age of Movies, as we have known it, might now be over, because, with the “art movie” market being separately satisfied, movie makers no longer have an imperative to please everyone. Kael, had she lived longer, might have agreed. For most of her career, her natural rhythm was to write one article a year saying that Hollywood was doomed, and then spend the rest of the year finding movies that unexpectedly proved it was still alive. Today she would have to declare it moribund.

One hesitates to think what the woman who loved Irene Dunne and Katharine Hepburn would have made of a movie that tried to get laughs from a beautiful actress’s thinking the semen in her hair was hair gel. But it isn’t just a matter of standards of taste being forgotten. (They haven’t been, really: they have been treated as useful provocations, with the very liberation she hailed when Brando passed the butter to Maria Schneider.) What has happened has been a takeover: one that neither she nor anybody else predicted. Television has become the new center of creativity.

The major talents, many of them women, are working on television series that become boxed sets. Though the old big-screen logos are up there on the little screen, and most of the pro­duction facilities still look the same from the air, the career expectations within the moving-picture industry have become entirely different. As she so well described in her annual horror piece, talented people once had to live with frustration: often it was the mark of their arrival. They knew they were getting big when their films got lousy. Now they can fulfill themselves. And the results, for us, are so much more abundant that the critical language for assessing them barely exists. Rosalind Russell and the other fast-­talking dames—how Kael, soft-­spoken to the point of social ineptitude, would have loved to be one of them—barely got as much to say in their whole careers as Allison Janney got in a single episode of The West Wing. Most of us have put far more time into watching Entourage than into keeping up with the big-screen achievements of Vince Vaughn or Adam Sandler. If Kael were starting off today, she would probably want to be a TV critic.

So her age is over, too. While she was living it, she was influential enough to be the subject of myth. In Britain, the generation of critics that came after mine were all convinced that they had discovered her, and berated us for not having read her. I, for one, had written the first reviews for her books that she had ever got in Britain: but I learned to take it on the chin.

The new bunch, though they knew almost nothing, were young and keen. They were convinced that nobody before them had ever seen a copy of The New Yorker. They were convinced that they had discovered the New Journalism, too. One of them interviewed me and told me that he could tell I had based my style on Tom Wolfe. I told him the truth: that everyone who cared about critical prose had been influenced by the Americans, but in my case the chain of influence went back to H. L. Mencken. He asked me how to spell Mencken, and I knew I was in trouble.

Nobody will ever again reign supreme over the movies, because the movies don’t reign supreme over anyone.

Such young enthusiasts worshipped Kael as if she were a member of the Algonquin Round Table, of which they had vaguely heard. (Some thought the Algonquin was a drinking establishment, like McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.) In fact, in her day, the day of the table full of wits was far in the past. But there was something to the idea that Kael con­tinued the tradition. On any trip to New York, you could indeed find her in the Algonquin, but she wasn’t sitting with the city’s wits. She was sitting with the young critics and filmmakers: an international breed, identifiable by the angle at which they leaned forward to catch her every murmur. The destination of her cenacle was Hollywood: some of them were already there, and were taking the opportunity, during a New York visit, of hanging out with the queen bee, whose word was law. I saw what she and they were up to, and I thought that it was rather questionable: How could they not be trading favors? But it was part of her character to reign supreme.

Nobody will ever again reign supreme over the movie world, because the movies don’t now reign supreme over anyone. All their secrets are known. People know so much about the movies that they know when to laugh when they watch Star Wars Uncut, possibly (to borrow her signature verbal device for one last time) the most sensational $10 pastiche-homage since Milton’s Garden of Eden. The grammar of the movies got into their heads as if it had been planted there by Noam Chomsky with a long needle. But it was a great age, and now, as part of its aftermath, it has produced a great book. Hal Holbrook, sitting on the desk beside me as I write this, just nodded his tiny head in agreement. Big of him.

Clive James is an Australian poet and critic who has lived in London since the early 1960s.
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