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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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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