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.

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.

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.