Kael Days

Seventeen years after her last book and ten years after her death, Pauline Kael's name is hard to avoid right now if you read culture magazines or blogs. That's because of three books that came out in October: The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, edited by Sanford Schwartz and published by The Library of America; Brian Kellow's biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark; and James Wolcott's memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which includes, apparently, lots of material about his friendship with Kael (before they had a falling-out after he published a sharply critical, even vicious, essay on Kael's acolytes in Vanity Fair in 1997).

I haven't read Wolcott's memoir, but I've been reading around in Kellow's biography and I'm familiar with almost everything in The Age of Movies. It was Kael's 1,291-page retrospective collection For Keeps from 1994 that made me into a fan of her writing when I was an idealistic, ignorant kid studying playwrighting and screenwriting at NYU, and though my opinions about her have changed a bit over the years, she's part of my psyche, her presence inextinguishable, like a crazy aunt.

I hadn't gone back to For Keeps for a while, probably not since I wrote about Kael, Susan Sontag, and Craig Seligman's book about them in the fall of 2005. I know a lot more about film history and theory now than I did then, and then I knew more than I did when I first picked up For Keeps from a library and began to make my way through it. (I also read bookstore copies. I vividly remember sitting on the floor of Shakespeare & Co. in New York one night and reading through it until the store closed at, I think, midnight. Eventually I got a remaindered copy at St. Marks Books, the copy I have here beside me now.)

I was a fan of Kael before I knew her name. Until high school, the only movie reviews I'd ever encountered were ones on Siskel & Ebert. But when I was a freshman in high school, a friend told me about The New Yorker, which his family read religiously. I started making weekly trips to the library to read it, and it was there that I read these words:
There's nothing affected about Costner's acting or directing. You hear his laid-back, surfer accent; you see his deliberate goofy faints and falls, and all the closeups of his handsomeness. This epic was made by a bland megalomaniac. (The Indians should have named him Plays with Camera.)
That was from one of Kael's last reviews, her December 17, 1990 take on Dances with Wolves. I almost memorized that review -- enough so that I remember reciting that part of it to my U.S. History class in the fall of 1992 in one of those moments of self-righteous, childish nerditude that defined my adolescence. I did not remember who had written the review, because by the time I noticed the bylines in the New Yorker, Kael had retired. But the words were unforgettable, and had definitively shaped my perception of that movie and Kevin Costner.

When I came upon those words again at the end of For Keeps, I nearly burst into tears of joy and recognition. This was who had said that! Here was the author of the text that had so deeply affected not only my perception of the film, but of so much else, because from the moment I read that review, I had become a devoted reader of The New Yorker's critics. I lived in rural America before the internet; thoughtful film criticism was not easy to find if you didn't know where to look for it, and those weekly trips to the little town library across the street from my high school opened a world to me.

For Keeps was the first whole book of movie reviews I read beyond the annual video guides that my father bought each year, and it was a revelation. An entire world of cinema and opinion opened up to me. Thankfully, I was in New York by that time, so I could better find the films Kael wrote about than I ever would have been able to back home -- I lived only a few blocks from Kim's Video, and my membership there was an essential tool of education and survival.

Eventually, my taste developed in a different direction from Kael's passions, and so I found myself dipping into For Keeps less and less over the years. A lot of the various tributes to Kael that have been published in the last few weeks are written by writers who discovered her when, like me, they were young. She wrote some marvelous stuff, but there's an adolescent quality to her positions, and that's a key to both their effectiveness and their limitations.

I read Kael mostly before I knew she was reviled by certain people, and read her long before I had any context to understand her legendary differences with Andrew Sarris about auteurism. The only negative word I heard about her before I delved into For Keeps had come in a letter from the novelist and screenwriter Calder Willingham, with whom I corresponded for a while in the early '90s (his wife taught at my high school; we were both more comfortable with letters than in person). I don't remember the context, and the letter is buried in a box somewhere, but I remember some scornful description of her, something to the effect of "the noxious Pauline Kael". This was before I knew who she was, and it wasn't until years later, when I was going through some old stuff at the house, that I discovered it again. Willingham didn't have a whole lot of good words to say about anybody involved with any aspect of the movie business, so it was just one name among others (I was far more upset that he called Orson Welles "meretricious" [though I liked learning a new word] and his former friend Stanley Kubrick "psychotic").

But Kael was controversial, and she still is. Partly, that comes from prominence -- if you find her perspective particularly limited, it must be galling to see her taken so seriously, even when the serious takes are ones that don't try to pretend she was flawless. Her centrality to American film criticism is assured, whether anyone likes it or not. Partly, that's a matter of her having been in the right place at the right time (had she come around 20 years earlier or later, she wouldn't have had the influence she had). Partly, it's a matter of her taste for films that were accessibly hip. Partly, it's a matter of her sheer talent as a writer and entertainer, and a particular type of writer and entertainer: one who enjoyed a fight. It didn't surprise me at all to discover from Kellow's biography that she was a fan of boxing.

It did surprise me to discover how unethical and selfish she could be. Plenty of writers are terrible people, or do terrible things, and she was no exception to that. (She also sounds like she could sometimes be an awful lot of fun, too.) She makes a good subject for a biography because she had a big personality, and she seemed to yearn to be the center of attention.

Because I find Orson Welles fascinating, I've studied a lot about him and Citizen Kane, and so even in my more Kael-inclined years, I was wary of her long essay "Raising Kane", which attempted to refute Sarris's conception of the auteur theory by claiming most of the distinguished elements of Kane for screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Aside from just making up stuff in her own head, Kael also, Kellow shows, extensively and primarily used the research of a young scholar named Howard Suber, paying him $300 and then never giving him any further credit or acknowledgment. I always knew "Raising Kane" was wrong about a lot, but until now I didn't know how deeply Kael's determination to come up with a death-blow to her enemies' ideas led her to cook The Citizen Kane Book. Her knowledge of film production was weak, and part of me thinks she liked it that way, because even after various opportunities to visits sets and then briefly work in Hollywood, she still clung to the writerly idea that screenwriters are important. (Too bad she never got to sit down and chat with Preston Sturges.)

Nonetheless, I have a lot to thank the ghost of Pauline Kael for, so I'm not jumping on the bandwagon of detractors. She influenced my taste and helped me take pop culture seriously. More than that, I am fascinated by the effect she has on people, and by her life and times. There's a lot of nostalgia for the days "when critics mattered", but I don't yearn to go back to the good ol' days of cultural gatekeepers. Writers such as Frank Rich who marinate in that nostalgia (almost always with the requisite sentence decrying bloggers, a habitual move of the nostalgia-drenched decryers) are really just indulging in a power fantasy -- "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to go back in time and have the power to make or break a reputation!" (Rich had that power for a while as the lead theatre reviewer for the Times.) The golden age of cinephilia in the '60s was not my golden age. I'm too sensitive to the sounds and whims of audiences to usually find movie theatres pleasant places, so I am vastly happier being able to watch DVDs or streaming movies at home. Anybody with an internet connection and a bit of disposable income has access to more films than even the most dedicated cinephile in the '60s. Sure, a certain aura of the hunt is gone now that so many films are easily available (though plenty remain difficult or expensive to find), but I'll happily trade the aura for access. I remember well the frustration of being in rural New Hampshire, reading about wonderful films, and having no hope of seeing them. I do not have any desire to return to that frustration. I have enough others.

We have more access, too, to writings on film than ever before. There are more good cinema blogs and websites out there than I have time to read. The best stuff I've read about Kael has been online -- the conversation about her by Andrew O'Hehir & Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon and, especially, a long reflection on Kael at the Self-Styled Siren blog, which also includes a great set of comments from a fine group of readers.

Pauline Kael could not happen now, because authority is more dispersed than it was when she was writing. I'm glad for that. Maybe I wouldn't have discovered her in a world where I had had more access to various critics when I was young, but had I had access to the internet before I was 18, and had I had access to Netflix before I was in my late 20s, I would have discovered plenty of other wonders, and gotten, I expect, a more balanced self-education.

Kael was born when she was, and I was born when I was, and we are, or were, what we are and were. No use wishing it otherwise. Nostalgia is for suckers and resenters; I may be the former, but I try hard not to be the latter.

In any case, there are too few critics with a real sense of voice and style for us to toss out the ones with both. And Kael was one. She may have been a dangerous person to love either in life or in print, but so many of her words and sentences still sing that it has been, in fact, a joy for me to flip through For Keeps again. For me the title, if nothing else, still remains true.


  1. We'll have to talk about Kael sometime. I admired her at one time, read almost all of her reviews, and eventually came to hate her and the kind of reviewing she did, or at least the legacy that kind of reviewing left us. The fact that she was a good writer, highly intelligent, had sharp insights, and especially could turn a devastating phrase with the best of them, made her that much more meretricious (to coin a word).

  2. I guess I'm a little bit longer in the tooth than you are since I can remember reading more of Kael's reviews when they were fresh. She probably did shape my movie viewing, she probably shaped everyone's, but I never became a devote. Have you read Easy Riders,Raging Bulls by Peter Biskin? It's a very entertaining look at the 1970's when Kael was at her height.

    While I do appreciate how readily available all sorts of movies are now on DVD and streaming, I'm going to disagree with you about the value of this. There is still something to be said for the big screen and for the live audience home viewing cannot replace. When one of those more obscure movies came to town back in the early 1980's when I went to three or four movies a week, everyone who went to see it was a film lover, someone who had been waiting for the chance to see that particular movie or people who sent to see all they could of that particular genre, director or actor.

    There's just something to be said for sitting in a darkened theatre with 150 other people who'd rather be there watching Truffaut's early work than anywhere else on a Friday night. It saddens me that while we can now watch Truffaut whenever we want, we can't get together with the rest of his fans anymore.

  3. Matthew:

    Here's an old essay by Renata Adler that, though I think is harsh, sums up where I eventually got to with my reaction to Kael's criticism (and to the cult of Kael, exhibited in reviewers like David Edelstein and Stephanie Zaharek (sp?) smong many others.


    Basically, I came to feel that Kael was a bully, even when I agreed with her. Her use of the royal "we" and "you" to assume that everyone reading felt (or should feel) the way she did, without giving reasons so much as subjective reactions--drove me up the wall, to the point where I could not read her anymore.

    Obviously, a lot of people whose opinions I respect (like you, for instance) don't feel the same way.


  4. Thanks, John. I'd read Renata Adler's piece some years ago, but hadn't looked at it recently. I agree with some of Adler's general points, but Kael's hyperbolic style tended to cause her critics to go in the opposite direction, and I think that's a fault with the piece. I've got nothing against harsh when it's merited, but I think it's perilous when it obscures nuance. Declaring When the Lights Go Down "worthless" is perhaps fun as a counterweight but not very useful as criticism. It's the sort of thing that reminds me of Dale Peck, somebody whose occasional moments of insight were obscured by his desire to be big and nasty. Kael certainly did that sometimes, as did Norman Mailer and Harlan Ellison and all sorts of other blowhards -- but men tend to get more of a pass for being impolite critics and for making extreme statements than women do. (Kael and gender would be a book of its own -- Kellow is sometimes good on that in his biography, but, like pretty much everything else in the bio, it's not developed much.)

    There are more insightful and informed critics of film than Kael, critics who are more balanced and judicious. But because she imprinted on me when I was young, I can still read a lot of her work (in small doses, admittedly) with pleasure.

    Hers is not a style I much like in other writers, but I feel like we should all have one or two critics we read with some sort of pleasure while knowing that they are more than flawed. (What else could explain the endurance of David Thompson? Now there's a writer whose appeal is completely lost on me!) Maybe I'm hopeless -- the other night, in an ongoing attempt to see what people value in Brian DePalma, I watched The Fury after reading Kael's review, in which she praised it to the skies. I tried hard to enjoy the film, but mostly found it tedious (the last 15 minutes or so were fun). I reread the review, and still enjoyed it. Enjoyed it more than the movie, in fact.

  5. I looked up "meretricious" in the OED and found that one of the illustrative passages it cites is from Dhalgren, which is kind of awesome.


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