A few days ago, Jim Emerson offered a post that once again considered, depending on your point of view, either the estimable influence or the declining reputation of Pauline Kael. The Scanners post came in response to the near-44-year anniversary of the publication of her essay, “Are Movies Going to Pieces?”, and by posting it Jim was opening up discussion not only to the continued relevance, or lack thereof, of Kael’s criticism, but also to questions we, as thoughtful moviegoers, are still asking today.
Jim’s post came during one of the busiest weeks of my life (don’t worry, I’ll spare you), yet while I was reading it on the fly I couldn’t help but feel it was there, in a cosmic sense, just for me and that I somehow had to make time to offer up a humble nugget of comment to contribute to the typically thoughtful conversation about it there. So I sat down this past Wednesday night, in the afterglow of Nathaniel R’s Oscar Symposium, and started typing out a few thoughts. Four hours and 3,400 words later, I had a response that I could not possibly send in to Jim’s blog and expect him to publish. So I sent it to him as an e-mail instead because I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his generating the discussion, even as I knew I couldn’t ask him to allow me to trample the brevity and cogency of his comments column so far with my logorrhea, however passionate.
Yet here I was now with this long, rambling essay on What Pauline Kael Means to Me and nowhere to put it. But wait! Oh, yeah! I have my own blog! Why, I could publish it there and could suffer the inevitable slings and arrows without having to mess up Jim’s house! So I have decided to share it with you here. My advice, however, would be to go to Scanners and read Jim’s post, also entitled ”Are Movies Going to Pieces?,” particularly the comments that follow, before reading my own thoughts below. I have not made much of an effort to disguise the fact that my own post started out as a comment/letter to Jim, so therefore it may read as slightly odd or incomplete without that background. There are also references to at least one Scanners commenter by name, as well as several other comments made on Jim’s site, that I refer to assuming that if you’ve made it this far into my own meandering thoughts, then you will of course know to whom and what I am referring and keep on chooglin’. I apologize that I cannot seem to, as Jim’s other readers obviously can, keep my verbosity under control. I’m not sure how I thought I could, given the subject. Someday, perhaps, this will be a skill I will learn. But for now consider the following my own summation of some of the feelings that a 30-odd-year relationship with the writing of Pauline Kael has inspired in me. Then rip, shred, rinse and repeat as necessary.
Oh, and while we’re talking about Jim Emerson (and aren’t we always, at least around here?), go see the post below Pauline, “I’m F***ing Matt Damon’: A Critical Analysis.”. If you do, not only will you be treated (if you haven’t already) to one of the year’s funniest shorts, courtesy of Sarah Silverman, but you’ll also be privy to another of Jim’s sly and intelligent considerations of why comedy is worth taking seriously.
Okay, you’ve had time to read Jim’s piece. Now, without further ado, the perils of Pauline…
Pauline Kael’s criticism most certainly served a different function in the Internet-less world where she once reigned as the most influential film critic in America. She lived and wrote in a world where terms like “roadshow engagement” and “word of mouth” and “platform release” had meaning, where the fate of a film didn’t rest on an opening weekend where it was booked into 3,400 theaters. She had a reason to suspect that she could reach an audience outside the New York intelligentsia by pulling a kind of bait-and-switch on the expectations of both readers inclined to go for mass audience movies and those who wouldn’t be caught dead lining up for anything that didn’t have the imprimatur of art, or at least high-minded intentions. She didn’t worry about whether or not she was consistent in the kinds of movies she praised or disparaged—the luxury of one who operates without a theory to be constantly monitored and more than occasionally violated.
This is both a source of joy in reading Kael, for me, in that I often felt I was getting an uncut reaction, one which often forced me to “re-view” my own reactions through the prism of her intimidating, invigorating point of view, and a source of frustration because I think on some level I wanted to be able to predict where on the spectrum her opinion of a certain movie or film talent would land. I became aware of Pauline Kael as early as 1972 or 1973 or so when I saw her on the old Mike Douglas Show, a syndicated afternoon panel talk show. I wish I could remember who it really was that sat on the panel with her—I’d like to think it could have been a group like Robert Goulet, Shirley Chisholm and Tootie Fields, and it very well could have been. I remained aware of her when big, important movies like Last Tango in Paris and Nashville and many others came out, because it was not unusual to see her name foremost in a splashy blurb in the movie’s advertisement. (I’ll never forget my surprise when her name was stretched out over a long quote trumpeting the virtues of The Way We Were.) And when she panned a movie like The Exorcist, I knew about it because I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the picture and her reaction was inevitably mentioned.
But I never read Kael until I picked up a copy of Reeling when I was 17 years old. I am one of those people to whom Jim referred who was encouraged to articulate their passion about movies and pass it along by my initial, and then repeated, exposure to Kael’s writing. The funny thing about my relationship with her (and I do feel comfortable referring to my reading of her in those terms) is that, as cowed as I could be by her insistence on the kind of false dichotomy that would seem to force a choice between “Art” over “entertainment,” as if there were no possibility for the two to coexist in the same work, the spirited quality of Kael’s writing (some would term it arrogance) encouraged me to more often than not argue with her as I was reading, thus developing my own critical muscles. In this way, she became and remains my favorite critic because I knew in encountering one of her pieces that I could just as easily be swayed as roll my eyes in disbelief, but her writing, which facilitated her very specific voice, the kind of voice (female) that was willing to stand by, accurate or misguided, her claims and her tastes, was fresh and, to use one of her favorite words, liberating. There was something about the way she wrote that was convincing, even if you could still go out and see something she panned and love it for your own reasons. But I never felt, even when she was at her most annoying, that she ever stooped to disparaging actors over their physical attributes, a la John Simon, or adopted anything close to the “my criticism, right or right” stance of someone like Armond White.
As for her famous one-viewing-only policy, Kael certainly never claimed that anyone who did watch a movie more than once was somehow misguided for doing so. It’s always struck me as a personal affectation rather than policy. And I certainly agree with Scanners reader John Porath in admitting that there have been several movies I’ve disliked on first viewing, felt compelled to see again (and again), eventually discovering a different film that I’ve come to love, undoubtedly accountable to the accumulation of my own experience as much or more than a wearing down of resistance to the tactics of the director. This is an experience that would have held little value for Kael, as she claimed to know how she felt about a movie immediately upon viewing it. This aspect of her methods is one I’ve always found troublesome—there’s an implication there of a movie’s having a kind of canned artistic life which could be wholly absorbed on one viewing, which seems in direct contrast to the expansive quality inherent in really seeing movies. A case could be made that each time you see a movie it has the potential to offer up something new, a phenomena based largely on the fact that, given the passage of time, no person is ever the same person when she encounters a movie a second or third or fourth time. If we are different people, then we will bring new perspectives to a film, or any piece of art/entertainment, through which we will experience that art/entertainment. If this is true, then no movie, not even The Pink Panther, is sealed in amber, or exposed and finished celluloid.
And certainly think John is also right in that there is value in a film being held up as a classic, an example of importance in film history that should be seen. In 1964, when this Atlantic piece was written, I suspect film academia was still trying to figure itself out. There were not even 30 years between the publishing of the Kael article and 1939, what many consider Hollywood’s greatest year, and certainly many of the movies that now do carry a kind of critical stamp of approval, films like L’ Avenntura or Last Year at Marienbad, were still relatively new on the scene. Yet given the passage of 44 years or so and all the critical knowledge that has amassed about film history and culture, I’m damned glad when someone I trust insists that I must see something, and I can rest in some assurance that the viewing of a film generally heralded as a classic or a milestone that I have not yet seen probably has a great deal of merit. Then if my experience is somewhat less than overwhelming, I don’t have a problem giving the film the benefit of the doubt and trying again later. I think that’s the essence of true cinematic scholarship, that kind of openness that can coexist with one’s own critical faculties. It’s possible that I’ll never “get” 8½, but that won’t keep me from giving it another shot. Kael would have probably dismissed this idea out of hand. But it’s partially my engagement with her and her tendency to argue against this kind of approach to film that has given me the confidence in my own assertion that this approach is right for me. She probably wouldn’t see it as being open to new experiences from the same film but instead, since a film can only yield what it has to offer on the first try, as a kind of mummification of one’s own responses. In fact, on the occasion of the current re-release of Last Year at Marienbad, I am initiating a kind of campaign to revisit many of the films I disliked or felt indifferent to when I first saw them as a college punk. Those films would include, yes, 8½, and also Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Guerre est Finie, Herzog’s Nosferatu, Alice’s Restaurant, Antonio Das Mortes, Red Desert and many, many others. It’s going to be interesting to me to gauge the way I look at them now with the benefit of adult eyes.
And despite how Andrew Sarris may have couched his introduction to the auteur theory as being already on its way out, the fact is, it was a theory of major importance to the way a lot of critics and film enthusiasts gauged their own willingness to look at movies that were often below even the kitsch radar of Pauline Kael. And if the word “theory” implies some sort of rigorous application of a template of looking at art, then, mean-spirited or not (and what critic has not at one time or another been accused of being mean-spirited?), Kael’s infamous “Circles and Squares” decimation of Sarris’s writing served a serious function, certainly for me as a film student being instructed in a film school where the auteurist approach was not encouraged but insisted upon by the staff of professors who formed the curriculum. We were not allowed to seriously challenge the tenets of the auteur theory, as it existed in 1980 anyway, openly in class, and attempts to do so in papers were to be considered off-topic. So I fully delighted in Kael’s irreverence for Sarris’s pantheon and subsets of directors of varying artistic worth, even as I delighted also in discovering the great value and substance hiding in plain sight within classic Hollywood A- and B-movie fare in class and on my own moviegoing adventures in local revival houses. In other words, Kael’s tactics were never an end-all for me, any more than Sarris’ proclamations were.
And speaking of delight, it was with delight that it slowly dawned on me just how much of an auteurist Pauline Kael really was. Ever contrarian to Sarris, she just insisted on a different pantheon, and the directors she admired were almost always the ones that were shaking up what the ones in Sarris’s academic appreciation had established and excelled at. Kael would delight in De Palma, and while she didn’t indiscriminately love Hitchcock, she liked him enough to use him as a measuring stick to evaluate films like Carrie and The Fury. Of course she wasn’t afraid to use her influence to try to get people to go out and see something like Casualties of War, and yet somehow that particular review is often held up (as it has been in Jim’s comments section) as evidence of her speciousness as a critic. I don’t understand when I hear people get their hackles up about how she responded to this film in her review, as if the whole thing were calculated to bludgeon other critics into getting in line with her view of the movie. Well, we certainly know that if that was her intention it did not work, nor did it necessarily encourage anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to endure the nightmare De Palma had in store for them to do so. So if this is true, are we to call Kael’s review nothing but bluster? I remain confused as to how one can look at her words on Casualties of War and not see them as a highly passionate, at times personal response to a movie that clearly moved her in a way that, by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, had become increasingly infrequent. No critic would shrink from the opportunity to try to express to others what such a movie would have meant to them. Yet, puzzlingly, Kael’s turn here is looked upon as a browbeating directed at other critics, a late attempt to wield her still considerable powers of influence. Personally, I look on that review as one of the major highlights of her career, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that I concur with her that it is perhaps De Palma’s greatest film. (Does saying that make me an insufferable Paulette? It is in the eye of the beholder…)
She also loved early Walter Hill; she highly valued John Boorman (Kael is the only major critic who ever admitted in print there were things to admire about Exorcist II: The Heretic); of course she was instrumental in the appreciation of Robert Altman, even as she recognized his inconsistencies, beginning with Brewster McCloud; and she constantly promoted Godard, until she began to become impatient with the process of what she envisioned as the director eating his own tail, stylistically speaking; and of course she loved Peckinpah. There were times, it seemed, that Kael’s appreciation for “Bloody Sam” was based more on her own tempestuous personal relationship with the director, which could be sussed out of pieces like her long, circuitous, anecdotal review of The Killer Elite. This essay, a recommendation of a late-mid-period Peckinpah sow’s ear, reads the movie as a personal tale of Peckinpah’s own self-disgust and refusal to knuckle under to the studio bosses and corporate bigwigs who wanted to cram him into an unwieldy mold and slice away at his talent and dignity. To read that review is to realize that no one else could have that particular perspective on The Killer Elite because none of us knew Peckinpah like that. (Note the ad copy on the one-sheet: "Long career doubtful.") Yet this kind of familiarity has been adopted through osmosis by a lot of reviewers who now look at Peckinpah’s work almost exclusively through this prism of presumed knowledge of the director’s demons. Kael’s personalized criticism, as well as powerful works of biography and criticism by the likes of David Weddle and Paul Seydor, have all contributed to this intimacy between the audience and a director who never courted such closeness.
This leads me back to Tarantino’s comment about subtextual film criticism not having much at all to do with the filmmaker’s intentions. Pauline Kael rarely wrote with subtext in mind. Her feelings and fears and enthusiasms were right there on the surface, and no less rich for their accessibility. But I think she did a lot to expose the truth of what Tarantino is asserting here, that directors, writers and actors who often work awfully close to the surface may still have subterranean levels of achievement or purpose or commentary that they themselves may be least qualified to articulate. It’s what’s behind her disdain for Antonioni’s pontificating at the Cannes film festival; it’s what behind the high percentage of uselessness of proliferating DVD commentaries in which we get to hear every dull anecdote, redundant explication of plot development and any other inanity that strikes the director of the latest Jennifer Aniston rom-com to blurt out breathlessly; and it is what’s behind a director like Eli Roth, who tailors his films’ subtexts as afterthoughts to be bleated out in defensive bursts on Larry King. (You said it best, Jim, when Hostel Part II was the talk of the blogosphere last summer: next time, Eli, let your movie do the talking for you.)
And it’s what’s behind Kael’s often autobiographical approach to film criticism—in many ways, she is the template for the kind of film criticism that has become more familiar on the Web, for better and for worse, which attempts to weave personal experience and taste into a cogent way of arguing for a position on a film. (Her review of Frederick Wiseman’s High School, reprinted from a KPFA radio program, I believe, in one of the early books, is one of the prime examples I think of when I think of Kael’s personalized slant, and of course there is her famous consideration of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine, which she reviewed through the prism of having just broken up with a lover.)
Jim, I don’t know if I’ve managed to articulate anything here that gets at anything specific about the way Kael argues, or anything really specific about the points she makes in that Atlantic piece or any of her other writing. It is true that she would often bait the reader with a rather high-minded assessment of something she appreciated that she would still classify as a bauble or a trifle. Is she denigrating an entire class of American film by calling Charade the best American film of 1963? Or is she saying that the vitality of movies like Charade, trashy as they may be, are more valuable, at least to her, and perhaps to film culture, than the obsessive high-mindedness of some of the accepted artifacts of “Art” that she routinely dismissed as others piled on the praise? In reading Kael I always tended toward an interpretation that skewed toward an appreciation of the fact that she was open to the glories of Hollywood films like His Girl Friday or To Have and Have Not, and perhaps her reluctance to confer greatness upon them was that to do so might align her too closely with the auteurist film buffs she so regularly disparaged.
She was inconsistent, and maddening because of it. But I can’t find my way toward distrust of her writing or her thinking because of that. She was too provocative a contributor to my own experience and development as a critical thinker (one that is still well in progress, I might add), even though she would have hated to be thought of as a teacher. She reveled in her influence, of course, but if I am to believe someone like David Edelstein, as much as she enjoyed being admired she did not court, nor did she much tolerate sycophancy. (Am I being incongruous right now in that the image that just popped into my head is one of Graham Chapman’s ugly American film producer heading up a boardroom full of terrified yes-men who can never cough up the right answer, which is, of course, splunge ?) I have made peace with the fact that I could not possibly ever approve of every opinion she offered, or observation she made, insistence she insisted upon or deficit she assigned in her 30-some years of writing. Instead I’ve found in her, over the years, a critical voice I can argue with, be amazed by, dismiss or find completely convincing, as well as one who always kept her arguments for her own conception of anti-intellectualism sharp and open to challenge, sometimes from herself.
(I do tend to think, as one of your readers suggested, that anti-intellectualism is its own form of intellectualism, insofar as it is defined not by a resistance to independent thinking, which is how someone in this anti-intellectual political climate like A—C------ might employ the phrase, but by an examination of the ways in which thinking can become rigid and sap the possibilities of experience within art. This is more anti-academia than anti-intellectualism, I think, as Kael clearly valued the use of her brain.)
Inclusive of all her maddening traits, I value the insights I’ve gleaned from reading Pauline Kael over the past 31 years more than any other film critic I’ve ever encountered. Many others have adopted her voice as film critics, with diminishing results. Yet it is encouraging to have become familiar with so many writers on the Internet over the past four years, yourself most prominently, with whom I am becoming similarly comfortable, both in reading and in engaging in discussion—the advantage here is that when I argue with these new writers, they argue back! (It’s not just that insistent voice in my head imitating Kael’s frail chirpy delivery anymore!) Myself, I have tried to understand what she does and how it can not be imitated but instead used to feed the impulses of creative expression that I believe define film criticism as its own art form. Such a definition, of course, requires exposure to many other voices besides one as forceful as Kael’s, and I’ve enjoyed the process of getting to know and evaluate them too, even if I never held any of them quite so dear. For me Kael set the bar. I believe she is a great critic, not just a good one. Maybe she wouldn’t have survived as well in an online world where her every argument would be subject to round upon round of contrary opinion. But I believe she would have written what she felt just the same, and for those of us willing to search it out, in much the same way we can search out voices worth listening to amongst the competing din of a thousand Harry Knowleses, it would have resonated with similar fervor and excitement.