Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Pauline, Pauline, Paw-leen. Though I’ve taken no polls, my guess is that I’m far from the first Oedipal basket case to parody Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” that way. But no matter what her goofier admirers think, Pauline Kael — best known as The New Yorker‘s “The Current Cinema” geyser from 1968 through 1990 — was not the Greatest Movie Critic Ever.  She just behaved as though that was a plausible category, confounding  newly minted also-rans who hadn’t known it was a contest. As for her effect on future pop-culture scribblers, all I can do is misquote Blue Velvet: “She put her disease in us.”

In Kael’s avast-ye prime, Andrew Sarris, glumly cast (it  hadn’t been his idea) as the Village Voice yin to her tangier yang,  plainly knew more and had thought harder about movie history. Coming along a bit later — the evidence was that he’d inhaled the concept of Greatest Movie Critic Ever as a brass ring worth choking on — David Thomson saw deeper into film’s psychology. Yet no one else’s claims matter, because Kael’s notion of the stakes involved didn’t outlive and indeed predeceased her. That may be the definition of a superstar.

If you doubt she was one,  rack your brains along with me to name another English-language movie critic who’s been the subject of a full-dress biography. To wit, Brian Kellow’s first-rate, sometimes troubling Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. And no, James Agee doesn’t count, let alone Graham Greene;  they both had other fish to fry. Only Kael has rated Boswellizing for film criticism alone.

On the other hand, however useful for neophytes, the Library of America’s Kael anthology, The Age of Movies, isn’t quite all it could be. Like 2009’s Farber on Film,  which compiled the work of cult-crit legend — and largely unacknowledged Kael influence — Manny Farber, it’s billed as “A Special Publication of the Library of America,” implying that both writers are somewhere south of canonical and justifying presentation literally flimsier than the LoA’s norm. At $40 a pop, a “hardcover” whose backings don’t bend under the consumer’s thumbs might be nice. Editor Sanford Schwartz might also have done us non-neophytes a favor by printing more than the single essay here — “Movies, the Desperate Art,” from 1956 — that hasn’t already appeared in Kael’s own collections. I’d have liked to see the 1952 pan of Chaplin’s Limelight that started her on her way.

As a result, though I read Kellow’s biography with fascination — Kael’s fan dance with the personal information she tossed into her early essays had a predictable Gypsy Rose Lee effect on junkies — I coursed through the 828 pages of The Age of Movies more briskly than an earnest reviewer should. The reason for that may be pardonable, though. I once knew around half its contents goddam near by heart.

Unlike those sturdy adolescents whose sexual initiation (“Tante Alice wasn’t a blood relative”) or political primal scene (“The Pinkertons shot Pops at noon”) made their fifteenth birthdays memorable, the most transformative event of mine was neither erotic nor radicalizing. Except, perhaps, in totally figurative senses of both words. Having noticed I liked movies, my parents gave me a Bantam paperback called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. If either cake or a baseball bat was in the picture, they’ve both ended up on memory’s cutting-room floor.

Published the year before she turned fifty, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was Kael’s second collection of criticism. Her first had been 1965’s I Lost It at the Movies, which I quickly devoured as well. Mind, lots of the time, I didn’t know what she was talking about,  from her demolitions of  my adolescent canon — why wasn’t The Longest Day even in the index? Who were François Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa,  Joe McCarthy, Bertrand Russell? — to the aphorism that led off her killer job on West Side Story: “Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider.” I just knew I wanted to think like that, live like that. (Write like that, too — and fat chance.) Though it wouldn’t be released until later, I fear the most appropriate movie for me to have watched in Pauline’s company just then would have been Truffaut’s The Wild Child.

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous, since my new heroine had recently begun her stint at The New Yorker. To which, God love ’em, my parents subscribed. A fact whose significance I was in no position to appreciate then — believe me, middle age has taught me better — is that, with a couple of abortive exceptions, Kael’s New Yorker job was her first real berth at any magazine after years as an erratically paid freelancer. Or even an unpaid one, in the case of the weekly broadcasts, on San Francisco’s KPFA, whose acerbic independent-mindedness won her local notoriety from 1955 on.

On top of that, it wasn’t until her thirties that she realized movie criticism was her vocation. Kellow’s early chapters detail her scruffy decade-plus of odd jobs,  frustrated ambitions, bohemian non-rhapsodies, and scary near-penury after not-quite-graduating, six credits short of a degree, from Berkeley in 1939. If she ended up wielding her belated nationwide clout in a manner that suggested Courtney Love’s gallivanting  blah-blah-blah crossed with the “Sentence first, trial later” side of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, that may be no wonder — but it’s also getting ahead of the story.

By obsessional standards, Kellow falls short of exhaustive. His indifference to which publishing house briefly had Kael on the payroll during her mostly miserable first crack at New York in the 1940s would boil Robert A. Caro’s hair. Yet he’s brainy, convincingly informed about her life — though not, unfortunately, about movie criticism, except hers — and a long way from thoughtlessly adulatory. Among other nuggets, the gaps he’s filled in about Kael’s pre-fame years make a dandy corrective to her opportunistic use of autobiography.

For instance, every Kael adept knows she grew up on a ranch in Northern California. Alerting us to that was the brilliant move in one of her greatest essays: 1963’s “Hud, Deep in the Divided Heart of Hollywood.” Back then, proper-minded critics just didn’t pull rank in the arresting way Kael did by comparing the adulteries of Paul Newman’s Hud to those of her own father.

Nonetheless, her evocatively generic “ranch” makes Kellow’s “thriving community of Jewish chicken ranchers” in Sonoma County, to which Kael’s immigrant parents moved from New York in 1912 to try their luck, a bit of a letdown. California’s early-twentieth-century accommodation of ethnic Utopias is in fact a wonderful story, but you wouldn’t know it from  Isaac and Judith Kael’s daughter. Anyhow, the family quit Petaluma for cosmopolitan San Francisco when Pauline was still a youngster. Goodbye, “Little Moviehouse on the Prairie.”

Kael’s relationship to Judaism became an issue after her notorious 1985 pan of Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah — a piece, let us note, not included in The Age of Movies. According to Kellow, Kael only inserted its apologetic opening paragraph — “I ask the forbearance of readers for a dissenting view of a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece” — under rare (I’ll say) editorial duress. All the same, her refusal to self-identify as Jewish puts her in some fairly exalted midcentury company: Norman Mailer (Kellow strikes me as mistaken in claiming she wasn’t a fan), Bob Dylan. In their vigorously American ways, all three were aiming for, not assimilation, but transcendence.

Aggressively concocted public personas were their signature move. Though Kael wasn’t in Mailer’s or Dylan’s league as a self-reinventor, readers smitten by the bawdy sophistication of her observations on love and sex in the movies vs. real life may be crestfallen at how her I’ve-been-around act seems to have been much ado about next to nothing. Among other nods to Rabelais, she implied that she had more than one ex-husband in her colorful-sounding past: “My marital vicissitudes…may over-complicate nomenclature,” was her explanation to KPFA listeners of why she signed herself Pauline Kael, conjuring up a Rosalind Russell-ish dame who’d had her wedding-bell innings with Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy.

Not so. There was only one marriage, a lackluster one — undertaken mainly for financial stability, says Kellow — to  the owner of the Berkeley art-house cinema whose repertoire she oversaw in the fifties. Treasured by Bay Area movie fans, Kael’s opinionated program notes have had a hell of a shelf life, incidentally. Not only did she reprint many of them in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the later 5001 Nights at the Movies,  but they went on showing up in The New Yorker‘s capsule takes on vintage films  even after her death.

One obvious damper to grand passions is that the few romantic partners Kellow cites were mostly gay — including poet James Broughton,  the father of her only child, Gina. (Kael’s single-mom struggles to provide for her daughter in infancy are every bit as moving as her later treatment of the grown-up Gina as her factotum is unpleasant.)  According to one Kael crony, she was “completely done” with men by  her fifties — an age at which Mae West no doubt figured she was still getting started.

None of this would be of interest if Kael’s response to movies  hadn’t been famously libidinous. With increasing tastelessness, she encouraged that perception in naming her book collections, culminating in 1984’s atrocious (I mean the title, not the contents — though the contents were pretty thick gruel) Taking It All In. Especially for a former devotee turned member of the guild, it’s no fun to wonder if it was all sublimation,  bearing out the ancient knock at critics for living vicariously.

Be that as it may, people who only discovered Kael in her floridly jazzy New Yorker glory days are in for a surprise if The Age of Movies is their first encounter with her I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang incarnations. Her responses are avid, but they aren’t surrenders; she doesn’t appear to think that turning her into a sated puddle is the test of any movie’s greatness. She’s flinty, analytical, and proudly independent. Except in her mockery of other critics — rudeness that inevitably helped get her noticed — hyperbole isn’t yet her stock in trade.

On that front, the opening qualifier in one early-1960s review not reprinted in The Age of Movies — “Cautious as I am about superlatives” — deserves a place in any collection of Famous Last Words. Here’s how the spread-eagled Kael of 1975 began one of her more fabled raves: “Is there such a thing as an orgy for movie-lovers — an orgy without excess? At Robert Altman’s new, almost three-hour film, Nashville, you don’t get drunk on images, you’re not overpowered — you get elated. I’ve never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way; I sat there smiling at the screen, in complete happiness. It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over; you take it with you.”

Nashville is, indeed, almost three hours long — which disposes of any actual information to be gleaned from that intro. The rest is high-grade flackery on behalf of a movie she was so eager to champion that she convinced The New Yorker to run her “review” before Nashville was in final form or had a definite release date. Violating that critical no-no turned her from legit reviewer to one-woman sales force.

Kael on Nashville showcases the vices of her New Yorker flood-tide mode, from the hectoring use of the second person to the invention of a notional film genre — “Nashville is the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen” — of which the movie in question instantly becomes the ultimate example. Not to mention the privileging of her sensual reaction over any other critical yardsticks. Near parodies of intellectual window dressing, her silly comparisons of Altman’s movie to Joyce’s Ulysses almost poignantly recall the Kael who could toss in casually cultivated allusions to literature or philosophy whenever they seemed apt, definitely not the case here.

Nashville didn’t fulfill her shilling prediction that it would “take off into the stratosphere.” Instead, that review didn’t only mark the peak of Kael’s influence; Taxi Driver aside, it was the last hurrah for what she herself had termed “a legendary period in movies.”  Starting with her tremendous 7,000-word essay on Bonnie and Clyde — if the movie prefigured American film’s 1970s renaissance, the piece won Kael her New Yorker gig — the symbiosis between critic, subject, and semi-popular excitement doesn’t have any parallels I can think of this side of Clement Greenberg becoming influential just in time to explain Abstract Expressionism to everybody.

The first two Godfather movies, The Conformist, Godard’s Weekend, Mean Streets, Altman’s own McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Goodbye: reading Kael on those works and any number of others was no mere adjunct to watching them, but part of the experience. The same was true of those she panned, from A Clockwork  Orange — “the work of a strict and exacting German professor who set out to make a porno-violent sci-fi comedy” — to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. If her enthusiasms and hates alike went overboard, that suited her audience’s heady sense of the vitality of movies in  the  polarized Nixon years.

People who’d had their cinematic sensibility formed by her now felt that sensibility triumphantly confirmed. Perhaps the reason we didn’t notice she was becoming a hype merchant was that we were too jazzed ourselves to be discerning. Yet part of a critic’s job  — and the younger Kael’s contrarianism about  midcentury pieties is a bracingly pugnacious example — is to  see beyond faddishness. The Queen of the May hubris turned unmistakable in her 1972 review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, maybe the most throbbingly ridiculous (see how easy it is?) piece by a great critic ever to reach print.

Her opening comparison of Last Tango‘s New York Film Festival premiere to the debut of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps was a death knell to any sense of proportion. Old Kael hands couldn’t help recalling how her expert mid-sixties takedown of vainglorious producer Stanley Kramer had used a similarly fatuous quote from Linus Pauling — “It may be that some years from now we can look back and say that On the Beach is the movie that saved the world” — to set up the withering zinger, “Six years have passed: does anyone remember On the Beach as anything more than a lousy movie?”  It’s not just that Last Tango hasn’t lived up to her claims — e.g., “Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form,” when even its rump (at more obvious risk) has survived pretty much unscathed. No movie could have,  meaning that Kael’s excesses had finally surpassed those of her ostensible topic.

The superstardom on display in print wasn’t even the whole story. Of all the compliments she’d earned in Frisco, the most retrospectively ironic is her frequent target Dwight Macdonald’s typically unflustered praise of I Lost It at the Movies for its outsider integrity. Those were the days. Even before she took a leave of absence to work for her pal Warren Beatty as a Paramount production consultant in 1979 — a Keystone Kael episode  that ended up as a humiliation — The New Yorker‘s celebrity critic was notorious for her chumminess with her faves, making the pretense of evenhanded judgments  a semi-transparent sham.  

It’s bad enough that, before reviewing them, she was a VIP guest on the sets of several Altman movies — not even as a journalist, just an easily buttered-up Buddha. Calling her out for “setting one standard for people she knows and another for people she doesn’t,” the more principled Andrew  Sarris got exasperated enough to note that her laudatory review of James Toback’s Fingers didn’t fill readers in that Toback — Kael’s most puzzling aesthetic crush this side of Brian de Palma — was her constant companion at screenings. Indeed, during her ill-fated Hollywood stint, collaborating with Toback was her main job, which didn’t stop her from reviewing his later work.

She lobbied Stephen Frears over dinner to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, even sending Frears a VCR tape of an earlier Pfeiffer performance — and then, naturally, lyricized Pfeiffer in her review. Meanwhile, filmmakers outside her pet circle became the targets of increasingly monotonous vendettas. Besides being stupefyingly blinkered, her loathing of Clint Eastwood was so sulphuric that even Kael’s friends wondered what its psychological subtext might be.

Then, of course, there were the Paulettes: the claque of younger, mostly male critics who became her Sunset Boulevard-esque acolytes and intimates, regurgitating her tastes and style from newspaper and magazine perches she’d often helped wangle for them. Though Kellow is undecided about how much toeing the party line was a condition for staying in Pauline’s good graces, my own recollection is that Kael’s opinion of a movie made reading her epigones awfully predictable. I almost choked with laughter when, once “The Godmother” — David Thomson’s joke, not mine — was safely retired,  one well-known Paulette bravely announced that Unforgiven was the first Eastwood movie he’d ever liked.

Because she was no dummy,  these people — with a couple of swattable exceptions — really were gifted critics, just what made their quest for pride of place in Pauline’s second chicken ranch lamentable. (For the record, whether this reviewer ever had the stuff to join the pecking order became a moot issue fast; in one of only three phone conversations I had with the great woman, I undiplomatically hinted at my preference for her earlier books. She stayed civil, but the drop in temperature would have busted a North Pole thermometer.) While the most talented of them all apparently wounded Kael deeply when he distanced himself in print after her retirement, nobody’s ever called James Wolcott a dummy either.

The sad part is that most of them came along too late for the party. Once the 1970s “Golden Age” of adventurous, upstart directors ended — done in by Hollywood’s new blockbuster mentality, which usually gets all the blame, but also by the simple fact of the audience’s changing tastes  — movies lost the crackling sense of consequence that Kael herself had done so much to simultaneously describe and foster.

According to Kellow, she was dispirited by  the medium’s retreat into inanity. Yet, seemingly for no better reason than wanting to go on being “Pauline Kael,” she kept writing about movies — increasingly inchoately — in the same amped-up style, swooning over Debra Winger until steam rose off the page and acclaiming de Palma’s thuggish latest as if he had compromising pictures of her locked in a safe. Because the LoA editor could cherry-pick, her decline into garrulous dross isn’t that evident in The Age of Movies. It’s telling nonetheless that Schwartz only reprints three pieces each from her final three collections, where some previous books are represented by a dozen or more.

 “To be true to what Pauline taught us, you had to break with her,”  Owen Gleiberman, a near-Paulette who backed away in time,  tells Kellow. While it would be vanity to claim I can identify — never met her, just got those three phone calls, and she made ’em by the dozens — I feel a certain simpatico. Around a quarter century into making my living as a pop critic, I outraged an ultra-distinguished colleague who’d been non-sycophantic friends with her by writing in Esquire, “No way around it, folks: that evil old bat is the reason I do what I do.”

Although, luckily for me, my one appearance in Kellow’s book quotes a somewhat more restrained adieu — and gets its venue wrong, BTW — abuse that intemperate ought to tell you that what Kael turned into wasn’t exactly water off a duck’s back to me. If you’ll forgive the Holden Caulfield note, I sometimes kind of hate her even now. But I still call her Pauline.