Kael and Farewell

by Chris Dashiell
Critics have been looked on with disdain since Johnson (himself a critic) wrote that "he whom Nature has made weak, and Idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a Critick." That there is some justice in this attitude you will find by even briefly perusing the bulk of what passes for criticism in the papers and online. Unfortunately, the best writers are by this judgment often lumped with the rest, and the most famous among the best have made numerous enemies through the practice of their art. Yes, I said art. The best critics are artists, whose craft tends to be less noticed because it expresses, without disguise, that most common and least beautiful aspect of thought - opinion.
Pauline Kael was one of the best. She not only achieved excellence in her art, but, more than any other writer, helped elevate film criticism from a place of minor interest and little notice to a place where it became popular and widely read. Agee, Ferguson, and Farber were great film critics, but their work remained in a sort of ghetto until their later rediscovery. The French critics like Bazin and Truffaut helped foster a new cinephilia, and Sarris and Kauffmann helped carry the banner stateside, but their influence was still largely confined to "art house" margins.

Kael came on the scene with an informal, conversational style that acknowledged the role of emotional reaction and identification in the moviegoer, and at the same time helped readers feel that they could "get" how a movie worked if they were sensitive and alert. Her reviews were peppered with off-hand references to other films and genres, and to the history of film. You learned things about movies from Kael, even when you didn't agree with her conclusions. Here's an excerpt from her review of Yojimbo:

"Kurosawa has made the first great shaggy-man movie... a glorious comedy-satire of force: the story of the bodyguard who kills the bodies he is hired to guard....The excruciating humor of his last line, as he surveys the carnage - 'Now there'll be a little quiet in this town' - is that we've heard it so many times before, but not amidst total devastation. His clean-up has been so thorough and so outrageously bloody that is has achieved a hilarious kind of style." Here she uses slang ("shaggy man"), and succinctly states the point about the subversion of genre (not a very common insight in 1963) that she will develop in more detail later in the piece. After criticizing the western, she writes, "Of all art forms, movies are most in need of having their concepts of heroism undermined..." and then goes on to mention the early two-reelers, Fairbanks, and Gunga Din - arguing her point while connecting us to movies as an art form with a complex history. Then she talks about Kurosawa's career up to that time, championing him against the undervaluation by some other critics (whom she names), explaining why he's a wonderful and important director, and then ending the piece with a flourish - "It's true that Shakespeare didn't dare give his clowns hot blood to drink. But Kurosawa dares."

The review is only nine paragraphs long. It is brashly opinionated, informative, and most of all - fun to read. And she did this week after week, year after year - with a quality that was not always consistent (what critic could claim that?) but always more vital, provocative and interesting than one would expect from a reviewer on deadline.

One of Kael's major themes was the celebration of movies as a popular art form, as opposed to the snobbish approach that looked down on films unless they were self-consciously "artistic" and had elevated and "important" subject matter or themes. (In this she showed her great debt to Manny Farber). In her review of Hiroshima, Mon Amour she wrote: "I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses 'art' films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood 'product,' finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism." Although she follows this, in parentheses, by saying that this is, of course, a generalization subject to numerous exceptions (she would not be so cautious in later years), the gauntlet had still been decisively thrown down. There would be no sacred cows, foreign or domestic. Kael's opinions were always fiercely her own. Clearly unswayed by popularity or anticipations of success in the market, she was not afraid to attack anything - West Side Story, Ordinary People, The Last Emperor....fill in the blanks with some of your own favorite movies - chances are she panned a few of them, and with gusto.

"Trash, Art, and the Movies" was written in 1969. It is one of the great film essays. Too subtle to adequately summarize, it should be read by anyone interested in writing about cinema. She starts by describing how a movie like Wild in the Streets can be entertaining even though it's trash, while an artful film like Petulia can be a total bore. "It's preposterously egocentric to call anything we enjoy art - as if we could not be entertained by it if it were not; it's just as preposterous to let prestigious, expensive advertising snow us into thinking we're getting art for our money when we haven't even had a good time."

But Kael's position was not "populist" or anti-art, whatever that might mean. She wrote passionately about directors like Satyajit Ray, Bergman, and Louis Malle. In her capsule reviews of old Hollywood films preserved in "5001 Nights at the Movies" she could be merciless about the compromising mentality and mediocre ideas of what we now call "classic" Hollywood films. Kael was anti-cant. She criticized dishonesty in films wherever she detected it, whether it was high-, middle-, or lowbrow in nature.

A weakness in her views about the importance of enjoyment in movie-watching is that she could often be limited by her own conceptions of what enjoyment had to be. She couldn't believe that someone could honestly enjoy something like Last Year at Marienbad - so she characterized that film's audience as pretentious pseudo-intellectuals. This habit of pigeonholing a film's audience as a way of criticizing the film could sometimes constrict her effect, calling her aesthetic judgments into question rather than reinforcing them, but it was an integral element in her approach, which always kept in mind the effect of a film on actual viewers in a theater.

Kael achieved popularity and influence during her long reign as chief critic for The New Yorker, beginning in 1967 and ending with her retirement in 1991. My first critical appreciation of film came from her. My parents subscribed to the magazine. I would open each new issue to the Table of Contents, find the page for Kael's review, and go straight to it. She stimulated my thinking - not only about movies, but about those things movies were trying to deal with in the 1970s - the war, race relations, the "establishment" versus the "counterculture." Kael's writing displayed an intriguing combination of hipness and erudition. She was knowledgable and aware, yet funny and sarcastic. One couldn't help but be influenced by her. An entire generation of film writers have been, and you can see it in their styles. Often they've only imitated her conversational tone and her personal approach without bothering to aspire to her deep knowledge of film history or her awareness of the subtleties of acting and visual technique.

Kael was unusually sensitive to the way an actor's method merged with a star persona to create an effect. Here she is on McCabe and Mrs. Miller: "Julie Christie has that gift that beautiful actresses sometimes have of suddenly turning ugly and of being even more fascinating because of the crossover. When her nose practically meets her strong chin and she gets the look of a harpy, the demonstration of the thin line between harpy and beauty makes the beauty more dazzling..." I picked this quote at random. Kael's reviews are full of observations like this about the faces of performers and their effects. She was of course just as observant of the ways a performance didn't work - although she tended to be more forgiving of deficiencies in an actor than she was of the failings in direction or script.

Kael's outspokenness, combined with her increasing power and influence as a critic, invited controversy. When she panned Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's huge Holocaust documentary, it was almost a scandal. While it's true that she didn't help matters when she responded intemperately to the criticisms, her attackers seemed to think that it was politically sinful not to praise the film, which is absurd. Kael didn't like it, so that's what she wrote.

"Raising Kane," her book-length study of Citizen Kane, was also controversial because it pitted the director, Orson Welles, against his co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, attributing more credit to Mankiewicz for the majority of the script as well as the artistic success of the film, and stating that Welles tried to claim sole authorship of the picture - a statement that Welles denied. The whole brouhaha around the Kane book has obscured, I think, how good a book it really is. Pick it up now, thirty years after it was published, after Citizen Kane has been dissected and analyzed in every academic film journal to the point of exhaustion, and Kael will make the movie come alive again for you, making connections between it and the news reporter genre, traditional studio melodrama, and German expressionism, while describing the process of its creation, how it works on the screen, Kael's own reactions to it in the present, Welles' complex relationship to film tradition - and much more than I can describe here, all (and here is the wonder) in an enjoyable, fluid, easily understandable yet stimulating prose that is a model of sustained, thoughtful analysis.

Kael's enthusiasm, when she felt it, could be unbridled. Her review of Last Tango in Paris famously declared that its first showing should be declared a landmark in movie history, comparable to the first performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." The picture has not had anything like the subsequent influence her review would seem to warrant, but I wouldn't be too quick to mock her reaction. Her review is an eloquent argument for a ground-breaking approach to sexuality and personal drama on film. Whatever one may think of Last Tango, it is a crucial trait of the best critics that they be on the lookout for important innovations in the art, and that they be willing to pick up the cudgels and champion the work when they see it - or think they do.

Kael knew that her tendency to "reckless excess, in both praise and damnation" (her own words) was a deplorable flaw in her writing. My own experience is that it's a very difficult flaw for a film critic to avoid. Watching anywhere from seventy to a hundred films a year (or many more if you write for a daily), and trying to think of new things to say, you're bound to go overboard in praise when you find what you think is a jewel among the dross - or in damnation when you see something mediocre that's being hyped for Best Picture. Kael was effusive about a lot of films that are now obscure or deservedly forgotten. In her later years she seemed more desperate to find something - anything - to praise. And any style will begin to find its limits at 26 times a year. But she never lost the basic element that made her so readable - her total, loving involvement in the art of movies.

I would like to think that Pauline Kael would be impatient with any tribute that failed to criticize her. To be completely unstinting in praise is surely a form of cant. So here I need to say that I think her great influence, reaching the point where her reviews actually helped determine a film's success or failure, went to her head and fostered an inner sense of rightness that impaired her critical faculties. Her criticisms of certain directors sometimes took on a personal quality that was unseemly. And she had a tendency to champion certain other directors to the point where they were like her pets, in a disproportiante relation to their talent or importance.

Brian De Palma is only the most well-known example. To read her rave review of The Fury, or Dressed to Kill, and then to go see the film on her recommendation, was for me a disappointing experience. There were quite a few De Palma films, and Alan Rudolph films, and other films I could name, that I went to see through belief in Kael - until I finally gave up on whatever director it happened to be. I guess, in a backhanded way, that's another tribute to her skill as a writer. Nowadays I find myself disagreeing with her reviews about as often as I agree with them, but I don't disagree with her talent. In the case of De Palma, I think his style matched her love of a certain kind of "trash" cinema, a cinema that subverted romantic expectations. In the case of Kubrick, one of Kael's pet hates, his coldness and misanthropic humor did not fit her view of things, which always had an element of hope and passion and engagement - and so she was never shy about panning a Kubrick film. Any critic worth her salt has a world view. Kael stuck to hers, and its strengths were inseparable from its weaknesses.

Another misfortune attached to great influence is that it tends to preclude other influences. Following Kael came an army of Kael imitators, without half her wit, and these Kael clones have sometimes put a damper on different styles. There should be a place for the measured cadences of a Stanley Kauffmann or a Vincent Canby in film writing. And too often, brashly uninformed opinion carries the day, with a host of scribblers employing a "personal" style, but no real knowledge of film history or culture. In one of her last interviews, Kael expressed chagrin that today's college students complain about sitting through a film if it has subtitles. Throughout her career, she always promoted an international appreciation, one that was aware of our debt to the past even as it continually freed itself from that debt with new experiments.

It seems an inescapable aspect of greatness that its influence becomes a barrier to future work even though it advanced that very work to a place unimaginable before. The time will come - or perhaps it has already come - when there will be a backlash, and film critics will aspire to be the anti-Kael in order to define themselves. All of which is a predictable and even necessary thing. But on the occasion of Pauline Kael's death, I would hope that all of us who write about movies can acknowledge our debt to her. She opened the door for us. Her trust in her own intelligence and abilities was evident in her prose. She showed us that we needn't kowtow to received opinion when it came to movies - when the lights went down we could trust ourselves to respond to what we saw on the screen, and then write about it honestly and entertainingly, without jargon and without fear.

Pauline Kael brought film writing out of the closet and made it popular. How many artists can make that claim about their art?

"Our emotions rise to meet the force coming from the screen, and they go on rising throughout our movie-going lives. When this happens in a popular art's form - when it's an art experience that we discover for ourselves - it is sometimes disparaged as fannishness. But there's something there that goes deeper than connoisseurship or taste. It's a fusion of art and love." -- Pauline Kael

©2001 Chris Dashiell