‘Get out of here with your cowboys boots,” screamed the anonymous letter sent to Pauline Kael shortly after she became film critic for the New Yorker in 1967. Recognizing it as the handiwork of one of that magazine’s contributors “whose prose seemed to be rolled like an English lawn,” Kael wasn’t irritated--just surprised. “I didn’t have cowboy boots,” she said, recalling the incident in a recent interview, “I’ve never had cowboy boots.”
To anyone who has ever met this petite, personable woman, it’s rather hard to imagine her as the Billy the Kid of belles-lettres. But once you start reading her reviews, the image of a pistol-packin’ Pauline becomes rather irresistible. If she isn’t rounding up a posse to fight off Oliver Stone and his band of pseudo-intellectual rustlers, then she’s forming a citizens’ committee to run Robert Altman for sheriff. In fact, just about every Western archetype fits Pauline Kael--except schoolmarm.
“For Keeps,” a massive anthology culled from 10 previously published collections of her writings (most of which are now out of print), gives ample evidence as to why, for the past 30 years, Pauline Kael has been such a singularly lively voice in a profession given to ad-copy puffery and dust-dry platitudes. Her up-close-and-first-personal style (she claims her goal is “the sound of spoken language”) and offhand wit (describing French actress Miou-Miou as “the Brigitte Bardot the cat dragged in”), has made her the most readable of critics--if not always the most lovable. You don’t win friends and influence people by calling Fellini’s “8 1/2" “a hack’s notion of Freudian anxiety and wish-fulfillment,” or declaring Dino De Laurentiis’ 1977 remake of “King Kong” to be “a pop classic that can stand in our affections right next to the original version.” But then, to put it in the rhetorical form she loves (and her severest critics despise), who ever read Pauline Kael expecting to agree with her?
“The hate mail piled up,” she recalls in the book’s introduction, speaking of the atmosphere surrounding the mid-point of her tenure at the New Yorker. “Then, curiously, some of the readers began to enjoy hating me. Maybe my conversational American tone brought them into a closer relationship than they’d been accustomed to; maybe what they had first experienced as a crude invasion from the pop world began to be something they looked forward to.” Or maybe they simply came to realize that Kael wasn’t just giving them her straight-from-the-gut unvarnished opinion, she was virtually demanding that they respond in kind: immerse themselves in film as fully and passionately as she did, and talk about what they saw once they’d surfaced. And that demand--to use one of Kael’s favorite phrases--was turning them on.
When “Bonnie and Clyde” appeared in 1967, Kael wrote: “The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: how we came to love them and feel they were ours--not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.” Kael was smack on top of the zeitgeist , explaining why this comedy-drama about Depression-era bank robbers had become a rallying point for young educated audiences of the Vietnam generation. But for the better part of her career Kael, more often than not, found herself not at the center of things, but off to one side.
When her taste coincided with that of the masses, on blockbusters like “E.T.,” “Tootsie” and “The Way We Were,” Kael had no trouble getting anyone to listen to her. But she was only able to spur a few of her readers in the direction of what she aptly called “minority movies” such as “The Night of the Shooting Stars” and “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.” Far more of them lined up for films Kael despised such as “A Clockwork Orange” and “Midnight Express.” And there were precious few takers when she went out on a limb praising the likes of “Pennies From Heaven” and “Casualties of War.” You can sense Kael’s frustration with all of this in her position-paper-styled essays (“Trash Art and the Movies,” “Fear of Movies,” “Why Are Movies so Bad?”), where she scores both the industry and the audiences for their lack of adventurousness. But no critic, no matter how well-known or widely read, can influence the movie-making powers-that-be or buck the effect of their enormous marketing and promotional powers. And when a critic is as deliberately contentious as Kael, it’s hard to credit how descriptive cliches such as “most powerful” and “most influential” have been attached to her name.
Over the years Kael has come to be the elder statesperson for a group of younger critics--Michael Sragow, Peter Rainer and David Ansen among them. One of the most hilarious spectacles in fourth estate chat circles is listening to the ominous tones her critics take when they talk about these “Kaelites"--as if they were a band of Kali-worshiping thugs out of Gunga Din. Though some of them try their best, none of these acolytes has ever managed to write like Kael. Few of them even agree with most of her opinions. And none of them have any clout at the box office. Moreover, neither does she.
A Kael rave has never added so much as a penny to a project’s coffers. So much for “power.” As for “influence,” in 1979, when Warren Beatty asked her to come to work for Paramount Pictures as a script adviser, the critic who expended more ink than any other about the way Hollywood should be run, lasted all of five months. Clearly Kael knew she was better off back home in Great Barrington, Mass., writing about the “beautiful pipe dream of a movie” Robert Altman had made in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller"; the awe-inspiring “vision of Hell” Jean-Luc Godard had conjured up in “Weekend"; the way Louis Malle makes sure that “everything doesn’t hit you on the noggin” in “Atlantic City"; and “the enormous pleasure to see a movie that’s really about something” she found in “My Beautiful Laundrette.”
If Pauline Kael has any “power” or “influence” it is here; contributing to the literature attendant on works that will withstand the test of time, rather than the “bottom line.” You’ll find all these examples of Kael at her best in “For Keeps,” along with her witty profile of Cary Grant (“The Man From Dream City”), her refreshingly unstuffy tributes to silent classics (“Intolerance,” “Napoleon”), and her even more refreshing attacks on overstuffed “prestige pictures” (“Gandhi,” “On Golden Pond”). But you will also find what can only be called Kael at her worst--essays where critical principles are so pulled out of shape that they begin to dovetail into ethical violations. And it is because of such violations--which have nothing to do with simple matters of opinion--that Kael, for all her rhetorical authority, falls short as a critic.
There’s a constant refrain running through “For Keeps"; a hymn of praise directed at films that “don’t take themselves too seriously.” There’s nothing particularly alarming about this notion, when Kael is using it to promote the “vitality and distinctive flavor” of commercial Hollywood films; “the freshness and spirit that make (them) unlike those of any other country.” Not unreasonably, she has often found them preferable to the art-house cinema favored by friends of her class; “academic and professional people,” whose basic indifference to Hollywood has always annoyed her to no end. At one level her cavils have consisted of little more than taunting these shrinking violets for avoiding the likes of “Hud,” “Convoy,” “Eyes of Laura Mars” or the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers"--slickly made products unaccountably praised by Kael to the skies. But there is something else at work beneath the surface, this epater l’academie effrontery: an almost instinctive hatred of seriousness. “An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a bit of sense,” Kael remarks in one of her position-paper essays. It’s seems like a perfectly reasonable observation, until you put it alongside others, such as her complaint about “Blade Runner": “The moviemakers haven’t learned that wonderful, simple trick of bringing a character closer to the audience by giving him a joke or having him overreact to one.” Surely a critic capable of appreciating rich, multifaceted, works such as “The Golden Coach,” “The Leopard” and “Once Upon a Time in America” knows that quality is scarcely incumbent on cheap, crowd-pleasing gimmicks. Yet throughout “For Keeps,” Kael keeps running to the shelter of films she calls “trash"--as if doing penance for ever having had anything nice to say about Ingmar Bergman. This would just be a minor quirk if Kael hadn’t lost her bearings when writing about a film that was both serious and full of “vitality and spirit": Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” “Raising Kane,” her two-part 1971 broadside against Welles set off a firestorm of controversy that hasn’t subsided to this day. And the heart of that firestorm is Kael’s peculiar notion of the value of films that “don’t take themselves seriously.”
Welles’ classic 1941 study of a the life and times of a newspaper tycoon closely modeled on William Randolph Hearst has been hailed by countless critics as both a great satire and a complex psychological study. To Kael it was “a comic strip about Hearst” and precious little more. Seizing on remarks made by the secretary of co-scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz that Welles “wasn’t around” when the first draft of the script was written, Kael went on to declare that Welles had affixed his name on the credits of a script he did not write.
“Then I’d like to know what was all that stuff I was always typing for Mr. Welles!” shot back the director’s secretary, Katherine Trosper (as quoted in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1992 book, “This Is Orson Welles”). Why had Kael, so sympathetic to Welles in 1967 when “Falstaff” (a.k.a. “Chimes at Midnight”) was released to hostile reviews, suddenly turned on him? It was simple, really. If “Kane” is to matter for her then it can only be a film that “doesn’t take itself seriously"--a joke. And Welles, the “boy genius,” lauded by scholars for “Kane’s” visual richness and dramatic complexity, can’t be that joke’s teller.
But this is nothing next to Kael’s most outrageous statement: that in the famous newspaper office, Welles, shown eating a large meal, “was obviously caught by the camera crew, and which, to be a ‘good sport’ he had to use.” Orson Welles, the most self-conscious filmmaker the world has ever known, “caught” by his camera crew, cin e ma verite- style? Does she really expect anybody to believe this? Yes. For in Kael’s view, Welles, unable to write a joke, is ideally cast as the butt of one.
Still, there are times where such fudging won’t work, and jokes can’t help. One such case is"Shoah,” Kael’s review of which is conspicuously absent from “For Keeps” (though you can find it in her 1989 collection, “Hooked”). For the first time in her career she asked “for the forbearance of readers for a dissenting view of a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece.” There is no objective reason why Kael should feel ambivalent about casting a cold eye on Claude Lanzmann’s documentary about the Nazi extermination camps, in which a relatively small amount of simple information is inflated into a numbingly repetitive nine hours. But it isn’t length or boredom that troubled Kael. She is upset by a scene in “Shoah” in which Lanzmann interviews Polish peasants--showing them to be every bit as anti-Semitic today as they were in the Nazi era.
“The heart of (Lanzmann’s) obsession appears to be to show you that the Gentiles will do it again to the Jews if they get the chance,” wails Kael. “When you come out, you’re likely to feel dazed, and confirmed in all your worst fears.” Exactly. The anti-Semitism “Shoah” uncovers unnerved her to the core. But Kael, a writer who always prided herself on her ability to dig deeply into the meaning of her responses to films, found herself unable to go the extra mile and see what stood behind her revulsion to “Shoah.”
For a critic whose misfires are as fascinating as her bull’s-eyes, it’s telling that Kael has chosen to reprint “Raising Kane” without any amendments or even acknowledgments of the controversy it engendered, while at the same time expunging her “Shoah” review from the permanent record.
Sometimes you’ve just got to take yourself seriously.