Critiquing Pauline Kael’s reviews culled from her New Yorker pieces is no easy task. David Ehrenstein is to be congratulated for his evenhanded dealing with the collection assembled in Kael’s “For Keeps” (Book Review, Oct. 9).
I would add a codicil to his statement: “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.”
Very funny, but not quite true. There was something of a schoolmarm to her. Schoolmarm in the best sense of the word. Sometime in the early 1970s, Saturday Review film critic Arthur Knight taught a film course at USC. He frequently had guest lecturers, and I recall one evening when Pauline Kael and I addressed the class. She was wonderful, intelligent, witty, passionate. At the end of the lecture, Arthur opened it up to a Q&A; session. As was always the case in these sessions, the inevitable query was: “How do you get into the motion picture business?” I can still recall Pauline gazing out at a sea of would-be filmmakers, pausing, then stating something of this nature: “I don’t know what to tell you. The problem with most of you is that you don’t read anymore.” A long pause, and then her voice rising: “No one of your generation knows anything about literature. If you are going to be a filmmaker, you must also be a reader--someone aware of literature.”
Pauline, the schoolmarm, was correct. One need only to view today’s films for the truth of her statement.
ROBERT B. RADNITZ, CULVER CITY
David Ehrenstein in his review of Pauline Kael’s magnificent anthology failed to convey what an astonishing critic she was. Not only was she an excellent writer, but one of the great stylists this country has ever produced. Her use of the vernacular and her uncanny sociopolitical insight showed that criticism could be as much an art form as jazz. Her work can stand alongside that of Edmund Wilson and George Bernard Shaw.
Ehrenstein is also wrong about her influence. By breaking through the old-boy, dispassionate style of reviewing, Kael altered the way criticism was practiced. Not only can you see her presence in numerous movie critics, but in the work of book, theater, music, dance, art and food reviewers. She was able to convey the way educated people talked about movies. And she wasn’t afraid to deal with the medium’s sensuality or her own feelings.
Ehrenstein says Kael never helped one movie earn a cent. Again, I believe him wrong. I would offer as just one example “Last Tango in Paris.” I feel her review had a lot to do with the film’s success. And, if Kael was so insignificant, why did movie ads frequently feature full reprints of her reviews?
With so much incredible material to deal with, it’s unfortunate Ehrenstein decides to beat a dead horse about “Citizen Kane” and to nit-pick about “Shoah” (the important point is that Kael fought for weeks to have the original critique published despite intense conservative and liberal pressure to scuttle it).
Kael said a great critic could--by understanding and feeling for the work, by passion--excite people so they want to experience more of the art there is. She fulfilled this role superbly.
DAN O’NEILL, LOS ANGELES
In his paraphrase of Pauline Kael’s statement--to the effect that Herman Mankiewicz’s secretary said Welles “wasn’t around” when the first draft of “Citizen Kane” was written--David Ehrenstein somewhat understates the case.
History records--and Rita Alexander, the secretary in question, confirms--that the script was written at the Campbells’ Guest Ranch in Victorville, in San Bernardino County, during a time when Orson (except for one or two trips accompanied by John Houseman) was in Los Angeles County.
I do not know what Welles’ secretary subsequently typed. I do know that no “Kane” script or section of script not written by Herman Mankiewicz exists nor is there any testimony that one ever existed.
Confusion exists only because of the emergence, years later in the Cahiers du Cinema, of the auteur theory. I have no objection to Welles being annoited auteur of “Citizen Kane.” After all, as Franco Zeffirelli tells us in his immortal “Romeo e Giulietta,” “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
DON MANKIEWICZ, LA CRESCENTA. Editor’s note: Don Mankiewicz is the son of Herman Mankiewicz.
David Ehrenstein’s review of Pauline Kael’s “For Keeps” is so reductive and thoughtless as to be simply false. Specifically, it is false that Kael has “never added . . . a penny to a project’s coffers"; many people see movies because of reviews. It is false that Kael’s essay “Raising Kane” is an attack on Orson Welles; it celebrates his brilliance as a director but recalls the fact, often denied by Welles and his admirers, that the “Citizen Kane” script was mostly the work of Herman Mankiewicz. It is false to write that Kael has “expung(ed) her ‘Shoah’ review from the permanent record,” as if this selection were meant to replace all her previous texts.
The larger error, however, is the description of Kael as uneasy with ambition and content with self-deprecating movie trash. In Kael’s view, movies are so powerful and work on so many different levels that even a hackneyed one can genuinely move us. Yet she never loses sight of the heights filmmakers can reach when they explore that power rather than exploiting it. Her reviews are thrilling because they grasp the tension we all feel between our guilty urge to retreat to any movie house and our deeper desire to put some meaning into those two hours. Kael’s understanding that mindless and great movies work with the same tools is too subtle for Ehrenstein, but it will make “For Keeps” a joy.
BILLY WISSE, LOS ANGELES