Peter Galvin examines Brian Kellow's new book on the career of U.S. film critic Pauline Kael.
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9 Feb 2012 - 2:53 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

Once upon a time Pauline Kael was famous. She did TV and radio, but her métier was print. At the peak of her long career Kael's audience was large and loyal and even those who loathed her sensationalism and arrogance consumed her work with a kind of kinky glee.

What made punters and players take notice were her words; her prose was supersonic, swelled with enthusiasm and soaked in sexual innuendo. She argued that the key to understanding art was about understanding the way art stirred one's feelings. Those readers here, who lived through Kael's age – 1964 and 1991 – and devoured her work, will know this much.

For those many who are too young, weren't looking, or don't care, the salient point is this: Kael was not a public intellectual with a mission in the official culture of education, politics, or civic advocacy... Kael was a film critic.

As the esteemed historian and contemporary of Kael, Richard Schickel wrote recently that no movie critic had ever achieved such prominence in the cultural life of the US, a startling fact. Kael helped change film criticism (at least in the States, but lest to sound US-centric, Europe was a different matter.) That's because even more so than today, in the early '60s, few took movie critics seriously (except, of course, themselves and, on occasion, other critics) and fewer still, beyond a select and dedicated cabal of cinephiles, cared deeply for movies as an art.

Of course, the movies have changed, and critics along with them, and today Kael is no longer famous; almost all of her many books of collected criticism have long been out of print. However, these days, if anything, serious criticism – of the long form, highly specialised kind – is growing, thanks to the web. But as Roger Ebert opined recently, “the Age of the Film Critic” at least in the popular press is gone; as media operators rationalise, film columns are being axed from weeklies, monthlies and dailies across the US and editors are desperately urging whoever is left to write in a mode intended to reflect: “the taste of the readers”. (Whatever that means!)

Kael, who died in 2001 aged 82, gained notoriety over this very issue right at the beginning of her pubic life. When in 1966 she panned The Sound of Music (she called it “the sound of money”) in McCall's, a US women's mass-audience mag, she was fired and Newsweek reported the fall-out. It was a game changer. Soon after, in 1967, she was hired by another mass-circulation mag, The New Yorker, which had no reputation for film criticism, but a name for elitism, the kind of thing Manhattan literati became famous for. Kael's first piece for that mag was a 7,000 word defence of a movie that had been clobbered months before by a huge number of critics: Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). It set Kael's persona for The New Yorker: she was the enemy of film snobs and defender of the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the “trashy”.

Perhaps the most valuable thing about Brian Kellow's fine new book about Kael, A Life in the Dark, is that, aside from its virtues as a sympathetic, clear-eyed and sharp biography, is that it's a really fine cultural and social document of a turning point in movie history. Kellow argues that Kael could not have arrived at a better time, just when movies were identified as the 'hot' art, one linked to the wave of new thinking in sex, politics, and society ('the counter-culture,' as it's now called). This was the era of the New Hollywood and Kael was amongst the first mainstream critics who saw something special going on in pictures like M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970) The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), The Last Detail, (Hal Ashby, 1973) Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), and Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975). Today, we take for granted the eminence of films like these but read the contemporary reviews and you'll find that many critics were mystified, angry or loathing. It was also the era of disco, the disaster movie, and blockbusters like Star Wars, and Kael could be just as snooty and unoriginal over escapist fare as the critics she often derided as “out of touch”.

Kellow, in a gentle, sober, though never witless, tone recounts Kael's life and career – her roots as a westerner, the daughter of Jewish émigrés (chicken farmers in California), her bohemian youth and early life in menial work, unhappy love affairs, her unmarried single motherhood, and lengthy apprenticeship in unpaid writing and broadcasting until her arrival aged 48 at The New Yorker – and it makes for a compelling read, as both a cultural time capsule and as a portrait of a writer who emerges as both distinct and important… and troubled. Kael, it seems, indeed did have a dark side and Kellow, to his credit, does not flinch from its emptiness, and its sadness. Based on articles and letters, and interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, Kellow's book is detailed and admiring of Kael's gifts and talent; but it's no fan letter.

Kael, in both her professional dealings and personal life, emerges at times as an insecure egoist; an asexual in mid-life who rejected romantic love and developed an obsessive compulsion to control. While Kellow is respectful and delicate about her personal life, the revelations are often unpleasant and unflattering; he argues that she had a peculiarly punishing involvement with her only daughter, Gina James, by turns adoring and fraught. “My mother had tremendous empathy and compassion,” Gina told a memorial tribute audience for Kael, “though how to comfort, soothe or console was a mystery to her” – sentiments that may explain why Gina made herself unavailable as a source for Kellow. He teases out the complexity of Kael's character; she was a severe authoritarian who demanded to be paid attention and became a bit of an editorial 'powerbroker', fostering the careers of young, often male, critics (they were called snidely the Paulettes); a group that included David Dendy, Michael Sragow, Carrie Rickey and Paul Schrader, later a filmmaker who remembered her in an obituary as a “complex mentor… demanding fealty…love her too little, she attacked, love her too much, she disregarded you. It was a formula for heartbreak.”

Kellow records that Kael had a cavalier attitude to ethical standards. She palled around with directors and writers she liked – James Toback, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Philip Kaufman – only for the relationships to end hellishly if Kael found their work wanting, as she often did. (At Warren Beatty's urgings she even took up a disastrous post at Paramount as “consultant”.)

In her writing, Kael was given to coining fierce often funny epigrams – but there was always a deep suspicion amongst both her fans and enemies that the thinking was shallow, the arguments meretricious: “Trash has given us an appetite for art,” she once wrote in a famous essay. Schrader, a splendid scholar in his own right, now believes she was wrong (and Kael admitted late in life that she never anticipated that there would so much “Hollywood trash”.)

Kael was an expert contrarian who delighted in taking a position, with the resulting public argument bringing her into the limelight. Case in point: Was the ignominious dust-up over her 1971 essay on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, 'Raising Kane', intended to restore the reputation of the film's co-writer Herman Mankiewicz and strike a blow against the new ascendency of auteurism as a critical standard? Kellow reveals that Kael not only used an obscure academic's research without credit as the basis for the piece but her argument that the screenwriter was the true 'author' of Kane was founded on unreliable 'facts'; privately she grieved over her error. Typically, she never apologised or admitted fault (and the piece remains uncorrected in its current published form).

Indeed, Kael had, like most critics, blind spots: docs and the avant-garde bored her, and her enthusiasm for foreign cinema was mercurial. She was not particularly sensitive to the delicate challenge of trying to create a portrait of the film in purely cinematic terms. She was for many, a “great social psychologist”, as one friend remarks here, which made her, as Schickel says, a great critic for people who did not much like movies.

Today, Kael, it strikes me, seems an unfashionable figure. What would she make of the bloggersphere and all the fan boys and girls and their cheerful disdain for many of the standards she held dear? Like the elegant construction of a sentence and the passionate exaltation of what a movie meant in ways deeper than celebrity (or notoriety), for that matter?

That's finally what makes Kellow's book essential and Kael's work meaningful: she never took words or movies for granted. They mattered to her. It was passion. Like it or not, only the best writers dig in deep that way. Kael always did.

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow is published by Viking and is available now.

Pauline On:

Critics and Criticism…
“I don't trust critics who say they care only for the highest and the best…it's an inhuman position, and I don't believe them. I think it's simply their method of exalting themselves.”
- 1971

Pauline Loves…

Bonnie and Clyde
“It has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours – not an art we learned over the years to appreciate, but simply and immediately ours.” - 1967

M*A*S*H
“…This movie heals a breach in American movies; it's hip but not hopeless.” - 1970

McCabe and Mrs Miller
“Will a large enough American public accept movies that are delicate and understated and searching – movies that don't resolve all the feelings they touch…” - 1971

Last Tango in Paris
Kael thought it an artistic landmark as shattering as Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring': “…it has the same kind of hypnotic excitement… the same primitive force, the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism. The movie breakthrough has finally come.” - 1972

Mean Streets
“…a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking… it has a high-charged emotional range that is dizzyingly sensual.” - 1973

Pauline Hates…

The Sound of Music and The Singing Nun
“…the shoddy falseness of The Singing Nun and the luxuriant falseness of The Sound of Music are part of the sentimental American tone that makes honest work impossible.” - 1966

A Clockwork Orange
“I can't accept that Kubrick is merely reflecting this post-assassination, post-Manson mood. I think he digs it… Is there anything sadder – and ultimately more repellant – than a clean-minded pornographer?” - 1971

Dirty Harry
“A right-wing fantasy.” - 1971

Star Wars
“The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, and the relentless pacing drive every idea out of your head, and even if you've been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension — a sense of wonder, perhaps. It's an epic without a dream.” - 1977

Ordinary People, Academy Award Best Picture for 1980
“It's earnest, it means to improve people and it lasts a lifetime.” - 1980

Top Gun
Top Gun is a recruiting poster that isn't concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.” - 1986

Rain Man
“Wet kitsch…Tom Cruise knowing that a camera is on him produces nothing but fraudulence.” - 1988

Dances with Wolves
“Kevin Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head. The Indians should have called him 'Plays with Camera." - 1990

On retirement in February 1991
She told the New York Times that no one ought to feel sorry for her after all since she would never have to review another Oliver Stone film.

American Beauty, Academy Award Best Picture for 1999
“Can't educated liberals see that a movie like [that] sucks up to them at every plot turn?”
- In interview