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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Everyone's a Critic

Last Friday marked what would have been the 90th birthday of Pauline Kael, and I would be remiss if I didn't make some passing mention of the event. (Kael died in 2001; for some reason, I always remember that it was a week and a day before 9/11.) Kael was one of the five people to whom I've ever written fan letters, a selection process that meant weighing how much I'd regret it if I never told them how much I liked their work versus how devastating it would be if they sent the letter back with the spelling corrected. Kael was the one I sweated over the longest, and I finally decided that if Woody Allen was man enough to get out of bed again after her review of Stardust Memories, I could suck it up and take my chances. She actually sent me a very nice note in response, as did Robert Christgau and Janet Malcolm to the fan letters I sent them. (Carol Lay sent me a bizarre note, saying that she felt obligated to acknowledge me since I'd shown such rare, keen insight into the forces that shaped her comic book series Good Girls, then urging me not to pass her return address on to anyone. It just seemed strange, given that identify theft was not then the hot-button problem that it is today, and since there was not yet a eBay where I could have raffled her personal information off the highest bidder. I'm still waiting for Elvis Mitchell to get back to me.)

Kael remains a genuinely controversial figure, to such a degree that, almost eight years after she died and eighteen years after her retirement, there are those who would use her as an all-purpose boogeyman to invoke against whatever pisses them off about current movies. Since she was thoroughly unpredictable, an argument can be made, by those with nothing better to do, sticking her with the blame for literally anything. A few years ago, after I made cruel sport of a highly regarded writer-director in a chat room and was called out by a fan who informed that, although it was true that Kael had never reviewed any of the director's later work and had not lived to see the movie he had just released, my friend knew perfectly well that she would have hated it all, and knew that I had used my own necromantic powers divine this information myself, and so was only copying what she herself would have said if she'd ever said it. Amusingly, that same day, a veteran film writer used his own blog to air his theory that the new film by the director in question was getting rave reviews that it didn't deserve and that he suspected this was the work of--yes, the late Pauline Kael, who not only would have loved the movie if she'd lived to see it, but had infected others yet living, and with access to the Internet and to press space, with her misguided opinion.

Attacks on Kael--and "attacks" is the word, since measured, balanced criticism of her work tends to be, even at this late, thin on the ground--invariably accuse her of hyperbole, fannish, sloppy prose, anti-intellectualism, giddy hysteria, and a shameful lack of respect for movies that taste like spinach. I have my own theory that longtime Newsweek reviewer David Ansen said everything that needs to be said by way of explaining the strong negative feelings she aroused in others when he told a reporter that she was the only critic around who could make you "feel like an asshole" for disagreeing with her. (I used to read Ansen every week along with the rest of my mom's subscription copy of Newsweek for years, and as God is my witness, that's the only thing he ever wrote or said that I can remember.) In one of her first big attention-getting pieces, "Circles and Squares", Kael made Andrew Sarris look like an asshole, and then she doesn't seem to have ever mentioned him again in print--though she praised some of his work in interviews--while Sarris never let it go; I started getting The Village Voice while Kael was on sabbatical from her regular perch at The New Yorker, and I'd read a fair number of Sarris's frothing, half-crazed denunciations of her, including a cover piece that I remember as having been no more than a third the length of Gravity's Rainbow, before Kael returned to work and I finally got to see what he was denouncing. You didn't have to be in the film world long to understand that the name had power. When Michael Moore splashed down with Roger & Me, the movie had racked up a phenomenal number of raves before Harlan Jacobsen, then the editor of Film Comment, did a cover piece that laid out the factual inaccuracies and Moore's tinkering with the sequence of events. (It was tied to an interview in which Jacobsen, insisting that he still admired the film, offered Moore a chance to explain his technique and got an early dose of Moore's patented "Why do you so love our capitalist oppressors that you're trying to destroy me, the only man brave enough to speak truth to power?" routine. Daring to question Michael Moore reportedly cost Jacobsen his job.) Kael's review of Roger & Me may be as unmemorable as anything she ever wrote: she called the movie "shallow and facetious" and basically said, go read Film Comment. But when Moore felt like inviting crowds to cheer him for having been too bold and hip for the senile movie critics, he didn't settle for saying, "Did you see what Pauline Kael said Harlan Jacobsen wrote about me?"

Kael never went with the flow; she could build press excitement around a movie, and even inspire colleagues to take another look at a movie they'd written off (like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the singular masterpiece that many were quick to write off as an inert blur with a botched soundtrack), but she couldn't make hits, and she couldn't prevent movies she despised, from The Exorcist to Roger & Me itself, from becoming cultural touchstones. She had a heroic indifference to advertising and the zeitgeist and soft feelings towards people who've worked hard on some piece of shit that is on your side politically. She took every movie on its own terms and judged it accordingly--which meant that the more seriously it took itself and the grander its claims to be a work of art, the more harshly she was apt to judge it if it failed. The technical term for this is sanity, but it's the exact opposite of how most people working as critics actually think, if "thinking" is the right term.

The first book of Kael's that I ever read was When the Lights Go Down, collecting her writing for The New Yorker from late 1975 through 1979, and I first realized how important she was going to be to me while reading her review of Carrie, specifically the line, "Scary-and-funny must be the greatest combination for popular entertainment; anything-and-funny is, of course, great--even funny-and-funny." It doesn't look like much in the context of her full body of work, but at the time I was trying to figure out what art was for, and looking for clues in the worst places imaginable. The idea that comedy could aim to be funny, without the added lead weight of melodrama where Shirley MacLaine attempts suicide and Jack Lemmon stands up and Becomes a Man, and be "great", was completely out of step with all the signals I'd received from other sources, and it was bracing to have it pitched into my lap with the "No duh!" of that "of course." It made me feel the way that Richard Pryor said that reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X made him feel: in a nutshell, not crazy, after all.

An important clarifying phrase in that passage is "popular entertainment." Kael made her name promoting the best that pop movies had to offer, from the early talkies and vehicles for the Marx brothers and Astaire and Rogers to the exhilaration and audacity of the mixed tones of The Manchurian Candidate and Bonnie & Clyde. In an interview from the mid-90s with Ray Sawhill--it's the last one included in the University Press of Mississippi book Conversations with Pauline Kael--Kael said that her ideal hope for movies was to see work "with a vision." (Sawhill: "A vision that at the same time doesn't deny the popular aspect?" Kael: "That's right.") But movies weren't Kael's whole life. They weren't always even the central ingredient in her cultural diet. One thing I learned early on while out in the sticks dying of boredom is that the best way to educate yourself is to start looking for writers who seem to know something and start mining their collected works for the stuff they they think is worth calling attention to other people, even if they only mention it in passing. Kael is one of a number of writers I used early in life to compile reading lists, and the list of works and artists, apart from movies, that she helped turn me onto--writers and musicians and painters and photographers and what have you--is dizzying. I suspect that a number of the reviewers who'll never understand how she could have been blind to the greatness of so many splendid films don't know any other field half as well as they know movies, and there's probably a connection there. If it's part of your job description to think that American Beauty is a work of art, it probably helps if you don't know who Strindberg was.

Kael's great parting gift to the world to leave behind a record of her enthusiasms, which will inevitably result in the creation of new work, because it will continue to inspire people to want to experience creative work as widely and with as tough a mind and as open a heart as she did. Someone that tough-minded doesn't keep subjecting herself to Neil Simon movies over and over just because William Shawn is paying for the tickets; she had to see if something was there, and if there wasn't, she was genuinely curious about why other people thought there was. Her valedictory collection, For Keeps, the big career anthology that she put together on the theory that the full collections weren't going to stay in print forever, deliberately favors raves over put-downs, which says something about what shape she hoped her lasting impact would take. I can appreciate that, but I'd hate to live without access to her slam jobs, from "Circles and Squares" to the bite-sized eviscerations of disaster movies, The Sting, and The Day of the Dolphin that pepper my desert-island choice of all her books, Reeling, which just happens to cover a period (1972-1975) when things were popping at the movies and Kael's writing was a sustained aria of gratitude--a gratitude mixed with anger and even bitterness-- over having a place where she could weigh in on all of it.

Dim bulbs who write cultural coverage, and even dimmer bulbs who edit it, sometimes stoop to arguing that it's the critic's job to inspire interest and enthusiasm for the scene through the judicious use of hype and excess kindliness. Of course, these are the people who are turning life into a worn-out dishrag. Paradoxically, Kael inspired genuine interest and enthusiasm, not just with what Wilfrid Sheed, in reference to her legendary/notorious review of Last Tango in Paris, called her "liberating yells", but also by treating mediocrity as the lethal, poisonous scourge that it is. Of all the many established writers who have been tagged as her disciples, none of them has stayed as fierce in following her example at not letting ambitious clods and well-meaning dolts off with an encouragingly worded warning, except maybe for Armond White, and he's a fruitcake. (I say this with love.) In his terrific book Sontag & Kael, Craig Seligman suggested that Kael's reputation might settle in as one of our great eccentric, comic writer--which is fine, except that it smacks faintly of an attempt to reach out to those who've rejected her on the basis of her actual critical opinions by giving them the option of seeing them as sort of peripheral to her achievement, just as "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" can be enjoyed and howled over by people who don't think of Mark Twain as a serious literary critic. I've already ridiculed the idea that anyone could claim to know this woman's mind on anything, but here I'll make an exception and speculate that she'd have appreciated the thought. And then she'd have said, "Balls!"

On a side note, I was sad as shit to see the "Closed Forever" sign up at Newcritics, which for two and a half years served as a home away from home for such Internet folk as Tom Watson, Lance Mannion, M. A. Peel, Rick Perlstein, Maud Newton, Dennis Perrin, and other worthies. All of them can still be found elsewhere, but it was nice to be able to have a place where you might spy any one of them, and I was disheartened by the announcement that the archives will only stay "up for a bit." In his farewell address, Watson writes that "I’d gained valuable insight into online group dynamics, and ... I saw that conversation itself as a cause worth supporting. I still think it is - but it’s also clear that it will happen elsewhere. In some ways, the glory days of personal and immediate blogging have passed newcritics by; but in another sense, it’s really just part of a continued evolution in social media. The conversations I’m having on Facebook and Twitter with some of the very same people who used to hang out at newcritics are every bit as good as the ones we had at this particular web address." Could the "glory days of personal and immediate blogging" really already be a thing of the past, now that I'm just starting to get the hang of it myself? That does sound about right, but thought I'm personally as devoted to Facebook and Twitter as any shut-in, it would be a stretch to say that any exchange I've ever had via either of them counts as a "conversation", more like a hasty high-five passed between ships in the ether. It's too bad that Kael--who in the book-length final interview with Francis Davis that was published as Afterglow mentioned that these new shiny steel disc things with movies on 'em sounded interesting, but she could never remember the exact initials--was not fated to be a blogger. Ditto Henry Fairlie, about more later.


Sam said...

"Attacks on Kael--and "attacks" is the word, since measured, balanced criticism of her work tends to be, even at this late, thin on the ground--invariably accuse her of hyperbole, fannish, sloppy prose, anti-intellectualism, giddy hysteria, and a shameful lack of respect for movies that taste like spinach."

I wasn't introduced to Kael's work until I read The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick by Norman Kagan. Each film receives its own chapter and includes mention of Kael's review with a stern rebuttal by Kagan. He also refers to her influence on film criticism several times; describing her in almost Randian terms.

IA said...

Richard Brody, who recently criticized Kael in his New Yorker blog, has in turn responded to your post, by taking issue with how Kael made Sarris look like a you-know-what:

Anonymous said...

The only comments your lush Kael appreciation has inspired are frosty and apparently recriminative, so I'm mailing thanks. Beginning as a teenager who bought I LOST IT AT THE MOVIES as a trade paperback in a south Georgia restaurant, I read her for the next 35 years, a column at a time (including the McCalls interlude). Good God, what a presence she was-- her comment that Bertolucci's manifestly flawed 1900 made every other film of the time look like something you'd eat on a toothpick approximates the pleasures of reading her. I even relished her wobbles: the puzzled squibs she published on CUTTER'S WAY and BLADE RUNNER, and the comment she famously made after Anderson screened RUSHMORE for her-- essentially, she wondered what THAT was all about. Years ago, a BOSTON GLOBE reviewer offered the opinion that three journalists had made permanent impressions on American prose style: Mencken, Agee, and Kael.

Michael said...

I don't know jack about film, but I hung on every word you wrote here.

You are a god, sir.

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