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The Perils of Pauline

When the Lights Go Down

by Pauline Kael
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 592 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The job of the regular daily, weekly, or even monthly critic resembles the work of the serious intermittent critic, who writes only when he is asked to or genuinely moved to, in limited ways and for only a limited period of time. Occasionally, a particularly rich period in one of the arts coincides with a prolific time in the life of a major critic; or a major critic—Edmund Wilson, Harold Rosenberg—takes over a weekly column and uses it as the occasion for an essay. After a time, however, even Edmund Wilson no longer wrote frequently and regularly about books. He also wrote, all his life, on other subjects. Harold Rosenberg wrote continuously on subjects other than painting. Normally, no art can support for long the play of a major intelligence, working flat out, on a quotidian basis. No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth.

At most publications, staff critics are cast up from elsewhere in the journalistic ranks—the copy desk, for instance, or regular reporting. What they provide is a necessary consumer service, which consists essentially of three parts: a notice that the work exists, and where it can be bought, found, or attended; a set of adjectives appearing to set forth an opinion of some sort, but amounting really to a yes vote or a no vote; and a somewhat nonjudgmental, factual description or account, which is usually inferior by any journalistic standard to reporting in all other sections of the paper. On the basis of these columns, the reader gets his information and, if he is an art consumer, forms his own judgment and makes his choice.

Serious publications, however, tend from time to time to hire talented people, educated, usually young, devoted to the craft of criticism, at least as it entails fidelity to an art and to a text under review. What usually happens is that such a critic writes for some time at his, highest level: reporting and characterizing accurately; incorporating in whatever is judgmental evidence for what he’s saying (a sign of integrity in a critic, as opposed to an opinion monger, is that he tries for evidence; in reviewing prose forms, for example, he will quote); and producing insights, and allusions, which, if they are not downright brilliant, are apposite. What happens after a longer time is that he settles down.

The consumer service remains the professional basis for the staff reviewer’s job; fidelity, evidence, and so forth are still the measures of his value, but the high critical edge becomes misplaced, disproportionate when applied to most ordinary work. The staff critic is nonetheless obliged, and paid, to do more than simply mark time between rich periods and occasional masterpieces. The simple truth—this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable—is not a day’s work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale. A few critics, writing quietly and well, bring something extra into their work. Arlene Croce, a fine ability to describe. John Russell, a piece of education in art history. Hilton Kramer, something in the realm of ideas. A few others bring a consistent personal voice, a sort of chat whose underlying proposition is: this is what happened in my field today; here’s what I have to say about it; draw what conclusions you will, on the basis of your familiarity by now with my style, my quality of mind, and the range of my association, in short with who I am. Some staff critics quit and choose to work flat out again, on other interests and in intermittent pieces. By far the most common tendency, however, is to stay put and simply to inflate, to pretend that each day’s text is after all a crisis—the most, first, best, worst, finest, meanest, deepest, etc.—to take on, since we are dealing in superlatives, one of the first, most unmistakable marks of the hack.

Movies seem to invite particularly broad critical discussion: to begin with, alone among the arts, they count as their audience, their art consumer, everyone. (Television, in this respect, is clearly not an art but an appliance, through which reviewable material is sometimes played.) The staff movie critic’s job thus tends to have less in common with the art, or book, or theater critic’s, whose audiences are relatively specialized and discrete, than with the work of the political columnist—writing, that is, of daily events in the public domain, in which almost everyone’s interest is to some degree engaged, and about which everyone seems inclined to have a view. Film reviewing has always had an ingredient of reportage. Since the Forties, The New York Times has reviewed almost every movie that opened in New York1—as it would not consider reviewing every book, exhibit, or other cultural event, or even every account filed from the UN or City Hall. For a long time it seemed conceivable that movies could sustain, if not a great critic, at least a distinguished commentator-critic, on the order, say, of Robert Warshow, with the frequency of Walter Lippmann. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, it seemed likely that such a critic might be Pauline Kael.

Writing freelance, but most often in Partisan Review, Ms. Kael seemed to approach movies with an energy and a good sense that were unmatched at the time in film criticism. In France, young people were emerging from the archives of the Cinémathèque to write reverently for film publications and, later, to make the films that became the nouvelle vague. Here, movie critics were so much the financial and spiritual creatures of the industry that, in 1962, Judith Crist was counted new and brave for having a few reservations about Cleopatra. Magazines had staff movie critics; but no one paid much attention to them. Newspaper movie critics were, in general, writers of extended blurbs for high-budget films. Out in San Francisco, though, there was this person, writing as frequently as she could manage to sell pieces. In 1965, a book appeared, something mildly off in the coarse single entendu of its title, I Lost It At the Movies, but, as a collection of movie reviews, interesting. Ms. Kael continued to write, freelance. One began to look forward, particularly if one had already read a lot about a picture, to reading what Pauline Kael had to say.

Then, briefly at McCall’s (where, braver even than Ms. Crist, she panned The Sound of Music) and, beginning in 1968, at The New Yorker, Ms. Kael acquired a staff critic’s job and a strong institutional base. Nothing could be clearer—the case of John Simon comes to mind at once—than that such a change is by no means always fortunate. A voice that may have seemed, sometimes, true and iconoclastic when it was outside can become, with institutional support, vain, overbearing, foolish, hysterical. Instead of the quiet authority of the this-is-who-I-am, and here’s-what-I-have-to-say, there is the somewhat violent spectacle of a minor celebrity in frenzy, weirdly intent on what he is going to “do to” whatever passes for his weekly text. For a year or two, Ms. Kael, however, continued to write fine pieces. If there were many weeks when she seemed far from at her best, nothing could be more natural; no writer is always at his best. She tended to write rather too long for what she had to say each week, and there was something overwrought in her tone. Here, of course, there was a difference from a serious intermittent critic—whose tone and length reflect, not the rote pressures of a deadline, but a real pitch and interval of thought. For some time, however, the effect was only this: one could not look forward, always and to the same degree, to reading what Ms. Kael had to say.

Then there began to be quirks, mannerisms, in particular a certain compulsive and joyless naughtiness. Not just conscious, heavy allusions of the sort that recurred in her titles, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Deeper Into Movies, etc., but an undercurrent of irrelevant, apparently inadvertent sexual revelation. It seemed that editing, especially New Yorker editing, would have caught this tendency at its most awkward and repetitive. It was possible that precisely the columns most nearly out of all control were episodes in a struggle against The New Yorker‘s constraints—not always an unworthy struggle. But there was also, in relation to filmmaking itself, an increasingly strident knowingness: whatever else you may think about her work, each column seemed more hectoringly to claim, she certainly does know about movies. And often, when the point appeared most knowing, it was factually false. Ms. Kael, for instance, berated George Roy Hill, at length and in particularly scornful, savvy terms, for having recorded the outdoor sequences of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid indoors, in a studio. As it happens, Mr. Hill had insisted on recording outdoors, at great expense and over heavy objections from the studio, which had predicted (accurately, at least as regards Ms. Kael) that no one could tell the difference.2 When informed of such errors, Ms. Kael never acknowledged or rectified them; she tended rather to drag disparaging references to the work of filmmakers about whom she had been wrong into unrelated columns ever after.

Still, there were often fine columns that could be the work of no one else. When one struck a long bad piece, or a lot of long bad pieces, one could consider them off-weeks, lapses. Moreover, as there had once been fan clubs for movie stars, and then cults of directors and auteurs, there were, by the late Sixties (as reflected even in names featured on movie marquees), cults of movie critics; a critic with a cult is a critic under peculiar stress. Ms. Kael still seemed to feel extremely strongly about most films she reviewed. Somehow, particularly in bland movie times, that seemed a kind of virtue. It hardly occurred to one that holding too many very strong opinions about matters of minor consequence might elsewhere be the virtue of hucksters and demagogues. A semblance of passion enlivened a weekly column. It was possible to think of each off-column as an exception. I, for one, continued to believe that movie criticism was probably in quite good hands with Pauline Kael.

Now, When the Lights Go Down, a collection of her reviews over the past five years, is out; and it is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture. Over the years, that is, Ms. Kael’s quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse. To the spectacle of the staff critic as celebrity in frenzy, about to “do” something “to” a text, Ms. Kael has added an entirely new style of ad hominem brutality and intimidation; the substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.

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