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The Perils of Pauline

She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials. Whether or not one shares these predilections—and whether they are in fact more than four, or only one—they do not really lend themselves to critical discussion. It turns out, however, that Ms. Kael does think of them as critical positions, and regards it as an act of courage, of moral courage, to subscribe to them. The reason one cannot simply dismiss them as de gustibus, or even as harmless aberration, is that they have become inseparable from the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists.

She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favorite words, which occur several hundred times, and often several times per page, in this book of nearly six hundred pages: “whore” (and its derivatives “whorey,” “whorish,” “whoriness”), applied in many contexts, but almost never to actual prostitution; “myth,” “emblem” (also “mythic,” “emblematic”), used with apparent intellectual intent, but without ascertainable meaning; “pop,” “comicstrip,” “trash” (“trashy”), “pulp” (“pulpy”), all used judgmentally (usually approvingly) but otherwise apparently interchangeable with “mythic”; “urban poetic,” meaning marginally more violent than “pulpy”; “soft” (pejorative); “tension,” meaning, apparently, any desirable state; “rhythm,” used often as a verb, but meaning harmony or speed; “visceral”; and “level.” These words may be used in any variant, or in alternation, or strung together in sequence—“visceral poetry of pulp,” e.g., or “mythic comic-strip level”—until they become a kind of incantation. She also likes words ending in “ized” (“vegetabilized,” “robotized,” “aestheticized,” “utilized,” “mythicized”), and a kind of slang (“twerpy,” “dopey,” “dumb,” “grungy,” “horny,” “stinky,” “drip,” “stupes,” “crud”) which amounts, in prose, to an affectation of straightforwardness.

I leave aside for the moment Ms. Kael’s incessant but special use of words many critics use a lot: “we,” “you,” “they,” “some people”; “needs,” “feel,” “know,” “ought”—as well as her two most characteristic grammatical constructions: “so/that” or “such/that,” used not as a mode of explication or comparison (as in, e.g., he was so lonely that he wept), but as an entirely new hype connective between two unrelated or unformulated thoughts; and her unprecedented use, many times per page and to new purposes, of the mock rhetorical question and the question mark.

Because what is most striking is that she has, over the years, lost any notion of the legitimate borders of polemic. Mistaking lack of civility for vitality, she now substitutes for argument a protracted, obsessional invective—what amounts to a staff cinema critics’ branch of est. Her favorite, most characteristic device of this kind is the ad personam physical (she might say, visceral) image: images, that is, of sexual conduct, deviance, impotence, masturbation; also of indigestion, elimination, excrement. I do not mean to imply that these images are frequent, or that one has to look for them. They are relentless, inexorable. “Swallowing this movie,” one finds on page 147, “is an unnatural act.” On page 151, “his way of pissing on us.” On page 153, “a little gas from undigested Antonioni.” On page 158, “these constipated flourishes.” On page 182, “as forlornly romantic as Cyrano’s plume dipped in horse manure.” On page 226, “the same brand of sanctifying horse manure.” On page 467, “a new brand of pop manure.” On page 120, “flatulent seriousness.” On page 226, “flatulent Biblical-folk John Ford film.” On page 353, “gaseous naïveté.” And elsewhere, everywhere, “flatulent,” “gaseous,” “gasbag,” “makes you feel a little queasy,” “makes you gag a little,” “just a belch from the Nixon era,” “you can’t cut through the crap in her,” “plastic turds.” Of an actress, “She’s making love to herself”; of a screenwriter, “He’s turned in on himself; he’s diddling his own talent.” “It’s tumescent filmmaking.” “Drama and politics don’t climax together.” Sometimes, one has the illusion that these oral, anal, or just physical epithets have some meaning—“Taxi Driver is a movie in heat,” for instance, or “the film is an icebag.” But then: “Coma is like a prophylactic.” One thinks, How, how is it like a prophylactic? “It’s so cleanly made.” Or a metaphor with a sadistic note which defies, precisely, physical comprehension. “The movie has had a spinal tap.”

The degree of physical sadism in Ms. Kael’s work is, so far as I know, unique in expository prose. What is remarkable, however, is how often, as a matter of technique, she imputes it. She writes, in one review, that a female character regards another female character as “a worm for squishing”; in another review, that a male character sees another male character as “a trivial whitey to be squished”; in a third review, of a female character, that “she’d crunch your heart to clean a pore”—without perhaps being aware that all the squishing and crunching attributed to characters, actors, anyone, is entirely her own idea. “You half expect her to shove that little bug away and stamp on him,” she writes, in yet another review, of Candice Bergen. 3 More in a moment about who that “you” might be; but the tactic is perfect. “You” have a violent expectation. Ms. Bergen would “shove” and “stamp on” the “little bug” (another actor). While Ms. Kael is just out there, writing it all down.

You want to wipe it off his face.” “You want to kick him.” Your “guts are squeezed.” (Guts appear a lot, in noun, verb, or adjective form: “The film’s discreet, gutted sensitivity,” for instance, “is self-sufficient.” What?) “You are caught up emotionally and flung about the room.” Thirty pages later, “we” are caught “by the throat” and “knocked about the room.” All this, of course, is standard, blurb copy. What is less usual is the attention to a specific limb or organ: the “maggot in his brain”; the filmmakers who “should stop lighting candles in their skulls; they’re burning their brains out”; the punishment in the sinuses,” “punched too often in the vocal cords,” “vocal cords…you might think…had survived a rock slide.” All right, still in the realm of the usual, routine. But then, a pure Kaelism. Having described a scene in which a character “holds her hand over a fire until it is charred and bursts,” still apparently unsatisfied, Ms. Kael adds this joke: “(Did Altman run out of marshmallows?)”

I do not mean to suggest that this style, this cast of mind, is pathological—only that it is not just idiosyncratic, either. It has become part of a pattern, an instrument to a purpose—quite remote by now from criticism or even films. Another such instrument is the mock rhetorical question, the little meditation with the question mark. In this book, there are literally thousands of them, not just of the jokey, marsh-mallow sort, above, but of every sort, in tirades and fusillades, in and outside parentheses. An apparently limitless capacity to inquire:

Could it be that he’s interiorizing his emotions, in response to Schrader’s conception of the emptiness of Jerry’s life, and doesn’t realize how little he’s putting out?
Has he been schooling himself in late Dreyer and Bresson and Rossellini, and is he trying to turn Thackeray’s picaresque entertainment into a religious exercise?
Yet can we be meant to laugh at his satisfaction with his own virulence after we’ve seen Florence Malraux’s name on the credits as assistant to the director, and remembered that Resnais is the son-in-law of André Malraux, who died a few months ago after a long illness?
(Is Cimino invoking the mythology of Hawkeye and the great chief Chingachook?)
Is it just the pompadour or is he wearing a false nose?
How can the novelist have pain in his bowels when Providence has no bowels?
Have you ever bought a statue of a pissing cupid?
Were these 435 prints processed in a sewer?
Didn’t Alda recognize that his material is like kapok?
Why doesn’t he hear her voice first…and be turned on by it? And wouldn’t he then look to see whom it belonged to? And does she know who he is when she bawls him out? And if she does wouldn’t this affect how she speaks to him? And if she doesn’t when is the moment she finds out?
Why are we getting these union speeches now? Were the outsiders directing the strike? Were the pros working out strategy? Have we been conned? Have people become so accustomed…?
Why didn’t anyone explain to him that he needn’t wear himself out with acting?
Why is Doc in an unholy alliance with the Nazi villain, Szell?
Shouldn’t the movie be about why he imagines what he does?
Who is this hitchhiker on the road of life?
Allied Artists and Bantam Books, why are you doing this?
(Is it relevant that Bertolucci’s father’s name was Attilio?)
How can you have any feeling for a man who doesn’t enjoy being in bed with Sophia Loren?
How can the Count’s arrival and his plea for a hasty marriage have any vibrations?
Why then does it offend me when I think about it?
And what is Sally doing when she holds out her arms to her husband?
Where was the director?
Does the cavalry return?
You shouldn’t risk losing thoughts like that. Has the tape recorder been stored in a safe place?
But, oh, God, why isn’t it better? Why isn’t there the daring and the exaltation that our senses fairly cry out for?

And so on. It is difficult to convey the effect of hundreds of pages of these questions. Those which have answers—Yes. No. What. I don’t know, sweetie; you’re the one that saw the movie—badger the reader, who is courteously inclined to think when addressed with question marks, into a mindless, degrading travesty of colloquy or dialectic. Others are coy, convoluted displays of erudition. Ms. Kael wants us to know, for instance, that she knows that Resnais is related to Malraux, and that Malraux is dead; also, that she knows the first name of Bertolucci’s father. Others still, addressed, like script-margin annotations, to the film itself (“Shouldn’t the movie be about why, etc.?”), are proprietary, prescriptive. Ms. Kael, having lost any notion of where the critic sits, wants to imply that she was at the story conference, that the film is somehow hers. And others still, in particular the outcries—to God, and Allied Artists and Bantam Books—are meant to demonstrate that she cares, cares more than anybody. It is over-whelmingly clear, however, from the reviews in this book, that one thing Ms. Kael has ceased to care about is films.

She hardly praises a movie any more, so much as she derides and inveighs against those who might disagree with her about it. (“Have you ever bought a statue of a pissing cupid?”) And, like the physical assaults and sneers, the mock rhetorical questions are rarely saying anything; they are simply doing something. Bullying, presuming, insulting, frightening, enlisting, intruding, dunning, rallying. The most characteristic of these questions, in its way, is the one about Alan Alda and the kapok. Had it been phrased declaratively—Alda doesn’t recognize that his material is like kapok—it would still be uninteresting; but it might raise a question of its own. How, in what sense, is it like kapok? (In the same way, perhaps, as Coma is like a prophylactic?) Or if the question had been, at least, addressed to Alda—Alda (God, Bantam Books), didn’t you recognize that your material is like kapok?—it would be clear what is being asked. I would point out, however, that the question (which permits only a yes or no) is still so framed as to compel assent: Yes, I did recognize; No, I didn’t recognize, etc. But to address the question to the reader effectively conceals what is being said (namely, nothing), and attempts to enlist him in a constituency, a knowing constituency—knowing, in this instance, about Alda’s ignorance about this nothing. The same with “Why didn’t anyone explain to him that he needn’t wear himself out with acting?” and all the other trivial, inane interrogations. They express what are not views or perceptions, but blunt devices to marshal a constituency—of readers, other reviewers, filmmakers if at all possible—which has, in turn, no views but a coerced, fearful or bemused, falling in line.

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