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The Perils of Pauline

I do not mean for a moment to imply that every Kael review is in the vituperative or inquisitional mode. There are meditations of all kinds and, quite often, broad cultural allusions:

The images are simplified, down to their dramatic components, like the diagrams of great artists’ compositions in painting texts, and this, plus the faintly psychedelic Romanesque color, creates a pungent viselike atmosphere.

A word heap, surely. The quality of observation may be characteristic of people who insist that films be discussed in visual terms. I am not certain that Ms. Kael has a clear idea what a “Romanesque color” might be, particularly in the “faintly psychedelic” spectrum, and even in the most “pungent, viselike atmosphere”; but I’d like to stay for a moment, in two simpler sentences, with the visual, the cinematic eye. On page 398, there is an “upper lip pulling back in a snarl” to reveal “yellow teeth like a crumbling mountain range.” On 436, on the other hand, there are “jagged lower teeth that suggest a serpent about to snap.” Now, the vision, it’s true, is consistent. But surely the mouths are peculiarly observed, or both the mountain range and the serpent are upside down.

There are allusions as well to literature. Ms. Kael likes to mention Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare’s fools. “It’s like a classic passage in Tolstoy,” she writes, and before one can wonder Really? Which? she has dropped the subject. “We’re given the components of a novel at a glance,” she writes elsewhere, and fortunately drops that too. But then:

It’s true that one remembers the great scenes from the nineteenth-century Russian novels, not the passages in between; but…there’s a consistency of vision in Turgenev or Dostoevski or Tolstoy.

One pauses. Can it be that there is actually a thought coming? Yes. It’s this:

We’re told what we want to know.

I’ll spare you further references to literature and Tolstoy. I’ll skip most of the recurrent, indescribable reflections on “art” and “artists.” (“When artists are raging, straining to express themselves,” or “If De Palma were an artist in another medium.”) Their intellectual content ranges from “An artist can draw a lot of energy from obsessive material” (unarguable, certainly, and not carried further) to this baffling Kaelism: “They are not plagued by the problem of bourgeois artists. They have loose foreskins.” Historically, it is hard to know what to make of the little italicized eureka in “Truffaut is romantic and ironic”; “romantic irony” occurs so early and often in any liberal education. But even in the cultural province she claims most confidently as her own Ms. Kael can go puzzlingly astray. When she calls King Kong “marvelous Classics-comics,” for instance, it seems almost pedantic to recall that Classics Comics were, in fact, condensations of classic books, the Bible, say, or her beloved Tolstoy, not at all the genre which she seems to have in mind. As for allusions to racial or social developments, they tend to take a jokey form. “He’s an equal opportunity fornicator.”

There are also, however, ruminations of the highest order:

For those who are infatuated with what they loathe the battle with themselves never stops.

Too true. Several reviews later:

And when your slavemaster is your father and he wants to kill you for your defiance that defiance must kill everything you’ve ever known.

Perhaps less true.

I’d like to say here that I didn’t expect to find this, and I wasn’t looking for it. I now think that no one has looked at the meaning of these sentences, or at their intellectual quality, in many years. I have also postponed, in some ways I would rather have avoided, Ms. Kael’s critical characterizations of specific performers and specific films. These are always largely matters of personal taste. In addition, the mere mention these days of a specific movie can distract moviegoers, with the sheer vehemence of widely held opinions, from what is actually being said, and by what methods and techniques. That situation is only partially a result of Ms. Kael’s efforts. Most writing about films now contains a degree of overstatement, meaninglessness, obfuscation. I won’t dwell on the advocacy, if that is the word, of Peckinpah, De Palma, Coppola, but turn to very quiet ground:

In repose, Lily Tomlin looks like a wistful pony; when she grins, her equine gums and long, drawn face suggest a friendly, goofy horse.

I’m not sure this is an insight worth restating, or amplifying, three times in a single sentence (“pony,” “equine,” “horse”). I am quite sure it is not an insight, it is wrong, to write of the characters in The Deer Hunter that “they’re the American cousins of hobbits.” Then.

[George C.] Scott has to be dominating or he’s nothing.< />

It’s hard to know what to respond—except Petulia. Maybe Ms. Kael thought he was “nothing” in that film. Certainly, he was not “dominating” in it. Or:

In Nashville, Keith Carradine’s voice insinuates itself; that tremolo makes it seem as if he were singing just to you.

This, I submit, is no longer a matter of doubt. The whole point of what was probably the most beautifully thought out and acted scene in Nashville (and perhaps in any movie since) was that Carradine could have been singing to nobody but Lily Tomlin. Each of the female characters who mistakenly believed that he was singing to her—not, however, because of any tremolo, but because he had slept with her—was portrayed as smugly but touchingly obtuse. Each soon recognized that he was singing to somebody else—again, not on the basis of his tremolo but from the direction of his stare.[^4] About Coming Home:

Later, we watch her face during her orgasm with Luke; this scene is the dramatic center of the movie. The question in the viewer’s mind is, What will she feel when her husband comes home and they go to bed? Will she respond, and if she does, how will he react?

No one, I think, would disagree with Ms. Kael that the scene is the dramatic center of the movie; but it seems just as clear that one question that is not in the viewer’s mind is the one (or the two) Ms. Kael suggests. The question, if any, is another one, which has persisted almost from the movie’s start, and which Ms. Kael would have seemed uniquely designed, by temperament, to spot: what is it that Luke, the paraplegic, does in making love? This essentially clinical question is one that the movie deliberately suggests and then, I believe, dishonestly blurs throughout. Be that as it may, I don’t think a viewer in the world has in mind in that scene the question Ms. Kael ascribes to him. I happen not to have liked the movie, either. But, given the physical circumstances, I don’t think even Ms. Kael could have taken a cheaper shot, or one less apposite, than the last line of her review: “Are liberals really such great lovers?”

Let’s leave all that. Let’s leave her unusually many uses of the form “so/that,” “such/that”—from “so haughty that her name should be ‘Anastasia,’ ” “so endearing…that he should be billed as Richard ‘Cuddles’ Dreyfuss,” “so grasping that the film should be called “Tentacles,’ ” through this sort of meander-hype connective:

so eerily sensitive that your mind may easily drift to the terrible (true) accounts of how people on the street sometimes laughed at Virginia Woolf.
so lusciously, ripely beautiful in her peach-blond wig that her trained, accomplished acting suggests an intelligent form of self-respect.

Let’s leave aside her humor: “you feel she needs a derrick to lift her lids”; “each repositioning of her features requires the services of a derrick”; “you fight to keep your eyes open”; “people were fighting to stay awake”; “but after a while I was gripping the arms of my chair to stay awake”; “the audience was snoring”; “the only honest sound I heard…was the snoring in the row behind me,” etc. Let’s leave even her favorite deep/surface dichotomy, or paradox, or whatever she thinks it is: a director, “deep on the surface”; a film, “deep on the surface”; “deep without much surface excitement”; “rough on the surface but slick underneath.” Let’s leave aside, in short, all the relatively harmless mannerisms and devices.

A more important, related stratagem recurs constantly in her work, and by no means in hers alone. I don’t know how to characterize it, except as the hack carom—taking, that is, something from within the film and, with an air of intellectual triumph, turning it pointlessly against the film or a performer. “Gere looks like Robert De Niro without the mole on his cheek,” for instance, “but there’s more than that missing.” More than the mole. About a scene with a burning candle, “someone should have taken a lighted wick to [the scenarist’s] ideas.” About an actor’s expression within a role, “his face is stricken with grief and humiliation; that should be [his] face for what [the writer and director] do to him.” About a scene of begging for absolution, that the writer and director “ought to be the ones kneeling in penance.” Ms. Kael revels in this sort of thing. The only reason the device has any significance is the unpleasant, even punitive overtone—the notion that a film or a performer is not merely undistinguished, or unimportant, or untalented, but actually guilty of something. The image of filmmakers penitent is particularly congenial to her work. She speaks often, in this carom mode, of being “betrayed” and of what she (or “we”) can or cannot “forgive.” (“A viewer could probably forgive everything that went wrong”; “the script seems like a betrayal, of them, and of us.”)

Films and performers may be guilty. They may or may not be absolved. Audiences are also at risk. People who do not share, for example, her infatuation with the more extreme forms of violence are characterized as “repressive,” “acting out of fear, masked as taste,” “turned philistine,” “trying to protect themselves from their own violence,” “surely with terror and prurient churnings underneath?” “What may be behind all this,” she actually writes at one point, “is repression of the race issue.” An occasional film may be forgiven (really) as “not the sort of failure you write an artist off for.” But those fearful, repressive, philistine, secretly violent, racist, prurient people in the audience are not going to be forgiven until they come around.

Which brings me to the “we,” “you,” “they,” “some people”; “needs,” “feel,” “know,” “ought”—also to a structural mechanism I have seen in no other writer’s work. The structural mechanism first. Although it is true that Ms. Kael can hardly resist a restatement, or a repetition, or a meaningless amplification (“ditsey little twitches,” “ruthless no soul monsters”; “incomprehensible bitch,” “obnoxious smartass”); although she seems at times to have a form of prose hypochondria, palpating herself all over to see if she has a thought, and publishing every word of the process by which she checks to see whether or not she has one; it is also, equally, true that she can hardly resist any form of hyperbole, superlative, exaggeration (“poisonously mediocre,” “wickedest baroque sensibility at large in America”).

These predispositions—to restate and to overstate—make it all the more curious structurally that Ms. Kael withholds until the sixth long paragraph of one review the words “it’s Jack Nicholson’s best performance”; to the middle of the third paragraph of another the claim that Sophia Loren “has never looked more richly beautiful or given such a completely controlled great-lady performance”; to late in the fourth paragraph of yet another that Laurence Olivier “has the power to find something he’s never done before, in any role”; and to so unobtrusive a place in yet a fourth review that I could hardly find it when I looked for it again, the word that Paul Newman gives “the performance of his life—to date.” Now, it’s true, as I’ve said, that Ms. Kael rarely spares us an afterthought, or a forethought. But the structural reason for reserving these superlatives until so late in a piece becomes clear from the last example. Paul Newman’s performance of his life—to date” was in Slap Shot. A film directed by George Roy Hill. What is operating here is the structure of spite.

We” and “you” can occur, of course, in any writer’s work, in moderation. For the first two hundred pages, it seems that Ms. Kael means a sort of scolding nanny “we,” or a flirting schoolmarm’s, or a nondirective therapist’s, or a tour guide’s, or a prison matron’s. Consistent with the nanny, miffed, are remarks like, “She consented, but I was offended for her,” “I can’t help feeling that the audience is being insulted, although the audience doesn’t think so.” Also the repeated threats of what will happen “if” an actor, or a director, or a film “doesn’t pull” him or itself “together.” But then, there is something so pervasive and remorseless in that “we”—“we want,” “we resent,” “we feel,” “we’re desperate for,” “we don’t know how to react,” “we know too well what we’re supposed to feel,” “we want it, just as we wanted,” “we all know“—that the “we” becomes a bandwagon, a kangaroo court, a gang, an elite, a congregation, which readers had better join, or else be consigned to that poor group of deviants, sissies, aesthetic and moral idiots who comprise “some people,” “many people,” “a lot of people,” “those people,” “they.”

You,” normally, is the individuated “we.” “You may wonder, Are these boys being naughty because they’re old enough not to be?” “You feel that some of your brain cells are being knocked out.” “You want the director to stop all the nonsense.” Sometimes, the “you” seems the subject of a hypnotist: “You feel that you understand everything that’s going on.” “You don’t feel embarrassed by anything that Clint Eastwood does.” But “you” is most often Ms. Kael’s “I,” or a member or prospective member of her “we.” As for “feel,” “needs,” and “know,” Ms. Kael uses “feel” variously, but most fervently in the emotional sense. She has, however, an odd view of what “emotion” is: “the one basic emotion he needs to show—sexual avidity.” So I’m not always certain what she means by “feel.” “Needs”: sometimes it’s used in an almost culinary way. “He needs a little Terry Southern in his soul.” “Jimmy needs to be an exciting, violent, emotional man…the pianist/gangster split as a heightened, neurotic metaphor for Everyman—a Dostoevskian Everyman.” “Know”: a film “doesn’t seem to know that that’s its theme”; a director “doesn’t seem to know what actors are for”; but “we all know” quite a lot of things; and “James Mason knows. God, does he know.” “Know” also often goes with the culinary “needs”; “The film doesn’t seem to know that it needs a little playful sado-masochistic chemistry.” I think I’ll just skip “ought.”

Ms. Kael’s work has been praised as “great…a body of criticism which can be compared with Shaw’s” (Times Literary Supplement). She has won a National Book Award. So far as I know, apart from a personal statement by Andrew Sarris, which appeared in The Village Voice as this piece was going to press, the book has received uniformly favorable reviews. The New Republic describes it as consisting of “all peaks and no valleys.” None of this is Ms. Kael’s fault. It is only symptomatic. The pervasive, overbearing, and presumptuous “we,” the intrusive “you,” the questions, the debased note of righteousness and rude instruction—the whole verbal apparatus promotes, and relies upon, an incapacity to read. The writing falls somewhere between huckster copy (paeans to the favored product, diatribes against all other brands and their venal or deluded purchasers) and ideological pamphleteering: denouncings, exhortations, code words, excommunications, programs, threats. Apart from the taste for violence, however, which she takes to be a hard, intellectual position, there is no underlying text or theory. Only the review, virtually divorced from movies, as its own end:

If there is one immutable law about movies it may be that middle-class people get hot and bothered whenever there’s a movie that the underclass really responds to.

No matter that the sentence is clearly false. (Think of Shaft, for instance.) No matter even that “one immutable law” manages wonderfully to combine Kaeline authoritarianism with Kaeline hype. The sentence is plainly inconsistent with what Ms. Kael writes elsewhere—when it is the elitist mode that suits her: the “mass audience” she derides frequently; the audience she “couldn’t help feeling…was being insulted, although the audience doesn’t think so”; the “many people,” of whom she writes, in yet another piece, who “resist quality” because “they’re afraid of being outclassed.” All that the one immutable law about movies amounts to is that Ms. Kael will not brook disagreement. Personally. And not just with her enthusiasms—which might be a form of generosity in a critic. Also, more vehemently, with her revenges and dislikes. “Did these people stand up and cheer to get their circulation going again?” she writes of even the smallest film she fears might become a hit. She likes to ban.

Three last quotations, as another kind of symptom:

It’s quite possible that [he]…wasn’t fully conscious that in several sequences he was coming mortifyingly close to plagiarism.
It’s as crude as if [he] had said, “Things were really bad in Berlin in ‘23,” and, asked “How bad?,” he had replied, “They were so bad even a black man couldn’t get it up.”
(Paul Schrader may like the idea of prostituting himself more than he likes making movies.)…. For Schrader to call himself a whore would be vanity: he doesn’t know how to turn a trick.

Now, it doesn’t matter whom these quotations are “about”—although the middle one concerns Ingmar Bergman. They are not “about” anything. Each marks a kind of breakthrough in vulgarity and unfairness. Look at the “It’s quite possible” in the first, and the “mortifyingly.” Look at the “as if” in the second, and the “even.” Consider the parenthesis in the third, and the “would be.” All three involve a perfectly groundless imputation to another (plagiarism, racism, corruption) and a pious personal recoil (mortifyingly, crude, vain). The strategy is characteristic of Ms. Kael’s work. I can hardly imagine a reader who would sit through another line.

Cumulatively and in book form, these reviews have an effect different from anything that was even intimated on a weekly or desultory basis. It occurred to me when I had read a few hundred pages that the book assumes an audience composed partly of people who know nothing about the movies, and partly of people who read only film reviews. Accept the claim that she cares, and/or remember that it’s only a movie; and there’s no need to pay attention to the rest. But what I think has happened is this: an extreme case of what can go wrong with a staff critic. Prose events that would, under ordinary circumstances and on any subject other than movies, have been regarded as lapses—the sadism, slurs, inaccuracies, banalities, intrusions—came to be regarded as Ms. Kael’s strong suit. Ms. Kael grew proud of them. Her cult got hooked on them. Readers generally skipped over them. There was always the impression, unfounded but widely held (I held it), of liveliness. And it was not clear how radical an imposition each mannerism and device would become when the reviews appeared weekly, and with a strong institutional base.

The New Yorker, as it happens, is an institution of unique civility and patience, dedicated absolutely, although it may not always look that way, to leaving writers free to write what, and at what length, they choose. In recent years, it was having insuperable problems with its other movie critic. Editors of weekly magazines, moreover, work—no less than staff critics—under the pressures of a deadline. The result is that, of practical though not spiritual necessity, staff critics have special institutional support. The New Yorker could not devote its energies, every week, to a bitter struggle over movie columns—which, incidentally, were growing so long that other pieces, on which serious intermittent writers had worked for years, were being overwhelmed. With intermittent writers, when there is a disagreement, a piece can always be postponed. In this way, of course, editors can exert strong, legitimate pressure. (It may be your piece; but it’s their magazine.) With a staff critic, that mild form of blackmail is reversed. Editors cannot, professionally, often postpone a weekly piece. So The New Yorker had either to fire Ms. Kael (which would, for many reasons, including the problems with the other critic, have been a mistake; anyway, The New Yorker doesn’t fire people) or accommodate her work. The conditions of unique courtesy, literacy, and civility, of course, were what Ms. Kael was most inclined by temperament to test. The excesses got worse.

Then an odd thing happened: Ms. Kael went out to Hollywood. For a critic preoccupied with metaphors for selling out, this seemed an extraordinary move. (The New York Times, for instance, is so acutely aware of the possibilities for conflict of interest in film reviewing that it forbids its critic to write screenplays.) When Ms. Kael returned from Hollywood, I, among others, felt strongly that The New Yorker should take her back. I hadn’t read this collection. She was the critic people knew and talked about. I believed she was lively and that she cared. Anyway, in her absence, it had become clear that nobody else at The New Yorker wanted to be the staff movie critic. She did come back.

She writes as she has written these past five years, but at least her column is no longer weekly. Criticism will get over it. Once the tone and the ante, however, have been pumped up to this awful frenzy, it becomes hard—even in reviewing Ms. Kael’s work—to write in any other way; or, in the typographic clamor, to detect and follow a genuine critical argument. What really is at stake is not movies at all, but prose and the relation between writers and readers. It is difficult, with these reviews, to account for, or even look at, what is right there on the page.

Letters

The Lights Go Down February 5, 1981

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