When the Lights Go Down
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.
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.
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.
The Lights Go Down February 5, 1981