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The Lights Go Down

In response to:

The Perils of Pauline from the August 14, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Putting aside the question of how considered, fair, valid, tasteful, or even important the film criticism of Pauline Kael may now be, as it is represented by When the Lights Go Down, Renata Adler’s review [NYR, August 14] seems almost as good an example of disingenuousness as any she claims for Kael.

After reeling through pages of phrases ripped—with commendable assiduity—from the context and rhythms of the reviews under discussion, one arrives at summary statements that rival Kael’s reported excesses for spite, their tone of disappointed generosity notwithstanding. What else is one to think of Adler’s observation that Kael assumes an audience of film-ignorants for her writing. Or that The New Yorker, an “institution of unique civility and patience,” never fires staff writers and, besides, no one else [at The New Yorker] want[ed] Kael’s job anyway. As to her claim that the unwarranted length of Kael’s New Yorker pieces has led to the “overwhelming” of those by “serious intermittent writers,” that phenomenon is hardly limited to The New Yorker though Adler has, apparently, escaped it.

Writing of Kael’s cruder sorties, Adler can “hardly imagine a reader who would sit through another line.” Moral passion aside, it’s an easy syntactic switch to turn this into the kind of presumptuous rhetoric for which she attacks Kael. Much of Adler’s prose is surprisingly convoluted, considering that she writes of style here. But one may not balk. After surviving the “awful frenzy” of When the Lights Go Down, Adler writes, “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 statement.” What a shameless disclaimer!

Adler’s bestowing of a benediction on the dance critic Arlene Croce for her “ability to describe” is, by the way, enough of a puzzler to cast doubt on her critical judgment. No one familiar enough with Croce’s work and the dances about which she writes to be entitled to such pronouncements, well-deserved though praise may be, could find her essays outstandingly descriptive nor, blessedly, has that ever seemed Croce’s intention.

Kael may not be the critic she once was. But the shrill, almost parodic tone of Adler’s review is far from the consideration of critical “prose and the relation between writers and readers” hinted at in the review. Too bad Adler’s essay did not yield the kind of substantial argument one might have expected given, particularly, its length, the kind of measured reflections that would have provoked more than a literary fracas to liven up the summer.

Jennifer Dunning
New York City

To the Editors:

I wonder if you will allow me, as a long-time, steadfast, and very often admiring reader of the NYR, but with no other claim to your attention, to express my unhappiness with a piece in your August 14 issue, Renata Adler’s “review” of Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down. Outside the pages devoted to politics (which don’t count), you have never published—or so I suppose, anyway: I missed the first issue—a diatribe of such labored vehemence and such protracted length. I say “labored” because there is so very little energy, spirit, or wit in Ms. Adler’s remarks. And not only is her swing feeble, her hatchet nearly always falls a little off-target; perhaps because her arm is weakened and her aim deflected by some qualms and scruples, not explicitly avowed but apparent enough throughout and summed up in that curious, that very curious, last sentence: “It is difficult, with these reviews, to account for, or even look at, what is right there on the page.” I take it that this is not only a confession, it is also an excuse. The question is, how much misrepresentation can it excuse?

Misrepresentation is not too strong a word. There is one paragraph in Ms. Adler’s six pages in which her statements can be checked, and checked with some point—her others are all either of a general nature or consist of quotations from the book made for the purpose of offering a dissenting opinion. I mean the paragraph beginning near the top of the middle column on p. 34. I quote it in full, so as not to leave any of those little rows of dots (which always arouse the suspicion that the quoter may have dropped some important qualifying phrase):

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.

When we turn to the book itself to check these points, we are amazed…or, anyway, puzzled…to discover that Kael’s appraisal of Paul Newman’s performance appears in the second paragraph of her review of Slap Shot (p. 274ff), and that it precedes another four paragraphs of description, commentary, and praise of the actor. In other words, it appears near the beginning; so, even if Kael doesn’t like the movies of George Roy Hill, how can this “last example” make clear “the structural reason for reserving these superlatives until so late in a piece”? But this is not a solitary lapse on Ms. Adler’s part. There is more—for if we check the reference to Jack Nicholson, we find that what we have in our hands is a favorable review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (p. 84ff), and that the line Adler quotes is the conclusion, the summing up, of two long paragraphs of (again) description, commentary and praise of that actor’s performance. So how can Ms. Adler claim that “the structure of spite” is “operating here”? As for Kael’s complimentary remarks on Sophia Loren coming so late as—just think of it!—the third paragraph of her review of A Special Day (pp. 310-312), I suppose that the natural and obvious response is, So What? Does a critic’s judgment of the acting in a film have to take precedence over everything else? Does his or her praise or condemnation of an actor have to appear in the first or second paragraph? Was this Ms. Adler’s practice when she was reviewing films for the Times? And, if so, for God’s sake, why? But we still have the reference to Laurence Olivier to check. Doing so, we find that it is true that the phrase Ms. Adler quotes appears in the fourth paragraph of the review of The Boys from Brazil (p. 451ff) but that it is also true that Kael begins praising Olivier, and very lavishly, in—Ms. Adler should have liked this—the first paragraph of that review. Why doesn’t Adler mention this? For that matter, why doesn’t she mention that she found that almost-impossible-to-locate praise of Newman in the second paragraph of the relevant review. This is misrepresentation; and it is, it has to be, deliberate misrepresentation, unavoidably calling into question the truth and honesty of the entire essay.

Renata Adler should be ashamed; not only of the above but especially, I think, of her rather oblique suggestion that Kael was Selling Out when she left The New Yorker to try her hand at producing movies. Every accusation of this sort has the effect, if only momentarily, of paralyzing the critical faculties, not only of the accused but even of innocent bystanders; but once we come to examine this one, what does it amount to? One can see that The New York Times has a point in not allowing its film critic, while engaged as such, to write screenplays…but what has this to do with Kael’s situation? She didn’t work in movies during the ten or eleven years in which she was employed by the magazine, but only after she had left it and had put criticism aside. I gather that this venture did not turn out well for her but that is morally irrevelant. There is nothing obviously disgraceful or dishonorable in the decision itself…and much, I suspect, that is admirable. She has praised Laurence Olivier for his readiness to take risks, his willingness to appear foolish, and has criticized others (I seem to remember) for not being quite so ready or so willing. It may be that Pauline Kael actually believes in practicing what she preaches.

One needn’t lay claim to any preternatural shrewdness to see that what lies behind Ms. Adler’s (can it really be?) 8,000 words is Kael’s disturbing essay, “Fear of Movies,” and perhaps also her recent criticisms made in speeches on the West Coast, and I suppose elsewhere, of the crippling gentility of some of the staff of The New Yorker and, by implication, much of its audience. It was in the cards that someone somehow connected with the magazine should reply…and what better choice for that Someone than Renata Adler? I like The New Yorker—I have been reading it even longer than I have the NYR—and I am made uneasy by some of Kael’s criticisms; but, nevertheless, the tone and temper of Ms. Adler’s Reply—the forced, the fudged, quality of some of her criticisms, as demonstrated above; her preoccupation with what she sees as the excessive violence of diction and opinion in Kael, and which she exaggerates both by direct statement and by too-selective quotation; and her nervous shrinking from the very pages of the book she is reviewing […] would seems to confirm the accuracy of Kael’s diagnosis.

Arthur J. Cox
Hollywood, California

To the Editors:

I am writing to protest in the strongest possible terms your decision to publish Renata Adler’s depressing, vengeful, ceaseless tirade against that brilliant critic Pauline Kael. Adler’s criticism in The New Yorker was mediocre, mushy. How dare she lash out at Kael for using masturbatory slang and “we” or “you” for “I”? Can’t the little viper see the beauty, poetry, hilarity, and straight-forwardness in Kael’s critiques? Oops. I’m using “Kaeline” rhetorical questions! What a crime! You’d think I or she killed Kennedy or something!

Oh—while R.A.’s at contradictions,…she berates Kael for demanding punishment and crying guilt of her unfavored movie folk when she herself acts as if Kael knifed Gary Coleman—oops! I used a “violent” and “sadistic” metaphor! Okay, heat up the electric chair! So “line for line, When the Lights Go Down is worthless,” eh? What about the titles of her critiques of Seven Beauties and Carrie? I cracked up just reading them. And how about her punchy opening and closing lines, especially her closing line of her critique of Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder?

Adler’s “review” is bathed in bitterness. The final irony is that about half as many people will read “Perils of Pauline” as will read “Master Spy, Master Seducer”—by Pauline Kael.

Please print this!

Matthew Wilder
A loyal P. Kael fan, age 13
Des Planes, Illinois

To the Editors:

…I must take exception to Adler’s description of Kael’s loyal readers. She sees them as victims of Kael’s unholy hectoring. According to Adler, they form a cult of thoughtless masochists who thrill to Kael’s fortnightly whip-cracking. Worse, they are lousy readers with a taste so debased they think Kael’s stuff is “lively.”

Well, I’m one of Kael’s loyal readers, and Ms. Adler has no cause to treat me so condescendingly. I want to assure one and all of the obvious: I’m a grown-up and Pauline Kael’s reviews don’t bully me. She’s often wrong in what she says and how she says it—and I’ve told her so, with glee. I read her precisely because her columns are both reviews and confessionals.

You see, I like the beat-up, hard-working old bawd. I’m sorry that Ms. Adler failed to remember that if Ms. Kael is unduly raunchy and a bit bonkers from the strain of it all, that’s hardly the same thing as a fall from grace.

Erhard K. Dortmund
Monmouth, Oregon

Renata Adler replies:

I intend some day to write a piece about letters in letters columns, not, however, these. There is just not much in them. I don’t think I share Ms. Dunning’s notion of what a fracas is or what livens up a summer. Ms. Dunning might be less indignant about “shameless disclaimers!” if she read more accurately. Where she quotes “statement,” for instance, I wrote “argument.” Not at all the same thing. And I genuinely don’t understand “But one may not balk,” as to who may not balk, or at what, or why not. Freely balk. For the rest, Ms. Dunning is warmly entitled to her views.

Having twice raised the issue of length, Mr. Cox, I take it, thinks his letter is a short one. It is too dull to go, line by line, through my paragraph and his to show that his gloss, in each case, either supports a point of mine or is altogether unresponsive to it. Where counting seems to him rebuttal, I would point out that Mr. Cox’s “second paragraph” (italics his) of the Slap Shot review is equally its forty-ninth line (italics mine), and also “so obscure a place that I could hardly find it when I looked for it again.” A writer may, of course, put any point anywhere, in a footnote, an appendix, a marginal annotation if he likes. Considerations of structure. As for speeches about The New Yorker, on the West Coast or elsewhere, I never heard of them.

With any luck, Mr. Wilder is not really thirteen. I’m glad the matter closes with Mr. Dortmund’s assurance that he is grown-up.

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