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Finding It at the Movies

For Keeps

by Pauline Kael
Dutton, 1,291 pp., $34.95


Pauline Kael began writing about movies for The New Yorker in 1967. She was not a “discovery.” She was forty-eight years old, and she had already written for just about every well-known magazine in America but The New Yorker, including The New Republic, Partisan Review, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, Holiday, Vogue, Life, and McCall‘s. Before coming to New York in the mid-Sixties, she had made weekly radio broadcasts about movies on KPFA in San Francisco; she had been contributing regularly to journals like Film Quarterly and Sight and Sound since 1954; and a collection of her pieces, I Lost It at the Movies, had come out in 1965 and become a best seller. Mr. Shawn was not taking a gamble on a rookie.

In 1967 The New Yorker was the most successful magazine in America. It owed its prosperity to a formula that can no longer be duplicated: it was a general-interest commercial magazine for people who disliked commercialism and who rarely subscribed to general-interest magazines—a magazine, essentially, for people who didn’t buy magazines. For in the Fifties and Sixties, a literate and unstuffy anti-commercialism was still a cherished ingredient of upper-middle-class taste, and by catering to it, The New Yorker was able to deliver to advertisers several hundred thousand well-educated and affluent people who could be reached through practically no other medium.

It did so with an editorial product rigorously manufactured to avoid any semblance of the sensational, the prurient, or the merely topical—any semblance, that is, of the things educated people could be assumed to associate with the commercial press or television. It also avoided, less famously but with equal diligence, anything that hinted at cultural pretension. And this policy, too, was based on a genuine insight into the psychology of its audience. For New Yorker readers, though proud of their education and their taste, were intellectually insecure. They did not need to be told who Proust and Freud and Stravinsky were, but they were glad, at the same time, not to be expected to know anything terribly specific about them. They were intelligent people who were nevertheless extremely wary of being out-browed.

The New Yorker was enormously attentive to this insecurity. It pruned from its pieces anything that might come across as allusive or knowing, and it promoted, in its writing and cartoons, a sensibility that took urbanity to be perfectly compatible with a certain kind of naiveté. The New Yorker made it possible to feel that being an anti-sophisticate was the mark of true sophistication, and that any culture worth having could be had without special aesthetic equipment or intellectual gymnastics.

Pauline Kael made it possible for people to feel this way about the movies, and although that sounds like a modest accomplishment, it was not. It required disarming both phobias in the sensibility The New Yorker had so successfully identified: the fear of too low, and the fear of too high. It meant overcoming the intelligent person’s resistance to the pulpiness, the corniness, and the general moral and aesthetic schmaltz of Hollywood movies, but without refining those things away by some type of critical alchemy. The New Yorker‘s readers did not want an invitation to slum, but they didn’t want to be told that appreciating movies was something that called for a command of “the grammar of film,” either. They needed to believe that it was possible to enjoy the movies without becoming either of the two things New Yorker readers would sooner have died than be taken for: idiots or snobs.

This was precisely the approach to movies Kael had devoted her pre-New Yorker career to perfecting. She heaped scorn on the moguls, and she heaped scorn on the cinéastes. She joined the magazine at the moment the movies seemed to many people suddenly to have caught up with the rest of American culture: her second piece was a seven-thousand-word defense of Bonnie and Clyde. She kept the attention of the magazine’s readers during a time when movies seemed to mean a great deal to them. And she continued to keep it well after the movies ceased being important in most of those readers’ lives. By the time she retired, in 1991, The New Yorker‘s traditional readership had lost its cohesion as a distinctive taste-group, and the type of movies Kael had made her name by championing had nearly vanished, too. But she had produced a generation of epigoni, and although the moment for it has long since passed, the manner of appreciation she invented has become the standard manner of popular culture criticism in America.

For Keeps is a greatest-hits package drawn entirely from previously published collections of Kael’s work. Kael estimates, in the introduction, that the book represents about a fifth of her total output. Reviews naturally make up most of it, but some of her retrospective appreciations and most of her occasional “state of the movies” essays are included. She has also reprinted her slightly swoony piece about Cary Grant, “The Man from Dream City” (1975), and her long essay on the making of Citizen Kane, “Raising Kane” (1971), which is easily the finest piece of writing she ever did.

It is not, however, the most famous piece of writing she ever did. There are three candidates for that prize: her enthusiastic review of Last Tango in Paris (1972); her unenthusiastic review of Shoah (1985), which Shawn initially balked at publishing; and her attack on auteur theory, “Circles and Squares” (1963), which won her the undying (or, at any rate, undead) enmity of its chief punching bag, the film critic Andrew Sarris. Only the first of these appears in For Keeps, which suggests that the idea was to create a history of what mattered in the movies, rather than a history of what mattered in the career of Pauline Kael. The result, of course, is a history of what mattered to Kael, and although a volume of almost thirteen hundred pages is possibly not the most convenient way to get it, such a thing is certainly interesting to have.

The simplest way to put it is to say that Kael in her youth fell in love with two completely different kinds of movies, and then awoke in middle age to find them miraculously reborn together on a single screen. Her first infatuation was with the Hollywood genre movies of the Thirties: newspaper pictures like The Front Page (1931), comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and Duck Soup (1933), and, especially, the screwballs, which began appearing in 1934—“the year,” as she put it in the Cary Grant essay, “when The Thin Man and Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night changed American movies.” It was also the year Kael turned fifteen.

Kael thought these were great movies, but it was not “as movies” that she admired them. She did not esteem them for their realization of the possibilities of cinematic form. She esteemed them for their indifference to the possibilities of cinematic form, and in particular for the death blow they delivered to the high-minded sentimentality—what she described as the “calendar-art guck”—of the silent tradition. The silents, she thought, had encouraged a kind of “dream aesthetic,” which associated film with the movements of the subconscious, and led to the production of a lot of misty allegories about “purity” and “morality.” When characters started speaking, the mists went away, and so did the purity and morality. “The talkies,” as she once put it, “were a great step down.”

Two things, in her view, made those Thirties movies go: the writing and the acting. The essay on Citizen Kane is usually remembered as an attack on Orson Welles and the cult of the director—in effect, a sequel to “Circles and Squares.” But the point of the essay is that the reason it is wrong to talk about Citizen Kane as a bolt from cinema heaven is not that Welles was not really a genius; Kael thought he really was a genius. It is that Citizen Kane (released in 1941) was the crowning achievement of Thirties movie-making, the capstone of the tradition The Front Page had started. It was, she thought, simply “the biggest newspaper picture of them all.” What made it great was the script—by Herman J.Mankiewicz, who had been involved, as a writer or producer, in many of the movies Kael loved, including Million Dollar Legs and Duck Soup—and the acting. Charles Foster Kane was the one role in his career in which Welles was perfectly cast; for Welles was a sort of Kane himself, a theatrical monstre sacré, a boy wonder and a mounte-bank. Welles, according to her, may have stolen half the writing credit from Mankiewicz; but Mankiewicz showed Welles naked to the world.

Then the parade ended. The commercial failure of Citizen Kane—the critics acclaimed it, but the industry, intimidated by the other real-life Kane, William Randolph Hearst, failed to stand behind it—drove Welles into the movie wilderness. And it marked, Kael believed, the demise of the supremely smart but supremely accessible Hollywood entertainments of the Thirties. Except in odd corners of the business, such as the comedies of Preston Sturges, irreverence disappeared from the screen. The movies fell into the hands of self-righteous, fellow-traveling hacks: earnestness was prized above wit, and politically correct mediocrity was promoted over talent. “Morality” was back in the saddle. It remained there for twenty-five years.

Kael had a second infatuation, though, and it was with a kind of movie that had nothing generic about it, a kind of movie in which the director was the star. This was the European realist tradition, above all the early movies of Jean Renoir—Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), La Grande Illusion (1937), and The Rules of the Game (1939)—but also the work of the Italian neo-realists, like Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Vitorio de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Miracle in Milan (1951), and of Max Ophuls, particularly The Earrings of Madame De… (1953), a movie Kael called “perfection.”

The technical term for the quality these movies share is “open form.” The camera directs its gaze with equal empathy at every facet of the world viewed. Ordinary things are not scanted or rushed over, since the gods, if there are any, are probably in the details; but grand things are not put into quotation marks, or set up to be knocked down, either, since great emotions are as much a part of life as anything else. The door is opened onto the world “as it is,” without scrims or stage directions; and the world is left, at the end, in the same condition, unarranged, and unboxed by moral resolution.

When Kael arrived at The New Yorker, these were her touchstones—Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, Rossellini and Renoir. It was a canon exceptional less for what it included than for what it left out. Kael’s taste for genre pictures, for instance, was not indiscriminate. She had a distant respect for the early westerns of John Ford, like Stagecoach (1939), because they handled popular iconography in a classical spirit; but she hated High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) for their moralism and their mythic fakery, and she rarely passed up an occasion to say so. She had no special enthusiasm, either, for film noir, a genre barely mentioned in For Keeps, or for other low-rent forms, like horror and science fiction.

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