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Finding It at the Movies

Her line about Frank Capra is famous: “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can,” she said of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), “but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” She dismissed most of Hollywood’s postwar efforts at serious moral drama, like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), as embarrassing imitations of European art films. She regarded The Red Shoes (1948) as kitsch on stilts. She considered Fellini pretentious and overrated, and Bergman a “northern Fellini.” And for the high-end imports reverentially mulled over by cinéastes in the early Sixties—Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Red Desert (1964)—she had pure contempt. She called them “come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe parties,” and she considered them prime specimens of the Philistinism of anti-Philistinism, intellectual clichés to which repetition and obscurity had given the illusion of profundity.

There were two imports, however, which she did admire: Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). She was drawn to them because they were, in effect, the sum of the two types of movies that had captured her heart in the Thirties. They were genre pictures whose forms had been imaginatively opened up: pulp plus poetry. So that when Bonnie and Clyde, directed by an American disciple of Godard and Truffaut, Arthur Penn, appeared in 1967, it was as though a dream Kael had been having for twenty-five years had come to life. Bonnie and Clyde announced, for her, a Hollywood New Wave. It was a movement that lasted a decade, and produced a series of stylish entertainments people could care about without feeling gullible or pedantic. The first two Godfather movies (1972 and 1974) define the type as it existed in her mind: straight gangster pictures, but with the visual and moral depth of field of Renoir.

In the Seventies Kael consequently became, despite her disparagement of auteur theory, a devotee of directors. Her favorites—Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, Paul Mazursky, Steven Spielberg—were artists of the popular. They loved, without condescension, exactly what the audience loved, and went to the movies to see: pursuit and capture, sex and violence, love and death. They loved the story. Spielberg won Kael over, in his first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), by his orchestration of one of the most mundane staples of Seventies movicmaking, a car chase, which she described in her review as though it had been a masked ball shot by Ophuls:

He patterns them; he makes them dance and crash and bounce back. He handles enormous configurations of vehicles; sometimes they move so sweetly you think he must be wooing them. These sequences are as unforced and effortless-looking as if the cars themselves—mesmerized—had just waltzed into their idiot formations.

and so on. Even the most authorial of her auteurs, Bertolucci, showed his understanding of big-screen aesthetics in his casting: Trintignant, Sanda, Brando, De Niro, Lancaster, Depardieu. People go for the faces.

The reverse side of Kael’s taste for cleverness was her distaste for cynicism. She disliked most of Stanley Kubrick’s movies because she thought they were unfeeling and aloof; she disliked most of John Cassavetes’s because she felt that they showed contempt for the audience’s desire to be entertained. She disliked The Graduate because it seemed to her patently manipulative while pretending to be original and sincere; and she disliked the Dirty Harry movies because they exploited the visceral appeal of blood. She despised any film maker who assumed that because a thing is popular it must also be cheap, or that an audience drawn to sex or violence deserves to have its nose rubbed in it. This standard is the nub of the problem with her critical judgment.

For the more powerful the movie, the trickier the distinction between cleverness and cynicism becomes. It’s not just that there is an element of cold-bloodedness calculation in all successful entertainment; Kael was the last person to have disputed that. It’s that the cold-bloodedness in some of the movies she championed can sometimes seem a little more genuine than the entertainment. Barbara Harris’s pathetic anthem in the final scene of Nashville, the protracted slow-motion of the pig’s-blood sequence in DePalma’s Carrie, Brando sticking his chewing gum under the railing at the end of Last Tango in Paris: these are scenes that seem to have been created not so much to rip away the last veil of our innocence as to gratify the director’s desire to have the last laugh on humanity.

Kael didn’t defend moments like these in the movies she admired. She just read them differently. She knew perfectly well that De Palma enjoyed being manipulative, but she found his movies playful and witty, rather than smarmy and cynical, just as she found Nashville generous and funny, rather than patronizing and dyspeptic. She sensed pathos where less partisan or less enraptured viewers sensed satire and even disgust. Kael wasn’t interested in satire and disgust. She was a romantic.


Between 1967 and 1978, the American film industry turned out Bonnie and Clyde, written by Robert Benton and produced by Warren Beatty; Shampoo, produced by Beatty and written by Robert Towne; Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, written by Towne; Coppola’s first two Godfather movies and The Conversation; George Lucas’s American Graffiti, produced by Coppola; Altman’s M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville; Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs; Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which he wrote, and Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader; Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which he wrote; Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which he wrote with Marshall Brickman; Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, written by him; Midnight Cowboy; The Graduate; Five Easy Pieces; The Outlaw Josey Wales; Easy Rider; The Last Picture Show; and The Deer Hunter. Kael did not admire all these movies; she panned a few. But she responded intensely to most of them (she divided her column during those years with Penelope Gilliatt), and she shared the sense many of her readers had that these were movies that somehow cut to the bone of the American experience. She was old enough to appreciate the serendipity of the phenomenon, and she assumed the role of its grand interpreter. She was the Hollywood Dr. Johnson.

Then, in 1978, she went there. She was invited by Warren Beatty, who wanted her help with a movie he was producing. That project fell through, and she became a story consultant at Paramount instead. After six months, she was back at the magazine. She denied it in interviews, but the sight of Hollywood from the inside seems to have turned her stomach; and in 1980, she published a jeremiad called “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers,” which blamed everything on the money.1

Well, it usually is the money. That happens to be the flag commercial culture salutes. But whether it was because material conditions really had changed, as her essay claimed, or because Hollywood’s imaginative juices had somehow dried up, or simply because the major screen breakthroughs had all been accomplished, by the end of the Seventies the connection between enjoying a movie and feeling a shock of recognition, a connection that had come to seem almost automatic in the decade before, was severed. It might have been adolescent to have walked out of Shampoo or Five Easy Pieces or Mean Streets feeling that you must change your life, but not even adolescents walked out of Beverly Hills Cop or The Empire Strikes Back or Batman feeling that way. They were happy to feel they had gotten back the price of the ticket.

Kael responded to this decline in the cultural authority of the movies in a peculiar way. She began to overpraise. Hyperbolic abandon had always been the virtual signature of her style. The stakes could never be too high. She equated Nashville and the second Godfather with Melville and Whitman; she equated the opening night of Last Tango in Paris with the opening night of Le Sacre du Printemps. “There are parts of Jaws,” she wrote in 1976, “that suggest what Eisenstein might have done if he hadn’t intellectualized himself out of reach.” And when she didn’t like a movie, she wasn’t just irritated or bored; she was the victim of an intellectual mugging. She condemned The French Connection as “total commercial opportunism passing itself off as an Existential view” (well, yes, but how was the picture?). She condemned the earnest Lenny as “the ultimate in modern show-biz sentimentality.” Words like “corrupt,” “dishonest,” “decadent,” and, for a while, “fascist” were part of her regular critical vocabulary. Dirty Harry she pronounced “a deeply immoral movie.”

Shallowly immoral” would probably have done it. But you cannot compare the movies you love with Moby-Dick and then let the ones you hate off with a shrug. You have to keep writing as though souls are being saved and lost down at the cineplex every night. In the years when many of her readers found it exciting to treat movies as tests of character, Kael’s rhetoric was just excessive enough. You argued about the movie with your friends, and then you picked up The New Yorker and argued about it with Kael. But when the same people eventually found themselves content to describe the movies they enjoyed as “a lot of fun” and the movies they didn’t enjoy as “pretty stupid,” Kael’s rhetoric began to seem a little curious.

So did her judgment. It became possible to read one of her rapturous reviews—of, for instance, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) (“It may be the best movie of its kind ever made”) or Robert Zemeckis’s Used Cars (1980), which inspired comparisons with Bringing Up Baby, Shampoo, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Melville’s The Confidence Man—and then find the actual movie, when you went to see it, almost unrecognizable. What had caused her pulse to race so fast? The less portentous the buzz around a movie she wanted to like, the more hyperkinetic her exertions seemed to become. Unpopular or unexceptional efforts by old favorites began to receive shameless raves—as in:

I think De Palma has sprung to the place Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is the artist’s vision.

She was reviewing Blow Out (1981). And when the whole movie couldn’t honorably be rhapsodized, a single scene or even a single line would be given a prominently placed homage, a sort of verbal trailer. This is the lead paragraph of Kael’s review of Tequila Sunrise (1988), a slightly underpowered romance/thriller that happens to have been written and directed by Robert Towne:

Michelle Pfeiffer tells Mel Gibson how sorry she is that she hurt his feelings. He replies, “C’mon, it didn’t hurt that bad,” pauses, and adds, “Just lookin’ at you hurts more.” If a moviegoer didn’t already know that Tequila Sunrise was the work of a master romantic tantalizer, Gibson’s line should cinch it. That’s the kind of ritualized confession of love that gave a picture like To Have and Have Not its place in moviegoers’ affections. What makes the line go ping is that Mel Gibson’s blue eyes are wide with yearning as he says it, and Michelle Pfeiffer is so crystalline in her beauty that he seems to be speaking the simple truth…. It’s a line that Gary Cooper might have spoken to Marlene Dietrich….

  1. 1

    Information about Kael’s Hollywood interlude comes from Phillip Lopate’s excellent profile “The Lady in the Dark,” New York Woman, November 1989, pp. 100–107.

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