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Finding It at the Movies

Stop! I give up! I’ll see the movie!

What had evaporated, of course, was the consensus that it all mattered. The result was a dissociation between the experience and the commentary. In the Eighties, Kael’s disquisitions on the psychology of the American movie audience, which characterized her early criticism, gave way to page after page of word-painting. She would paraphrase almost the whole storyline, and every clever bit in the movie seemed to end up in the review. After you had read her review of Zelig, the movie itself felt like something you had already seen, and not quite as ingenious as you remembered it. She was a pioneer, in effect, of the condition movies suffer from today, when by the time a big-budget production hits the screen, it has been so overexposed in magazines and on television that there is almost no point in bothering to go see it. Which is fine, of course, with magazine publishers and television producers. The coverage competes with the product.

Kael’s manner of overpraising and overdamning has itself been so overpraised and overdamned2 that rereading her reviews is a little like rereading Hemingway after listening to too many parodies: Why can’t she stop trying to sound so much like Pauline Kael? The trademark Kaelisms now leap out from every page: the second-person address; the slangy heighteners, “zizzy,” “zingy,” “goosey,” “plummy,” and so on, and put-downs, like “frowzy,” “whorey,” “logey” (her word for Shoah); the high-low oxymorons, like “pop classic” (for the remake of King Kong) or “trash archetype” (for Carrie); and her most exasperating locution, the conditional universal superlative, which she used promiscuously and frequently bathetically: “The scene is perhaps the wittiest and most deeply romantic confirmation of a marriage ever filmed” (The Right Stuff); “He may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived” (Jeff Bridges).

More general defects are also obvious when the stuff is consumed in bulk. The writing is all in the same key, and strictly molto con brio. There is no modulation of tone or (which would be even more welcome) of thought. She just keeps slugging away. She is almost always extraordinarily sharp, but she is hardly ever funny. And (as she concedes in the introduction to For Keeps) she is clearly working her way through her feelings about the movie as she writes, and this produces garrulousness and compositional dishevelment. Writing in The New Yorker gave her a huge space advantage over other reviewers; she did not always profit by it.

Her reviews are highly readable, but they are not especially rereadable. James Agee, in his brief service as movie critic of The Nation, reviewed many nondescript and now long-forgotten pictures; but as soon as you finish reading one of his pieces, you want to read it again, just to see how he did it. Kael does not provoke the same impulse.

Still, the attractions of the prose are not the whole story. W. H. Auden once praised Agee’s column by saying that he never went to the movies, but that he looked forward to reading what Mr. Agee had to say about them every week. Some people have said the same thing about Stanley Kauffmann, the longtime reviewer for The New Republic who is, in critical terms, pretty much the UnKael. Kael was not a reviewer for people who didn’t go to movies. She was the ideal person to read when you had just seen a movie and couldn’t make up your mind what you thought about it. At her best, she argued it through on the page for you. You know what you think about Bonnie and Clyde by now, though, and so her insights have lost their freshness. On the other hand, she is a large part of the reason you think as you do.

And her influence is everywhere. Kael was, by all accounts, a journalistic queen bee. If she did not orchestrate opinion (something she was accused of many times), she certainly took pleasure in orchestrating the orchestrators. She maintained, even before her New Yorker days, a circle of admirers whose careers she cultivated and whose degree of orthodoxy she monitored closely; and she became an object of personal infatuation for many younger writers who never met her. She has a number of protégés and ex-protégés among active movie reviewers: Terrence Rafferty, who succeeded her at The New Yorker, David Denby, Michael Sragow, David Edelstein, John Powers, Peter Rainer. But her impact extended beyond movie reviewing. The television critics James Wolcott and Tom Shales, the art critics Jed Perl and Sanford Schwartz, the music critic Greil Marcus, and the sportswriter Allen Barra are all her fans, and there is a long list of other writers, in many other genres, whose work would be almost unimaginable without her example. There are also two celebrity epigoni: Camille Paglia, whose style is a virtual pastiche of Kael’s but who (such is the anxiety of influence) has hardly ever mentioned her name in print; and the Hollywood Wunderkind Quentin Tarantino, who mentions her name at almost every opportunity. And properly so; for Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a dish for which Kael spent forty years writing the recipe.

Kael’s followers are known, a little dismissively, as “the Paulettes.” The usual complaints about them are that they imitate mindlessly Kael’s enthusiasm for the cheap-thrill element of popular culture, and that they are all parrots of her journalistic mannerisms. There is no question that Kael’s style proved highly infectious; and there is no question, either, that her appetite for sensationalism, for blood and sex, helped shape educated movie taste. Cataloguing stylistic tics, though, is not the most accurate way to measure Kael’s influence. For her importance has, in the end, very little to do with her style of writing or her taste in movies. It is much greater than that.


The problem Kael undertook to address when she began writing for The New Yorker was the problem of making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular entertainment is not art. This is usually thought of as the highlow problem—the problem that arises when a critic equipped with a highbrow technique bends his or her attention to an object that is too low, when the professor writes about Superman comics. In fact, this rarely is a problem: if anything profits from (say) a semiotic analysis, it’s the comics. The professor may go on to compare Superman comics favorably with Homer, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.

The real high-low problem doesn’t arise when the object is too low. It arises when the object isn’t low enough. Meet the Beatles doesn’t pose a high-low problem; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does. Tom Clancy and Wheel of Fortune don’t; John le Carré and Masterpiece Theater do. A product like Sgt. Pepper isn’t low enough to be discussed as a mere cultural artifact; but it’s not high enough to be discussed as though it were Four Quartets, either. It’s exactly what it pretends to be: it’s entertainment, but for educated people. And this is what makes it so hard for educated people to talk about without sounding pretentious—as though they had to justify their pleasure by some gesture toward the “deeper” significance of the product.

One of Hollywood’s best-kept industrial secrets is that the movies are entertainment for educated people, too. This was a finding that surprised the studios when, in the 1940s, they first undertook to analyze their audience: frequency of movie attendance increases with income and education. Even today, when people complain that they don’t make movies for grown-ups anymore, the percentage of people who say they are “frequent moviegoers” is more than half again as great among people who have gone to college (31 percent) as it is among people who have only finished high school (19 percent). The belief that education makes people snobbish about movie-going is the opposite of the case: 20 percent of people who have been to college say they “never” go to movies, but the figure is 39 percent among adults who have only finished high school and 57 percent among adults with even less education than that. Movie-going is a lot more expensive than television-watching, of course, and no doubt this helps to account for the difference. But the numbers make it clear that film is not truly a mass art form to anything like the degree that television and popular music are. Movies since the Thirties have been designed for the people who have the money and the leisure to afford them. Kael didn’t persuade New Yorker readers to go to the movies; they were already going. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was teaching them how to think critically about them.

One way to think critically about them, the way consistent with thinking about the arts generally during the Fifties and early Sixties, was to identify the formal properties of the medium, and to judge movies by how fully and intelligently they used them. So that the assertion “Stagecoach is a great movie” might be defended against the person who wants to know if that means it is as great as King Lear by replying that Stagecoach is great “in cinematic terms.” This is to defend your judgment with an abstraction; for when you say things like “in cinematic terms,” you are on your way toward developing a theory of film.

Kael had devoted her pre—New Yorker career to demolishing this way of thinking. By 1967, her antiaesthetic has been completely worked out. She hated theories. She didn’t oppose only auteur theory: she opposed all theoretical preconceptions. “Isn’t it clear that trying to find out what cinema ‘really’ is, is derived from a mad Platonic and metaphorical view of the universe,” she wrote in an unreprinted essay in 1966, “—as if ideal, pure cinema were some pre-existent entity that we had to find? Cinema is not to be found; but movies are continuously being made.”3 And in “Is There a Cure for Movie Criticism?” (1962), an attack on the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer: “Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it…. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way. Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?”4

Kael was the most brilliantly ad hoc critic of her time, and she made it possible to care about movies without feeling pompous or giddy by showing that what comes first in everyone’s experience of a movie isn’t the form or the idea but the sensation, and that this is just as true for moviegoers who have been taught to intellectualize their responses to art as it is for everyone else. The idea that a movie critic needs to work from sensations was not new with her, of course. Agee’s persona in The Nation had been that of the ordinary intelligent guy who happens to love going to movies (and who also happens to write like James Agee). Robert Warshow, who wrote about movies for Commentary and Partisan Review in the Forties and Fifties, warned that the critic who trucks a load of sociology and aesthetics into the movie theater will end up missing the show. “A man watches a movie,” as he once famously, and perhaps a shade sententiously, put it, “and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.”5

When Warshow wrote about Scar-face and Agee wrote about National Velvet, they didn’t have much trouble being that man. But that’s because the high-low problem doesn’t kick in with Scarface and National Velvet, movies that don’t tempt viewers to detect “significance.” It kicks in with a movie like Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s black comedy about a serial killer, which few people have patience for any more, but which Agee and Warshow both went solemnly bananas over. Agee and Warshow thought that Chaplin had Something Important to Say in Monsieur Verdoux, and they therefore bent over backward in their appreciation of the movie in order to give him credit for his good intentions.

Kael never gave anyone credit for good intentions. “Art,” as she put it back in 1956, “perhaps unfortunately is not the sphere of good intentions.6 She wasn’t interested in abstractions like “social significance” or “the body of work.” She had to be turned on all over again each time. Her favorite analogy for the movie experience got seriously overworked, and was lampooned as a result, but it does have the virtue of simplicity: a movie, for her, was either good sex or bad sex. For the quality of the sex doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the glamour of the partner. The best-looking guy in the room may be the lousiest lover—which is why nothing irritated Kael more than a well-dressed movie that didn’t perform. “If a lady says. ‘That man don’t pleasure me,’ ” she explained to the readers of Holiday in 1966, “that’s it. There are some areas in which we can still decide for ourselves.”7 She thought that people who claimed to enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey more than The Thomas Crown Affair were either pretending or were Puritanical about the straight-forward pleasures of trash. She thought these people missed the essentially erotic nature of the movie experience. There were a lot of people like that around before 1967. “What did she lose at the movies?” asked a puzzled Dwight Macdonald when he reviewed I Lost It at the Movies in 1965.8 Case in point.

Kael’s contention that “serious” movies should meet the same standard as pulp—that they should be entertaining—turned out to be an extremely useful and widely adopted critical principle. For it rests on an empirically sustainable proposition, which is that although people sometimes have a hard time deciding whether or not something is art, they are rarely fooled into thinking they are having a good time when they are not. It was Kael’s therapeutic advice to the overcultivated that if they just concentrated on responding to the stimulus, the aesthetics would take care of themselves. What good is form if the content leaves you cold?

The academic term for the kind of antiformalism Kael promoted is “postmodernism.” Postmodernism in the arts simply is anti-essentialism. It is a reaction against the idea, associated by academic critics in the postwar years with modernist literature, painting, and architecture, that the various arts have their own essential qualities—that poetry is essentially a matter of the organization of language, that painting is essentially a matter of composition, that architecture is essentially a matter of space and light. The undoing of these assumptions is often taken to have been the work of high critical theory, of semioticians and Derrideans, and “postmodernism” is thought to refer to highbrow, avant-garde art and literature—to be a distinctly elitist cultural movement.

In fact, the cultural work was done long before “postmodernism” became a theoretical concept in the academy, and it was done by people whose audience was entirely mainstream. If we need to give it a brow, postmodernism was a middlebrow phenomenon. Its champion practitioners were Warhol (in painting), Mailer (in fiction), and Tom Wolfe (in journalism)—all perfectly accessible figures who played to a large nonacademic audience. Its “theoreticians” were Susan Sontag, who was an independent writer, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who were architects, and Kael, who never finished college. For the notion that serious art must be appreciated formally was not so much a feature of modernist art itself—it’s not something most of the great modernists would have claimed about what they were doing—as it was the result of the way modern art and literature were taught to people like the people who read The New Yorker in the Fifties and early Sixties. Excessive critical concern with the formal properties of art—with the “elements of style”—was a middlebrow oppression. It didn’t intimidate poets; it intimidated moviegoers. It made them think there was something they ought to know about called “the grammar of film.”

This liberation of art from abstract prior conceptions was one of the great achievements of American culture in the Sixties. It is now being attacked for encouraging the supposedly dangerously relativist notions that “It’s art if I say it’s art,” and “Anything goes.” People said those things in the Sixties, and I suppose people say them now, but those are not the necessary conclusions of the lesson Kael helped to teach. A dislike of formalism does not entail a dislike of form. And openness to mass culture does not entail identification with the mass audience; it doesn’t require an attitude of épater les intellectuels or a belief that if it’s “of the people” it must be counter-hegemonic.

The critical attitude Kael represented only means approaching a work of art without bias about what “a work of art” is supposed to be. It is predicated on the belief that modern culture is fluid and promiscuous, and therefore that nothing is gained by foreclosing the experience of it—particularly if you are a critic. Pauline Kael understood these things, and she consciously built her practice as a reviewer around them; and that is why she is a supremely important figure even for writers who, although they grew up reading everything she wrote, always strived, in their own work, never to sound like Pauline Kael.

  1. 2

    Most indelibly in these pages, by her New Yorker colleague Renata Adler, reviewing the 1980 collection, When the Lights Go Down: “The Perils of Pauline,” The New York Review, August 14, 1980, pp. 26–35.

  2. 3

    It’s Only a Movie,” in Film Study in Higher Education, edited by David C. Stewart (American Council on Education, 1966), pp. 143–144.

  3. 4

    I Lost It at the Movies (Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown, 1965), p. 292.

  4. 5

    The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (Doubleday, 1962), p. 27. The sentence was written in 1954.

  5. 6

    Movies, the Desperate Art,” in Film: An Anthology, edited by Daniel Talbot (University of California Press, 1959), p. 64.

  6. 7

    Incredible Shrinking Hollywood,” Holiday, March 1966, p. 86.

  7. 8

    Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 470.

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