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Waking Up at the Movies

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Jill Krementz
Pauline Kael with Janet Flanner at the National Book Awards, where she was honored 
for her film criticism, New York City, April 1974

One of Frank Capra’s first talkies, the otherwise lifeless Ladies of Leisure, made a star of the young Barbara Stanwyck. She plays a working-class girl who sits, and eventually falls, for a rich young artist. In one scene just before the two discover they’re in love, the flinty model fails to gaze at the ceiling and embody “hope” to the painter’s satisfaction. “Look through the ceiling,” he says, “Visualize! Sky, space, the universe, stardust, anything! There is no ceiling, don’t you see?” And with a dubious upward glance Stanwyck snaps back, “Horsefeathers, it’s a ceiling. You could ask anybody!”

It’s not hard to see why Pauline Kael loved Stanwyck in general and this performance in particular, calling her “an amazing vernacular actress,” a phrase that might just as aptly describe Kael’s style on the page. She was drawn to comedy because it always finds shortcuts to the awful truth. Most heroines of the screwball Thirties radiate a brashness and candor that can seem a blueprint for Kael’s critical persona, and here especially Stanwyck’s portrayal of a feisty woman trusting the evidence of her own senses—against a man spouting art-school clichés—almost foretells Kael’s career. “We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them,” she wrote in her brilliant 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” “and what we enjoy them for has little to do with what we think of as art.”

Kael’s taste tended toward quick pacing and a down-to-earth story that could grab an audience and make it feel something. A movie didn’t have to be hysterically funny to win her over; she found it especially thrilling when a loose, jocular tone somehow eloped with otherwise straight-faced genres—hence her lifelong allegiance to Jean Renoir and Robert Altman and Jonathan Demme. Praising a movie by another one of her favorites, Jean-Luc Godard, Kael wrote that its “fusion of attitudes—seeing characters as charming and poetic and, at the same time, preposterous and absurd—is one of Godard’s contributions to modern film.” Her most withering scorn was reserved for movies that she took to deny the possibility of laughter or pretended they were above it—her blacklist included much of Bergman, most of Kubrick, and pretty much all of Hitchcock.

Kael was not the first to argue that traditional high-art criticism is wrong for a mass medium: Gilbert Seldes had diagnosed the need for a critical style that didn’t shrink from fun in his Seven Lively Arts, published in 1924; Manny Farber was never afraid of loving shoddy movies and offered a model for Kael in that respect. (The staccato riffs of his movie reviews are often thought to have influenced her prose yet are really too jazzy and haywire for her conversational purposes, which always aim for firm contact with the reader.) But Kael was the one who found a language both appropriately informal and supremely capacious, able to develop ideas that crisscrossed with literature and contemporary society and the business of moviemaking and the latest release.

Her freedom on the page made room for a new way of thinking about movies. While her contemporaries were busy trying to winch cinema up to the status of art, with formal criteria and ever-shifting “pantheons” of directors—an approach that recapitulated the first fifty years of photography criticism in the nineteenth century—Kael documented, with the keenness of a novelist, what happened when she went to the movies. When another critic waxed too idealistic about the characters in Godard’s Breathless, she saw what made the movie new and irresistible:

The hero of the film understands all that he wants to, but the critic isn’t cynical enough to see the basic fact about these characters: they just don’t give a damn.

When others swooned for West Side Story, she pointed to its disregard for not only “the rhythm, the feel, the unpretentious movements of American dancing at its best—but its basic emotion, which, as in jazz music, is the contempt for respectability.”

Her genius for making contact with the vital center of mass culture found its great subject in the late 1960s and 1970s, when young American directors—Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, et al.—started releasing serious movies that didn’t flinch from crassness, violence, or contempt for respectability. This new flowering, and her enthusiasm for it, is generally dated from her famous review of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). A rhetorical question was her opening shot: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it.” Four years later she found her hero in Robert Altman, whose McCabe & Mrs. Miller she described in terms that recalled her love of Renoir: Altman possessed a “gift for creating an atmosphere of living interrelationships and doing it so obliquely that the viewer can’t quite believe it—it seems almost a form of effrontery.”

It was around this time that her appetite for a certain kind of intensity and dynamism on the screen dulled her native toughness—maybe her awareness of her platform at The New Yorker, where she’d been since 1968, persuaded her that it was important to help make certain hits happen. Her review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris now sounds pneumatically distorted—its opening night, she notoriously wrote, “should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913—the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed—in music history”—but one doesn’t always go to Kael for accurate ratings. Often one goes precisely for how the thing played on opening night for a viewer with a deep range of reference and a quivering nerve center.

Since rival critics from that time tended to compliment Kael with words like “impressionistic,” “lively,” “readable,” it’s easy to forget that her intellectual foundations were deeply literary: while working toward a history of philosophy degree at Berkeley she read most everything by the nineteenth-century and modernist novelists. In the mid-Forties, while working a string of odd jobs, she read the whole of Proust in four weeks. In light of that background, the tenacity of her democratic taste in movies seems all the more remarkable: “It’s almost a class prejudice,” she wrote in 1969, “this assumption that crudely made movies, movies without the look of art, are bad for people.”

Kael logged her first hours at the movies during the silent period, and her writing was predicated on the silent era’s belief in film as a universal language, what she once called “Whitman’s dream of the great American audience.” Kael was practically Emersonian in her belief that movies had unique potential to wake people up, to make them think for themselves and learn to tell good from bad without having to hear it from an authority. Ironically this was the point on which she could be most didactic, and on which her ever-present sense of humor tended to fail her: “The educated person,” she wrote in her first piece for The New Yorker, in 1967, “who became interested in cinema as an art form through Bergman or Fellini or Resnais is an alien to me (and my mind goes blank with hostility and indifference when he begins to talk).”

It is quite likely that her mind would go blank contemplating today’s audiences: most people under thirty probably had their first meaningful exposure to the movies not in theaters but at home, on a TV or computer screen. The childhood moviegoing that Kael often recalled with nostalgia—“All week we longed for Saturday afternoon and sanctuary—the anonymity and impersonality of sitting in a theatre, just enjoying ourselves, not having to be responsible, not having to be ‘good’”—now happens, if it happens at all, in solitude, with a bevy of other, shorter, sloppier entertainments forever flashing on a Banquo-like succession of screens behind the main attraction.

For young people getting to know movies today, the object, the hour, the manner of their viewing is theirs to dictate, and I suspect that those with real interest in movies approach them much the way that Kael did nineteenth-century literature: with care, and in a spirit of curatorial idealism. There’s more than enough trash of the moving-image variety on TV, online, on smartphones, and in video games to stimulate the senses.

One of the virtues of The Age of Movies, the new Library of America edition of her reviews, is that it arranges them chronologically (something Kael’s own 1994 selection, the thicker For Keeps, did not quite do). What the more compact volume helps reveal is the orbit of Kael’s sympathies over almost four decades of writing on movies: she started out skewering Hollywood’s pretensions in the studio-regimented 1950s (and in 1952 her first published essay, not included here, dared to deplore Chaplin’s abandonment of low comedy for lofty sentiment in Limelight), before taking up the cause of defending the bright young American directors of the 1960s and 1970s against a mob of doltish, unimaginative reviewers and (occasionally) audiences that didn’t know what was good for them.

Brian Kellow’s recent biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark documents some of the obvious conflicts of interest she entangled herself in as her name grew in influence. When a movie by one of her favorite young directors, Paul Mazursky, got a bad review from Vincent Canby in The New York Times, she called Mazursky and crowed about her intentions: “I read Canby’s review. He’s a schmuck. I loved the movie, and I’m going to give it a great review.” Her book on Citizen Kane was built on original research that she stole from a young academic in California, promising him a collaboration and a byline that never materialized.

It was a pity that For Keeps didn’t include her 1963 essay “Circles and Squares,” attacking Andrew Sarris’s 1962 article importing the French auteur theory to America—and it’s still a pity that the piece is absent from The Age of Movies. “Circles and Squares” raised Kael’s profile after a decade of writing for small film quarterlies; around the same time she went from reviewing movies on KPFA, a local radio station in Berkeley, to receiving a Guggenheim and writing her first book, I Lost It at the Movies.

Today a curious squeamishness seems to hover around Kael’s argument with the auteurists, perhaps because the vehemence of the tussle feels alien to us now. Our movie critics are likelier to share their differences—if they have any—cordially, in quick online videos, and together wait for the bell to toll on “print media.” Last fall, when Brian Kellow’s biography appeared, I had the feeling that a similar impulse governed the reviews. They tended to relegate her argument with Sarris to passing asides. A.O. Scott in The New York Times denied the premise of the conflict altogether, writing that “the idea that Mr. Sarris and Kael represent opposed positions does not really stand up to scrutiny,” and that despite “all the scorn she heaped on Mr. Sarris,” in her reviews Kael—just like Sarris—tended to credit the director as the source of a movie’s worth or worthlessness. Articles in Slate and the Los Angeles Review of Books said much the same thing.

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