Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lucking Out and Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

October is Pauline Kael month, with three major books released in one transom-crushing batch. One is The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, which I haven’t yet received, although I’m familiar with most of what’s in it. Another is a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow. And the third is James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York.

Wolcott has long been a friend to this blog (and, as Tom Watson points out, a friend to many other blogs). He is a personal friend to me. But I was reading Wolcott long before I met him, and this book shows why I still pounce on every word he writes. I turn his sentences this way and that, I flip clauses, I analyze word choice, only to give up, as Bluegirl did. I can’t imitate his prose, I can’t even claim it as an influence; all I can do is hope that if I read him long enough, osmosis might help me out.

As if that weren't enough, he also has an impeccable sense of structure. Lucking Out is built of five parts and a coda. The first deals with Wolcott’s arrival in New York to work at the Village Voice, after being granted a wish by the world’s most unlikely fairy godmother, Norman Mailer. The third covers his years on the punk scene at CBGB’s and sundry other downtown crawlspaces. The fourth examines (a carefully chosen verb) his encounters with the hyperventilating world of 70s porn, and the fifth circles back to the writing scene. The second section, and the coda, focus on his long friendship with Kael; those sections are the heart of the book.

I’ve read some reviews suggesting Wolcott has folded his switchblade for this one and avoided the kind of verbal slashings that helped make his name. Maybe those reviewers read over phrases that reduced me to unbecoming cackles, like “John Simon, then at the unpopular height of his Dracula impersonation;” “Renata Adler, she of the bell-ringer braid;” or “Sontag gagging with laughter is not a picture to linger over.” And maybe stories like John Cale trying to strangle Wolcott when he didn’t understand Cale’s beer order are one of those male-bonding things that I don’t get; Jim does remark afterward, “I didn’t take it personally.” Then again, those reviewers are right that Lucking Out is essentially a warmhearted book. No excuses are made for difficult people--such as Lester Bangs, James Agee’s only rival in the “Self-Destructive Critic” sweepstakes--but they’re still drawn with sympathy and due appreciation for talent.

That’s why I say the Kael sections are the centerpiece, written as they are with affection undimmed by more than thirty years. Reading the book, I thought, god, no wonder the woman drew so many writers into her orbit: She was fun. She’s hilarious during a talk-show foray, where Ed Asner and his stomach acid sour the mood before Kael and Wolcott even get a chance to go on camera. Just sitting around the offices of the New Yorker with her, listening to her read letters from people outraged by her pan of Seven Beauties, sounds like fun. Accompanying her to a screening even of a catastrophically bad movie, like George C. Scott’s The Savage Is Loose, must have been a hoot. Wolcott describes it as “a Darwinian allegory that was like Gilligan’s Island goes Lord of the Flies.” Asked by an overeager, protocol-violating publicist what she thought of the film, Kael chirped, “Tell him to bury it.”

Clearly Wolcott’s own refusal to hold his fire must have been reinforced by sustained contact with Kael.

I can almost hear Pauline’s characteristic, pithy response: ‘Tough.’ (Which sometimes, depending on the situation, had a ‘shit’ attached.) It was often what she said when someone expressed queasy apprehension on some point of possible offense, a retort that was made not with anger or defiance but with a snorty impatience for euphemism, false shirking the truth, or, worse, killing a joke.

Kael took keen interest in her friends’ romances, too, although she had some odd ideas about courtship; Wolcott describes her coming out of Blue Velvet and saying, “It might make a wonderful date movie.” On another occasion, she suggested that he ask out a mutual acquaintance. When Wolcott reminded her that the proposed date was a lesbian, Kael responded, “Oh, that. So what. Aren’t you up for a challenge?"

I cherish this book. It isn't nostalgia, that tattered paper valentine that arrives sometime around St. Patrick's Day. It's a chance to visit another world with a critic supreme, who's as generous here as he's always been to struggling writers.

Reading Lucking Out before A Life in the Dark is a good idea. You go from Wolcott’s time when “there was no happier calling than making Pauline laugh,” to a view of her whole life. I was familiar with Kellow’s calm, meticulous writing and research from his biography of the Bennett sisters, which I also recommend. It’s good to see Kellow bring his determined “on one hand...on the other hand” approach to Kael in this excellent biography. Because with Kael, there is always another hand. She was controversial from the moment she picked up a pencil.

She was, and this should never be under-emphasized, a self-made woman, born into none of the literary or Ivy League connections that can elevate a critical career to this day. Her early childhood, on a chicken ranch in Petaluma, California, was marred by financial catastrophe, after which her father moved the family to San Francisco. She went to Berkeley, never finished, and worked at a strikingly disparate series of jobs, including cooking, sewing and, significantly, running a repertory house. In between she pursued an ill-judged taste for relationships with gay men, and had a daughter, Gina, whose father refused involvement in her upbringing.

Stints of writing at City Lights, McCall’s and The New Republic followed, as well as “Circles and Squares,” Kael’s attack on what she saw as the absurdities of the auteur theory as propounded by Andrew Sarris. That essay caused a longstanding feud--sort of. In this, as in her other bridge-torching opinions, Kael said her piece and, at least publicly, moved on. “There was a certain clean detachment to many of her broadsides against other critics; she was often astonished to learn that the objects of her critical wrath were under the impression that she hated them personally,” writes Kellow.

The fame she gained from articles like “Circles and Squares,” as well as her bestselling first book, I Lost It at the Movies, led eventually to Kael’s job at The New Yorker. She was forty-eight.

Here Kael’s highest point as a critic begins, and her personal life forms the pattern it would follow afterward. Kellow writes that by the time she was at The New Yorker, Kael was through with men--dating them, anyway. Pauline Kael never once in her life lacked for the presence of men. She constantly cultivated friendships and became famous for out-of-the-blue phone calls to other writers, even to people who had simply written her a letter.

But at this point Kellow’s book also shifts in tone, and becomes almost an intellectual history. Kael’s reviews dominate Kellow’s book as they did her life. All the famous pieces swing back to please or irritate in turn, with Kellow reconstructing the stories behind them. Did she really dislike Badlands and rhapsodize over Yentl? Yes, she did. She also proclaimed Steven Spielberg’s promise all the way back with Sugarland Express and raved over Michelle Pfeiffer when the actress was considered just another blonde. Kael saw Casualties of War as the best of the late-80s cycle of Vietnam War movies; Kellow quotes her review, and shows that no one could give you more of what it’s like to watch Casualties of War than Kael, with her emotional response and that “we” that Renata Adler found so irritating.

We in the audience are put in the man’s position: we’re made to feel the awfulness of being ineffectual. This lifelike defeat is central to the movie. (One hot day on my first trip to New York City, I walked past a group of men on a tenement stoop. One of them, in a sweaty sleeveless T-shirt, stood shouting at a screaming, weeping little boy perhaps eighteen months old. The man must have caught a glimpse of my stricken face, because he called out, ‘You don’t like it, lady? Then how do you like this?’ And he picked up a bottle of pink soda pop from the sidewalk and poured it on the baby’s head. Wailing sounds, much louder than before, followed me down the street.)

Kellow’s scrupulous approach means that his book can be read with pleasure by a Kael fan, and profitably combed by a Kael detractor looking for unflattering stories. The worst episode in the biography concerns the “Raising Kane” essay, published by the magazine and later expanded into a book. Several writers, particularly Peter Bogdanovich, later showed that Kael, in her zeal to promote Herman Mankiewicz’s role in Citizen Kane, had seriously misunderstood the process of making the film. Even more distressing is Kellow’s account of how Kael used research from UCLA assistant professor Howard Suber without crediting him in the article, and without more than a single $300 payment to him.

Kael’s relationship with The New Yorker’s Olympian editor, William Shawn, varied from mildly fractious to hugely frustrating. Shawn, shown here as a towering figure in the history of passive-aggression, never got used to Kael’s blunt writing, nor even her opinions. While her negative review of Badlands was still being printed, Shawn told her that Terrence Malick “is like a son to me.” Kellow records Kael’s response--“Tough shit, Bill”--in a perfect echo of Wolcott’s memory.

There were ruptures in later years, including one with Wolcott, who wrote a piece about the Paulettes for Vanity Fair that angered Kael. (Those who know the story will see its melancholy foreshadowing in Lucking Out.) I attended a panel on Kael at the New York Film Festival, where Kellow took exception to Manohla Dargis’ remark that the Kael of his book lacked “an equal passion for, and pleasure in, life beyond the screen.” It wasn’t like at all, he said; Kael’s life was full of music, books, art and friends.

And that is the picture I got from this biography. There is Kael, the steel-plated critic, criticizing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, getting a letter from George Roy Hill with the genteel salutation, “Listen, you miserable bitch...” and using the letter to entertain people at parties. And then there is Kael, stricken with Parkinson’s, running into Hill at a restaurant after he received the same diagnosis. She “clutched his hand warmly and gave him the name of her massage therapist.” Despite the title, this was not a life in the dark.


All film writers eventually must deal with Kael, like it or not. I will always love my friend Dennis Cozzalio’s post, in which he details how often he thought she was wrong, but captures what she meant to those of us out in the hinterlands in the Paleolithic times before the Internet. My father had a subscription to The New Yorker, and every week I would pick it up and start an argument with Kael. The argument had to remain in my own head, as that was well before the Web made it possible to storm into a comments section and tell off a critic. Usually, I didn’t want to tell off Kael, not exactly, no matter how much I objected to what she had written, and I objected to quite a lot. I wanted to ask her questions. I wanted some interaction with that brain. I would read her capsules in the front, or her ever-lengthening reviews in the back, and marvel at the syncopated, give-a-damn writing style and her utter faith in her own judgment. The fact that she was a woman mattered to me, too. Growing up in Alabama, I did not encounter many women with that kind of intellectual aggressiveness.

Only gradually did I realize how widely Kael is criticized, even despised. The volume of things for which Kael is faulted begins to approach the size of her own output. She had too much power and wielded it unwisely. She collected acolytes, she started feuds. She overpraised Last Tango in Paris, she was blind to the virtues of Dr. Strangelove. She had no consistent set of criteria. She placed too much emphasis on screenwriters. Her kinship with ugly ducklings meant she gave too much credit to Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand. She sent David Lean into a spiraling depression with her review of Ryan’s Daughter. She helped ruin Orson Welles and the piece that did it, “Raising Kane,” showed lack of ethics, as did her stint in Hollywood, as did her rave over the rough cut for Nashville.

She palled around with filmmakers, tuts Dargis, as though friendships with Woody Allen and Robert Altman kept Kael from hating Stardust Memories or 3 Women, the latter judgment prompting Altman to scream at her in the middle of an airport. (Altman got over it; Allen did not.) Others fault her for lack of loyalty to directors we now idolize. She never expounded “a theory, a system, or even a consistent set of principles,” points out A.O. Scott. And my response is, “well, thank god for that.” But the question also arises, is that the highest goal of criticism? Start Your Own -Ism?

The above objections--whether I agree with them entirely, in part, or not at all--can be supported with evidence from Kael’s life and writing. It’s another, patronizing strain in Kael bashing that gets under my skin. I could, if I wanted to indulge in the euphemism that Kael hated, call it a double standard. Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, can write a dismissal of Ingmar Bergman in the pages of the New York Times, and encounter little more than vigorous dissent. Kael, though, is often presumed to have other motivations wafting around her little head. Gary Indiana, at Artforum (in a piece that Wolcott also quotes) sneers that Kael “clearly had a thing for Warren Beatty, for Paul Newman, for various stars whose worst performances, in her view, paradoxically contained their best work; she rhapsodized over horrible hack directors whose ‘honest’ formulaic dreck she preferred to ‘pretentious’ films by superior directors.” Funny he should mention that. I keep encountering writers who clearly have “a thing for” Kael, like Michael Atkinson, who memorialized her in the Village Voice as “the hot-pants Queen Victoria of American film criticism,” and “the focus of gossip (a film critic!) that speculated on her liaisons with colleagues and with certain testosterone-dizzy filmmakers.”

Richard Brody also vaults to mind. For ages now he has used his perch at the online version of The New Yorker, the magazine that Kael’s marquee appeal helped keep afloat for years, to swat her at every opportunity for a voluminous array of sins. He quotes, with sorrowful relish, the story David Denby told about Kael’s lunch with Nicholas Ray; Denby said Kael spent her time describing the flaws in Ray’s movies, despite the man’s evident illness. To recap the links so far, Kael’s writing was entirely too personal, and her personality was heartless to boot. She appears in a post about John Cassavetes, whose movies Kael consistently loathed. Cassavetes physically bullied Kael, but in the Brody cosmology it is Kael who comes across worse, for denying the greatness of Cassavetes in the first place. Brody's contributions to the latest flurry of interest in Kael include the idea that 5001 Nights at the Movies still weren’t enough for her to write about all the movies that Brody thinks she should have written about. It has long since gotten hard to keep up. Last week, along came an offering that begins with Clint Eastwood and quickly swerves into Kael's dislike of Eastwood. Eastwood once commissioned a psychoanalysis that revealed Kael's supposed attraction to him. Brody says that theory is "nonsense," but apparently not nonsensical enough to be unworthy of block-quoting. The piece ends with a sort of victory tarantella concerning all the many, many ways in which Kael's opinions were wrong and, in an unanticipated bit of felicity, Brody's opinions were right. And why would anyone esteem a critic with whom they frequently disagreed? Because critical opinion is not an unyielding, unanimous and permanent entity? Because the critic wrote well? How quaint.

Nowhere is Brody’s animosity toward Kael more evident than in his discussion of her Shoah review, which he calls “so grotesque as to seem willful.” He continues, The wild subjectivity of her approach to the film—her writing about the feelings of her backside rather than the feelings of the people in the film or of its maker—suggests, overall, the basic problem with her criticism.” How about this for a willful suggestion about Kael’s overall basic Shoah problem: She didn’t like the movie. For the record, my own attempt to watch Shoah when it was screened on PBS in the late 80s ended sometime around the three-hour mark. I didn’t like it either, for several of the reasons that Kael cited; like her, I preferred The Sorrow and the Pity.

In a whiplash-inducing gear-shift at the end, Brody says Kael might have written a swell autobiography, where her “assumptions” and her “prejudices” and her insistence on putting herself in her movie reviews would have been quite apposite. That’s the ticket, a nice little memoir. So much more profitable a use of her talents than puttering around West 43rd Street, being the most famous film critic of all time.

In comments sections, where bloggers and cinephiles flex their intelligence at one another, pretense is abandoned. Jim Emerson, a (qualified) Kael admirer, once excerpted Renata Adler’s attack on Kael and collated some Kael defenses; the brief thread this prompted is illuminating. There’s a comment from one film blogger, alleging that her fans “don't want film criticism, they don't like cinema either, they just want to have fun reading fiction, and inflamatory diatribs [sic].” Someone else remarks, “The problem with Pauline Kael is that one gets the impression that she dismissed films on the basis that they didn't get her sexually aroused.” (Adler went after Kael for what she saw as a hectoring use of the second person. Kael always said she found “one” prissy and disingenuous, and this one agrees with her.) Adds another commenter, “[he’s] right about Kael's sexual fixations, but that isn't the sole problem. There's also the fact that there's no rhyme or reason to her approach. She would, time and again, praise one movie to the skies for certain qualities, and then turn around and trash another that possessed those same qualities;” he winds up by saying Kael had a “borderline psychotic degree of subjectivity.”

When I read threads of this sort, I consider dropping by to say, “I wonder why Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber, both of whom had some blind spots and occasionally reversed themselves, don’t inspire certain people to call them irrational, or psychotic, or to speculate about their sexual fixations.” But I don’t comment, because I don’t really wonder why. I don’t wonder at all.

God knows I begrudge no one the right to tear their hair out over a Kael review, or even over her entire body of work. I disagree with her all the time, much more often than I second her thoughts. That’s the whole goddamn point to Kael. I put my hand over my mouth when she acknowledges the beauty of a woman’s picture I love like Now, Voyager, only to call it “a shlock classic.” I grieve when she refuses to see merit in my own pets, like Joan Crawford--I suppose because I’m emotional about Crawford. Still, I’m not interested in some guy’s psychoanalysis of why she didn’t like Last Year at Marienbad. As a friend remarked to me, once you go there, “you might as well go all the way and speculate whether she was having her period during the screening.”

I’m arguing that through a decades-long career, Kael earned the courtesy of having her film judgments evaluated without veiled sexism. She clearly wanted that herself. My favorite part of Kellow’s biography was the story of Kael’s visit to a hardware store in Great Barrington:

“It happened to be Mother’s Day, and the proprietor gave her a gift, adding in a condescending tone, ‘Because you look like you’re a mother or a grandmother.’ ‘Fuck you, Charlie,’ Pauline replied. ‘Do you know I’ve written ten books?’”


glennkenny said...

Wowsers, Siren, you certainly have grappled with the subject at hand. Beautifully done, your worship.

I do feel compelled to add, and not merely for the sake of stoking my imp of the perverse, that if you don't care for friend Brody's rebuttal to the "Shoah" review, try J. Hoberman's, reprinted in his essential collection "Vulgar Modernism." Believe me, I've rolled around the floor a couple of times with the "she didn't like the movie" rationale; it doesn't wash. The key line of the ridiculous "Shoah" notice, which Hoberman points out with properly mordant irony, is, "If you set him loose, he [Claude Lanzmann] could probably find anti-Semitism anywhere." Gee, ya think? Anyway: Practically indefensible. Although Craig Seligman gives it a try, and almost succeeds, in his Kael/Sontag book. Still. The problem with the piece does go way deeper than the common cause you find with PK.

Noel Murray said...

As a longtime Kael-lover -- flaws and all, and perhaps especially because of the flaws -- I appreciated the hell out of this. Thanks.

The Siren said...

Glenn, thank you so very much, my esteemed confrere and critical guide. The Shoah line you cite is where I part company with the review, and why I said I agreed with many of her points, not all. I don't believe that seeing one-third of Shoah qualifies me to throw down over it one way or another; my aside about my own reaction was by way of saying that I don't find the bulk of Kael's thoughts to be "grotesque." I never understood the vituperative reaction to the review, which is extremely long and primarily concerned with the film's aesthetics. It seems to me that when I read people getting worked up over it (and I read the Hoberman piece, albeit quite a while back), they are proving the truth of the intro that Shawn made Kael add to the review. There, is in fact, one movie you can't criticize, and that movie is Shoah.

Noel, I believe this is the first time I have seen you in my comments, and that makes me happy. Your good opinion makes me happy, too.

Jon Hastings said...

Really great piece. I'm glad to see someone else pointing out that critics like Manny Farber and Jonathan Rosenbaum get a free pass for their iconoclastic judgments, while Kael has been repeatedly attacked for having "incorrect positions".

The Siren said...

Thanks very much, Jon. I hope I am not implying disrespect for Farber, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Andrew Sarris, because that would not be the case at all. I'm just saying, sauce for the goose, AND the gander...

Jon Hastings said...

Ah - I definitely didn't think you were implying that at all and I wouldn't want to imply it either. My own sensibilityis much closer to Farber's than it is to Kael's, but I've always been suspicious that his pans of things like The Magnificent Ambersons are seen as momentary lapses whereas Kael's pan of, say, Hiroshima Mon Amour is taken as a sign of unsound critical faculties.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Very nice job, Siren. I look forward to Walcott's book. He's a bright writer and lovely person. I don't know when I'll find time to read the Kael bio, but I know I'll get to it eventually.

As you note Kael was infuriating. She was also endearing. I've never come across so paradoxical a person. Rarely did I ver agree with her judgment on a film -- even one we both liked. But reading her was almost always a joy. That's why Renata Adler's attack on her weas such a joke. Did you ever read Adler's film criticism for the NYT? "Pathetic" doesn't begin to describe it. The woman simply can't write.

And she's got the novels to prove it!

In person Pauline was so much fun one found oneself forgiving even her biggest gaffes.

At least while you were still chattign with her over coffee.

Her life history was both singular (I believe I've posted here about one of her weirder jobs was testign makeup fo Sonja Henie) and indicative of a certain moment in American arts and letters. She was a brilliant autodidact -- with a considerable suspicion of official culture. That's a good place for a critic to start, but she often ended up on the bad side of everything. This was especially the case with Orson Welles. "Raising Kane" is her most egregious mistake. She started out with the perfectly reasonable notion ofgiveing mankiewicz more credit -- and discussing his career and influence -- only to do so at the expense of tearing down Welles. far and away the most ridiculous thing in the peice is her calim that a scene where Kane was eatign in his ofic came about because Toland's camera crew "caught" Welles wolfing down a snack. Citizen Kane is a lot of things but "cinema verite" is definitely not one of thme.

Welles said his answer to her was F For Fake. I can see what he means. It's also my very favorite Welles Film.

Now that We Can't Go Home Again has been uneleased in all it's multi-image bi-polar glory perhaps we'll FINALLY see The Otjer Side of The Wind -- in which Susa Strasberg performas a parody of Pauline.

Yes Pauline pursued gay men to an alarming degree. Like a number of women, wraped in a syndrome deserving of seriosu study she longed for what I call a Triumph of the Will & Grace marriage. Diane von Furstenberg is a true adept at that sort of thing. She's on her second at the moment. Pauline flunked out on that score with James Broughton (their daughter changed her last name to "James" the better to distance herself from her "Radiacal Faerie" father)

That's all for now. I must get back to Roman Polanski.

Vanwall said...

Emminently Kael-worthy, Siren. Disagreement is sometimes better than agreement to stimulate the mind, and she had lots of those with me...or I with her...or everybody with her. So what? I was still right. Now you've reminded me of those, and how much they made me seek out other views. This post is such a keeper, damn.

john_burke100 said...

A lovely post, and the basic conclusion--that Kael, over and above any specific characteristics of her work, was up against a formidable wall of institutional sexism--strikes me as fully convincing.

About the repertory house she programmed: this was the Cinema Guild/Studio, a tiny two-screen operation (later expanded to three, though she left it not long after) on Telegraph Avenue near the UC Berkeley campus. She didn't just program, she produced a monthly pamphlet of commentary, the kind of one-paragraph summaries that were collected in "5001 Nights at the Movies." These were my first introduction to her as a critic, and since I was about 17 when I first hit Berkeley, they had a powerful effect. And the programming itself was very much a part of her style: I'd grown up in Manhattan, where the Thalia seemed to have certain thuddingly obvious double bills fused permanently ("Tobacco Road" and "Grapes of Wrath," e.g.--hey, poor white people!) but Pauline was interested in surprising juxtapositions, and they were part of the fun of going to her theaters. In fact my friends developed a game of trying to out-Pauline Pauline in this respect; the consensus winner was "Singin' in the Rain" coupled with "Los Olvidados." I like to think she would have approved.

The Siren said...

David E., thank you very much. I have to agree about Raising Kane, it's one piece of Kael writing I honestly can't abide, but then we all know I'm EMOTIONAL about Orson. And Citizen Kane. Definitely start with Wolcott's book, it's the purest kind of pleasure.

Vanwall, I'm touched and honored; as long as you've been a cherished commenter here, "keeper" from you means a lot.

John_Burke, I am very glad you thought I made my case. I was here in NY at the tail end of the repertory era and loved all those places, but you're right, the double bills were usually rather obvious. If someone attended Singin' in the Rain b/w Los Olvidados, what I want to know is what they had for dinner (or drinks) as a chaser. Do you dance down the street, or hide under the covers?

Peter Labuza said...

Love this post, Siren. This bullshit of tearing down Kael for not liking this or that film has always come off as disingenuous way to raise your own opinion. If criticism is about "getting it right," kill me now. I don't think I have an ounce of Kael-ness in any of my criticism-I'm too level headed to really grab a film by the balls-but she makes you want to read to the last sentence in a way few other critics do. It's the journey, not the end game.

The funny thing is, I recently re-read Sarris's The American Cinema, and wow! That is a slog to get through. For every great observation Sarris makes, you have to tread through about 15 bad sentences. He got it wrong too, but he's had the chance to apologize for things like Wilder, and still thinks "The Maltese Falcon" is a minor work by Huston. I took a class with Sarris too, and he's about as fun to listen to as person as he is to read on the page (about hald the class was actually him reading his own reviews).

justjoan123 said...

Oh, what a pleasure to read this, Siren dear! I am entirely, unashamedly prejudiced when it comes to Pauline Kael. I adore her, warts especially. I read her at 16, when I reverently read The New Yorker from cover to cover as training for the life I knew I was destined for, my life in New York City. I read her before I knew people actually wrote film criticism, even though I had been analyzing and annotating films for myself since before I was able to be seen over the box office window. In Pauline Kael I found a voice that put my incohate thoughts into focus, even while I vigorously conducted mental debates with her from my Yellow Springs, Ohio dorm room. And, when I finally did make it to New York on my own and wrote her a timid fan letter with my brand new West Side address, she answered me. How generous she was, especially now when I think of how many other correspondents she probably skewered, perhaps in the same week. I will always love Pauline Kael and I will happily read all of these books. Thank you.

The Siren said...

Thanks, Peter. I have a great deal of respect for Sarris and I'd have to say that with notable exceptions (like Wilder) I agree with him more than Kael. But I get more enjoyment from her prose. I always go back to the moment in an art history class that was one of the great light-bulb epiphanies of my life. Someone asked the prof about Picasso vs Matisse, and he responded, "Why should I choose when I can have them both?"

JustJoan, thanks so much. You should definitely read Dennis' piece, too.

john_burke100 said...

Siren: If someone attended Singin' in the Rain b/w Los Olvidados, what I want to know is what they had for dinner (or drinks) as a chaser. Do you dance down the street, or hide under the covers?
That was an imaginary bill, not a real one. But I do think she matched "The Beggar's Opera" with "Touch of Evil." She also programmed movies that were outside the art-house repertoire at the time--"Distant Journey," the Czech movie about Terezin, "Affair at Kamakura," a kind of postwar-teen-angst Japanese flick I've never seen anywhere else, Glauber Rocha's "O Cangaçeiro." Maybe what was special about Kael was just her invincible Pauline-ness: just when you thought you could predict what she'd say about a movie, she'd blindside you, panning "Strangelove" or praising "And Then There Were None." and the whiplash-inducing double bills were another expression of that.

Anonymous said...

Lovely, Siren. Thank you.

And yes, the sexism is evident in plenty of her attackers (notice how close to the surface the charge of "hysteria" always is whenever she got her blood boiling; not something often leveled against male critics, who tend to be merely "passionate" or "provocative").

My story follows the same script as so many of her fans -- discovered her as a tiresome 10-year-old through my mother's New Yorker subscription, and was hooked. Even when I disagreed with her, I loved the force of her style.

Which remains a constant for me, I guess. I loved Agee first for the language (even though I think his insights were pretty consistent, too.) It's still true today. If the prose isn't there -- call me shallow -- I just can't stick around for your discussions of negative space or planes of action or whatever.

And, btw -- a small cheer, please, for the not-quite-gone days of magazine subscriptions. How many wonderful accidental discoveries were made by bored kids on rainy days, looking for something to do and finding a stack of New Yorkers, or Saturday Reviews or other dutifully delivered publications?

It was the antithesis of Google Search -- you didn't know you were looking for something until you found it...

DavidEhrenstein said...

The best double feature i ever saw was when Fabiano Canosa was programming at "The New Yorker" 9theater that is) and book Coobra Woman and Duck Soup.

You cannot imagine how well these seemingly extreme opposites worked together.

The Siren said...

Cobra Woman and Duck Soup is some kinda twisted genius right there. John, I think all cinephiles secretly want to program double features, or festivals. My fantasy festival was always The Ward Bond Tour of Incredibly Great Movies He Pops Up In Unexpectedly.

Stephen, thanks as always. It's true, I loved The New Yorker in those years for a lot of reasons, not just Kael. Man they used to run some bugnuts eccentric stuff, which was often wonderful. You didn't know you had the slightest bit of interest in the topic until it popped up.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Dear Siren, there are so many people I will be eternally grateful to have come to know over the past six years since this whole blogging thing became such a big part of, and changed to some degree, my life, and if you're not right at the top of that list it could be the subject of a really great debate as to exactly why.

You elucidate so much of what's squirrely about the ever-raging arguments about Kael, and you do it so well that several times during this piece I had to stop and think to myself, why is this kind of thinking not primary when considering the woman's achievements and her inconsistencies? I will forever be indebted to you for articulating the following:

"She palled around with filmmakers, tuts Dargis, as though friendships with Woody Allen and Robert Altman kept Kael from hating Stardust Memories or 3 Women."

And this:

"She never expounded “a theory, a system, or even a consistent set of principles,” points out A.O. Scott. And my response is, “well, thank god for that.” But the question also arises, is that the highest goal of criticism? Start Your Own -Ism?"

Or this:

"The above objections--whether I agree with them entirely, in part, or not at all--can be supported with evidence from Kael’s life and writing."

That's exactly the thing, and maybe it's why Kellow felt he could shift the tone away from the direction in which a standard autobiography might have focused on the anecdotes surrounding her brilliant career after the age of 48. Kael herself famously commented, when someone asked her why she hadn't written the memoir Richard Brody seems to have wished she'd produced, that a memoir wasn't necessary because she felt she already had written one, in the body of her work as a film critic.

As for the very creepy threads of apparent objection to Kael's work based on her gender throughout her career (and beyond), it is astounding just how obviously threatened a lot of folks were by the prospect of a tiny woman who had the kind of intellect and influence she had, coupled with an absolute lack of hesitance as to using it and expressing it. Your phrase "I don't wonder at all" actually gave me chills. And though I never met or spoke to Kael (and how I wish I hadn't been out in the pre-Internet hinterlands in the '70s and '80s and could have figured out how to contact her), it has been my distinct displeasure to come in contact with Kael hatred of this kind more or less up close and personal, during that semi-infamous film critics panel last year when Richard Schickel insisted on slagging on her from the stage at every opportunity. When I stood up at the end of the panel and expressed my respect and love for Kael's work, how I probably wouldn't even be writing without it, and how I didn't appreciate the disdain for her I was getting from some of the participants in the panel, Schickel zinged back, "Well, you never met her, did you?" To which the audience responded with uproarious laughter which, coupled with the mike being taken back by the assistant, covered up my response: "No, but if I could trade speaking to you for meeting her, I wouldn't hesitate!"

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the wonderful piece.

Laura said...

For me, Kael is not only an influential critic, she's an influential writer, period. In college, I oftentimes read a review of hers before writing an English paper. Her reviews were gorgeously worded, but not so prosy to distract you from the subject at hand; on the contrary, her style drew you in even more, helped by the personal immediacy she put into pieces she was really fired up about.

Before I sound too much like an insufferable Paulette (which, y'know, I am), yeah, agreement with her was never 100%. And unfortunately, she did ruin a few movies for me: I can never watch To Kill a Mockingbird again without noticing how much Brock Peters' nostrils "flare" nobly during the trial. And like my dad says, sometimes her taste in comedy was questionable: he still wants her estate to pay him $2.00 after her positive review sent him to watch Up in Smoke in 1978.

Yet there's the thing about Kael, she liked what she liked, and openly embraced the offbeat--without, thankfully, deliberately doing so for the sake of edginess (she found the quirky Harold and Maude rather twee, from what I can recall. Or maybe that was just me). I'll always admire her unabashedly for her enthusiastic praise of Kubrick's Lolita and De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, when critics and audiences alike were rolling their eyes at both movies, and still do. Her review of Lolita is further proof to me of her outstanding skills as a writer alone; once an author makes me think, "Lord, I wish I'd written that" I know I've found a keeper.

It's amazing the people whose skin she got under. The passion and personal feeling she brought to her reviews really did dig up some sexist undertones from surprising people. Gregory Peck, who at the time was one of the reigning Gentlemen of Hollywood, wrote her a letter asking if she panned him so often on the off-chance he could have "turned her down" once. Meryl Streep--everyone's darling--once dismissed her criticism as that of "a poor Jewish girl" who was jealous of Streep for being a Wasp with "long blonde hair." Of course, she puts it like she's pitying poor, deprived Pauline rather than hating her. But gee, Meryl, that blonde waspiness never stopped Kael from championing Pfeiffer.

I wouldn't like to be on the receiving end of one of Pauline's blows, either. But the fact that they made impact, and that people get more riled up about her writing than most other critics, is certainly testament to something, whether it be good or bad. Me, I'll take disagreeing with her heatedly any day over passively accepting every bland, vanilla word of praise from critics who fall for every costumed epic every time, or go nuts over the "stark originality" of every self-conscious indie that comes out. I don't care if I disagree, just gimme a damn point-of-view!

Thank you, Siren. Excellent piece.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

And thank you also for linking to my piece, which is something like three years old and remains one of the things I'm most happy to have gotten down on pixels. In the absence of having anything to say about the new books (I'll get to 'em someday, he said with conviction...), that post will have to stand as my comment during this week of Kael-mania. Gee, maybe I'll shamelessly recycle it myself! :)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Amen, Laura!

The Siren said...

Dennis, I thought about that Schickel panel, and your response, when I was reading Dargis' Times piece, where she quotes him from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls almost as though he were in the habit of palsy conversation with Kael. It kinda drew me up short. Thanks so much for getting my arguments; they have been percolating for a long while.

Laura, I think the Kael estate owes me for Yentl, although you know what, as I recall she liked Blow Out, and it took me years to like that one. Given my own inclincations, mostly it was her capsules that would really make me nuts; just as one for-instance, man, she did not like classic Westerns, with a few notable exceptions like Stagecoach. But yes; when I wrote about Kael very briefly before, I mentioned that a lot of her phrases are still rattling around in my head many years after reading her. That is also something, as you say.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

One last thing:

"Gary Indiana, at Artforum (in a piece that Wolcott also quotes) sneers that Kael “clearly had a thing for Warren Beatty, for Paul Newman..."

Yeah, we're supposed to find Kael's attraction to these men and writing about it in assessing their work as somehow specious. But where would the Internet be, to say nothing of the career of Andrew Sarris and many other male critics in the heyday of print journalism, without endless gushing about the female movie stars that so filled the dreams of these writers?

I mean, I can't imagine not being able to swoon over Claudia Cardinale at will!

The Siren said...

Excellent point, Dennis. And Cardinale was (is, actually) some dish. You know what I love about her? That amazing husky voice. No one seems to comment much on it. Is that not odd. ;)

DavidEhrenstein said...


Yes, her voice is lovely.

spongefrob said...

I first heard of Pauline Kael when she dissed 'Dirty Harry', Don Segal and Clint Eastwood. I was livid as only a adolescent could be. Part of the anger was the brutal unscabbing of the growing realization that something was not quite right, either with the movies themselves or with the enjoyment I derived from them.

I think time, and Eastwood himself, have vindicated Kael: you can't understand the arc from "Dirty Harry" to "Unforgiven" without seeing that it passes through Kaels writing; no, she didn't 'influence' him, or anybody far as I can tell, but she did express first, and still best, what was wrong with the those movies.

Actors, directors and screenwriters often want things in several different ways: eager to ply the elasticity of moral workings, actions and ethics whilst still making pretense to 'fantasy' and 'entertainment' and doing so as form of 'art' in a mutually devolving cycle of contradictions. Pauline Kael cried bullshit on that, loudly and often. After having read her for some time (and having come to a love of the New Yorker first through her...) I think I can fairly say that what most angered her was the pernicious notion that the movies are some place you go to turn your brain off. Anybody who would posit such a notion about books, or opera, or theater or museums or any of the other culturally engaging acts would be roundly and soundly castigated far and wide.

She took movies and movie makers seriously as artist and cultural moment, often more so than they themselves did.

bitter69uk said...

Pauline Kael is a goddess to me -- I went straight to Amazon and added the new biography to my wish list!

SteveW said...

Great post, thanks Siren! You really capture the range of responses/feelings/attitudes toward Kael. Back in the day I read her religiously--all her books, every weekly New Yorker essay. It wasn't about her likes and dislikes so much as that she gave me more to chew over than any other critic. Agree or disagree, you had to know what she thought. Ten years after her death, 20 after she stopped writing, she's still the only critic who can stir up passionate arguments. She's still incredibly readable. Her insights on dozens of seminal films--most written within a week or two after first release--still stand up as well as or better than analyses written decades after the movies were firmly set in the pantheon (Mean Streets, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Tango, etc etc.). That's what's astonishing to me. I just re-read her on De Palma's "Carrie" after watching it for the first time with my daughter. Holy crap, did she get that movie--at a time when hardly anyone was prepared to call it a classic. Brilliant critic, full stop. And a terrific appreciation on your part.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Camille on Pauline and for once she's no posturing.

SteveW said...

Great appreciation by Paglia, thanks. I love how Paglia engages with Kael's ideas and her voice even when disagreeing with her on specific judgments. To me that approach is the right one to take with any critic. But I'm not quite sure why so many people, Paglia included, assert that Kael had a blanket dislike for Hitchcock. She didn't like his late films to be sure, but as I recall she loved a lot of his early stuff (Sabotage, Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, right up through North by Northwest).

Laura said...

"But I'm not quite sure why so many people, Paglia included, assert that Kael had a blanket dislike for Hitchcock. She didn't like his late films to be sure, but as I recall she loved a lot of his early stuff...."

People have the same assumption about Kael and Chaplin. In the recent piece on her in The New Yorker, the writer flat-out claims she didn't like Chaplin. That wasn't the case at all. She was huge on Chaplin, particularly his early stuff like The Kid and Gold Rush. What she wasn't a fan of was the later, sentimental, romanticized view he took of himself, such as in Limelight, which she thought overly self-indulgent.

But because she can be so dryly direct in her writing, not pausing to "give Chaplin his due" even when criticizing him, a lot of people take that review and assume she felt that way about his entire career. To appreciate Kael's writing, you have to realize she very seldom praises any movie or actor completely. There's usually a little something she finds off, that she can't help but note. That only proves she's paying close attention, not that she's all-out hating or dismissing a work. Sometimes she did, yeah. But people need to read the whole context, the whole body of work before they decide she completely "hated" anything. She makes you work at figuring out what she's saying, sometimes, but when you write as engrossingly as she does, I think it's worth the effort.

Casey said...

Just wanted to add my thanks for the piece on Kael. I read her New Yorker reviews religiously when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Her work played a big part in making me who I am. She was a great writer.

John Sundman said...


You say in your intro: "Growing up in Alabama, I did not encounter many women with that kind of intellectual aggressiveness."

I'm curious if you're familiar with the work of Virginia Durr? She was an Alabamian woman of unrivaled intellectual agressiveness. Her collected letters from the Civil Rights years are astonishing. They're collected in the book Freedom Writer, which is excellently edited by Patricia Sullivan.

Here's a link to my review, which I pass along only because I haven't found any other reviews on the net that give a good idea of how awesome the book is:


Nictate said...

I appreciate what your thoughtful post reveals about Kael, but the side excursion into Brody-related snideness sours the soup. I'm no Pollyanna, but it made me miss your Twitter positivity policy.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I was reading this while listening to the " 'Dueling Cavalier' preview" sequence from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN on my headphones. As a result, the thought occured to me: perhaps one's response, when reading Kael, is best described by that film's "No, no, no! Yes, yes, yes! No, no, no ..."

I dearly love Kael, and wouldn't dream of badmouthing her, much as I might disagree with her.

As for my reaction to this particular piece, I can only quote Lina Lamont's "I liked it!" SEVERAL times.

Greg F. said...

I read Pauline all the time growing up, in both The New Yorker, and at the local library where they had her books. I also read Andrew and Jonathan and Manny. Pauline was probably my favorite of all of them but what I'm curious about here is not any one specific argument but a general attitude that if you didn't like Pauline Kael, you must be a sexist. I realize we're all, for the most part, discussing backlash against her and the pitiably stupid remarks about her gender-related sex issues are certainly worth calling out for their inanity. But can't there be valid claims for not liking her?

What about the arguments concerned with her never seeing a movie more than once? Those definitely have some validity but I could argue just as easily the other way, too, I suppose. That is, I think it's valid to write the review based on a single viewing or multiple and don't think it lessens the critic to do either. But, regardless, that was the argument used by Jonathan Rosenbaum - that she never saw a movie twice - and it has nothing to do with sexism.

Personally, I've had many movies change for me after only a second viewing and the fact that I love the form so much makes it hard for me to fathom a lover of cinema choosing to never return to a great film.

In the end, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael all let their own biases and motivations guide their judgments, just as any good critic does, really. They're among the most famous because you know who they are, without a schemata to guide your way. Same with Ebert, Dennis, you and a hundred others I could name. I've probably hated Kael and Rosenbaum at more times than Ebert or Sarris and maybe that says something positive about both of them. Kael and Rosenbaum seem more belligerent, more combative and maybe that signals a deeper emotional connection with cinema than most give either credit for. I don't know. I just know that while I read them all, and liked/hated them all at various times, I was never really a Kael fan anymore than any other critic, except maybe James Agee. I'll have to read these books posthaste to get a better understanding.

The Siren said...

Spongefrob, I'm an Eastwood fan and I love a lot of the Dirty Harry movies; I see the questionable politics but they work as procedurals and thrillers for me. But she certainly brought up a lot of valid points about them.

Bitteruk, I hope you like it; my friend Dan Callahan gave it a generally positive review too, albeit with more reservations.

SteveW, Carrie really is one of her best reviews; she was generally excellent on De Palma. When I read her review of Dressed to Kill I thought she's got to be kidding, this is a slasher movie. Then I saw it some years later and said, no, she wasn't kidding, and this is a great movie.

David & Laura, I liked the Paglia essay and it reiterates a lot of what she said at the panel, where I thought she was terrific, despite having no love for her political essays as a general matter of course. She gave particular praise to "Come Dressed as the Sick Soul of Europe," not because she agreed with it--she didn't--but because it was *funny.* I had to love that. Yes, I recall Kael liking a fair bit of early Hitchcock. My MLA just arrived so I have plenty of opportunity to refresh my memory.

Nictate, I understand your disagreeing with my take on Brody's Kael writings, but it was supported by no fewer than a dozen links, and it wasn't snide. Snideness is indirect. I was quite explicit.

Mrs. HWV, just add, "It was good and LOUD." (Thanks!)

Karen said...

What a wonderful post, Siren! My father, too, had a subscription to The New Yorker; he started it in high school and never let it lapse, not even through WW2. So for me, growing up, film criticism was Pauline Kael and Penelope Gilliatt. (I love how it never occurred to me until this moment how unusual it was for two women to hold those seats at one of the country's pre-eminent cultural periodicals.)

Kael's reviews were gospel to me until I got older and started seeing some of the films before I read her reviews....I tended to be quite taken aback at how different our responses could be. And sometimes I was utterly mystified by her picks and pans. Eventually, her pets became more obvious to me.

But through this all, the notion of doubting her voice--as HER voice, not A Voice on High, thus subject to her own set of foibles and favorites--never crossed my mind. She was, indeed, fun to read. Whether I agreed with her or not, she was always interesting--and how many of us can lay that claim?

Nowadays, The New Yorker has lost that certainty of tone. I don't mind Anthony Lane (he can be quite funny), but David Denby is just a disaster. He rarely seems capable of looking beneath the surface of the films he writes about; it's depressing to read his unnuanced and facile reviews. I was sorry when the capsule reviews of revival showings stopped indicating they'd been culled from Kael originals. Seeing that (PK) at the end of the paragraph had a grounding effect.

The Siren said...

Greg: "what I'm curious about here is not any one specific argument but a general attitude that if you didn't like Pauline Kael, you must be a sexist."

Greg, I'm sorry, but I think you are reading over the part where I listed a number of criticisms of Kael, implied that I agree with a few (and I do), and said that they could all be supported with evidence from her life and writing. What I'm calling out, very carefully and specifically, are the times where disagreement with her is folded into arguments that go to her state of mind, or her being out of her mind, which is something you just don't see done to male critics of her stature.

For the record, I thought Rosenbaum's "Raising Kane" analysis was terrific. (Did I say that already? I'm losing track.)

jim emerson said...

Beautiful work, invaluable Siren! I can't recall where I read this, but apparently people used to tell Kael that she should write an autobiography. Her response: "I like to think I already have."

The Siren said...

Karen, thanks as ever; very glad you liked it. it's funny but I don't recall anything I read from Penelope Gilliatt, although I'm assuming if I saw a review from the period I was reading The New Yorker it would come back to me. Kael was to me, even then, by far the superior critical talent. I also miss those P.K.s at the end of the capsules, even when they came at the end of something that had just made me rub my temples.

The Siren said...

Jim, thank you so much. For anybody who can't get enough of Kael and Her Discontents, I highly recommend his piece at Scanners.

The Siren said...

Oops, John Sundman, I forgot you and I wanted to say: Yes, I do know Virginia Durr, from the brilliant series Eyes on the Prize. But alas, I never met her in real life. I wish I had; a real heroine. I will read your review for sure, and hopefully the book too someday.

Casey, also missed you - thank you very much.

jim emerson said...

Oh jeez, I was so excited after reading your post that I had to comment right away... and now that I've just read the comments and I see that Dennis already mentioned that line about the autobiography! Sorry for the redundancy. Anyway, it seems you and I (and your readers) were on similar wavelengths the past few days. In addition to the Kael piece, I wrote a long essay on MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS over the weekend that quoted Farber's missing-the-point pan! It's full of radio and theatrical techniques... and, in Welles' case, that's a BAD thing?

john_burke100 said...

i think I remember that Penelope Gilliatt reviewed the Godard movie about the Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil," and got the title wrong--"symphony" instead of "sympathy." But it was, what, 1969? and my memory is not reliable; New Yorker archives are only accessible to online subscribers, and I still get the dead tree version, so I can't check.

"Cobra Woman" and "Duck Soup" is brilliant.

The Siren said...

Jim, I liked the Ambersons post very much too. Just thinking about that movie fills me with love.

John, I hope that story is true, but if not, there really SHOULD be a movie called Symphony for the Devil, shouldn't there? (or is there?)

Greg F. said...

Greg, I'm sorry, but I think you are reading over the part where I listed a number of criticisms of Kael, implied that I agree with a few (and I do)

Oh, you're probably right. I know you did and I was just trying to go for a more general "backlash against the backlash" that probably didn't work all that well in the first place.

Moving completely away from that, let me just say that disagreeing with a critic is an expected part of the package but what I think a lot of us do (and not just with Kael, but each other) is go a bit overboard and start questioning the dissenter's understanding of cinema itself. You can see it in my comment ("the fact that I love the form so much makes it hard for me to fathom a lover of cinema choosing to never return to a great film."), the implication being, "Hmmm, maybe she didn't really love cinema." It's in Jim's comment ("Farber's missing-the-point pan!") which, of course, always implies that the person saying that got the point and the other one didn't. Maybe the other one has a valid point that is completely separate. Maybe radio technique, according to Farber, made for bad cinema. For Jim, that means he missed the point. It's everywhere, all over the blogosphere. "If you don't love [fill in the blank], you don't love cinema"] and before there was an internet, we heaped all of vengeance on the published critics.

There were too many times to count when disagreeing with Kael became, in my mind, that she didn't "get" the movie, at all! "Oh my god, she missed the point... Again!"

I tend to visit the bloggers that I agree with more than the ones I disagree with. Maybe I should stop doing that. Maybe it would bring back some of the joy of disagreeing with the critics back in the seventies and eighties. Maybe if the discussions were as civilized as they tend to be here, I would, but sadly, internet incivility is one of the reasons I don't seek out dissent as much as I used to.

The Siren said...

Greg, that is **quite** beautifully put, well taken, and if it were expanded (or even used as is) it would make a good post at your own place, or at Morlocks.

Greg F. said...

Why, thank you, but leaving it here will reach twice as many readers as the other two combined anyway. You're the tops, Farran.

Vanwall said...

The library was my gateway to The New Yorker, along with the NYT, LA Times, and sundry printed things that hung from racks or waiting deliciously on display shelves. Often I read them in bursts of multiple issues, the only drawback being a kind of wistful yearning for a cultural breadth such as I was exposed to long distance. Kael was one of my dessert readings - I ate the vegetables of the news first, saving the good stuff for the last - and I must say, I identified a movie critic as some sort of Kael-like person, regardless of gender, and was often disappointed they were lesser beings in one way or another, with a lack of taste, wordsmithing, or depth - hardly any them incited me to rage, or even miffed, where was the fun? When I first got a PC, my Microsoftie brother sent me "Cinemania", an early movie reference program for home computers, and sure enough, there were Pauline's musings on hundreds of films - how could you beat that? I could get all riled up again all over.

Greg F. said...

When I first got a PC, my Microsoftie brother sent me "Cinemania", an early movie reference program for home computers, and sure enough, there were Pauline's musings on hundreds of films - how could you beat that?

First CD-Rom I ever bought. I still have it! Jim Emerson edited it (or worked on it in some capacity, if I recall correctly). Yeah, I loved the snippets of Kael there. Also, full reviews from Ebert from the seventies and eighties which, until just recently online, were unavailable unless you had the original printed guides.

Vanwall said...

Greg - I still have it, too, and the second iteration as well! I can't get them to run my later PCs, tho, wah. I wish they'd re-issue it, it's an excellent primer on film history - it was the berries before IMDb and Wikipedia, and certainly more authoritative.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well jsut to complicate matter the ACTUAL title of the Godard movie is One Plus One. Sionce it involbes the Rolling Stones crating their song "Sympathy for the Devil" in the studio the film's producer (Iain Quarrier, the Count's gay son in Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers) decided to change it to Sympathy For The Devil. As a result Godard socked him in the jaw.

Jason Bellamy said...

Too many others have said it too well already, so I'll just say terrific piece and leave it at that.

Oh, and this ... Damn that "wild subjectivity"! Without it we'd need only one critic. Ever.

The Siren said...

Jason, thanks so much for reading, and commenting. I think you've been by once or twice before (maybe?) but I am always very pleased when someone de-lurks.

Nictate, (hope you see this) - I was remiss in not emphasizing that to you as well; I enjoy our Twitter interactions and was glad to see you here, even if we disagree in part.

Noel Vera said...

Grew up reading her. Huge influence, for better or worse. Nowadays I enjoy her style, stay skeptical at her judgments.

Great piece, Siren. Not just affectionate, but clear-eyed as well. She doesn't come off as goddess or gorgon, just a complicated human being with a gift for writing.

Skimpole said...

A provocative piece, but I am not fully convinced. Many cinephiles dislike Kael? More of them would dislike Ebert or Maltin if they respected them enough to care about them. And it's not as if people are going to be rushing out to write biographies of Stanley Kauffmann or John Simon over the next decade. In a country where the movie industry dislikes critical reflection, and does a fairly good job of discouraging others from sharing it, Kael received a degree of fame and respect no other critic had. Writing in The New Yorker she had access to an upper middlebrow audience who would have thought the Village Voice too radical and Hoberman too esoteric. Given her influence and importance, it is important to get it right.

As Kent Jones put it in an article in Film Comment, "Sarris met every challenge head-on, and Kael sidestepped them all — Resnais, Malick, Fassbinder, late Bresson, late Dreyer, post-DR STRANGELOVE Kubrick, post-LAST WALTZ Scorsese, SHOAH and, last hut not least, the classical American cinema that was getting such a spirited revision from hoth sides of the Atlantic during her ascendancy. Moreover, she made a practice of encouraging
her readers to sidestep right along with her, and provided
them with a series of snappy alibis." Unlike Farber dismissing THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, these lapses fall into a lazy, anti-intellectual pattern. It can't be said that she showed the curiosity, enthusiasm and cosmopolitianism that Hoberman or Rosenbaum showed. It's not just that GERTRUD, THE MIRROR, L'ARGENT or LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST need all the help they can get, but also that they deserve it.

I think the sexism charge is a bit of a smokescreen. So John Cassavettes was, well much worse than a jerk to her, but this is a family blog. That doesn't alter the fact that THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE is a better movie than CARRIE. Rosenbaum criticized Kael's praise of THE GODFATHER for subtle power worship, thought her sneers at Dreyer and Rosselini in her review of BARRY LYNDON philistine, and was generally critical of the insularity and lack of curiosity she and the Paulettes have shown over the last three decades. There are powerful business imperatives in the nineties that prevented most people from even hearing about TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE, A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES, FALLEN ANGELS, A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE, or MOTHER AND SON. But I don't think the Paulettes were picking up all the slack.

Not to continue being snarky, since after all I actually enjoy this blog very much. But I'm not a big De Palma fan. THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a movie where the Andy Warhol/Malcolm McClaren figure is played by Paul Williams! And his signal achievement is making GREASE! Clearly this is one case where the devil does not have the best tunes. I think CARRIE appeals to anyone who bullied or was bullied in school. It touches a nerve, but then so does pornography. And compare Piper Laurie's simple minded religious fanatic with Philip Stone's subtly brilliant Delbert Grady. Kael sneered about THE SHINING "the demons...are so vicious they're even racist." And why shouldn't horror be connected with actual evil? (And about Paglia and her swipe at film studies scholars: if Fredric Jameson could see the merits of THE SHINING that Kael, Simon and Kauffmann couldn't, well more power to Jameson.)

rcocean said...

Great Post Siren. Crazy man Sam Peckinpah stated my opinion of Kael very well:

A critic like Pauline Kael fulfills these two functions essential to all fruitful critical activity: intelligence and a passion for cinema. She is one of the rare fascinating people to read because she is, before all, passionate.

That's what really attracts me to her. And I'd add: she was her own woman. She didn't give movies Brownie points for their politics, nor did she believe in these absurd dull and goofy "theories" which other boring critics often push.

Her reviews of "Shoah", "2001", and "The Sound of Music" are examples of her not going along with the crowd and showing her courage.

jim emerson said...

Greg: I don't mean to imply in any way that I think Manny Farber didn't love cinema. I was specifically referring to something he said about "Magnificent Ambersons" being full of "radio and stage techniques"... which he thought was a bad thing. I think that's part of what Welles brought to the cinema. As I said about Farber in my AMBERSONS piece (and have said about many critics, especially Kael and including myself) sometimes we pick up on something important but don't understand its full significance. Kael did that often: you'd read her, nodding your head at how perceptive she was... and then you'd find out she was describing what she thought was WRONG with the movie, when you (to use her "you") thought it was what was exactly right! That's why I say it's a critic's perceptions that matter far more than her verdicts.

(And yes, indeed, I was the editor of Cinemania in the last couple editions - '96 and '97!)

Greg F. said...

Greg: I don't mean to imply in any way that I think Manny Farber didn't love cinema. I was specifically referring to something he said about "Magnificent Ambersons" being full of "radio and stage techniques"... which he thought was a bad thing.

Oh, Jim, I know you weren't doing that, sorry if I made it sound that way. I was just trying to show how we all pass little, inconsequential judgments on other critics when they don't agree with us. My examples were mild ones. For extreme examples, I needn't provide you with any as you have been on the brutal end of them in the comment section of Scanners more times than I care to recall. I don't know how you keep your cool sometimes when I read someone calling you every insulting name in the book because, essentially, you don't like their favorite director or movie.

glennkenny said...

Sorry, but I'm gagging on rococean's line about Kael's negative notices of "Sound of Music," "2001," and "Shoah" as examples of her "showing her courage." As Orson Welles once said, "Let's not lose our heads here." Jesus.

Eddie Selover said...

Late to the party but just want to thank you for the post and for the observation about how blatant sexism infuses so much of the criticism of Kael. She was forthright and unapologetic about advancing a woman's point of view, and it was eye opening to me as a boy and a young man reading her reviews. Like so many things about her writing, it had a lasting impact on me.

Amazing to me that so much of the back-and-forth about her revolves around whether she was "right" about a given movie or not. As if that's possible. Her disdain for any sort of "pantheon" mentality where someone is beyond criticism was bracing. As was her willingness to go against the prevailing winds of both popular opinion and critical consensus.

But her value wasn't in being "right" -- it was in being an inspiration. I grew up in Los Angeles, not exactly the hinterlands, but as others have said here, she made me long for New York so much as a boy and teenager that I eventually ended up there. It was a New York of the mind, but so what? It got me there.

Aside from that, she was a huge influence on me as a writer... not just because she was so damn fun to read but because she taught me to throw away formal discipline and rules, and instead hone in on the things that had impacted me, and take it from there. Nobody was better able to evoke a moment, an actor, or a movie than Kael -- often in just a few words -- and many of her observations hit the bullseye of truth with an almost audible Thwack.

Just at random, her description of James Cagney in Ragtime: "he has the faint, satisfied smile of an old tiger, and it's a pleasure to look at him." I'll never forget reading that. The love and respect for Cagney that it evokes... yet it's utterly without sentimentality. Of course, that one sentence made me watch Ragtime, which turned out to be as lousy as she said it was, but that's the point. Agree or disagree, she made you want to watch movies, to think about them, and to write about them yourself. I love Pauline Kael and I always will.

rcocean said...

I think many of her reviews can be labeled "Courageous". Especially, when they result in people trying to get you fired, yelling at you, and throwing your shoes out a window.

And I doubt her negative review of "Shoah" won her many friends at the New Yorker staff or readership.

rcocean said...

BTW that quote of Peckinpah's is from Jim Emerson's great post on Kael.

glennkenny said...

Ooh, "people yelling at you," horrors. As far as "trying to get you fired" goes, well, "almost" doesn't count except in horseshoes. And speaking of shoes, if you don't want John Cassavetes messing with them, don't get into a car with him. Or any other filmmaker, if you wanna stay REALLY pure. I had filmmakers try to get me canned from my Premiere job on account of negative reviews, and I never considered courage as having a single thing to do with what I did. Integrity, sure. But courage? Come on.

Craig Seligman, who is a greater admirer of Kael than I, and was/is also a great friend to her, wrote this of her in her later life in his book on Kael and Sontag: "Though she never lost any of her surface effrontery, she hated, *hated* being attacked—a crazy anxiety, I know, in a writer who practically lived by the motto 'Make my day.'"

SteveW said...

Courage, yes, absolutely. Professional courage. She wrote her mind at large-circulation mags like McCall's and Life and got fired for it. And this was when she was trying to earn a living and raise a kid as a single mom. In the 1960s.

X. Trapnel said...

I haven't yet seen the Kael biography and I am curious about the fallout following the Shoah review. I think it's worth pointing out though that the New Yorker under Shawn had long before published the much more "controversial" Eichmann in Jerusalem.

I am also curious as to how Kael courageously broke with the critical consensus on Sound of Music. Did she actually...like it?

Shamus said...

Or the consensus on 2001- critics have complained of Kubrick's coldness before he started making films. As Skimpole notes, Kael made her disdain for Dreyer, Rossellini and Resnais well felt but I'm not sure how Sarris broke with Kael on post-Strangelove Kubrick: his review on Eyes Wide Shut is more of the same, really: using Ophuls to clobber Kubrick. The third key American critic, Manny Farber, devotes all of one paragraph on Kubrick in his complete works (LoA)- and most of that to discussing Timothy Carey. I don't know why Kubrick left such a vacuum.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Kael was fired from her gig at "McCall's" because she wrote a negative review of The Sound of Music for them. Hypocrites that they were they were happy to publish it. They were unhappy at the ton of reader hate mail they got for doing so. But what did they expect from Pauline? Did they hire her because she was a woman and nothing more?

Now THAT'S sexism!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Sarris definitely missed the bus on Eyes Wide Shut. It was what they call today a "passion project" for Kubrick. He'd wanted to make a film of the Schtizler novel for a long, long time. So long in fact that I suspect he first thought of making it as a period film. That would have been fine as that's a period he cottons to eg. Paths of Glory. Morever he's great with period as witnessed by Bsrry Lyndon (albeit a much earlier period.) But then he brought Rahael on board and the y reconcieved it as a contemporary film. But is it really contemporary? Jonathan Rosenbaum sagely pointed out that the New York Kubrick built on a giant sound stage is the New York he recalled from the last time he was there -- 1962. The street on which the "Sonata Cafe" and the costume shop reside is quite obviously 8th street in the viallge. You can even see "Audiophile" if you look closely.

Altogether I quite like EWS. it's great fun and it broke up a sham marriage. What more can one ask of a movie?

Cracking Up said...

Thanks for the great post. As someone who strongly dislikes Kael's work, I have nevertheless enjoyed reading the well-written tributes to her since they have made me think again about the value and role of criticism.

rcocean said...

"I am also curious as to how Kael courageously broke with the critical consensus on Sound of Music. Did she actually...like it?"

Good line "X". But she didn't attack 'Sound of Music' in the New Yorker, but McCalls, and thereby lost her job.

Geez Glenn, sounds like you have issues with Kael. Maybe you should write a post about it. I'd read it -with pleasure.

And just to beat an almost dead horse, I'd say refusing to go along with the critical consensus shows you have "integrity" - while continuing to go against the consensus, even though you've been fired for it,is courage. Maybe, not of a high level, but still courage of a sort. Maybe its just "brave".

glennkenny said...

Hey, thanks for that, Steve W. Let me ask you while we're here, what's your opinion of Raymond Shaw?

Seriously, it's worshipful dribbling of this sort that tends to inspire the more catty and dismissive efforts of those who suspect the existence of a Kael kult. Yeesh. Somebody get me a crying towel.

The Siren said...

*Pops head in after a long day at work, where she cannot read comments or post* Is everybody happy? No? Can we fake it?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's how to fake it.

rcocean said...

I'm happy but then I have "a passion for living".

I'm currently reading John Simon's "Private Screenings" and even in the 60s he was taking shots at what he called "The Great Pop Critic."

But he had respect for her, and his disagreements were mainly based on their different approaches to film.

rcocean said...

Thanks DE, you're shown why Cantor is forgotten today.

The Siren said...

There are times when I really enjoy John Simon. He can write. I prefer his pieces about the things he liked, where like most critics, he's at his best.

Yojimboen said...

I never once found myself in agreement with Pauline Kael; though on several occasions I found that she was in agreement with me.

rcocean said...

To me, Simon was at his best praising great Foreign films (Bergman, Renoir, Fellini, etc.) and Kael was at her worst dismissing them.

In fact, even with the great Foreign films she liked, she always seemed uncomfortable. Her writing suddenly becomes stiff and strained, like a College Freshman discussing Hamlet for the first time. Its really noticeable in her early writings.

The Siren said...

HA! I feel that way about some critics...

Yojimboen said...

You have outdone yourself, chère Madame; your monograph will, I suspect, be accorded the deservèd status as required reading for any future serious academic study of Ms Kael’s work.

On the other hand, I’m not quite ready to plunk down my hard-inherited cash to buy some of the premises on offer today. ‘We’re still talking about her, ergo she must be important.’ (Republicans still talk of Ronald Reagan – nuff said?)

Early on I made it a rule to only read her reviews of films I'd seen - it was an interesting exercise, storing up her pieces to read them immediately after seeing the film in question. It created the illusion of a deeply private relationship, having my own personal critic.

I'm surprised to learn she never saw anything twice, particularly since her reviews, good or bad, often sent me back to the theater a second, or even a third time.

I made allowances for her tastes I didn't - or wouldn't - make for other critics like Sarris or Schickel (Renata Adler? Talk about grading on a curve, Adler was the Keira Knightly of her day. Hopeless. Just hopeless). I swallowed hard whenever PK was kind to worthless hacks like De Palma, but enjoyed the brouhaha she created when she agreed with me that Gregory Peck possessed all the acting skill present in a 4x8 sheet of ¾ inch birch plywood. But she allowed that Mockingbird was okay. Boy, did she get that one wrong.

An entertaining writer who spent way too much time and energy attacking (or defending herself against) other writers; I may be wrong, but I can’t recall a single word of dish by Otis Ferguson against a fellow scribe (of course it was a less crowded field).

Her sojourns into H’Wood kibitzing – Beatty, Altman, et al – I didn’t mind, and wondered why others did. How did it differ, one asks, from the days when every star spent a good deal of their leisure time brown-nosing Louella and Hedda? Just bidness.

Finally, like all of us, she thought she was right every time. What does it matter what you say about people? She was some kind of a woman.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The one thing she managed to do during her sojurn at Paramount was concince them to greenlight David Lynch's The Elephant Man. She was justly proud of that -- as well she should have been.

Cantor is "forgotten" today because popular filmmkaing has developed to such a degree that Vanesssa Redgrave stars in the new Roland Emmerich spectacular -- a total monstrosity that's destined to waste time and pixels for month or more.

When it comes to historical spectaculars, give me Roman Scandals starring Gloria Stuart, David Manners and Eddie

Jeff Gee said...

For some reason, the Busby Berkeley step-on-step-off combination reminds me of this...

Karen said...

Well, Eddie Cantor isn't forgotten by ME. I love him to pieces, and I do so unapologetically.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Frank on Pauline

Dan Callahan said...

I just finished the Kael section of Wolcott's memoir. Lots of laughs.

My favorite: Wolcott mentions a female writer of very slim output who never ever seems to be typing in her "New Yorker" office. "What does she do all day?" Wolcott asks. "She thinks beautiful thoughts," says Kael.

Yojimboen said...

Thanks for the Frank Rich link, David. I would’ve hated to miss the piece. (More required reading to go with our fearless leader’s thoughts.)

J.A. Morris said...

Re "Cantor is forgotten":
Am I the only one who has an Eddie Cantor song on their iPod? Just asking.

My father subscribed to the New Yorker, so I've been aware of Kael as long as I've been aware of "film criticism". Like some here already said,right or wrong she was always an interesting read. "Raising Kane" is still dead wrong, but it's not a cause for us to play dime store psychoanalyst.

SteveW said...

God, the NY Times has now published, what? Four separate writers on Kael? (Scott, Dargis, Maslin, and now Rich) All of them remarkably petulant and peevish in their assessments.

I guess one other thing we can say about her is that she *really* got under the skin of the New York cultural elite.

The Siren said...

Oops, sorry Rocean. Never had to delete something with that word before, because nobody ever used it, but...not here. Even if you're British.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece, Siren -- enjoyed reading it, as well as everyone's comments.

I don't remember when or how I first encountered Kael but I do remember jumping out of my skin with excitement when, as a teenage employee of Crown Books in the late '90s, I came across a hardcover edition of For Keeps in the discount bin. Even today, her reviews of certain films (in particular, Mean Streets, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange, Blue Velvet, the Dirty Harry films, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Nashville) often stand alongside the films themselves in my mind. I can't think of a person I've turned onto Peckinpah (my favorite director) without practically forcing them to read her "Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah" piece in For Keeps.

Oh, and --

I guess one other thing we can say about her is that she *really* got under the skin of the New York cultural elite.

-- Well, thank God for that.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I've found the review of For Keeps I wrote for the L.A. Times back in '93. For some reason it's preserved in three segments.

Here's part one

Here's part two

Here's part three

DavidEhrenstein said...

And here's fan mail from some flounders.

DavidEhrenstein said...

WAY off-topic It is my exquisite pleasure to announce. . .

Joel Bocko said...

A refreshing take on the book (or what you've read of it) - I think the only in-depth review of it I'd read so far was Frank Rich's and it certainly painted a different impression of its contents. I'd say it must be a NY Times thing, but I see StephenW beat me to the punch.

One piece I seldom/never see discussed, although it's probably one of the first I remember and certainly one of her most archetypal - for better or worse - is her absolutely hilarious (and thoroughly mean-spirited) decimation of Sidney Lumet in the making-of piece on The Group. It didn't even make For Keeps, which strikes me as interesting. Is there more of a backstory (or, rather, afterstory) to this? Perhaps Kellow's book will tell.

Sometimes, reading her I feel like a parent (despite the fact that she's older than my grandparents - 64 when I was born) - compelled to scold a naughty child, but secretly wanting to muss their hair and wink at them. And you know they know it, and are going to act on it by misbehaving again, and you're secretly glad.

I don't think I agree very often with her views on particular films, or much of her overall sensibility (the kinetic/visceral part sure, the power of an unpretentiously relaxed yet charismatic performance definitely, although partly in the latter case because she helped BRING me to that perspective) - I feel like she missed out on/wasn't interested in a lot of the other things that make "cinema" "cinema" to me at least.

But we don't pick friends because we agree with them all the time or even often, instead we pick them because they are entertaining, because they are fun to be around, because they enrich our lives when they're there - because there just couldn't be any other way. That's how I feel about Kael - a friend across time and space who's always there on the bookshelf when I need her.

Thanks for the great piece.

John Branch said...

I enjoy seeing movies, talking about movies, and pondering reviews of movies in roughly equal measure, but because I have many other interests (maybe too many for my own good) I ordinarily have less time, even less patience, for critics of movies disputing with other critics of movies. My attitude toward critics is basically pragmatic these days: I look for those whose views are useful, either because I often agree with them, so they can tell me what to see, or because I usually disagree but profit from measuring my responses against theirs. I more or less ignore those who don't serve these purposes. Other views exist, but attempts to read their "system," if any, and judge who's right and who's wrong and why often end up reminding me of religious and political arguments.

That's a backwards preface to saying that, though I wondered at the outset what I'd get out of your discussion of Kael and her discontents, it proved to be illuminating and rewarding. Thank you for that.

Thanks also for the very sensible inclusion of James Wolcott's memoir in the piece. I'm now eager to read it.

rcocean said...

The 60s/70s must have been great times for movie criticism. Famous critics cared so much they not only wrote great reviews, they argued with other, and gasp! attacked it other.

Seems all very entertaining even reading about it 40 years later.

rcocean said...

I'm confused Siren. Which 4-letter words are acceptable and which aren't?

I assume Son-of-a-Bitch, Bastard, and Mofo are acceptable.

The Siren said...

Rcocean, some still-friendly advice: don't test me.

rcocean said...

Sorry Siren, I'm not tried to "test you" merely to understand what you consider acceptable or not.

Sometimes boundaries need to be defined to prevent misunderstanding.

G said...

I loved Kael's film criticism and still miss her reviews.

I've gotta say I find it irksome the way so many here are lambasting her for not liking one film or the other.

I don't expect that even my best friends to agree with me on all things, nor do I think they should take offense if I disagree with them. I actually think disagreements can be rather interesting - its fun to try to win someone over to your point of view, even if its a pointless exercise more often than not.

Personally, I disagreed with Kael's ultimate assessments of films at least 40% of the time if not more, but she almost always made a GREAT case for her viewpoints, bringing to vivid life the film as experienced through her eyes. And she was great at dissecting various elements of films, the acting, the cinematography, the directing, etc.

Ultimately - she was a great WRITER, she wrote about herself through the things she honestly loved and despised - that's what made her feel like a real person, like a friend whose opinion I valued.

The current critic I most admire these days is theater critic Michael Feingold (in the Village Voice) I don't go to THAT many plays but when I do see plays he also reviewed I end up agreeing with him about half the time too. But he writes about theater with such love and has such a depth of knowledge about theater history I often come away feeling enlightened, and that's good enough for me.

Joel Bocko said...

G, you hit the nail on the head. Though I've seen some strong defenses of her as a critic, they always circle back to defenses of her first and foremost as a writer. I think a lot of the detractors are hung up on the matter of her critical judgement but her talent was less overall "judgement" than on-the-spot "analysis".

Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

I'm coming in very late to this discussion, but (a) thanks to The Siren and others for their kind remarks, and (b) nobody ever gave me a free pass for my remarks about Bergman in the NY Times. Au contraire, perhaps the only other time in my life that I got so much hate mail was when I dissed No Country for Old Men.

But it's also worth pointing out that people's objections to both Kael and to me have been inflated sometimes by where our writing appeared. That is, I doubt that so many people would have objected so much to my comments about Bergman (even as they were redrafted many times for the Times editor, who wanted me to make them still meaner) if they had appeared in the Chicago Reader rather than the Times, and, similarly, Kael's appearances in The New Yorker and all that these implied fueled some of the objections to her, which would have probably been less pronounced had she still been writing for The New Republic.

The Siren said...

Jonathan, thanks for stopping by. I hope I didn't imply you got a free pass for the Bergman piece; I vividly remember some of the threads I saw, and "vigorous dissent" was, in retrospect, an understatement.

I'm sure the "tall poppy" symdrome does play a part; if you've got a big position at a premiere media outlet, you're going to get it in the neck no matter what. But in the examples I cited (and others I didn't), there is a question of tone and word choice, both of which can be particularly belittling and perjorative when it comes to Kael--I even see it in the opening to Frank Rich's piece, where she's called "self-dramatizing" in the opening graf. I was actually going to remark at your place, but then discovered that you don't have comments, so here goes--that the 2008 Godfather piece is also excellent, brings up some questions about those movies (which I adore) that aren't posed often enough, and pays Kael the respect of ripping apart her opinions, and not her psyche. That's all the second half of this post was ever about for me.

And for the record, I know you've expressed some reservations about it since, but I *liked* the Bergman piece too--after I got over my initial Bergman-loving chagrin. Just as I *like* "Come as the Sick Soul of Europe" because it's funny, even though I like a lot of the movies Kael is pulling apart in that essay.

DavidEhrenstein said...

How well I remember the firestorm of protest that arose when you gored that sacred cow Ingmar, Joanthan. I suspect you're right that its being done in the NYT (an unaccountably sacred cow itself) had a lot to do with it. Likewise I doube that Pauline's dissing The Sound of music would have raised hackles in "The New Yorker" the way it did at "McCalls"

That you were attacked for dissing those nxoious frauds, the Coens, speaks to the larger problem of how low standards cinematic have fallen of late.

Anonymous said...

That you were attacked for dissing those nxoious frauds, the Coens, speaks to the larger problem of how low standards cinematic have fallen of late.

Absolutely. Because there's nothing -- I mean, nuthin' -- that says low cinematic standards in 2011 like championing a Coen Brothers film.

The Siren said...

I hope things aren't going to get peevish now, so far we were adopting quite the spirit of peaceful collegiality, or so I though.

Personally I am crazy about a lot of Coen brothers movies but again (at the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, which I am fundamentally not), I also read Jonathan on No Country for Old Men (and Inglorious Basterds as well), didn't agree with either piece and am still glad I read them both. Aside from general admiration for a skillful argument, if all you read are people telling you what you already believe, how is that any kind of a mental workout? or even interesting? As long as I'm not condescended to (or, worse, the MOVIE is being condescended to) I'm fine.

I'm even fine with David E. calling the Coens "noxious frauds" because agent provocateur is our David's stock in trade and besides, he makes up for it by defending Eddie Cantor.

Shamus said...

A Paradox (of sorts)- when the Coens called playwrights like Clifford Odets hacks and novelists like Faulkner drunks who left it to their secretaries to write their own novels, they got a Palme d'Or for their efforts in Barton Fink. I guess there are somethings that you cannot attack- Ingmar Bergman no, but the Great American Novelist is fair game. At least so far as his drinking is concerned.

Shamus said...

Although in Jonathan Rosenbaum's case, it may have been the death of Bergman and the incendiary title of the obit really, that had been so offensive to readers. (I think he wrote somewhere that he was unhappy with the "Scenes from an Overrated Career" his editor chose for the title.)

The Siren said...

Shamus, I wrote before that whoever put that headline on Rosenbaum's Op-Ed has a strong claim to the title of "Most Evil Copy Editor Ever," and that's one hell of a crowded race. But, as a copy editor myself, it probably won't please J. to hear that I think it's an excellent hed. Got people to read and talk about the piece (oh boy did it ever), which is your basic aim with a headline, and while it exaggerates the content in a way that makes J.'s chagrin understandable, it's still accurate enough to pass muster.

See, copy editing is a thankless task. People see only the things you didn't catch, and none of the many things that you did. Every once in a while, though, it's the writer who pays for the impishness of the copy editor.

It will all be equalized one day in that great newsroom in the sky.

Shamus said...

My guess is that most of the hate mail for Mr. Rosenbaum came from people who saw the headline and assumed, well, that you would expect them to assume. So, as you say, the copy editor ought to have at least some of the share of the mail.

Best guess: most ordinary filmgoers (*cough*) who were fed the notion that Bergman was the greatest filmmaker in the world since the 60's from John Simon (and Paul Schrader and Woody Allen) were simply pissed that maybe, maybe they had been duped by some of the portentousness of Bergman's psychodramas and didn't realize it.

That said, I don't get the hostility against Bergman from the likes of Fred Camper et. al. And Jonathan Rosenbaum's initial draft (it's on his website) is far more sympathetic than the one finally printed.

The Siren said...

I'm a big Bergman fan, especially the early black-and-whites (I have a THING for b&w, shocking as that may seem); and I am also a big, big fan of Fanny and Alexander. I don't know, at some point we all have to step back and realize that the world does not screech to a halt over film disagreements and if Jonathan found F&A tedious (I can't remember what his exact word was, apologies, but as I recall he wasn't enthralled) my pleasure in it will still be there when next I see it. My hackles tend to rise when the writer is suggesting that people who don't see it his way are unusually dense, or deluded--or irrational; or when the writer is assuming an unearned position of superiority to the director/actor/screenwriter what-have-you. Neither is true of either version of the Bergman essay.

Shamus said...

Speaking for myself, I enjoy provocative statements, especially when the writer is being cantankerous. Anyway, they may be more useful (though, admittedly, it gets a little tiresome) than articles that confirm what we already know. What you called the copy-editor's impishness.

I sometimes have trouble telling one Bergman film from another and I haven't even seen more than half a dozen of them (not Fanny and Alexander, so I'll give it a shot). The Silence and Through a Glass Darkly: so much rests on sex (preferably illicit), madness and mental illness, suicide or untimely death. But Bergman could also be magical: there is a cut in Summer Interlude, I think, where the ballerina kisses her lover as they are standing by the stage: instead of showing us the kiss, Bergman momentarily cuts to her toes (a lovely cinematic moment). Or the scene where one of the characters describe the tapestry in Seventh Seal.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's a very good point, Shamus. The Coens reference Odets and Faulkner the better to give thmslves serious cred while attacking them all the while.

I bailed on the right at the start of Blood Simple, where the camera, tracking across a bar, rises to move over a drunk passed out on it, then descends to continue its trackign trek. This smartass mise en scene put me in the worng mood and nothing that followed changed it. The Coens almost invariably create characters that the audience can fee smugly superior to. The one exception -- Marge in Fargo -- proves the rule. But she gets a pass from them because she's an "eccentric detective" archetype.

Bergman is a far more comlicated case. I saw my first of his films when I was ten year's old. And back in 1957 The Magician and Wild Strawberries were pretty daned impressive. matter of fact they still are. Bergman was the Art House king -- and for good reason. Even if you though he suffered from an excess of 'seriousness" his drama tic skill and his overwhelmingly brilliant trouple of players couldn't be denied. Frankly I nver found him quite that sober-sided. Especially because of All These Women -- a pastel-colored comedy very much in the mode of Jerry Lewis' The Ladies Man that I for one (and it's lonely out here let me tell ya) adore.

When Person came along it was a real sock. Everyone had though Bergman was a "settled matter" and here he was with a film stunning in its effct. Basically a "two-hander" it was far from simple either dramtically or cinematically. It cmletely rewrote the book on what he was doing. The films that followed were all quite good -- even The Touch -- but not as good as Persona. But then after a film like Person asking for more would be churlish.

Then as if all was said and done Woody Allen adpted him as his Absolute master. Nothing wrong with that save for the fact that the middle-brow-minded NYT had adpted Woody as the new Bergman -- which he isn't.

Shamus said...

Also, Siren, cinema has always attracted outrageous statements at least since Cahiers: now, Jean-Luc Godard has passed on that fever to his supporters. It's almost passe to call Godard - what was that again? - "the most important artist—not just of the cinema but in the arts altogether—of the second half of the twentieth century" as Brody does here. For that bit of idiocy alone, your stomping on him was entirely just.

Vanwall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vanwall said...

STICKS NIX HICK PIX - Now that's a hed.

The Siren said...

I love the little moment in Yankee Doodle Dandy where Cagney explains that headline to a non-hep neighbor kid...and realizes he misses the footlights.

Shamus said...

Threading on thin ice here, David, but I agree that the Coens seem to lack a basic sense of curiosity about human beings, something that I suspect even a second-rate Odets plays possesses. And it's infuriating that they so glibly deride great artists like Faulkner or even Hollywood producers like Goldwyn or Warner (who did produce some great films, even if they do make such broad targets).

Also, I think that, like Tarantino, the Coens' "appropriations" of Kubrick, Polanski and Hammett (and Sturges!) betrays the originals.

John Fitzpatrick said...

As an editor and copy editor myself (or copyeditor as Webster now prefers), I'm surprised to hear of somebody altering the tenor and title of an essay. Adjusting a news item would be one thing, but this was strictly an opinion piece. I'm in reference books, however, and maybe it's different in the newspaper world. A famous instance was an article by the modernist composer Milton Babbitt that ran in High Fidelity magazine under the title "Who Cares if You Listen?" Babbitt was indeed an elitist who considered that he was composing for a select audience of advanced peers. But the article and the man were not as arrogant as the imposed title made them seem.

The Siren said...

Roszaphile, it's evil, but alas, like many evil things, it works. HA! I *remember* that Babbitt essay--it's since become famous, hasn't it? I read it, right after hearing one of his pieces performed by the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and I also read some of the letters that followed. I have to say that the title and tenor of the piece were perfectly in keeping with how much I enjoyed the music. I understood his viewpoint; the applause after the orchestra finished was the most tepid I've ever encountered in a concert hall, and I am sure it's frustrating to be seeking out new compositional worlds and coping with people like me who were there to hear...what was I there to hear? Brahms, I think. Still, all I had to do was sit through the thing to realize that Babbitt was composing for someone who was Not Me and yeah, he probably didn't care if I listened.

rcocean said...

Is this Jonathan R. with Woody Allen?

Anonymous said...

I hope things aren't going to get peevish now

Siren, I sprinkle "peevish" on my Corn Flakes every morning. Please. :)

In further reaction to Mr. Ehrenstein's Coen Brothers remark, I will say this: I don't fundamentally disagree with those who find the approach of earlier Coen Brothers films somewhat lacking.

As much as I happen to enjoy the bulk of their filmography for various reasons, I do believe that their earlier work helped pioneer a sort of "smug hipster" attitude in indie films -- and especially in relation to those termed as Jus' Folks out in Fly-Over Country. I believe that said "smug hipster attitude" has trickled down even to the work of someone like Alexander Payne -- which might explain why an ex-girlfriend of mine (back in Fly-Over Country, where I'm from) found herself insulted by a movie like About Schmidt. "F**k Nicholson and that director," she fumed. "That guy on the screen is guys like my father or my uncles, and these smug f**ks haven't the slightest clue what the f**k they're talking about."

But back to the Coens. Or rather, back to Mr. Ehrenstein. Imperfect as their oeuvre may be, they're hardly symptomatic of "low cinematic standards" -- not the guys who brought off No Country for Old Men, not the guys who pulled off a better True Grit than Henry Hathaway managed. No, no, no.

A statement like Mr. Ehrenstein's is nothing but an empty ploy for attention, a big fake fart let out in the middle of Sunday school, a sixteen year-old girl grabbing her push-up bra and her fake ID and heading off to the local watering hole. It's a ridiculously overheated statement that can't be taken seriously. It's not substantive criticism. It's not even genuine criticism. It says zip about the state of cinema in the 21st Century. All it does -- all that it's intended to do -- is to draw attention to Ehrenstein himself.

In which case, I'd say: "Bravo, Ma'am. You even managed to sucker me in. But next time, try a push-up bra and a low-cut neckline. You'll get all the attention you want and you might even get a few drinks for your trouble."

Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

It's not too surprising that Scott is NOT a Professional (sic) likes the Coen Brothers; they seem to share the same house style. Is his post a demonstration of what he means by "genuine criticism" -- which I take it is what the Coens practice also, in their deep-dish social commentaries about American culture? (I'm thinking, for instance, of their treatment of the KKK as a Busby Berkely chorus line in O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
If so, what vital lessons is a journeyman like Henry Hathaway supposed to take away from such nuggets?

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful piece, and I especially love your takedown of Dargis and A.O. Scott, who actually cited Kael as his favorite critic when he got the Times job but has learned in the intervening years to keep that opinion to himself (assuming he still has firm opinions--one must triangulate so much as lead critic of the Times). Good to see Jonathan Rosenbaum here, too. I am reminded that Kael liked and recommended his work all the time although he often attacked her and they rarely agreed. Kael loved good writing. She obviously preferred if you agreed with her but she'd rather you didn't and say something she hadn't thought of than blandly echo her opinions. What's the fun in that? I have to laugh when I read some of the other comments about her liking or not liking this or that film... Shaw the critic was suspicious of Shakespeare, Tynan never had a bad work for Brecht, Farber didn't like Taxi Driver--hell Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks (Breaking) Wind Across the Everglades is a masterpiece... but I treasure all the above critics and as far as I know no one ridicules them the way they do Kael. Sarris once wrote that Ophuls's Lola Montes was the best movie he'd ever seen. It's not even the tenth best movie by OPHULS. But Sarris isn't ridiculed the way Kael is for her rip-roaring rave of Last Tango, which is an important piece regardless of the decibel level of her effusions. And the person who wrote, "An entertaining writer who spent way too much time and energy attacking (or defending herself against) other writers..." can't have read much of her. Mr. Shawn wouldn't let her attack other writers and she never defended herself in print. (Her writing was and is its own defense.) Anyway, thank you again. I hope you enjoyed the panel. I'd like to write something myself but I need to cool down a bit. There has been a lot of garbage out there, especially in the Times and (of all places) The New Yorker.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to sign my name, since there's another David E. out there. David Edelstein.

Joel Bocko said...

I think the double-standard thing is probably most evident with Sarris; didn't he write a piece called "Girls, Girls, Girls" or something to that effect, which was basically 2 pages of him sighing over American and European hotties? As a red-blooded American male I can't say I blame him, but yeah, snarking about Kael's supposed "crushes" certainly seems to invite an arched eyebrow, at the very least.

SteveW said...

Great point by Edelstein about every critic having their personal likes and dislikes, but Kael's always getting called out as somehow irrational. She always upfront in interviews about not responding to some filmmakers (Fassbinder, Tarkovsky), and therefore not writing about them.

SteveW said...

"The Coens reference Odets and Faulkner the better to give thmslves serious cred while attacking them all the while."

I've always hated that aspect of the Coens. But I wonder if they're dropping their snarky attitude toward authors? "No Country" was a respectful adaptation of a not-very-good book, and "True Grit" was one of a great book.

Anonymous said...

In belated response to Mr. Rosenbaum, what I said regarding the Coens was:

I don't fundamentally disagree with those who find the approach of earlier Coen Brothers films somewhat lacking.

I do believe that their earlier work helped pioneer a sort of "smug hipster" attitude in indie films

Imperfect as their oeuvre may be...

How you apparently took all this to indicate some sort of unrestrained Coen Brothers fanboyism on my part is a mystery, indeed.

Also, you said:

(I'm thinking, for instance, of their treatment of the KKK as a Busby Berkely chorus line in O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
If so, what vital lessons is a journeyman like Henry Hathaway supposed to take away from such nuggets?

I referred to the Coens' reboot of True Grit as being better and a more effective rendering of the Portis novel than Henry Hathaway's original. What O Brother, Where Art Thou? has to do with my assertion is anyone's guess.

For that matter, Siren also indicated her enjoyment of Coen Brothers films in this comment thread. Does that mean that she also shares the same "house style" as Joel and Ethan?

And finally, since you mentioned my idea of "genuine criticism," I'd point you to a handful of my own blog pieces:

Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs -- http://scottisnotaprofessional.blogspot.com/2010/03/straw-dogs-1971.html

Paul Schrader's Blue Collar --

The Town (2010) --

Boogie oogie oogie.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Latest FaBlog: Fait Diver -- O Brother Where Art Thou

VP81955 said...

In case anyone's interested, here are Kael's relatively brief comments on 13 of Carole Lombard's films (an entry inspired by this thread, BTW):


Anonymous said...

This is a great, great piece of writing. Thank you. I don't think I've ever seen anybody capture so perfectly Kael's relationship with her readership, nor so easily refute the asshatery of some of her critics.

Anonymous said...

Adds another commenter, “[he’s] right about Kael's sexual fixations, but that isn't the sole problem. There's also the fact that there's no rhyme or reason to her approach. She would, time and again, praise one movie to the skies for certain qualities, and then turn around and trash another that possessed those same qualities;” he winds up by saying Kael had a “borderline psychotic degree of subjectivity.”

As the author of the above comment, I notice you didn't bother to quote me in full. For the record, I don't give a damn about Kael's gender, and I'd like to think Kael herself would have enough integriy not to resort to knee-jerk pseudo-feminism to defend herself. Incidently, it's rather silly of you to suggest veiled sexism and fear of a "strong" woman as underpinning a dislike of Kael's work, given that you yourself blithely dismiss the very legitimate complaints of Manohla Dargis and Renata Adler, and that you conveniently ignore that Adler's is the most thoroughgoing and punishing critique of Kael's corpus ever written.

I was making the rather obvious point that Kael laughed herself silly over one Farrelly Brothers comedy she watched in a theater with a full audience then moaned about what a failure another Farrely Brothers comedy was which she watched alone sitting on a couch in front of her TV. She complained about how their pacing was all off without considering the very different effect of watching a comedy on the big screen surrounded by hundreds of people laughing alongside you, as opposed to just watching something by yourself in solitude. She attributed her wildly differing reactions entirely to what unfolded onscreen and didn't even factor in the different viewing environments.

Therefore, it wouldn't be at all out of bounds to wonder if "she was having her period during a screening," since it's obvious that such factors could affect her reaction very strongly, given how capricious she was, given her refusal to ever reconsider her initial, heat-of-the-moment responses or reexamine anything.

I wouldn't, however, wonder about Molly Haskell, Adler, or Dargis, because they didn't make a fetish of their fleeting emotions or first impressions, they didn't worship their own gut. Whether a critic is male or female is irrelevant here. I went on to criticize Kael's lockstep disciple/devotee Charles Taylor for the same quality. (In fact, Taylor is far worse than Kael, since he has all of her belligerence but none of her smarts.) So let's not pick a knee-jerk gender fight when gender has zero to do with what I find fault with Kael.

As for your claim that Sarris or Farber wouldn't endure such speculation about their psycho-sexual inclinations, au contraire, John Simon always used to receive a barrage of letters to the editor protesting his rather nasty shots at various actresses' looks. In particular, his unrelenting animus against Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli, his over-the-top insistence that they were physical repulsive beyond measure, did indeed lead countless readers to speculate about his psyche. The reason is that Simon was not a gentleman, as Kael was not a lady. Sarris, by contrast, had a gentlemanly courtesy about him that was utterly unlike the go-for-the-jugular approach Kael and Simon alike favored.

One final point: my main problem with Kael is not her writing per se, but the countless godawful Paulettes she inspired to take up the pen. Sarris also inspired many critics, but you simply don't see them mindlessly parroting his opinions or marching in lockstep the way so many Paulettes do.

Anonymous said...

David Edelstein wrote,

I especially love your takedown of Dargis and A.O. Scott, who actually cited Kael as his favorite critic when he got the Times job but has learned in the intervening years to keep that opinion to himself (assuming he still has firm opinions--one must triangulate so much as lead critic of the Times).

Of course, it couldn't possibly be that his enthusiasm for her writing has waned. I used to enjoy her writing a lot more than I do now, too. Matt Zoller Seitz (an excellent writer), David Denby, and Manohla Dargis all used to be huge Kael fans too, and no longer are. It's part of getting older that your enthusiasms change.

Kael loved good writing. She obviously preferred if you agreed with her but she'd rather you didn't and say something she hadn't thought of than blandly echo her opinions.

This is flagrantly false. The main reason I turned against her in the first place, and grew exasperated with her influence, was the sheer number of times I encountered writers who were just mindlessly repeating her views as some kind of gospel truth. And we now know, from James Wolcott, David Denby, Owen Gleiberman, Tom Carson, that she did indeed try to coerce worshipful young writers into echoing her opinions. Read Howard Kissel (who admires her) for more damning first-hand testimony as to how badly she wanted uniformity of opinion. She most certainly was NOT opposed to groupthink, as long as she initiated it.

I have to laugh when I read some of the other comments about her liking or not liking this or that film...

That's not my problem with her. In fact, I actually dislike much of not most of Kubrick and agree with much of her complaints about him. What I object to is that she herself used many of the same arguments against A Clockwork Orange, for example, that she earlier mocked un-hip, square critics for using against Bonnie & Clyde. Because she loved B&C, she pooh-poohed the concerns about the violence, then proceeded to level those very same charges against the Kubrick film because she didn't like it. Me, I think both Clockwork and B&C are overpraised, so I'm not a big fan of either.

Sarris once wrote that Ophuls's Lola Montes was the best movie he'd ever seen. It's not even the tenth best movie by OPHULS. But Sarris isn't ridiculed the way Kael is for her rip-roaring rave of Last Tango, which is an important piece regardless of the decibel level of her effusions.

That's because Sarris was willing to revisit old flames, and reconsider his earlier views, Kael wasn't. Sarris later admitted he may have overrated LOLA and that it wasn't as great as he'd once made out. He was humble and pensive in a way Kael wasn't. Sarris saw criticism as a conversation, whereas Kael saw it as a way to pontificate and bar the way to further discussion. Her judgments were inflexible, whereas Sarris' were in constant flux.

Slothrop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Slothrop said...

Great essay, especially the part about Richard Brody. I read his "Shoah" piece without knowing anything of his animosity toward Kael, and just thought, "What? Grow up, little boy."

My only problem is with the Mother's Day anecdote you close with. I heard a different, much less apocryphal version of this. It was Father's Day and the hardware store proprietor said, "Everyone should celebrate Father's Day. That means you too, Mom," indicating Kael. She answered simply, "Well, fuck you, Charlie!"

Your version sounds too tortured and on-the-nose to be credible.

Terence Kuch said...

Thank you for the excellent and thoughtful article. I met Pauline back in 1962 and happened to be at her home in San Francisco when numerous sirens started up, and the radio said there was a fire at St Mary's Cathedral, which was only about a mile away. We (Carol Boyer also) drove there, got out of the car so we could approach more closely, and watched as this very dramatic fire (I wouldn't have said 'cinematic' where she could hear me) consumed the entire building. Pauline was chanting, and not in a soft voice either, "Burn, baby, burn!" Some people weeping on the sidewalk looked at her - I guess 'aghast' is probably about right. This was September 7, 1962, and I remember it well. We had discussed some films and I had the misfortune of praising one or two that she didn't like, but she did enjoy a pseudo-review I had written of the Crucifixion, as if by her ("I did not seem like a real death...").

Terence Kuch

Terence Kuch said...

That "I" in the last line should be "It," of course,

Grace Lovelace said...

Came across this well after the fact, but thank you for your Kael love. And thank you for explaining the Richard Brody connection more fully; I happened across his Woody Allen/Clint Eastwood "won" post and saw red at the blatant sexism of it. I just couldn't believe the New Yorker would slag one of its greatest writers like that. What's next, a New Yorker blog ridiculing Thurber's blindness. . .