Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Kael Biography...and Cherry-Picking Pauline

I don't know why I never thought to send Pauline Kael samples of my work, but it was probably for the best. My initial foray into film criticism was for The Moina, my sophomore-year high school newspaper. To this day I'm still not sure what the hell a "moina" is, I only recall my faculty-editor asking me to cobble together a year-end Top-10 list of movies, the only student on staff to have seen at least seven. Witness, the 1985 Peter Weir/Harrison Ford Amish thriller, I ranked numero uno. I still love that movie, still think it one of Weir's and Ford's best. What makes me wince is the memory of my closing sentence: "Oscars for everyone, the year's best film!"

Kael would have justifiably rolled her eyes at that line even if she had liked the film. A year or two later, in the form of a birthday present, I discovered she hadn't.
State of the Art, the latest anthology of her New Yorker reviews from circa. 1983-1985, was given to me by my latest newspaper editor-supervisor (an actual publication this time, my having briefly gone pro). Not having written about movies since my ballyhooed debut didn't keep me from talking incessantly about them, so my boss probably hoped to engage my mind with a different perspective than I had encountered in my adolescent sojourns from the American Southwest to the Midwest to then taking up residence in a not-quite-Deep-South city that would provide the name for one of Kael's favorite movies. In that respect
State of the Art certainly succeeded: Kael was sharp, fearless, and often very funny. (I still crack up at the closing paragraph of her review for Rambo: First Blood Part II, which oddly detours into a mention that the novelization of the movie features an advertisement for ordering the weaponry fetishized in the movie, before offering the kicker: "I can hardly wait for my set to arrive.") On more than a few occasions, though, she came across as a crank. Her
Witness review, for example, made a big fuss out of a understated moment where the Amish family says grace at the dinner table -- a scene clearly meant to emphasize (like every other scene in the movie) the Ford character's isolation, an astute observation of behavior that Kael seemed to bizarrely interpret as endorsement.

That State of the Art
wasn't the best introduction to Kael's stuff may be attributable -- as Brian Kellow suggests in his avidly-discussed new biography: Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark -- to the gradual decline of both author and subject.
I didn't know it at the time but Kael, by then close to seventy and plagued with health problems, was nearing the end of her career. Concurrently the state of American cinema was also on the downswing. A mortified through-your-fingers glance at some of the titles in the collection (Flashdance, Staying Alive, Sudden Impact, Blame It On Rio, Against All Odds, Swing Shift, Unfaithfully Yours, Falling in Love, Stick, A View to a Kill) helps you sympathize with her oft-repeated complaint that reviewing movies in that era "wasn't fun anymore." Oddly, I don't recall Kellow repeating that quote in his bio; he does, however, echo Kael's introductory explanation for the departure from her "usual sexually tinged book title... (Kael wrote) 'I hope that State of the Art will sound ominous and sweeping and just slightly clinical.'" Indeed it did. And while there's always something to be said for accuracy, it didn't foreshadow much fun.

I discovered in my twenties that the euphoria came earlier. Now with instant access to a university library, I backtracked through Kael's previous tomes (I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Deeper into Movies, etc.) and delved into the capsules in 5001 Nights at the Movies, taking greater pleasure in her writing even while still thinking some of her assessments were as inexplicable as those in her later work. Reading Roger Ebert had already given me a pretty good introduction to the remarkable run of American films from the 1960s and 1970s. I saw The French Connection and Deliverance before I hit my teens (take the possible traumatizing effects of that for what you will); Dirty Harry, The Exorcist, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and The Godfather pictures soon after. All rather violent, all heavy weather. Employing a keen balance of logic and feeling that in most instances struck me as consistent and sensible, Ebert praised all of these movies with near-equal enthusiasm. Yet exactly why Kael loved a few of these films while not just disliked, but outright condemned many of the others -- inadvertently making you feel like an asshole for admiring them in the first place -- rested on seemingly arbitrary distinctions that I couldn't fathom, no matter how deeply I pored through her prose.

The greatest accomplishment of A Life in the Dark may well be how the author makes sense of apparent nonsense. Much of this he achieves through depicting the lengthy "opening act" of Kael's life: native Californian; daughter of chicken ranchers; child of the Great Depression; college non-graduate (six credits shy); San Francisco bohemian; secular Jew; frustrated companion (and occasional lover) of gay men; single mother; holder of odd jobs before stumbling into film criticism by lucky accident. Kellow doesn't psychoanalyze Kael, nor does he approach his subject with wide-eyed disingenuousness. He simply shows how Kael arrived in the spotlight fully formed in all the contradictions of her character.

She was a brainiac who scoffed at intellectualism, a survivor of hardships who deplored victimization,
a subversive who distrusted radicalism,
a singularly independent woman who disdained feminism, a fervent admirer of machismo appalled by mindless violence and fascistic thought. Kellow's skillful breakdown of Kael's traits and nuances help bring some of her more controversial pans (Antonioni, Kubrick, Shoah) into focus. Even more impressive may be the underlying explanation for how Kael's upbringing -- which, growing up in Phoenix, I can relate somewhat to my own -- predisposed her against the John Ford/George Stevens' romantic, sentimental depiction of the American West. ("She didn't buy the male fantasy of the mythical past that the Western sold to the public," Kellow writes, "and she hated the treatment of Indians as monsters more appropriate to a horror movie.") That said, I do wish Kellow hadn't presented wholesale the conjecture that Kael's "vilification of Eastwood revealed a certain attraction to him." It smacks of the same gender assumptions found in Gregory Peck's narcissistic speculation for why she didn't like his acting chops ("I know that you were at Berkeley in the late was I. Was there something between us that I don't remember?") and demurs from a deeper study of the differences between what Kael regarded as Eastwood's humorless, ham-fisted fascism and Peckinpah's wittier, more artful variety. (Moreover, Kael wasn't shy about her enthusiasms. If she'd had a thing for Clint's squint, it seems likely she would have come out and said so.)

Perhaps like all passions, the loves of Kael's moviegoing life are frequently harder to peg or justify. She liked to be seduced (De Palma) rather than worked over (Friedkin), preferred freewheeling spontaneity (Altman) to steel-traps (Hitchcock). Yet unlike, say, the mind-numbing methodology of her disciple Armond White (Spielberg "better than" Soderbergh, ad naueseam), Kael's likes and dislikes never settled into a predictable or easy paradigm. On the whole, Kael may have "hated" Ford, Kubrick, and Hitchcock, but that didn't keep her from praising Stagecoach, Lolita, and Strangers on a Train. She "loved" De Palma, Peckinpah, and Lynch, yet still panned Body Double, The Getaway, and Wild at Heart.
Like others, I used to regard her skepticism for the auteur theory as hypocritical, seemingly being something of an auteurist herself. Yet if Kellow shows how that skepticism led to the worst ethical lapse of her career (the "Raising Kane" fiasco, in which Kael stole research from UCLA professor Howard Suber, then published the findings as her own without testing their veracity), he also persuades that she genuinely did regard each movie, regardless of the director, as something new.

I have my own issues with auteurism, mainly a personal antipathy toward boring reverence. (That may be a common misunderstanding of the theory, but is that misunderstanding perpetuated by its critics or some of its practitioners?) So it may be only natural that I prefer Kael's sincere compliment to Robert Altman for "batting an astonishing 50 percent" (even if Kellow indicates that for a while, in her view, it was really higher than that). Taking movies one at a time, along with often assessing each movie with more than one opinion of its quality (an unusual approach then or now), has left Kael's reviews vulnerable to cherry-picking. I've read claims that Kael hated Taxi Driver because she took issue with Bernard Herrmann's score and a famous scene where Scorsese's camera does "an Antonioni pirouette," even though she adored the picture overall. Google "Kael," "Spielberg," and "1941" and you'll pull up a quote commonly attributed to Kael stating that 1941 was like "having your head stuck inside a pinball machine for two hours"; only Kael didn't state that, she quoted a friend as saying it (quoting friends becoming over her career an annoying affectation), and went on to herald Spielberg's biggest flop as a great entertainment.

Her excesses can be disparaged with greater accuracy, though even there I've read plenty of instances of misattribution. Both Tom Carson (who is one of my favorite critics) and Richard Brody (who isn't) had a high time recently mocking Kael's comparison of Altman's Nashville with Joyce's Ulysses. What Kellow quotes her as actually stating is a bit more subdued and observant:
"'Altman, from a Catholic background, has what Joyce had: a love of the supreme juices of everyday life. He can put unhappy characters on the screen...and you don't wish you didn't have to watch them; you accept their unhappiness as a piece of the day, as you do in Ulysses.'" Taking issue with Kael's ethics in reviewing a rough cut of Altman's work has more validity, though her critics are always careful not to add that there remain many folks today who agree with her assessment that it's an American classic.

A Life in the Dark offers a startling reminder that for more than a decade the most powerful film critic in America worked only half of each year, alternating with Penelope Gilliatt at The New Yorker in six-month rotations. (Gilliatt, Kellow also reminds us, was a talented author of short stories and screenplays - including the Oscar-nominated Sunday, Bloody Sunday [which Kael admired] - whose problems with alcoholism and accusations of plagiarism led to her ousting from the magazine in 1979.) Working part-time provided Kael with the impetus for reviewing Nashville early (before it fell to Gilliatt), as well as the necessity to find additional funds as a guest lecturer at UCLA and elsewhere. Despite her distaste for higher learning,
Kael would have made a great academic. With her energetic devotion to young people and her cunning establishments of networks and alliances, she would have played the game better than anyone.

Academia, of course, is where I've ended up, following a path littered with obstacles and detours and blind alleys. Kael might have been surprised to learn that behind the fusty stereotypes lies in some quarters a remarkable dynamism. One of my professors, affectionally dubbed "Dr. Z," created quite a cult of personality over three decades of teaching, as Kael did with the Paulettes. (One of Dr. Z's former students, the late Chris Farley, mimicked him during a sketch on Saturday Night Live.) In Kellow's book, my parallel appears to have been Ray Sawhill, "the one in (Kael's) circle who often wouldn't do what she told him to." Occasionally, like the Paulettes, I crossed over into slavish imitation. When Dr. Z heard that I was imitating his teaching style too closely in the classroom, he urged me to find my own. Later, when it became clear that I wouldn't be following in his footsteps as a history professor, he seemed, for a time, as wounded as Kael when Sawhill and Paul Schrader and others went astray. This may have been more my perception than reality: Dr. Z, like Pauline Kael, had a way of cutting people down that stayed with them more than it did with him. And it meant a lot when, a couple years ago, we split a bottle of bourbon out on his lawn, laughed our asses off, and he told me he was proud of me.

Other than a couple of essays for The Chronicle Review in the late 90s, and a few pieces for The House Next Door over the years since, film criticism has remained a side interest of mine -- important to me, but along the periphery nonetheless. Although, like Kael in her 40s, I feel increasingly, as Kellow puts it, "a driving urgency to make (my) entrance and get on with the best part of the play," I feel lucky to now work in an environment where I can fold my passions into my vocation.

(This is where I was going to offer the disclaimer that while the Lilly Library houses Pauline Kael's papers, as Kellow has graciously noted, I have never had personal contact with the author. It was a surprise, then, to see my name listed in the "Acknowledgments" at the end of his book. Rattling around in my brainpan is a vague yet nagging memory of possibly assisting an off-site researcher, who may have mentioned working on a Kael biography, with the James Broughton papers during the years when I worked at Kent State [Broughton being the father of Kael's daughter]. Unless Kellow is acknowledging a different Craig entirely. So I find myself in an awkward position: I may have assisted with some research for this book, but I'm not sure.)

Kael's passion for her work is clearly what sustained her for so long, and even when it stopped being fun she never stopped watching movies, talking about movies, asking everyone she met if they'd seen anything good lately. She isn't the most important film critic in my life; Roger Ebert, whom I have met and exchanged a fitful correspondence with, still occupies that position. She fulfills a key role along the periphery -- questioning me, challenging me, enlightening me, infuriating me, nagging me with enough patter to have gotten her booted out of the Alamo Drafthouse. At the least giving her reader something to think about, at the most attaining something like grace.


FilmDr said...

Nice review. I enjoyed reading Kellow's biography, finding it surprisingly dramatic and bracing given how much movie reviewing has changed in recent years. I wonder if Kael's frustrations with having to share The New Yorker with Gilliatt, as well as her many arguments with William Shawn, might have helped her writing by adding extra friction.

I saw Kael read once in Carbondale, Illinois. She proved to be tiny and a little frail by then, but she still strikes me as one of the best stylists, the most intellectually engaging of film critics.

Adam Zanzie said...

Craig, I just want to begin here by saying how glad I am that you've established a successful career in academia, teaching what you love. Every day I'm haunted by this strange, never-ending paranoia that I'm never going to find a steady job in a film-related environment; it cheers me up whenever somebody I know is actually able to. There was a time when I briefly considered film criticism as a Plan B for my long-term future goals, but when I got scammed over the summer by a website that pretended it was going to pay me for writing movie reviews, I realized that academia would be a much wiser Plan B. Each day I've come to discover that students/professors are more interesting to interact with on these types of things than your average celebrity film critic, anyway.

So anyway, keep up the good work -- seriously. Put me up there with Dr. Z as one of those who sees you as an inspiration in the film-savvy world.

But about Pauline Kael. Since she was before my time (she retired before I was born), I haven't read as much of her reviews as I should, although I'm always wavering in between admiration and disgust with the stuff she wrote. It's very easy to determine that Armond White is one of her disciples because Kael didn't always go into movies with an open mind. And her codes of political correctness were another problem. No doubt she was justified in taking some Westerns to task for their unintended racism, but sometimes she was just plain wrong in her charges -- like with The Stalking Moon, for example.

She also had the weirdest biases. I will never understand her beef with Kubrick, or why she so often intended to provoke certain directors. There's no denying that the George Roy Hill quote provided in Jim Emerson's piece ("Listen, you worthless bitch!") is a little extreme, but the fact that a director could be pushed so far over the edge like that is a sign to me that something's wrong. I heard a story that it took 14 years for David Lean to make A Passage to India because Kael pretty much kicked the shit out of Ryan's Daughter. It's not that I think she was wrong to criticize the movie; I've just never believed in the practice of film criticism as a full-fledged scare tactic. Critics should try to inspire directors to be better filmmakers, not try to bury them into early graves.

I'm not giving her enough credit, though. For some filmmakers, she was a blessing. I have to admit that whenever I've found one of her capsules in support of something by Altman, De Palma, Bertolucci or early Scorsese/Spielberg, I lighten up. It amuses me that some of the younger directors like Tarantino and Wes Anderson so desperately wanted her to review one of their movies before she passed away. I guess I can relate to that, since, like you, I hold Ebert in the same kind of esteem and would love it if he reviewed something I directed.

That Kael retired after the 80's makes sense, since, as you've mentioned here, it was a bad decade for movies (maybe the worst?). Kael probably didn't think movies were fun to review anymore because producers had taken over Hollywood by then. Even when the 90's dawned and directors were regaining control, her cynicism sort of, well... remained. I'd like to think I wouldn't be as bored with the profession as she was, but that's not to say I'm up for it. I agree with you that film criticism is more enjoyable as a hobby than as a career.

Speaking of which, nice dissing of Richard Brody there, lol. I haven't read much of Brody -- flipped through his Godard book once, that much I know. Guess we all have our enemies... J. Hoberman must be to me what Brody is to you. But yeah, I'd read Tom Carson any day. His own review of the Kael biography was a lively read.

Craig said...

Thanks, Film Doc. I think you're right that Kael did thrive creatively under friction and tension. Some of her most questionable behavior occurred under duress too, however.

I didn't mention Shawn because that part of the book has been well documented elsewhere. Later in life, Kael did say something to the effect of, "Nothing like having a devious editor." Unclear if it was a compliment.

Craig said...

Adam, thanks for the warm words. I'm sorry you got scammed; I know this is a small comfort, but it happens to everyone, and you got yours out of the way relatively early in life. Academia isn't trouble-free either, but I've been fortunate to meet some great people (e.g., Jim Naremore, author of terrific books on film noir, Welles, and Kubrick).

I think you would like the Kael bio. I didn't come away agreeing with any more of her opinions, but it did help me understand where she was coming from. In the case of Kubrick (and Fellini and Antonioni), she was suspicious of directors who started pursuing the "Big Idea," which she saw as belabored artistic pretensions. At the same time, she was always hopeful that she would like their movies - read her pieces again on "Barry Lyndon" and "The Shining" and it becomes more clear that she wanted them to succeed and felt let down when they didn't (on her terms, of course). She had biases and blind spots, but she wasn't a fraud like Armond.

One fascinating pattern that emerges from the book is how she often loved a director's early work (including the above three) before they fell out of her favor as they got older. Same thing with Spielberg (starting with "The Color Purple") and Scorsese ("Raging Bull"). George Roy Hill's point about "Butch and Sundance" was basically correct, yet I suspect he was especially enraged because Kael had praised his previous movie. This recurring theme of howling betrayal emerges time and again from directors the minute she didn't like one of their movies. I remember seeing Scorsese in person about ten years ago with Ebert at Ohio State, and when Roger quoted Kael's review of "Taxi Driver," Scorsese bowed his head and muttered, "Yeah, and she never liked anything I did ever again" (which wasn't true). Tarantino also told a story about your main man Terry Gilliam complaining that Kael hated "Brazil." QT tried to correct him: "No, she didn't hate it, she just said there were a few problems with it." Gilliam replied: "Well, it felt that way to me."

But, yes, she tended to prefer younger filmmakers, though there were exceptions. She didn't care for Wes Anderson at all. And one of her all-time favorite movies was John Huston's swan-song "The Dead."

So Hoberman's your enemy, huh? Brody isn't mine. I just find him tedious. Rarely have I read shorter essays that failed to hold my attention.