What do readers expect of cultural critics, and what do critics demand of themselves and the culture they write about? In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1865), Matthew Arnold declared that criticism must be “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” Arnold’s heroes included Homer, Chaucer, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe. And in his signature work, Culture and Anarchy (1869), he called for a return to the belief “in right reason, in the duty and possibility of extricating and elevating our best self, in the progress of humanity towards perfection…”
The simple phrase oh, please would pretty well sum up the current attitude toward all that. Rather than the summons to some outmoded virtue, the modern audience wants freedom, energy, intoxication; and it wants critics who will agitate for them in juiced-up, racy American prose. Even now, 10 years after her death, the modern audience wants Pauline Kael.
In a vernacular style sometimes as garish as dive-bar neon, Kael was the peerless promoter of the sensory over the moral, most notably during her quarter-century as a movie reviewer for the New Yorker. A century after Arnold, and decidedly unlike Arnold, Kael insisted that everybody has a yen for the low-rent: “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t admit having at some time in his life enjoyed trashy American movies,” she wrote in 1969. “I don’t trust any of the tastes of people who were born with such good taste that they didn’t need to find their way through trash.”
Now her egalitarian plainspokenness has earned Kael a place among the New Classics. The Library of America has certified her eminence with a 750-page compendium of her work, The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael. “She had an instinctive affinity for questioners and dislodgers of propriety,” argues the volume’s editor, the art critic Sanford Schwartz. “She was in love…with the idea of a sensual and amoral world. Like writers before her, she perceived, and wanted to celebrate, that there was something inherently sexual in the nature of movies.” Despite all this, there was a philosophical purpose to Kael’s writing, according to Schwartz: “Her deepest subject, in the end, almost isn’t movies at all—it is how to live more intensely.”
Kael was one of those people who do their most intense living at the movies and with pen in hand afterward. In his admirable new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking, 432 pages), Brian Kellow, an Opera News editor, pays tribute to her unrelenting earnestness: “She lived her entire life the way so many of us do only for a brief time as college students, staying up all night in coffee shops with our ragged copies of Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor, reading and debating, unable, yet, to imagine that we could ever grow weary of the world of books and music and movies and ideas.”
Such youthful intensity maintained over a long career has served Kael’s reputation well: estimable persons speak of her as the most important critic of the second half of the 20th century. How does that claim hold up? Are intensity, impropriety, sensuality, and amorality enough to sustain it? Is there more to her than that—something that makes her truly first-rate, an American classic?
Born in 1919, the fifth child of Polish Jewish immigrants, Pauline Kael grew up on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, and in San Francisco, where her family moved when their egg business folded. She went in for philosophy and literature at Berkeley but left without a degree. She also went in for artistic bisexual men and followed one to New York; he wound up an intimate of the composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, and she wound up on the outs. Back in San Francisco, she took up with the bisexual avant-garde filmmaker James Broughton. When she became pregnant in 1948, he took a hike. Her daughter, Gina James Kael, was born with a hole in her heart, and Pauline raised her on her own, working dead-end jobs, worrying ceaselessly about the child’s health.
Kael’s efforts at playwriting were coming to nothing, and she wondered if she was any kind of writer at all. Then, at the age of 33, she found out what kind of writer she was supposed to be when the editor of a new Bay Area film magazine overheard her arguing about a movie in a Berkeley coffeehouse and offered her the chance to review the latest Chaplin picture.
It would be a long haul to success. She wrote here and there and became an unpaid film critic for a local radio station. The owner of a Berkeley art cinema, Ed Landberg, heard Kael on the air and called her up. She wrote program notes for his Cinema Guild; she also married him. Both of them soon realized the marriage was a mistake, and they divorced in a hurry. An unmarried mother in her forties, she barely scratched out a living. But then a Guggenheim Fellowship came through. She finished her first book, I Lost It at the Movies, and suddenly she was a hot property. McCall’s gave her a monthly column, which she soon lost with an assault on The Sound of Music. The New Republic took her on, but the editors played freely with her copy; she would have none of that, and quit.
Then in 1967, when she was 48, she wrote a 7,000-word review of a blood-soaked crime saga for the New Yorker: “The whole point of Bonnie and Clyde is to rub our noses in” the outrageous violence on screen, she wrote, “to make us pay our dues for laughing.” The magazine’s editor, William Shawn, fabled virtuoso of decorum, decided this alluring indecorous voice was what he needed, and he hired Kael. Her relationship with Shawn was perennially contentious. Although Shawn too was a big-time moviegoer, he hated some of the movies she loved and loved some of the movies she hated. She pushed for the ribald, even the raunchy, in her admirations and her diction, and there was only so far he would let his star go. But she helped make the New Yorker hot, and it certainly made her. Except during a short-lived stint in 1978 as a Hollywood producer and consultant, at Warren Beatty’s instigation, Kael would write for the magazine steadily until 1991. She died of Parkinson’s in 2001.
Kael is known for the breadth and extravagance of her taste, for taking in everything. Genuine cinematic art is best, but it is hard to come by in the movies, she pointed out, so expert entertainment would often have to suffice. Kael loved Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The appearance of the alien spaceship enchanted her, and the prose it inspired was representative of her at her most Kaelian:
When it descends from on high, looming over the mountain and hovering there, no storybook illustration can compete with it. This is something only movies can do: dazzle you by sheer scale—and in this case by lights and music as well….And with light flooding out from the windows of this omniscient airship—it’s like New York’s skyscrapers all lighted up on a summer night—there is a conversational duet: the music of the spheres. This is one of the peerless moments in movie history—spiritually reassuring, magical, and funny at the same time.
Kael’s criticism always challenges the filmmaker: Astonish me; knock me out; but also tickle me. This capacity for amazed delight shows Kael at her middlebrow American best. Alberto Moravia, the premier Italian novelist of the past century and for many years the film critic for the weekly magazine L’Espresso, complained about Close Encounters that it was just like the Americans to imagine a spaceship so immense and magnificent. For he, Moravia, had seen an actual spaceship land in the Tuscan countryside one night, and it was more like an overgrown aluminum cigar tube that gave off a grimy fluorescence. Fortunately for Kael and her audience, Kael never had the wonder, at the heavens, or at the movies, knocked out of her by such a disillusioning visitation.
But Kael’s taste did not run exclusively to the childlike and celestial. Quite the contrary: Films that ripped her open earned her supreme regard. The sexual brutality, the violent derangement, of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) incited her to lurid ecstasies. Its opening night, she claimed, shattered all artistic conventions, like the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. In almost 20 years of reviewing, she reported, she had never seen a film of comparable force: “This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made….Bertolucci and [Marlon] Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?”
Who, indeed? The Brando character, an American in Paris whose wife has just committed suicide, hurls himself into wild rutting with a girl less than half his age. Anything goes; only no names. When he asks the girl if she would eat pig vomit to prove her love, she says “Yes, indeed.” Kael cites this exchange with reverence for its unexampled sexual honesty. The glaring unreality of this film magnifies its wearisome repulsiveness. It is sad to think that Kael, who made her reputation in the 1960s in part by demolishing pretentious European films about existential distress brought to a head by desolating sex, fell so hard for this barbaric fraud.
Sad to think, but not hard to believe. For as the chronological sequence of her work shows, and the Library of America volume demonstrates, she developed a habit of overestimation, whether she was praising movies that were trashy and pretentious, or forgivably mediocre, or really rather good. Films such as Eyes of Laura Mars and Blue Velvet (trashy, pretentious, and bent), Shampoo and Blow Out and The Long Goodbye (ordinary but enjoyable), Nashville and Shoot the Moon (really rather good, the former brilliant in many details but drenched in sanctimoniousness, the latter fine until an overwrought ending) got an exorbitant markup. Kael explicitly likened the flurry of interesting moviemaking in the 1970s to the American Renaissance of the mid-19th century. Call me old-fashioned, but somehow Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, and Brian De Palma don’t stack up alongside Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville.
But then again, Kael did see how extraordinary Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) was, and that makes up for a lot. From “a trash novel” he made a remarkable film, which demonstrated that “the best popular movies come out of a merger of commerce and art.” The Godfather departs from the iconic morality of the old-style gangster pictures. The late Commentary editor and outstanding pop-culture critic Robert S. Warshow, whom Kael quoted, wrote in a celebrated 1948 essay that the movie gangster expressed “that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself.” Things change, as Kael pointed out: “In The Godfather we see organized crime as an obscene symbolic extension of free enterprise and government policy, an extension of the worst in America—its feudal ruthlessness. Organized crime is not a rejection of Americanism, it’s what we fear Americanism to be. It’s our nightmare of the American system.”
The American nightmare of flourishing moral rot was not an artistic innovation of the 1970s, but Kael keyed in to a new depth of bombed-out resignation that pervaded the culture. And in her suggestion that “feudal ruthlessness” was a feature of free enterprise and (presumably) anti-Communist foreign policy, she was simply joining the yelping chorus of the disaffected left. But in truth, this was not the company that really suited her temperament. There was a tough reasonableness to her that resisted airy, utopian nonsense.
No one would call Kael a political or cultural conservative, but standard liberal pieties got up her nose. In “Fantasies of the Art-House Audience” (1961), she kicked in the feeble backbone of most self-styled, high-end cinema. “I would like to suggest,” she wrote, “that the educated audience often uses ‘art’ films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood ‘product,’ finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.” The art-house sensation Hiroshima Mon Amour showed a French woman and a Japanese man talking in bed after making love. “There is a crucial bit of dialogue,” Kael wrote, and then she quotes it: “‘They make movies to sell soap, why not a movie to sell peace?’” She would have none of such babble: “What makes the dialogue crucial is that the audience for Hiroshima Mon Amour feels virtuous because they want to buy peace. And the question I want to ask is: Who’s selling it?” She goes on in the essay to indicate that the pitchmen are the usual suspects on the left, which prefers its notion of purebred Communist virtue to tainted democratic freedom.
It is not only the latest and most advanced artists whom Kael assails for hating the free capitalist West. The loathing first became apparent in the American movies of the 1940s, Kael writes in the novella-length essay “Raising Kane” (1971), which places the masterly Citizen Kane in context, and which is itself a masterly piece of criticism.* The screwball comedy of the 30s was genially antic even when it turned a dubious eye on national failings. “It was the comedy of a country that didn’t yet hate itself,” she writes. “Though it wasn’t until the 60s that the self-hatred became overt in American life and American movies, it started to show, I think, in the phony, excessive, duplicit [sic] use of patriotism by the rich, guilty liberals of Hollywood in the war years.” Despite the legend, McCarthyism with its blacklisting of screenwriters did not wreck American movies; what spoiled the movies was the writers’ passion for Stalinism, which the war seemed to legitimize.
Kael suggests they were more foolish than vicious: “Show-business people are both giddy and desperately, sincerely intense. When Stalinism became fashionable, movie people became Stalinists, the way they later became witches and warlocks.” This line stops the show, and there is truth in it, but surely Kael lets the offenders off too easily. Even the slowest learners knew about the monstrosity of the Soviet Union by 1937. To be indifferent to that monstrosity was not only fatuous but monstrous in itself. The fatuity lived on, she wrote, in the “abusively anti-American” temper of early 70s show folk: “America is their image of Hell…”
So Kael was not without a strain of political conservatism, or at least sensible liberalism, and she was not without a strain of cultural elitism, though it was a peculiar late-20th-century version thereof. Her principal regret about spending so much time at the movies was that she had so little time to go to the opera. Most of the arts are richer than the movies, she admitted, and she did some of her best writing about films based on canonical operas, plays, novels, and short stories. The Magic Flute, Othello, Chimes at Midnight, The Iceman Cometh, The Leopard, The Dead all get comprehensive treatment, which shows her skill as a critic of several forms.
In the essay “Circles and Squares” (1963), she declared her aversion to most critical theory, especially the auteur theory concocted by Andrew Sarris, and describes how a serious critic operates. New films, she writes, should be
judged in terms of how they extend our experience and give us pleasure, and that our ways of judging how they do this are drawn not only from older films but from other works of art, and theories of art, that new films are generally related to what is going on in the other arts, that as wide a background as possible in literature, painting, music, philosophy, political thought, etc., helps, that it is the wealth and variety of what he has to bring to new works that makes the critic’s reaction to them valuable…
The critic, then, must be a substantial human being, nourished by excellence. Matthew Arnold would not object to that. But in the late 20th century serious cultivation takes in not only the best that is known and thought but also lower pleasures that would have been unthinkable to a noble Victorian sage. The complete critic these days must have a place in her sensibility for popular culture that Arnold would have called the police to close down.
Thus Kael came around full circle: from trash to respectable entertainment to art and back to trash. She accommodated all of it. Brian Kellow, her biographer, claims that in so doing, Kael became the consummate modern critic, who not only transformed the nature of criticism but also suggested new avenues for film-makers: “Pauline’s great victory was that, like a visionary novelist, she widened the scope of her art—she redefined the possibilities of how a critic could think, and how a critic’s work might benefit the art form itself.”
But perhaps Kael was not quite the innovator that her most ardent champions make her out to be. Graham Greene was a prolific English novelist and screenwriter, most of whose novels were made into films, and he also served as film critic for the Spectator from 1935 to 1940. Kael quoted him with approbation on the “low cunning” of the movies in her 1973 review of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets: “If you excite your audience first, you can put over what you will of horror, suffering, truth.”
But it was not only horror and suffering that Greene appreciated. He got “blissed out” at the movies, to use a coinage of Kael’s, the same way she did. He reveled in the flimsy happiness that no other art can induce: “Only the cinema is able in its most fantastic moments to give a sense of absurd unreasoning happiness, of a kind of poignant release: you can’t catch it in prose…”
Kael evidently did not think as well of James Agee, the third in the trio of eminent novelists to serve as a film critic, because he was too interested in cinema that was good for you: His “excessive virtue,” she sneered, “may have been his worst critical vice.” In fact, however, Agee can sound like a Kael prototype, hungering for cheap thrills and sick of uplift: “The idea keeps nagging at me that more and more people who think of themselves as serious-minded, and progressive, thoroughly disapprove of crime melodramas. They feel that movies should be devoted, rather, to more elevated themes such as a biography of George Washington Carver, omitting nothing down to the last peanut… or the story of how the way to atomic control and the brotherhood of man has been pointed out by egg cooperatives.” Kael was hardly the first critic of sterling intelligence to enjoy what most people enjoy, and to say so with demotic verve and wit.
Of course, there is verve, and then there is stoked and smoking dance-till-you-drop exuberance that perhaps ought to learn to control itself somewhat. Kael started out as an elegant and discerning writer, grew ever bolder and more kinky, and eventually turned into a caricature of herself. Admirers tend to honor the boldness and the kink and to regard them both as evidence of an unprecedented all-inclusive seriousness. In some cases they were. Kael became a supremely influential critic because of the daring, violent, steamy sorts of films she loved and the way she loved them: brashly, brazenly, like a teenage girl embracing her boyfriend with such prehensile abandon on a street corner that respectable passersby mutter, “Get a room.” Even the respectable envy that girl’s passionate audacity; they might not want to be her, but neither can they forget the sight of her. Kael’s style, and thus at least in part her sensibility, have colored the work of almost every subsequent critic who is not a devotee of Matthew Arnold or T.S. Eliot. She has left her mark. It will not be erased any time soon.
* This and some other pieces of Kael’s mentioned here are not reprinted in The Age of Movies, but published in the 1,312-page compilation For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, unfortunately out of print.