Saturday, March 13, 2021

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

The art of criticism doesn't exist in a vacuum.  It doesn't just appear out of thin air.  Like every other facet of human life, an opinion about a work of make-believe is one of those things that everyone just takes for granted.  This makes it no real big surprise to discover just how difficult it is to figure out where it all got started.  Critics of books and films these days are a dime a dozen, none of us will probably ever know who was the first human being to speak up and voice an opinion about a story they just heard.  I don't suppose I mind that all too much.  It's just that I like to know where stuff comes from.  I'm one of those types who tend to believe there's a great deal of value to be had in tracing down the origins of things.  It just might, with any luck, tell us a lot about why humans do a lot of the things we take so much for granted.

I think storytelling and its criticism can be one of those endeavors where, the more you know of its histories, and turns of thought, the more rewards you might be able to get from being able to understand how it all got started.  There may even be some who argue that the best part is that it's an ongoing task, one that can never be completed in a single lifetime.  Another value to be had in studying the history of arts criticism is that it can help you gain a better familiarity with a lot of the figures associated with it.  Just a brief glance at the history itself can offer a list of all the important pioneers and trailblazers who have helped shape the very nature of the critical format and the various discussions that have continued on throughout the years.  I think this is a task that some enterprising souls will have to undertake sooner or later, as learning not just about artistic criticism, but also the names who made it possible, is probably going to wind up being a pretty big part of keeping the the practice afloat.  This can also play a big role in keeping the Arts, in and of themselves, alive as a going concern.  This is the kind of task that presents no small challenge to any who would take it up.  It is also one that can be worthwhile.

There are a lot of names out there who are vital to the history and discourse of artistic analysis, and most of them have never been household names.  A lot of this has to do with living in a culture that values brand recognition.  Some of the later toilers in this trade actually have been able to gain a kind of popular familiarity for themselves.  For instance, what's the first name that comes to mind if I use the phrase "Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down"?  The answer should be easy enough for most reading this.  It's Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, of course.  Everybody knows those guys.  Ebert's old news columns for the Chicago Sun Times are still poured over, dissected, and examined by a constant streams of fans old and new.  This is a fact I can vouch for personally.  He's one of those writers whose skill at criticizing a work of art is so well done, that even if you don't always agree with his final verdict, you can at least understand the logic that is guiding all of his statements most of the time.  That takes talent, as well as good analytical skills, no matter how your slice it.  It's just part of what makes him so fondly remembered long after he has left the stage.

Almost anyone who is anybody knows about Roger Ebert.  I'm not so sure just how many people out there have ever heard of Pauline Kael.  At the same time, that's not much of a surprise, though it may scandalize the few out there who are willing to keep her memory alive.  It's what happens to famous names that fall through the cracks of history.  Like the phenomenon of love at first sight, I'm very sure it's the sort of thing that happens not just all the time, but pretty much every day with each tick of the clock.  The natural enough result of this process is always best defined as "The Unexpected".  The sole reason for calling it that rests in the fact that it seems more or less impossible to expect a new mind to know old facts, even if they should turn out to be vital.  Because of this, history always seems to be catching us unawares, and the resulting fallout leaves us scrambling as our minds try to catch up with a lot of unknown information.  Looked at that way, Kael's life and writings are just one more strand of information that life may or might not force us to try and catch up with.  So who was she, anyway?

Part of the answer can be found in the introduction to the Library of America volume of her collected writings, edited by Sanford Schwartz.  In his introduction to the collection, Schwartz lays out her work in somewhat hagiographical terms.

"(Perhaps) more deeply than any other writer, Kael gave shape to an idea of an "age of movies."  In a career that began in the mid-1950s and was fully underway by the early 1960s, she explored movies as an art, an industry, and a sociological phenomenon.  A romantic and a visionary, she believed that movies could feed our imaginations in intimate and immediate - and liberating, even subversive - ways that literature and plays and other arts could not.  But she also understood the financial realities and artistic compromises behind moviemaking, and she described them with a specificity and pertinacity that few other critics did.  As concerned with audience reactions as with her own, she could be caught up in how movies stoke our fantasies regardless of their quality as movies.

"She was also, as she wrote, "lucky" in her timing.  Her tenure as a regularly reviewing critic coincided with the modern flowering of movies, the period, primarily the 1960s (for foreign films) and the 1970s (for American films), when moviemakers were working more than ever with the autonomy associated with poets, novelists, and painters.  While hardly always laudatory (and to some readers plain wrongheaded), she nonetheless, in the earlier decade, gave a breathing, textured life to the aims and sensibilities of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Francois Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni, among other European and Asian directors; and she endowed Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Paul Mazursky, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola, among American directors of the following decade, with the same full-bodied presence.

"Kael's grasp of film history was encyclopedic.  She had seen silent films as a child, in the 1920s, sometimes taking them in on her parents' laps.  Speaking for her generation, she could thus write of motion picture that "We were in almost at the beginning, when something new was added to human experience"; and in her full-length reviews and essays (put together over the years in eleven volumes), and her short notices on films (collected in the mammoth 5001 Nights at the Movies), she encompassed much of that "something new (xi-xii)".     

The above paragraph may serve as a decent illustration of the kind of effect she could have (or at least used to) on some of her readers.  What's the net result then?  What does the critic herself have to show for her efforts?  The answer, as far as I can tell, goes as follows: "Who the hell is Pauline Kael".  If such a response comes as a surprise to some, then it kind of begs a further question.  What else did you expect?  Half the problem, as I  see it, is that a lot of older critics out there have either been too neglectful in their jobs in preserving the reputation of film in the 21st century, or else they just never could manage to make their voices heard.  Part of it I think is down to the way they framed their criticism.  It has to be written in a way that gives the reader a reason to care about the artwork under discussion.  If you can't do that, then the sports section is always just one turn of the page away.  It really is that simple, at least as far as the average reader is concerned anyway.  

However, does the fact that Kael and her writings barely register as a blip on the radar at this late stage mean that a valuable, maybe even an essential critical voice has been left behind?  There are some who would say so.  That's definitely what filmmakers like Robert Garver believe.  This particular filmmaker was such a devotee, in fact, that he took it upon himself to to create and build up an entire documentary around Kael and her writings on and for the screen.  It was completed in 2019, and it got a lot of good press before sinking into the soup of online content.  Garver dedicated his efforts to spending a whole hour and thirty eight minutes to rescuing this one film critic from the potential of vanishing into obscurity.  The question that remains is whether all this toil was worth it, or were his efforts in vain? 

The Reluctant Farm Girl.

She was born on June 19th, 1919, to Isaac and Judith Kael.  Her parents must not have been the most imaginative couple, as the best name they could come up with for their newborn daughter was Pauline.  She spent her formative years growing up on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California.  This was a whole different world from the one we know now.  Back then, it was all still a valley, however the major image of the landscape was more of orange groves, rather than the more familiar landmarks.  That's because while it is just possible that Hollywood as we now know it was probably on the make by that time, it was still not the great monolith that it's since become.  When Pauline was born, it still just this small, local community of artists, craftsmen, and the fallout of New York's theater world.  They would have been regarded as a minor artistic community made up of eccentrics, at best.  The thing was that sometimes they would actually churn out little, I suppose you'd have to call them something like features, for lack of any better word.  They were the darnedest thing.

What would happen is sometimes the members of this community would take whole trunks full of the most outlandish costumes, and haul it all out to some location in the middle of nowhere.  Then they'd photograph themselves capering all about the damn place while some others would photograph it all with one of those new-fangled contraptions of theirs.  They called it a moving camera, or something like it.  Anyway, when all those kooks felt like they'd done enough, why, they'd pack everything up, head for home, and then sometimes wouldn't come out of their workplaces for days on end.  When they did, however, is when it all got kinda interesting, I suppose you could say.  They would emerge from their little dark rooms, on occasion, touting that they'd got a whole story in the can, if you can believe it, an entire work of fiction contained in a single, big lug of a canister that they'd start hauling around everywhere, trying to find a place where they could show it off for the neighborhood.  Sometimes nearby churches, grocery stores, or even local stage theaters would grant these loons a place to set up and show off their wares.  That's the real curious part, come to think of it.  The lights go down, a machine starts up, and then I'll be damned if what happens isn't almost like a real story, complete with beginning, middle, and ending all in one.  Ain't that the darnedest thing?

When a local band, or a traveling carnival came though town, that was one thing.  These so-called Hollywood types were up to something else.  Little Pauline seems to have been one of the first in the audience to find herself captivated by the then new art form.  Once she was old enough, and could scrape together enough pocket change, she would often head out for whichever venue was hosting an exhibition of this hip new moving picture phenomena that appeared to be the latest craze.  There might have been more than just general fan enthusiasm going on, however.  Household troubles might have played just as great a part in her seeking shelter at the movies, as much as her desire to study the new development in and of itself.

"At home", as Brian Kellow notes in his biography, A Life in the Dark, "the atmosphere was far from harmonious.  From the beginning, Judith - or Yetta, as she was often called - loathed life on the farm.  A woman who, during her privileged youth in Poland, had scarcely had reason even to boil an egg was now harvesting and cleaning them for long hours each day...Judith was angry and frustrated much of the time, and the  harder she worked, the more distant she grew toward her children.  Anne Kael Wallach's son, Brett Wallach, who remembered visiting Judith in the late 1940s, described her as someone whose "affection radiated at about two degrees above absolute zero.

"Judith's unhappiness made a sharp contrast with Isaac Kael's own good-natured gregariousness.  He was a man who naturally expected good things to unfold before him and made no attempt to hide his delight when they did.  He had great drive and energy and confidence...(3-4)".

"Isaac's success and popularity in Petaluma no doubt encouraged him to indulge in his principle vice: pursuing other women.  By the mid-1920s he had developed a reputation as one of Petaluma's smoothest ladies' men.  There was one particular widow whom he joined for frequent dalliances.  As a way of covering up his motives, he brought along Pauline, who would play outside while her father paid court (6)".  Either that or she could just make her way to the movie show, I guess.  These seem to be two crucial aspect of Kael's early childhood, and yet Kellow seems almost eager to get past them as quick as possible.  The sense of urgency on the part of the biographer sounds like a critical misstep to me.  One of the key permanent truths about famous names is that a lot of what they accomplished in later life is determined a great degree by what forces shaped them in childhood.  This can have serious repercussions if the home life isn't as supportive or nurturing as perhaps it should be.    

The one bright spot in Pauline's childhood seems to have been her surrounding neighborhood.  "Despite being an agricultural community, Petaluma was fertile ground for any child interested in reading and writing and ideas.  The community overflowed with the traditional Jewish loves of culture and learning.  Many of its ranchers subscribed to the Yiddish-language newspapers from New York and engaged in spirited debate about worlds issues.  "Such wonderful evenings we had talking about books in Petaluma," recalled Basha Singerman...whose family moved to the area in the early twentieth century.  "Yiddish books - the classical writers, history, politics.  Books were our life in Petaluma."  And there were silent movies in town, which the entire family attended.  Pauline remembered sitting on her father's lap and being enthralled by the "flickers" if impatient with their intertitles: "We were so eager for the movie to go on that we gulped the words down and then were always left with them for what, to our impatience, seemed an eternity, and the better the movie, the more we quickly tried to absorb and leap at the printed words, and the more frustrating the delays came (5)".

Even with these escape hatches in place, the general effect of her family seems to have colored the way Pauline reflected back on those days, if she could even bear to think of them.  "Throughout her writing career, and even to an overwhelming degree throughout her personal life, Pauline was extraordinarily reluctant to discuss her childhood and adolescence.  Stephanie Zacharek remembered that she would talk about her past "only in a vague sort of way."  Even people who felt that they knew her quite well realized at some point that she had revealed next to nothing about the dynamics of her family life, especially her relationship to her mother.  When Kenneth Kann called Pauline to interview her...she provided him with a one sentence reply: "Chicken ranching?  I can't remember a thing about it.  But just ask me about the Mystic Movie Theater in Petaluma (6)".

The composite picture assembled from all of these bits of information reveals a young girl who seems aware of a lot of potential opportunities available for her in her own community.  At the same time, there is always a certain ambivalence on display.  While she was willing to take the books and films that her life in Petaluma offered her, she seems to harbor any real sort of affection for the place itself, or her background in it.  This amounts to a personal decision of choosing to separate herself from her own background in ways that are more final and radical than merely leaving home to start your own life.  This seems more like Kael chose to make a definite break with her relations, all as a way of trying to escape a past she didn't really seem to care for.  She must not have gotten the right sort of upbringing.  If that's the case, then the question is, what, if any effect did this have on her professional work?  Here is where Garver's documentary is able to through at least some further light on the nature of the critic.

Crafting a Critical Persona. 

It starts with a minor bit of tossed off trivia, given by the critic's daughter, Gina Kael.  "Well my mother had a great love of 30s movies, particularly, you know, the Top Dames.  I think that she liked to emulate that, a little bit; suggest that she had it in herself".  What follows are a series of clips featuring a certain type of cinematic woman from the days gone by.  Discussing this aspect of the documentary can be tricky.  I don't think Ms. Kael meant to step on any live wire, or so much as go near a single can of worms.  It also may not change the fact that in bringing up "a certain type of woman", she has unwittingly led the discussion onto a portrayal of gender in the movies.  "In the 30s," Pauline tells us, "the girls we in the audience loved were delivering wisecracks.  They were funny and lovely because they were funny; a whole group of them with wonderful frogs in their throats.  The comic spirit of the 30s had been happily self-critical about America; the happiness born of the knowledge that there was no other country where movies were so free to be self-critical.  It was the comedy of a country that didn't yet hate itself".

Bear in mind, she appears to be limiting her discussion to just women as such.  I'm not sure at all what this comes off sounding like to modern ears.  For whatever it's worth, Kael does seem to have a fan in the person of Camille Paglia.  The later author notes "There's a certain kind of colloquial voice that Pauline Kael had back to Dorothy Parker.  There's like kind of a snappish sound, Ann Landers is an example of it, okay?  You know, wake up and smell the coffee".  Cut to a snippet of old Hollywood film in which a girl quips: Say wiseguy, stop trying to prove the hand is quicker than the eye".  As far as wit goes, I suppose you'd have to call it pretty good.  I don't how many critics out there are willing to label it Shakespeare, although does that sort of miss the point?  I think what that type of female character in a story is trying to accomplish is a lot more concerned with an idea that continues to have relevancy today.  I think what will shock post-millennial audiences is that it was even possible for sentiments like this to exist at all back in the era of the Great Depression.  I think the real truth is it was a growing concern that just got a good forward momentum by the results of World War II, when lots of women on the home front found themselves taking over the jobs usually assumed by guys.

In that sense, however clumsy they may have been at it, it really does seem as if a lot of filmmakers in Hollywood were able to pick up on this kind of unconscious sea change that was going on, and has long since come out in the open.  I suppose you could say a lot of those older guys deserve this much credit, at least they made some kind of effort to tackle it on a creative level.  How much any of them succeeded is something everyone is going to have to make up their own minds about.  There is a kind of name for the fictional woman character that Kael seems to have based her personal writing style on.  It's named after the director most responsible for making the evolving New Woman famous.  His name was Howard Hawkes, and over the course of his career, he displayed a knack for showing strong female characters in his films.  He would even let them have the last word a lot of the time.  The most memorable example of this is when Joanne Dru successfully stands up to the mighty John Wayne at the end of the director's 1948 effort, Red River.  Audrey Hepburn was another actress who tried out for more take-charge roles, as well.  

These are the types of figures Pauline took for role models, as well as writing influences.  It can be seen in the often punchy, sparring quality of her writing.  Her sentences tend to structure themselves in a way that tries to grab the reader by the lapels, and also leave them with a witty, quip remark to keep in the memory.  In either choosing or finding her way to this mode of expression, Kael found herself imitating, whether deliberately or otherwise, the fast-talking, shoot-from-the-hip-and-aim-for-the-jugular repartee that marked out the best of Hawkes' women, in particular in his spate of Screwball Comedies.  The writing in these types of films are still somewhat notable even today.  I almost want to call it a Verbal Boxer's style.  It was all a matter of the way the words were put together.  

They were written and structured in such a way that whoever was chosen to deliver them had to read the lines off the script with as quick and fast a delivery as possible, often in conjunction with other actors who were also operating under the same restrains.  The result was known as cinematic verbal sparring, often with shipping couples involved, where the nature of the delivery was a sort of spoken word equivalent of fast-cutting within the camera, except it was all delivered in the words, not the editing room.  Another way of describing it is like that of a instrumental riff in a classical Jazz song, where the notes are allowed to rise, fall, and drift wherever the player's inspiration takes them.  Something of the same logic appears to be at work in the Screwball dialogues, the main difference is that this time the riff notes come in the form of spoken language.  It would be interesting, therefore, to learn just how much the style of the Screwball Comedies took their inspiration from the  musical notes of the Jazz craze of that same era.  The best examples of the type of style can be found in films like His Girl Friday.  A good sample of this same style applied to a modern film would have to be the animated feature Cats Don't Dance.  The latter film was also meant, in part, as an homage to the former classic, golden age style of comedy, if that means anything.

When all this is taken and applied to Kael's own writing style, it does appear as if Garver might be on to something.  Her writing prose does bear certain similarities with the staccato rhythms of someone like Preston Sturges, albeit in perhaps a more minor key.  A lot of it comes through in her constant display of wit in her sentences.  A perfect snapshot of this style in action is found in her item column review of an old Jeff Bridges film:  "The picture features such faded thrills as a shack full of dynamite, a box packed with rattlesnakes, and an ancient, rickety ladder stretched horizontally between two rooftops. You have to keep reminding yourself that you're not just watching the trailer...Written and directed by Robert Benton, the picture is like a genteel variant of a redneck hillbilly burlesque about how it pays to be lucky and dumb.  Basinger is peculiarly muted as an actress and Bridges no longer has the manic, boyish spontaneity his role calls for. As a scuzzball photographer, Jerry Stiller, who has only one scene before he turns into the murder victim, conveys a lifetime of self-disgust; that's more felt life than anyone else shows (web)".  There are more examples where that came from in the link provided. 

It's interesting to consider for a moment what kind of effect this style has on readers, and what it might mean for Kael as a critic in general.  The first thing to note is that, for better or worse, this is the persona she chose to adopt as her public image.  It was the professional face she chose to turn towards the world at large, and to the reader in particular.  It was how she chose to present herself to an entire generation of burgeoning cinemaphiles and movie geeks.  Garver makes it clear that part of what led her to this way of framing her voice was because of the way she felt it gave her some sort of control over her life.  Pauline saw it as a voice of confidence and strength, one she could use to hold herself up.  Once more, then, we find ourselves back at the question of identity and equality in the world of arts criticism.  Garver seems to be holding her up as an example of these ideals in practice.  

It's a bold claim, and in order to see if it is possible to prove it, several things need to be kept in mind.  The first is that he's talking about a worthy cause.  The second is how far the director's examination of his subject goes in proving his claim?  If you want to find someone who embodies such ideals, then the personality must, by her very nature, be one who is capable of realizing those goals on both a public and private level.  Therefore all that remains to be asked is whether Pauline Kael matches all these criteria?  I think it's possible to arrive at an answer to all these question.  However, in order to reach it, you can't just stop at matters of prose style and leave it at that.  It doesn't really go far enough, for one thing.  If you examine a writer's style, you may have found a good deal of information of how they write.  You'll still have learned nothing about what and why they put words to paper.  In order to find that out, we'll have to turn to the content of her film essays and reviews.

Flaws in the criticism, and the critic.

If there's one goal that Garver's documentary is never quite able to fulfill, then it might have something to do with getting across what kind of critic Kael was.  Throughout the film's runtime, the audience is constantly being fed with snippets from Pauline's writings.  These are more than adequately voiced by Sarah Jessica Parker, although the author herself is presented at various points through news clips and interviews.  The trouble is I'm not sure we in the audience are given much in the way of anything substantial to go on.  Kael's words tell us what she makes of this or that film in passing, yet what is her thought as a whole?  In other words, is there any sort of underlying philosophy, or aesthetic outlook that determines her idea of good and bad art in its application to the medium of film?  It's a topic that's kind of easy to overlook.  

Most of us go through life thinking this flick was good, and I didn't like that other one, though.  Few of us ever stop to realize that there often tends to be an unspoken outlook on the arts couched somewhere in the midst of all those passing opinions.  It's a lot like oxygen in that sense.  It's more a feature, rather than a bug that can be removed with no harm done.  The inescapable fact seems to be that if you take away the aesthetic philosophy, then you remove the ability to enjoy or have an opinion on art.  It could be that there are some of us out who really do lack just this necessary mental function.  They could be the type who can't seem to find much use in the making or enjoying of stories.  For the rest who can get some kind of aesthetic pleasure out of make-believe, however, the need for an artistic outlook seems baked into the whole process.  It's just that it's not the kind of thing everybody is aware of.  Kael seems to have had at least a beginning awareness of this feature of artistic enjoyment.  The real question is how far did she recognize it, and did she ever think to develop it?

The answer is that it can be tricky to discern just what was Kael's entire concept of movies as art.  She doesn't seem to have been a very real systematic writer.  A lot of her reviews are more geared toward the gut reaction, rather than a more careful, considered analysis.  To be fair, perhaps it's a mistake to say this type of criticism doesn't have its place?  It may be able to have a beginner's sort of validity to it.  At least I hope I'm smart enough to realize I couldn't have even begun to think about fiction writing in a developed way without first having a series of positive responses to examples of well written stories. The thing to remember, however, is that this is all just where things begin, at the level of pure enjoyment.  It wasn't until much later that I began to look back on the artworks I enjoyed, and my mind started to turn them over and examine them from various perspectives that I really figured out what my thinking was on the whole matter.  This whole thing was a process that, in retrospect, seems to have been more or less automatic, like it was second nature to me.  I didn't even have to force myself into it, it all just seemed to happen.  I think a lot of that has to do with the way I must have unconsciously trained myself to look at stories in general.  I took to it with so much ease that it must never have become a chore, even when it came to subjects like high school English classes.

I suppose you could say I had it pretty easy, in that sense.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that most folks find it a lot more difficult to get into this kind of subject.  It's a fair cop, as the Brits like to say.  The point I'd like to make however, is that it seems to me that just leaving things at an abstract statement of feeling is less the place where good criticism finishes.  I really think it's more like just the starting line.  I'm also wondering if it's the sort of line that Kael, for whatever reason, found it difficult to move past.  When it comes to talking about her writing as as critic, then in my case, it really does come down to a discussion of her flaws.  I hate to be that guy in the room, and in the strictest sense I wish it didn't have to be this way.  Already some of you reading this might be asking what about all the good stuff that she puts int her work?  What about her wit, her canny observations?  The trouble there is my own reading convinces me that it's precisely in those very same witty observations that the problem lies.  Some can read Kael and find themselves charmed with what seems to be a clever raconteur.  I read all this stuff and wonder how she lasted as long as she did.

Maybe we should start by taking up the question of her prose sense of humor.  There's nothing inherent in this particular craft which dictates that the critic also has to be a stand-up comic.  That's not to say it isn't welcome.  Perhaps there are a great many readers who really would like a dash of levity with their information on the latest box-office placeholder.  If that's the case then I don't think I can find much of an objection.  Also, a lot of it is down to each individual commentary writer.  If a particular critic comes along with a genuine gift for the gag, then I guess it all probably comes down to a question of proper usage.  In other words, maybe the questions that need to be asked are what's the style of humor, and how much should it be employed, and for how long?  My own take is that while humor is not to be shunned, it is also not, strictly speaking, the main point of criticism as a trade.  The real issue is whether or not it's possible to arrive at some kind of valid aesthetic judgement.  If humor has a place in all that, then it's mainly incidental and decorative.  The reader may want to pause and admire the occasional bon-mot, that still doesn't amount to anything if there's not a good point attached to it.

Perhaps it's this outlook which explains my reaction to Kael's humor.  From the perspective of the art of the one-liner, I guess you can say they're passable.  She doesn't land as much as other pundits.  I think Erma Bombeck and Dorothy Parker were a lot more skilled at this sort of thing.  It's obvious that Pauline looked up to the latter authoress, and did everything in her power to emulate her.  Garver's documentary is a great pains to show just where she got her sense of humor.  The interesting thing is that by linking Kael with Parker, Garver inadvertently introduces a particular brand of American writing into the mix.  It belongs to that of the Algonquin Round Table.  The sort of pioneers of the modern American sense of humor.  They were the ones who laid the groundwork for guys like Mort Sahl, and from then onto Lenny Bruce, Phyllis Diller, Elaine May, and George Carlin.  Looked at from this perspective, it does at least establish a pedigree for the type of humor that Kael meant to emulate.

There's just one, maybe a number of problems.  To start with, there's the simple question of the level of talent involved.  Writing good humor is a lot harder than it looks.  I almost want to say that it is the most misunderstood art form, because what looks effortless when its up on-stage is a lot more difficult to generate in actual practice.  It takes a certain kind of mindset that is both quick on its feat, and which often knows how to elevate vulgarity to a genuine level of art.  Richard Pryor was one of the natural champions at this game.  He was gifted with an irreverent streak that served him well, and it gave his jokes an edge that is still relevant to this day.  Here's the thing though, I'm unable to find any convincing sign that Pauline was a natural comic.  She had her sense of humor, though to call it the greatest ever around is stretching it quite a bit.  Her best efforts are mild in their amusement, and she can never quite raise it to the level of the older wits that were her idols.  This makes her jokes a somewhat constant superfluence that doesn't have much in the way of any greater purpose other that to make her look smart.

This is not the cardinal flaw in her work, however.  That dubious honor is reserved for the actual content of her essays.  Before I go on to mention it, perhaps it's only fair to pause a moment and list the one thing I can actually find to somewhat like about Kael's reviews.  This has to be her essential thumbs-up to the black sheep child of cinema known as the B picture.  Kael was one of the few critics willing to find a value in films that others might deem to be “trash”.  This idea of finding value in even B-grade movies is admirable in itself.  Films like Richard Matheson’s The Last Man on Earth (1964) do have a literate nature for those willing to appreciate it.  The problem is that it sometimes requires a certain amount of humility and imaginative sympathy in order to gain the proper enjoyment of such works.  In her 1969 essay Trash, Art, and the Movies, Kael tries to talk the talk, yet can’t quite manage the walk.  The opening paragraph of the same essay spells out the first of two major flaws in Kael’s aesthetic:

“Like those cynical heroes who were idealists before they discovered that the world was more rotten than they had been led to expect, we’re just about all of us displaced persons, “a long way from home.” When we feel defeated, when we imagine we could now perhaps settle for home and what it represents, that home no longer exists. But there are movie houses. In whatever city we find ourselves we can duck into a theatre and see on the screen our familiars—our old “ideals” aging as we are and no longer looking so ideal. Where could we better stoke the fires of our masochism than at rotten movies in gaudy seedy picture palaces in cities that run together, movies and anonymity a common denominator? Movies—a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry corrupt world—fit the way we feel. The world doesn’t work the way the schoolbooks said it did and we are different from what our parents and teachers expected us to be. Movies are our cheap and easy expression, the sullen art of displaced persons. Because we feel low we sink in the boredom, relax in the irresponsibility, and maybe grin for a minute when the gunman lines up three men and kills them with a single bullet, which is no more “real” to us than the nursery-school story of the brave little tailor (201).”

The opening sentence for her review of West Side Story lays out her second major problem when she claims that: “Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider (51)”.  If that statement seems out of place then the sentiment is understandable.  This is not to say that “Romance” (to use a more polite term) doesn’t have its place in cinema.  It has existed in fiction long before the screen came along, and will always be a part of the artist’s repertoire.  The problem is Kael’s insistence on a dis-enchanted romanticism combined with a latter day Freudian outlook.  With her conflation of a “knowing” cynicism and a shallow definition and understanding of Romance, Kael has created a very self-contradictory approach to reviewing art.  This is the critic as Freudian Id.

Aside from the fact that even modern psychology has disowned the ideas of Freud, Kael’s greatest fault lies in her rejection of Romanticism.  In her review of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo she makes no effort to hide her principles.

“Of all art forms, movies are most in need of having their concepts of heroism undermined.  The greatest action pictures have often been satirical; even before Douglas Fairbanks Sr. mocked the American dreams, our two-reelers used the new techniques of the screen to parody the vacuous heroics of stage melodrama.  George Stevens' Gunga Din, a model of the action genre, was so exuberant that it both exalted and mocked a schoolboy’s version of heroism.  But in recent years John Ford, particularly, has turned the Western into an almost static pictorial genre, a devitalized, dehydrated form which is “enriched” with pastoral beauty and evocative nostalgia for a simple, heroic way of life (78)”.

Kael remains adamant in her condemnation, maintaining that the “clichés we retained from childhood: pirate, buccaneer, gangster, and Western movies have been awarded the status of myths, and writers and directors have been making infatuated tributes to the myths of our old movies.  If, by now, we dread going to see a “great” Western, it’s because “great” has come to mean slow and pictorially composed.  We’ll be lulled to sleep in the “affectionate,” “pure,” “authentic” scenery of the West (in “epics” like My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache) (ibid)”.

Kael’s thinking is off by several factors.  One mistake is her disdain for heroism in relation to fiction.  What she fails to understand is that, in a very literal sense, people of all civilizations live or die by their ideals.  Thanks to the work of scholars like Joseph Campbell or C.G. Jung, it is acknowledged that it’s not enough for anyone to have ideals.  These ideals must find some proper form of imaginative expression in order to form any kind of concrete expression as a coherent culture.

In addition, it’s a mistake to call a work like Fort Apache, with its examination of troubled race relations between frontier settlers and Native Americans, anything but simple or nostalgic.  Ford’s whole purpose in that film is to accomplish the very goals Kael deems necessary by questioning the nostalgia and sentiment of the past (in this case through a fictional retelling of the Battle of Little Big Horn).  It’s an idea Ford revisits often in his best work.  It is ironic, then, that Kael would censure Ford while singing the praises of Kurosawa, a director who claimed Ford as his inspiration, and who’s Yojimbo echoes the latter’s ambivalence toward traditional narratives about one’s own culture.

This is the contradiction that Ms. Kael returns to more than once.  For instance, she will heap laurels on Shakespeare in one review, and then slight the work of J.R.R. Tolkien in another.  She fails to make connections where they’re needed, and neglects the value of popular art while having good things to say about Brian De Palma’s Carrie.  I'm not sure how all this must make me sound as a critic censuring the work of another.  All I can tell you with any certainty is that it is glaring inconsistencies such as the ones just listed that go together to make up an aesthetic outlook that is altogether somewhat just too difficult to believe in.  

Conclusion: A Very Mixed Legacy.

There's a sequence in Garver's documentary that sort of highlights the flaws of Kael as a critic without having to go the extra mile of stating them flat out.  It comes in the form of a series of letters between Kael and her editor at the New Yorker, William Shawn.  The viewer is treated to excerpts of some of her writing, and then Shawn will come in soon after, all but squatting on his knees to beg her to try and tighten things up and keep her language on a more even keel.  The audience is given several samples of this seemingly futile back and forth, which probably indicates Pauline's editor was stuck fighting a losing battle.  That's a shame, because if anyone could have benefited from the advice of a good editor, it was Kael.  I don't know how that must sound.  It's not meant as any blanket statement.  I'm just focused on this one writer who seems always to have been perched on the tip edge of greatness, and then, for whatever reason, let it slip away as she tried to plow through on charm and style alone.  It may barely muster as a genuine form of wit, it still isn't the same thing as a legitimate form of artistic criticism.   

Pretty much all of the voices commenting on this back and forth between Kael and Shawn take her side in the debate.  They tend to dismiss Shawn's misgivings as outmoded, coming from a perspective whose days are long passed.  I'm not sure the past was Shawn's real concern here.  Nor is it mine.  Instead, I'm more concerned about two aspects of Kael's work that in the end might have served to lend her name its now relative obscurity.  The first is so obvious enough today that it almost comes off as pretty much self-evident.  It goes back to something that gets mentioned a lot here and there in the documentary.  It's clear Garver and others are all trying their best to advance a noble cause.  I don't doubt for an instant that everyone's heart is in the right place.  I just worry that they've chosen the wrong subject matter with which to do it.  It kind of turns out not everyone is as interested in the rights of women as they should be.  Some are in it all for themselves.  You could say the worst part is what happens when a few of those voices who really don't care belongs to the very same gender under discussion.

That seems to have been the case with Pauline, and it's also why I think Garver is never quite able to make his argument get off the ground.  It's not a flaw in the director's basic point, it's more that the subject of his biography just never really seemed to give damn about it.  This is something Renata Adler seems to have proved with uncomfortable veracity, in a now half forgotten critique of Kael, her writing style, and themes, originally publish way back in 1980, in The New York Review of Books.  Of the general content of Kael's thought, Adler writes:

"She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials. Whether or not one shares these predilections—and whether they are in fact more than four, or only one—they do not really lend themselves to critical discussion. It turns out, however, that Ms. Kael does think of them as critical positions, and regards it as an act of courage, of moral courage, to subscribe to them. The reason one cannot simply dismiss them as de gustibus, or even as harmless aberration, is that they have become inseparable from the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists...

"...Ms. Kael, having lost any notion of where the critic sits, wants to imply that she was at the story conference, that the film is somehow hers. And others still, in particular the outcries...are meant to demonstrate that she cares, cares more than anybody. It is overwhelmingly clear, however, from the reviews in this book, that one thing Ms. Kael has ceased to care about is films...She hardly praises a movie any more, so much as she derides and inveighs against those who might disagree with her about it. (“Have you ever bought a statue of a pissing cupid?”) And, like the physical assaults and sneers, the mock rhetorical questions are rarely saying anything; they are simply doing something. Bullying, presuming, insulting, frightening, enlisting, intruding, dunning, rallying (web)".

There's lots more were that came from.  I haven't described all of what Adler has to reveal, not even by half.  Suffice it to say, the image of the woman that emerges from this expose is not what you might call a pretty picture.  I think it's really the word subjugation that sticks in the craw the most.  Nowadays, the shelf-life of anyone trying that tactic online, or even in public, tends to be very short.  Either that or, if they prove to be of the extreme annoying variety that won't just go away, then the level of their outreach tends to prove very limited.  I doubt very much Kael would have made anything but a fringe reputation for herself with this kind of critical perspective.  This is to say nothing of the inherent dangers that such introductions into an artistic dialogue can have if one doesn't show the proper awareness about it.  It doesn't just get you into trouble, it also can sometimes turn out to be a real risk to the health and safety of others.  The real irony is that the "other" I'm thinking of is the same half of the species that Ms. Kael belongs to.  It almost seems wrong or insensitive to bring up any other flaws after what's just been printed.  I can see how it cancels out all other considerations.  The others are still there as well, however.

Aside from all of the personal failings of Kael as a person, there remains her aesthetic shortcomings from the critical perspective proper.  This one is a bit more technical, and maybe a bit less easier to understand.  It goes something like this.  Whether or not it's something any of us wants, as long as you can call yourself a critic, there's always going to be this ground base, or point of view from which you judge and examine every single piece of art that you decide to take a look at.  This is a feature, and not a bug of the profession.  The only sane way to keep it from happening, I suppose, is to give up critiquing art altogether, and look for more normal work in the private sector (if you can still find it, that is).  As long as you insist on sticking with the arts beat, then you'll often wind up with a vantage point that explains your reaction to certain books or films.  This is something every critic does, though it may be there are degrees of self-awareness to this particular gig.

What I mean is that some critics may or at least can be more unconscious of their individual criteria for what makes a particular story work more than others.  My case is somewhat interesting in that it all started for me as a more or less unconscious reaction that I gradually became aware of, and started to examine, even as I kept watching and reading.  I almost want to say it's only recently that I've been able to arrive at a kind of self-understanding as reader and cinemaphile.  Through careful examination I've been able to realize where I'm coming from as a critic, and how that effects the stories I take in.  I'm pretty sure this is a process that others can go through, though it also needs to be admitted that all this is perfectly optional as well.  It's all a matter of personal choice, really.  The point is it's this growing understanding of my own artistic tastes and preferences that allows me to know where I'm coming from as a blogger.  The question is whether Kael ever bothered to undertake a similar process?  If I had to guess, I'd say no.

Aside from the facts mentioned by Renata Adler, my other big gripe with Kael's writing is that she is content to leave things on a level of pure gut reaction.  To be fair, as long as we are dealing with a reasonable enough sound mind, then this might not have to be an inherently bad thing.  For artists, in and of themselves, going with your gut has proven to be a very lucrative form of imaginative creation.  Artists are not always critics, however.  While it is possible for the artist and the critic to inhabit the mind of the same personality (and here I am thinking of scribblers like T.S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges), for the most part, it seems like the two types of writing inhabit different mental office spaces.  The two functions don't always occupy the same cubicle space.  This is something Kael found out for herself when she tried for a job as a script consultant out in Hollywood.  It didn't really go anywhere, forcing her back to the relative safety of the magazine column.  In all this, however, she never seems to have developed her critical skills beyond the aforementioned quasi-Freudian reactionism. 

I'm really going to have to beg your pardon if this just comes off as wrong to me.  I just can't shake the conviction that art criticism, in essence, is a fundamentally analytical process.  You have to think through the entire work of art, or at least as much as possible, in order to explain why it either fails or works as a form of entertainment.  Another reason has more to do with the office of the critic itself.  The need for this analytical bent in the examination of the arts has a lot to do the function that criticism plays in the overall scheme of things.  Good writing about fiction will always, I think, be performing a kind of public service.  This not the same as saying that it is the critic's job to be a didactic.  If there is an ethical aspect to all great art, then it makes sense to view it as just a natural component of the artwork itself; all just part of the bells and whistles that come attached with any well made story.  The public service comes in when the critic is willing to dig in an get at whatever truth might lie underneath the mask of a story.  It might sound like an odd idea to describe as story as a mask.  Perhaps a better, though more obscure choice of words would be to use the more Elizabethan spelling of masque.  Either way, however you say it, the main point is that it is the underlying thematic truth that gives all art it's value.  Good criticism is the kind of job that can only have value as long as it is willing to dedicate itself to uncovering these hidden truths.

That's got to be the weirdest, even downright nebulous job description out there.  I've got to admit it does sound like the kind of thing that's hard to fit on your average resume.  Perhaps it's the somewhat esoteric nature of of criticism itself that explains the sort uneasy coexistence it has with the demands of the workaday world.  The Imagination always seems to have been something in like life's wild card.  It's the element of unpredictability in a place where people like to make sure their lives are structured in safety.  Either that or its just another type of order that most of us have never really gotten used to.  However you want to look at it, the plain fact is that art is weird at its core, and a lot folks just don't know what to do with it.  I suppose it's difficult to blame them.  You can't value something you don't believe in, after all.  The human just doesn't seem to work that way for some reason.  Nevertheless, there will always be some who find the Imagination and its products to be a topic of endless fascination.  I suppose you could say it's the way some of us plug in to real life.

All of which brings us to the question of where exactly does Kael, as a writer, fall into all of this?  One of the criteria I've just listed is that it helps if the critic has a natural fascination with the Imagination, and what it does on an artistic level.  It seems to be a natural and necessary starting place for a lot of arts commentators, including those such as Siskel and Ebert.  Does Kael herself display any of these affinities?  One of the problems of Garver's film is that it never seems to offer up enough of a deep dive into it's subject's thought process.  The viewer is bombarded over and again with passages from Kael's essays, and yet these, taken as they are, never quite amount enough to anything substantial.  You have to go the rest of her writings on film in order to begin to get a fuller picture.  Once you do that, however, the drawback is that you start to gain the sense of someone who turns out to be less than the ideal portrait Garver seems eager to paint for us.  

Her words reveal to us a woman who can at least be said to take "an interest" in movies.  The real trouble has to do with the precise nature of this interest.  The thing about cinemaphiles and bookworms is that we tend to take to our favorite storytelling mediums like ducks to water.  It either just seems to come like second nature, or else the products of art were able to offer us something that allowed us a door as readers.  A third possibility is that both can happen at once.  The medium can show itself in a voice that the reader feels he or she can understand, while also being able to recognize the fascination of art in and of itself.  Kellow's biography seems to take Kael's point of entry as being somewhere withing the second category.  The way films got to her was they offered Pauline the by now familiar hook of escapism.  To her, films were a medium that allowed her to forget that she was the product of an essentially broken home, and that it was perhaps always an open question of just how far the love of her parents was ever really able to extend.  

To be fair, it is always possible that this form of entrance can have beneficial effects.  The reader can discover that films or books offer not an escape from life, but rather into is, and as a way of shaking off negative circumstances and influences.  This is the sort of thing that happened in the case of Francois Truffaut.  He was the product of another broken home, and he sort of shares details of this with the audience at great length in movies like The 400 Blows.  What kept and rescued him from a life of a petty street thug was his love of movies, in particular the likes of Alfred Hitchcock.  Truffaut was ultimately able to channel all this into one of the most positive and influential directions in the history of cinema.  Kael meanwhile, tends to come off almost like his negative inverse doppelganger.  Where Truffaut expanded his outlook, hers seems to have contracted.  The future New Wave director built up a lifetime full of friendships and and equal collaborations.  Kael always felt the need to be in charge of the situation, and if she found one she couldn't subjugate, then she quickly grew frightened and made a retreat.    

I think it's the dichotomy between these two that highlights the nature of Kael, not just as a critic, but also as just another human being.  The final image, presented all in all, despite Garver's best efforts, is just not a pretty one.  There's a sort of irony at work in the writings of Pauline Kael.  Very few modern audiences seem to remember she even existed.  And yet it is possible that there are critical voices out there that offer a continuation of the kind of negative example set by her during her time as a professional moviegoer.  The type of critic I'm thinking of now should be a familiar enough sight in the digital public square.  If they're not relegated to internet chatrooms, then they might find ways of giving themselves an online platform that allows them to offer half-baked, ill-considered theories about why this or that movie does or doesn't work.  Right now, the net seems virtually clogged with various so called critics who aren't really able to be personifications of that title.  Instead, they are really best thought of professional internet personalities, the figureheads who are famous for nothing more than placing themselves in front of a camera and just spouting only whatever opinion they are capable of forming about or a film without ever having given each individual text the proper study it deserves.

These then, I'm convinced, are the sort of "professionals" who carry on the legacy that Kael established in her writings.  I'm thinking of guys like Felix Kjellberg and Doug Walker, figures who started out thinking they could make it in the business by passing off comedy routines as if they were genuine commentary, and then not knowing where else to go or what to do once the joke wore itself out.  From there, they went from entertaining, to annoying, and then at last it all somehow degenerates into the by now familiar form of online bullying.  Guys like Walker and Kjellberg are very much just among the more (in)famous modern examples.  There are more where they came from.  What needs to be stressed, however, is that they were by no means pioneers in this particular anti-trade.  In many unfortunate ways, Kael sort of left the door open for this kind of behavior by not stopping to find ways of dealing with the abuse that was heaped on her, and then at last turning on others in her worst moments. Hers is ultimately something of a sad story, and made all the worse for the very mixed legacy she left in her wake.

In the end, perhaps Kael’s legacy is summed up by the one person who knew her best.  At a memorial tribute, Gina Kael summed up both her mother as both a person and a critic: “Pauline’s greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and critic. She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects. She refused any consideration of that possibility and she denied any motivations or personal needs . . . This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph (web).”  These are the facts that Rob Garver tries to gloss over during the course of his documentary.  In doing so, I can't help but feel he misses the point of his subject.  It's this, as well as other reasons mentioned above, that I'm forced to say that What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a documentary that leaves a lot to be desired.


  1. (1) I would say Kael garners more than a blip on the cultural radar. While you're probably right that more people recognize Ebert's name that's undoubtedly due to the shared pool of Big Three TV and how everyone knew everyone who ever appeared on the air back then. But Kael is probably America's most respected film journalist. She gave her name to an entire school of film criticism/ approach after all. It's entirely possible, though, that more people don't know her work as well as they should, or understand even enough about film criticism to know why she was a particularly keen and well-versed observer of a pivotal few decades of cinema. I'd put myself in that category for sure, having only read her reviews as quoted here and there and never sat down with any of her collections. I should. Or perhaps even start here, not sure.

    (2) Have you ever seen the documentary Cinemania? It's worth checking out if you never have.

    (3) Yeah humor is not something I strongly associate with Kael.

    (4) "Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider " is a great line.

    (5) That section on Shawn's actions as her editor and the defensive reactions of those in the documentary is interesting. If it's "outmoded" to take criticism from William Shawn - and then ignore it and be published in his magazine just the same - I'll take outmoded, I guess. It does sound like they're advancing Kael's life and work for a very particular cause and framing it in a very particular way. That's too bad, although I can't comment on how they do it as I haven't seen it. Still: sounds like a missed opportunity to honor the woman's work separate from that.

    (6) Oooo, that Adler snippet is savage! Ah the contretemps of critics and academics.

    (7) I just looked to see if Kael ever appeared on Firing Line. I don't see that she did, but she was on Dick Cavett a lot. I'll have to YouTube some of these later.

    (8) I know he doesn't do interviews, but too bad they couldn't get a word or two from Warren Beatty for the documentary (if they didn't). He was the one who got her set up on the studio lot to try her hand at screenwriting, IIRC.

    1. (1) Well, I know a lot of that was true, once upon a time. I guess I just really wasn't one of those readers. She was always more just a background name in my life, one that would pop up here and there on the odd occasion. By and large, however, our paths just never really crossed until very recently. By then, I suppose she just came off as too outmoded to me. The real curious part is how that's one of those things that I don't think I ever expected to happen to a museum curator type like me.

      (2) No, I haven't. Thanks for the heads up. I'll have to check that out.

      (5) Well, either that or I'm just the wrong sort of reader for her work. Which is interesting, as I can see how that opens me up to charges of being too damned old fashioned. I just wish I knew how I wind up being like that.

      (6) I just know it helped put a lot of my misgivings into perspective.

      (8) The irony is they still got folk like Coppola, Tarantino, and Alec Baldwin in there. Luck of the draw, I guess.


  2. "I'm not so sure just how many people out there have ever heard of Pauline Kael." -- I feel like she's still relatively well known for people born prior to, say, 1980. Maybe even a little later. For people after that, less so; but heck, most of them probably don't even know who Ebert was at this point, much less Kael.

    The bulk of this essay inclines me to feel that you are saying that's no great loss. Which, hey, might be the case! But I think she's a prominent enough voice that her work will stay out there for anyone who goes down a deep enough rabbit hole as to need to find it.

    1. It is just possible that her writings will stick around. All I maintain is that her reputation is a bit more over-hyped than it deserves to be, really. I think Ebert was better at this job than she was, in retrospect.