Love letters

Pauline Kael's For Keeps is a diary of a strange and passionate affair with movies

A lengthy interview with her old employer, The New Yorker, packaged in a slick November issue devoted exclusively to film, was both delightful and saddening: delightful because she was as funny and incisive and pugnacious as ever, and saddening because of her declaration that her longtime bout with Parkinson's disease had left her irrevocably weakened. That's part of the reason why the latest round of Kael analysis, a favorite pastime of critics and entertainment writers everywhere, has been so generally sweet-natured.

But not everywhere. Last month, former Advocate critic and film scholar David Ehrenstein--a PC bomb-thrower, controversy-courter, and transparent Kael imitator who likes to pretend he isn't--published a lengthy analysis of Kael's work and life in The Los Angeles Times. In it, he expressed admiration for the same things any thinking person is bound to admire in Kael--namely her slangy style, her anti-Puritan enthusiasms, her willingness to publicly identify and nurture new talent, and her wild-assed critical fearlessness.

But he also took some potshots that are worth examining. Ehrenstein claimed, among other things, that while Kael's stylistic influence on other critics is incalculable, her influence on the medium of cinema has almost certainly been overrated--that he doubts a rave review of hers ever added one nickel to a movie's coffers, or that a pan kept even one filmgoer away.

He also charged that Kael was frequently emotional to the point of critical masturbation, and that in wildly praising silly, lowbrow movies, and in neglecting other, less accessible sorts of cinema--namely documentaries, experimental films, and foreign features--she gave younger critics, and even younger filmmakers, carte blanche to set their sights low. As much as Ehrenstein obviously admires Kael's voice and verve, it's clear that he's also charging her with coarsening the spirit of American movies.

The short answer to these arguments is that they're simply asinine. Criticism isn't about box-office influence, nor is it about providing a consumer guide for average Joes and Janes, or educating viewers on what constitutes good or bad taste. It's not about gaining favor with readers, with filmmakers, or with other critics. It's not about anything but itself.

Its virtues are the same virtues one might discover in a well-built house: evidence that its creator knew what he wanted to do, was true to his own impulses as a craftsman, and would have preferred to cut his own throat than put his name on anything ugly, dull, or technically incompetent. That's what matters in this seemingly neverending Kael debate. The rest is intellectual gamesmanship--darts lobbed by an insecure spiritual son instinctively rebelling against the parent who sired him, as nearly every film critic in America has done at some point.

When you get down to it, criticism is essentially an impotent profession, like all art--capable of reflecting the spiritual and emotional condition of a society or a medium, but incapable of altering it on a broad scale.

Kael, more than any film critic before or since, understood this. That's why she wrote in such a peculiarly raw, crazy, deeply personal manner--as if she were scribbling in a diary that chronicled an ongoing, torrid love affair with a medium, not a person, and tearing the pages out and handing them to you as she chugged obsessively along. "Our emotions rise to meet the force rising from the screen," she wrote, "and they go on rising throughout our moviegoing lives...It's a fusion of art and love.

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