Love letters

"A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre," writes legendary film critic Pauline Kael in an influential 1969 essay entitled, "Trash, Art, and the Movies." "If somewhere in the Hollywood entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn't all corruption. The movie doesn't have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor's scowl, a small, subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a bit of sense."
It's precisely that sort of breathless, stargazing sentiment that made Kael's writing so important to so many moviegoers. And that's what makes reading the titanic new anthology For Keeps--an assortment of Kael's favorites from her four decades of movie reviewing that amounts to roughly one-fifth of her total lifetime output--so preposterously entertaining.

She wasn't like other critics. Her work was conversational, rough-edged, sometimes even profane. For legions of film buffs, her disappearance from regular reviewing four years ago because of advancing age and declining health meant that the world made just a bit less sense.

Kael was addictive--a hyped-up writer with a pen full of adrenaline. She could be insightful, reckless, infuriating, and touching, sometimes in the same piece. And she was fearless: she wrote mostly for herself, to hash things out and make sense of art and life. If you agreed with her conclusions, fine. If you didn't, you respected her passion. And if you thought her passion was tiresome, you could at least laugh at her wisecracks or admire her gift for hurtling adjective-packed, sometimes stunningly lyrical sentences.

She exposed Hud as a well-made but dishonest piece of liberal sermonizing and rolled her eyes at the visionary sci-fi noir adventure Blade Runner ("With all the smoke in this movie, you feel as if everyone connected with it needs to have his flue cleaned"). She gloried in the hyperkinetic violence of George Miller's The Road Warrior ("Miller must have the jittery nervous system of an exploitation filmmaker linked to the eyes of an artist").

She appreciated the emotionalism, crude showmanship, and silly sex jokes in the 1976 remake of King Kong. "Like the earlier Kong, this one has no visible genitals; he doesn't need them--Kong is a walking forty-foot genital. What makes him such a pop hero is that he's also pre-phallic--the Teddy Bear Christ of the sixties flower children, Christ as a mistreated pet." She poked fun at the cultivated sweetness of Dances with Wolves ("Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head"), and responded so strongly to the moral and artistic courage of Brian DePalma's Casualties of War that she bent over backwards to justify its flaws. ("DePalma has such seductive, virtuosic control of film craft that he can express convulsions in the unconscious.")

Whether these opinions would be deemed right or wrong by film history never mattered to Kael, mainly because Kael believed film criticism was related to filmmaking but not dependent upon it. She saw it as a related yet distinct art.

Time's Richard Corliss said that Kael's best criticism "soars into the highest realm of word jazz." The comparison is apt: any musician who sweats every note assures himself of mediocrity. So week after week and year after year, Kael sat down at her typewriter, and let 'er rip. She slapped bizarre phrases together so they sounded like scholarly scat and proclaimed the greatness of filmmakers and performers she'd write off later as worthless, lavished praise on popular trifles, and blasted ambitious films that didn't ring her bell. Like all truly brave artists, she continually risked--and sometimes endured--embarrassment. (Her repellently catty review of Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary Shoah showcased her worst shortcomings: she came on like a juvenile delinquent spray-painting a tombstone, and her readers blasted her for it.)

She compared the debut of the controversial Bernardo Bertolucci picture Last Tango in Paris to the tumultuous premiere of Igor Stravinsky's "Les Sacres du Printemps," and the comparison didn't seem farfetched or inappropriate to her; she felt no need to apologize for linking one of the most exhaustively analyzed works in the history of classical music with an intellectualized skin flick in which Marlon Brando rubs butter on a woman's anus while delivering a free-form monologue. When she thought Richard Attenborough's 1982 film Gandhi made the great Indian leader come off as a nagging Jewish mother, or that Michael Moore's gonzo documentary Roger & Me "[used] its leftism as a superior attitude," she went ahead and wrote it. To hold back--to refine her impulses so they sounded more evenhanded and genteel--would have meant falsifying her gut reactions. And in Kael's critical value system, that was tantamount to lying under oath.

Kael was a farm girl from Northern California who just couldn't resist making trouble. As her longtime friend, humorist Roy Blount, Jr., recalled in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, "she cut short her own violin-prodigy career by getting up before a synagogue audience, whose expressions of fond expectancy rubbed her the wrong way, and swinging into 'Onward Christian Soldiers.'" She grew to adore Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, the poems of Rilke, and the music of Mahler and Bruckner--all artists who prized passion over caution and precision.

Like Martin Scorsese, she has often admitted to feeling more alive and ecstatic in movie houses than houses of worship. She worked as a cook, a seamstress, even a nanny, then drifted to San Francisco, where she worked a variety of odd jobs. She didn't really edge into film criticism until her 40s, penning program notes and reviews for obscure publications and delivering pointed assessments of hot new movies by Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini on local radio.

At the time, both movies and movie criticism were dominated by the eastern press and ad agencies and the western-based studios; yet she managed to win dollops of national ink by publicly questioning, sometimes even skewering, the opinions of older and more established critics. (She latched onto the elder statesman of mainstream American film reviewing, fuddy-duddy New York Times writer Bosley Crowther, like a hammerhead shark onto flank steak, and never let go.) She was soon acclaimed as a rising star in arts criticism--a formidable historian and thinker who could dish out jagged one-liners like a comic polishing off a tanked-up heckler.

In a 1963 radio broadcast, she even stuck it to readers who showered her with anonymous letters claiming she was coldhearted, antipopulist, and worst of all, cruel to young and sensitive artists. Reproduced in For Keeps, it's a small masterpiece of bitter sarcasm that ranks with H.L. Mencken at his most miffed; in it, Kael settles scores of scores, reserving special contempt for those who implied that because she held strong opinions and expressed them with vigor in public, she was unfeminine. "It was bad enough for women who had brains to be considered freaks like talking dogs," she declared. "Now it's leeringly assumed that they're trying to grow a penis--which any man will tell you is an accomplishment that puts canine conversation in the shadows." And she testily punctured the myth that those who can't do, critique. "My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it so easy to be a critic, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, and so many poets."

She wrote for a succession of national magazines before finding a permanent home in 1968 at The New Yorker. Her first piece was a mammoth analysis of the rabble-rousing gangster fable Bonnie and Clyde, which was blasted for its supposed glorification of criminals and its use of graphic violence. Her assessment was so persuasive that the critic for Newsweek, who originally panned the film, wrote a new piece retracting his opinion.

Through the next 25 years, she penned some of the most widely discussed (and sometimes reviled) arts criticism this country has ever seen. She favored American movies over foreign films (although not to the extent that some of her detractors like to claim), and she gleefully overpraised films by new talents she liked and tore the flesh of established Hollywood icons she believed had worn out their welcome. (She expressed contempt for the aging Western heroics of John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, "grinning with their big new choppers, sucking their guts up into their chests, and hauling themselves onto horses.") She was ruthlessly tough on ambitious, expensive movies that had pretensions to classic status.

And the people she wrote about took notice. Noting in the early '80s that Clint Eastwood had suddenly taken to buying ads in The New York Review of Books and making movies that poked fun at his macho image, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman attributed this change of approach to the rugged superstar's "fear of Pauline Kael." Producer George Lucas, whose films from Star Wars on had been razzed by the spunky New Yorker critic for their junkiness, rotten dialogue, and merchandising greed, named a villain in his movie Willow "General Kael."

And she had a weakness for well-executed popcorn nonsense--for the simple reason that at least the folks who make popcorn movies usually have a pretty strong idea of what they want to do and how they intend to do it. "Who at some point hasn't set out dutifully for that fine foreign film and then ducked into the nearest piece of American trash?" she wrote in 1969, echoing sentiments that are still felt today. "The industry now is taking a neo-Victorian tone, priding itself on its few 'good, clean' movies...The lowest action trash is preferable to wholesome family entertainment. When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable."

You could chart her emotional condition and her remarkably fluid artistic tastes (a trait for which she never apologized) simply by reading her from week to week. "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs," Kael notes in her introduction. "I think I have."

For Keeps has generally been greeted with surprise and delight and unconditional hugs, like a visit from a beloved and dotty grandparent. And when the 75-year-old critic began taking phone calls and visits again at her home in Massachusetts to promote the 1,300-page tome, critics and scholars and film buffs and even entertainment-industry bigwigs began talking again about how much they missed her distinctive voice. (In a recent Dallas Morning News interview, Warren Beatty confessed that he called Kael at home from time to time to hear what she thought of recent films.)

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.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >