Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
Viking Penguin, 2011
Pauline Kael turned gifted amateurism into a profession by becoming the most influential movie critic in film history. From her perch at The New Yorker, where she worked from 1967 until 1991, Kael taught the country how to read movies in an era before film studies was a staple of any college curriculum. She had an exquisite analytical mind, but the bottom line for Kael was how the movies give us pleasure. No one since Kael has better expressed the flush of total abandon you feel when a movie transports you. As a prose stylist, she was inventive and unmistakable — hers is a voice that gets caught in the ear, jazzy, witty and warm. And her reviews and essays still feel freshly spoken today. Her best pieces share the qualities of the movies she loved most during her New Yorker tenure, movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Nashville and The Wild Bunch: the irrepressible humanistic spirit that harbors exactly no tolerance for bullshit, the carefully-observed commentary on the social and political climate that suffuses the overall vision, the genius for summing up the zeitgeist by going against the grain.
The publication this past year of Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, the first biography of Pauline Kael, and a Library of America anthology of Kael’s essays and reviews called The Age of Movies, marks the ten-year anniversary of Kael’s death. Juxtaposed, the volumes provide a double narrative of the life and sensibility of a critic who poured so much of her inner life into her writing. Kael has not received the robust posthumous attention of, say, Susan Sontag, whose books are still taught across academic disciplines and re-released by publishing houses. (All of Kael’s are out of print.) But in the arena of film criticism, her voice, and her electric influence, have hardly receded in the two decades since she stopped reviewing for the New Yorker. “An awful lot of our colleagues are still, in both senses, mad about her,” A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times last October. A notorious and misguided piece James Wolcott published in Vanity Fair in 1997 illustrates the point. Wolcott railed against the new generation of movie critics “who have one eye and ear cocked to Pauline’s opinion as they try to re-create her glory days.”
Ironically, it’s the critics who see Kael’s legacy as a stranglehold — Wolcott, David Denby whose 2003 New Yorker essay “My Life as a Paulette” described growing beyond Kael’s influence — who come across as anxiously fixated on her. I can’t help wondering if the reason so much discussion of Kael centers on her imitators is that, in fact, she’s impossible to imitate: she didn’t rely on stock responses to movies, or to particular directors, performers or subjects, so she was finally unpredictable. That’s what makes her so provocative, even today: her work can’t be condensed to a set of formulas. She is famous as a polemicist, but that’s exactly what she wasn’t. Her sensibility is more that of the nineteenth century American natural philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson: her allegiance was to individual experience, with all of its internal inconsistencies, not to any one critical theory.
And that makes her a tricky subject for a biography. In 1994, Kael compiled For Keeps, a tantalizing compendium of her life’s work. “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs,” she wrote in the introduction. “I think I have.” The anthology allowed Kael to have the final word on Kael, and she believed that it lay with her writing, not with her life, with Kael-the-persona, not Kael-the-person. In retrospect, it looks like a warning to future biographers: she wanted them to know that the story was already written.
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The pleasure you get out of Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark comes all in the first hundred pages, which spans Kael’s birth in 1919 to the beginning of her New Yorker tenure in 1967. It’s the history that precedes and suffuses the work for which she is best known — the formation of a sensibility; and from the early letters and essays Kellow excerpts, you get the sense that that sensibility was fully formed by the time Kael could read and write. It’s so assured. “Communication (orally) with people around seems even more difficult than it used to be,” she wrote to her college friend Violet Rosenberg from New York City in 1941. “I’m getting more tired than ever of having to get basic ideas accepted before you can go on to talk about the things you’re interested in talking about.” It’s exciting to get these glimpses of her young life — the frustrations of a penniless writer trying to hack it in a big city; her longing for a worthy interlocutor — because it hasn’t been written about before. This is the first window in.
Kellow is a diligent chronicler of the pre-New Yorker years, which he calls the long first chapter of Kael’s life. It’s a varied and surprising history. The youngest daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Kael grew up on a chicken ranch in Petaluma, a Jewish farming community in Sonoma County, California, and later, when her father lost the ranch, in San Francisco. She enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1936 as a philosophy major, but dropped out just before receiving her degree. After a brief stint in New York City, she moved back to the Bay Area in time for the explosion of bohemian literary culture known as the Berkeley Renaissance. She gave birth to a daughter, Gina James, in 1948 — Gina’s father, the poet James Broughton, kicked Kael out of the house when he learned she was pregnant — and scavenged for odd jobs to support them both. She ran the Cinema Guild with its founder, Ed Langdon, to whom she was briefly married, and spent eight years as the Bay Area KPFA radio station’s unpaid film critic, eventually resigning on air after delivering a scouring public renunciation of the station’s anodyne programming. (“Do you really want to be endlessly confirmed in the opinions you already hold?” she demanded. “Don’t you even want to hear a good case made for other points of view, so that you can test and sharpen your own theories?”)
Kael’s excoriation of KPFA recalls her earlier lament to her friend Violet — all that insipid politeness and intellectual defensiveness that gets in the way of a real conversation. The irony of A Life in the Dark is that it seems to be written by someone Kael would be bored to death talking to. The most significant problem in the biography is that it lacks cohesion or perspective in its representation of Kael. Kellow’s hesitation to take sides is its own kind of partisanship — he takes sides by negation — and it doesn’t come down in Kael’s favor. The biography demonstrates such painstaking fairness towards all parties who ever had a gripe with her that it plays right into the hands of the debates and scandals surrounding her career, most of which involve popular misreadings of her work. She was accused of being anti-feminist, of getting off on movie violence and having no respect for refined artistic efforts, and, my particular favorite, of somehow mobilizing her base of film critic friends, whom she mentored, to parrot her opinions on movies (they were known as “the Paulettes”). But in general, Kellow forfeits the opportunity to arbitrate in those debates by compiling evidence without giving it logic or shape.
An example. Like many critics, Kellow can’t get past Kael’s famous pan of Claude Lanzmann’s ten-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah. He frames this episode by suggesting that her critique “was influenced by other factors, of which she was only partly conscious”; specifically, though he doesn’t say it directly, that she was a self-hating Jew, or at best a repressed, confused Jew. Kael’s review of Shoah drew unusual furor, and it makes sense to excerpt the angry responses of her readers and colleagues in the biography. But Kellow mobilizes these responses, right down to the psycho-babble the critics Lillian Ross and David Edelstein espouse about Kael’s religious proclivities, as evidence for the mysterious subconscious influences. He goes looking for Kael’s ulterior motives here, without extending the same favor to Edelstein or Ross — their words he takes at face value.
This is a consistent tactic in the biography, and though it’s always specious, at some moments it is singularly weird. After the release of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Kael arranged to meet the actress Veronica Cartwright, whose performance she praised in her review, and the director James Toback. She wanted Toback to interview Cartwright for a role in an upcoming film. Cartwright recalls that Kael invited her out to the movies after they finished their drinks, but that Cartwright declined — she and her boyfriend were having troubles, and she had to get home. “Pauline could not hide her disappointment,” Kellow writes of this incident, and he quotes Cartwright, who says, “I don’t know quite what happened, but she never reviewed me after that. She mentioned me, but she never picked me out in anything else. She was determined not to say anything.”
Doesn’t it seem more likely that Cartwright misread that moment — and that Kael, who surveyed the inconsistencies in quality and achievement in the careers of directors like Robert Altman (they had a long, if fraught, friendship), Woody Allen (they were great friends for years), and Sam Peckinpah, or her favorite performers like Barbara Streisand, with unflinching honesty, probably wasn’t punishing Cartwright for not accompanying her to the movies when she never reviewed her again? Cartwright sounds ridiculous in this moment, but the comment, and its inclusion in the biography, reflects worse on Kellow, who takes her seriously. He can’t resist the urge to pathologize the interaction between critic and actress, but he allows Cartwright to do the work of criticizing Kael for him. (It’s unconventional for a movie critic to intervene in the business of movie-making, so some low-lying megalomania was surely at work; it couldn’t be that Kael just believed that she could make the movies better by suggesting creative partnerships.)
With oddball comments like Cartwright’s allowed to carry the heft of the narrative, you wonder not just about what Kellow lets in to the biography, but what he must have left out. Even in those first hundred pages, he comes close to some amazing archival material that he holds at arm’s length. I wanted to know more about Kael’s early efforts as a playwright, for example, a subject Kellow dispenses with pretty quickly. “Orpheus in Sausalito wasn’t much of a play and is really interesting only as a biographical reference point,” he writes. “Its dialogue is self-consciously smart and the characterizations don’t naturally spring to life.” How is it interesting as a biographical reference point? He may be right that it’s a bad play, but “[it] isn’t much of a play” is also not much of a critique. Surely he could make more judicious use of the rare example of juvenilia by a writer who hit her stride at the age of forty-eight.
Biographies of our favorite writers are both irresistible and almost invariably unsatisfying, because what we ultimately desire from them is not the series of events that compose the writer’s life, but something far more elusive: the pure, undiluted sensibility that exists between the life and the work and conjoins them. In the best cases, the biographer can flesh out the material of a life and leave something extra in abeyance on the page, the way novelists do, working the minutiae of human behavior and the accrual of events and experiences into a fully realized character. Kellow gamely acknowledges that Pauline Kael did not exactly lead a life that rewards biography, and he allows the quiet, unassuming narrative of her personal life in the New Yorker years and after to bleed into a cultural history of the movies. But if the most exciting dimension of Kael’s life was cerebral, then her biography needs a critic to find the life in her work, not a historian to place the work in her life. Kellow works hard — you can feel how hard he’s working — but he doesn’t get her sensibility. And you have to think, with her reviews and essays as a blueprint, how could he miss it?
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Kellow writes lovingly about Kael, too, and he’s never overtly disparaging. But maybe this is not a strength. The biography is neatly composed but its emotional perspective is all out of focus: it squirms away from clear summary. In places Kellow sounds passive-aggressive, his veiled, portentous criticisms of Kael’s personality or her criticism like retorts made under the breath. And when he trusts her critics more than he trusts Pauline Kael, it’s tempting to suggest that Kellow is finally squeamish about his subject, her feistiness and her unpredictability. Could it be that Kellow, to turn his words against him, is the one “influenced by other factors, of which [he] is only partly conscious?” Why are readers threatened by Pauline Kael? And why do writers and critics still resent her?
It is equally tempting to look for answers in Kael’s writing. Once she became a critic with a steady post, Kael’s column was a theater in which she could unfold the performance of her ideas. Writing allowed readers to slow down and Kael to speed up. The velocity of her writing, its stylishness and wit, all communicated the terms of engagement. In this way her work resembles that of the larger-than-life actresses she loved. (This is actually Kellow’s argument, and it’s a generous one: he compares Kael’s vivacious spirit to the fast-talking heroines of 1930s comedies.) But the quality of a performance — the performance of a life — depends on its integrity, right up until the end, Kael wrote:
When actresses begin to use our knowledge about them and of how young and beautiful they used to be — when they offer themselves up as ruins of their former selves — they may get praise and awards (and they generally do), but it’s not really for their acting, it’s for capitulating, and giving the public what it wants: a chance to see how the mighty have fallen…
Kael didn’t trade on her public’s knowledge of her in this way. And because she never capitulated, some critics still haven’t given up trying to portray her in a fallen state.
The result has been, as Phil Nugent described it in a very smart review of recent writing on Kael, “a long line of people who have detected flaws in Kael’s writing and immediately proceeded to the dual insight that her whole career was shit and she was also a very bad person.” It is impossible to ignore the ways in which Kael’s gender makes her a target for the thinly veiled character slander that seeps into analyses of her work; and it’s mortifying to find that this intolerance persists in the perception of her career today. Is it likely that writers mentored by a popular male critic would earn a nickname like “the Paulettes” — with that patronizing diminutive? Or that Frank Rich would find room in the very first paragraph of his review of The Age of Movies to mention “her bullying personality (in print and in life), her sloppy professional ethics and her at times careerist escapades in self-dramatizing contrarianism” had he been writing about a man?
Nugent offers Edmund Wilson, whose affair with Anaïs Nin is a pretty clear example of dubious professional ethics, for comparison; I’d submit the photographer and artistic gatekeeper Alfred Stieglitz, who vigorously promoted the careers of a number of the most important American artists of his day — his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, among them — until they disappointed him and he broke with them. We don’t talk about Stieglitz’s bullying personality, though God knows he had one, or his professional ethics. Why should we? His aesthetic vision and intellectual muscle transformed the landscape of American arts. Few people doubt that Kael’s muscle transformed the way we watch movies today, but many are more comfortable with the notion if they can prove Kael was a mean, bad person while she was doing it. (“She probably never could have accumulated so extensive a brood if she hadn’t been female and welcoming,” Denby offers in “My Life as a Paulette,” but he’s devastated when she has the audacity to break the maternal contract.)
I can’t think of another woman writer of Kael’s generation who made people quite so angry as she did. She pushed people in a way that had nothing to do with gender, or the usual feminist transgressions into patriarchal literary territory. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Joan Didion traded on the way the times made her fragile — she cataloged her nervous breakdowns alongside her narrative of the debauched drug culture of Northern California. Susan Sontag, for all her critical genius, took the role of a modern Cassandra, prophesying our cultural and political doom. Mary McCarthy is a first rate critic, and when you read on her theater she is dazzlingly sharp — but she’s cold and sharp. You get the sense she might not really have liked the theater; there is brilliant discrimination without the grit or the glowing pleasure.
Kael got discrimination from the movies, but she got the grit and glowing pleasure, too; and on the page she comes across as indomitable, buoyant. She’s provocative, and she always seems to have the last word. I suspect that Kael’s voice makes her a special target for vitriol. Readers are less perturbed by brilliance if it comes by way of self-effacing anxiety (Joan Didion), or if it borrows the specialized language of the academy (Susan Sontag), if it undermines itself or if doesn’t hold the majority of us accountable. Kael spoke to people in a voice they recognized, but she demanded something more from them than they were accustomed to. Perhaps readers feel the need to cut Kael down to size because she wouldn’t do the work for them.
What these critiques miss, of course, is that discrimination in Kael’s writing is inextricable from its generosity, both to the movies she reviewed and to her readers. Her reviews invite you into conversation, so if you fall in love with her work, you feel you become a part of it. An anecdote from A Life in the Dark about how Kael got her start as a movie critic expresses this the best. She was sitting in a Berkeley coffee house in 1952, arguing with a friend about a movie they’d just seen, when Peter D. Martin, the editor of the recently launched City Lights, came over to their table. He’d been eavesdropping on their conversation. Impressed, he offered Kael a reviewing assignment on the spot. (It was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight.)
In a way, Kael never left the coffee house: more people just started listening in. It’s not that her reviews come across as private reflections; it’s precisely the contrary, that her critical sensibility was enlarged for an audience even before she had one. Her work never lost that conversational edge, but neither did it pander to her listeners or her readers: she expected them to follow her, to fight back. Kael brought the coffee house into the movie theater, and in doing so brought a new dimension to the American movie going experience.
Amanda Shubert is Full Stop’s Features Editor. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she is the Curatorial Fellow at the Smith College Museum of Art.