Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Critiquing a Critic: A Life in the Dark
I started reviewing movies (not very well) in 1978, at the peak of Pauline Kael’s brilliant career and the height of my own wandering-in-the-desert phase. Alienated, aimless, and only just starting to believe that other people might be interested in what I had to say, I was still in the habit of damming up my opinions until they tumbled out in an often inchoate torrent.
My neo-hippie distrust of the mainstream media and instinctive allergy to the East Coast preppie-industrial complex prevented me from discovering Kael in the New Yorker, the elevated if uneasy perch she occupied from 1968 to early 1991, but her voice was strong enough to penetrate even my defensive fog. I don’t remember when or where I picked up a paperback copy of Reeling, Kael’s fifth fat collection of reviews and essays about the movies she loved, but I remember the thrill with which I first encountered her passionate, proselytizing prose and brilliant insights.
As Brian Kellow makes clear in A Life in the Dark, his empathetic biography of Kael, she loved to go out with movie-besotted friends for dinner and drinks after a screening. Her entourage “resembled a Renaissance court, where people tended to seek her approval by agreeing with her about the film they’d just seen, or trying to move to the head-of-class position by outdoing each other with sharp, barbed, comments,” Kellow writes, but she was quick to freeze out acolytes who “crossed the line into sycophancy.”
Those same warring impulses dominate the long and luscious paper trail that is Kael’s most important legacy. Her Aspergerish faith in her own judgment (“Taste, judgment, being right were crucial,” said her daughter Gina in her eulogy for Kael. “Her inflexibility pleased her. She was right—and that was it”) and her sense of herself as fighting for the movies and filmmakers and actors she loved most gives her writing a missionary, even hectoring tone at times. As Kellow puts it: “She seemed to feel that mere criticism wasn’t sufficient, that she might be the only thing standing between some of Hollywood’s biggest talents and some form of creative bankruptcy.”
At the same time, she clearly yearned for peers, not parrots. Her vivid, impassioned reviews and essays on her beloved movies implore us to look and listen and feel as closely and deeply as she did. The best kind of teacher, she led by example. One of the main things she taught me was how much joy you can tap into if you just trust your gut and do something you love.
Kael wrote for a mass audience—for all of us out there in the dark with her. Like the movies she loved most, she respected that audience enough not to patronize it. Her writing may have been deceptively colloquial (she had to fight the New Yorker’s editors to maintain the conversational, accessible style she had developed by the time she got there at the age of 48), but it was fluid and compelling, and her thinking was original, complex, and deeply intuitive.
She was particularly good, as Kellow points out, in discussing particular actors or directors. Here she is explaining why she hated Katharine Hepburn, an early favorite, as an unhappily aging queen in The Lion in Winter:
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. When Hepburn, the most regal of them all, contemplates her blotches and wrinkles with tears in her anxious eyes, it’s self-exploitation, and it’s horrible.
As much as any critic ever has, Kael got that we fall for the movies because they move us, making us think and, more importantly, making us feel. An instinctive populist from a working class background with a deep-rooted disdain for academia, she celebrated any movie that could sweep her away on a tidal wave of emotion, often dismissing arty foreign films and praising “trashy” popcorn movies in the process.
Kellow, a features editor for Opera News and the author of three other show-biz biographies, has a workmanlike style that seems all the more flatfooted in contrast to Kael’s excerpts, but he did his homework, talking to dozens of her friends, enemies, and colleagues and reading her archives at Indiana University. His insights into his subject seem solid, and he outlines the lucky timing that may have contributed as much to her success as her abundant talent and bulletproof self-confidence. Her luck was never better than in the late ‘60s, when she was writing for smart, small-circulation film magazines, primed to get tapped for the big leagues just as films like Bonnie and Clyde and directors like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman rejuvenated American film, shouldering aside the creaky, conservative, formulaic stuff that dominated after WWII with the kind of movies she loved.
Kellow can be enjoyably dishy, too, like when he reports Kael protégé Steve Vineberg’s reaction to a New York Times article by Wes Anderson that portrayed Kael as out of touch and confused. After other “Paulettes” complained, Anderson insisted in a letter to the editor that he hadn’t meant to mock her. “I thought, when I read [the letter], this is what’s wrong with Wes Anderson’s movies. The guy is tone deaf,” Vineberg says.
But if Kael got the devoted fans she deserved, the movies themselves let her down. By the time she stopped reviewing, Parkinson’s disease had slowed her down considerably, but what ultimately defeated her was the rise of big, dumb, critic-proof blockbusters and would-be blockbusters in Hollywood. “The strong, cautionary words, the advocacy for smart, risky, creative filmmaking that Pauline had poured forth in her column for years may have been more important than ever, but they seemed increasingly futile,” writes Kellow. “The marketing lords had figured out a way to make certain films—many films—critic-proof. Don Simpson’s power had reached its apex, while Pauline’s was on the decline.”
Since then, the Internet has changed the game again, altering the way we see and learn about movies and diluting the power of critics even further—a change, Kellow notes, that would have “shattered” Pauline. As professional and amateur opinions proliferate online along with opinion aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see the rise of another critic as powerful as Kael in her prime, when directors paid court to her, writers begged for her feedback on scripts, and one of her raves could snatch a spunky new movie back from the junk heap.
If so, that’s all the more reason to be glad we had her when we did, to help us savor her beloved American movies during one of their most creative periods.
Written for TimeOFF