Prose and cons.
The story goes that Pauline Kael's first review was called "Slimelight": That was what the late poet Robert Duncan, with whom Kael had gone to see Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, called the picture when they walked out of the theater. The word is used nowhere in or on Kael's piece, which-appearing in 1953 in City Lights, a journal that, like the San Francisco bookstore that published it, was named for another Chaplin movie-is still harsh enough to bring the reader up short.
At the end of City Lights (1931), Chaplin's tramp leaves prison so filthy and destroyed you don't want to look at him. He walks the streets, picking butts out of the gutter, and then, as James Agee wrote in 1949, 'the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. . . . She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet closeups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
That Chaplin was nowhere in sight in 1953; Kael tracked him to his hiding place in his own movie, in his own ego. Re-creating the context in which the movie was made and in which a certain movie lover paid her money and sat down to wait for the picture to begin-with the sense of time and place, here, not there, now, not then, that over the next decades would draw so many readers into real or imaginary conversations with her-she began in the audience, listening to the talk of the people around her, imagining herself talking to them. She began not with special knowledge, but with a sense of herself as any movie's ideal watcher: no better or worse than anyone else, as she sat in her seat, but maybe better out of it, because while everyone else got up and went about their lives, Kael stayed in the audience, even when she went home. The premise wasn't that her ideas about a movie would be deeper than those of other people, but that other people were busy-so she would draw on their reactions as well as her own and, as she wrote, put people back in the theater.
She looked at Calvero, the aging comedic saint Chaplin was playing in Limelight, and as the conceit of the character turned into its own bad joke, she came to life as a critic. The cruel wit, the natural reach from one medium to another, the sense of betrayal-the freeswinging, freewheeling yawp of the artistic citizen-it was all there from the start: "Calvero's gala benefit in which he shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest performer of them all, his death in the wings as the applause fades-this is surely the richest hunk of gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral."
What nails it? What is it that signals the arrival of a new voice, impatient, in love with her subject and as keen to its betrayals as its promises, speaking American? "Hunk."
RELATED ARTICLE: SOME NOTES ON CHAPLIN'S LIMELIGHT
A REMARK OVERHEARD: I don't care if he is a genius. I don't like that man."
If the audiences which attend Limelight in San Francisco are an adequate sampling of Chaplin's American public, he now attracts a somewhat segmented art-film audience. This is not the same audience he used to play to--but the reasons are considerably more complex than the "complicated" ones Calvero indicates to explain why the headless monster turned against him.
The majority audience (if some cleavage is necessary, let us say roughly the people who voted for Eisenhower) resents him partly for political reasons, partly for moral ones, and, more basically, because he appears in the guise of genius. When the mass audience became convinced that the clown who had made them laugh was really an artist, they felt betrayed. This is the same audience which turned Garbo into an object of ridicule when her beauty and distinction raised her to an eminence they could not tolerate. Then she, too, became the adored beauty of the minority.
The minority audience was always fascinated by the stills which revealed the beauty of Chaplin--the depth and expressiveness beneath the tramp makeup; the majority was perfectly satisfied with the mask of comedy. In a chance glimpse we thought we perceived a tragic countenance under the mask. Now Chaplin has given us too long a look--the face has been held in camera range for prolonged admiration--and the egotism of his self-revelation has infected the tragic beauty. The illusion, the mystery are gone--and with them possibly a good section of the minority audience as well. It is difficult not to be interested in what Chaplin will do next, but the bated breath has acquired a faint wheeze.
ODDLY ENOUGH, for all the mind and sophistication attributed to Chaplin, the hero of Limelight is surprisingly like the conceptions of the artist held by the vast American film audience (although this audience suspects, and quite rightly, that there are other elements...). Limelight is just as sentimental and high-minded about life and theatre as show people might wish. Possibly theatre people will see it as true and beautiful, just as so many Jews saw The Great Dictator as an awesome achievement. (Just as an analyst friend thought Mourning Becomes Electra the greatest film ever made.)
It is dubious, however, that Chaplin can regain the mass audience with this film: the suspicion that he is not a regular fellow is fairly widespread, and the simplicity of the film is pompous enough to mislead neighborhood audiences into thinking it is that abhorrence--art.
Chaplin's range as an actor is quite probably as wide as he thinks it is, but his range as a creative intelligence is certainly considerably less. He is almost the only man who is in the position to use the film medium for personal statement. (It is questionable if other creative film-makers would wish to do so; his aim may be as unique as his opportunity). His ideas and personality have pervaded his last three films. Verdoux remains fascinating, impudent enough to make one toss overboard some minor reservations. Mercifully in Verdoux the ideas are not nearly so explicit as in The Great Dictator and Limelight where the failures of taste and creative insight are alternately embarrassing and infuriating.
As Robert Duncan remarked, "It would have taken W.C. Fields spitting into Calvero's passed hat to restore the comic genius."
The Chaplin of Limelight is no irreverent little clown; his reverence for his own ideas would be astonishing even if the ideas were worth consideration. They are not-and the context of the film exposes them at every turn. The exhortations in the directions of life, courage, consciousness, and "truth" are set in a story line of the most self-pitying and self-glorifying daydream variety. Calvero's gala benefit in which he shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest performer of them all, his death in the wings as the applause fades--this is surely the richest hunk of gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral. It was humor in Twain's day; Chaplin serves it at face value a hundred years later.
Calvero is not a little tramp who happily wins his waif or pitiably loses her. Calvero renounces his waif and renunciation carries a certain amount of prestige. Of course it was all "Platonic" anyway. Terry does however carry conviction when she says she loves him--we suspect she wouldn't love him if it weren't Platonic. For this Terry is the embodiment, the incarnation almost, of the recurrent Chaplin heroine--even to the name, Claire Bloom. Surely she has produced herself out of the same wonder and daydream from which Chaplin has drawn his images of the lovely waif. She is a very serious young actress and she moves with authority--she knows she is the real thing.
In early Chaplin films two babes-in-the-wood met. Calvero, though just as pure and innocent in heart, represents the same wisdom and experience of age--and hence renounces Terry. Somehow, whether intentionally or not, we are not made to feel that any great sacrifice is involved. It's as though genius has removed the necessity for human relations. Chaplin has composed a curious idyll of the sexes, replete with a second pure-in-heart young lover for Terry in the person of his son. The Svengali-Trilby theme is presented not for horror, not for satire, not even for laughs, but just straight; Calvero is ennobled by imparting strength to Trilby and still has it both ways, emerging himself triumphant as an artist.
Chaplin was a great comedian, but the demonstrations of Calvero's stage routines are, despite amusing and hilarious moments, rather mediocre. This is difficult to account for. Robert Hatch, in an otherwise excellent review in The Reporter, suggests that the acts "are deliberately not very good because comedians like Calvero were not very talented and their material was shabby even in 1914." This is ingenious but it doesn't fit the idea content of the film, nor can it account for the worse than mediocre ballet, performed presumably during the great days of [the] Diaghilev period. The mediocrity is scarcely intentional; on the contrary, it seems the not uncommon result of aiming at greatness.
Calvero is meant to be great all right. When he awaits Terry in the darkened theatre after her dance and says, "My dear, you are a true artist, a true artist," this is intended as "the shock of recognition." The camera emphasis on Chaplin's eyes, the emotion in his voice are intended to give depth to his words. This ghastly mistake in judgment and taste--this false humility which proclaims his own artistry in the act of asserting another's--this is not a simple mistake. It is integral to the creative mind which produces a Limelight.
Chaplin apparently is not content with the ideas which can be realized in comedy performance; nor is he content with the subtle riddles posed in Verdoux. He wants a wider range; he wants to state his ideas about life. The Sunday thinker is likely to think he knows some truths" that people should be told and more than likely he'll make an ass of himself in the telling. It is several thousand years since Socrates investigated the minds of artists and concluded that "upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest men in other things in which they were not wise."
The sunday composer who is in the position to have his music written down for him, orchestrated, and even performed, is a rare bird indeed. The layman's desire to appear as a great composer is no less grandiose than Chaplin's score. Significantly, his derivations are not from the moderns, but from the popular masters of the 19th century, the patron geniuses of Hollywood music. If we compare his music to a typical Hollywood score, it sounds indistinguishable from others. But this is not the comparison he invites--and if we take him on his own terms and compare his score to an interesting film score, to Auric, Honneger, Prokofiev, or Walton, for example, Chaplin disappears from discussion.
One wonders what Chaplin makes of the developments in his own medium in the last half-century. Though a contemporary of Griffith, he is also a contemporary of Dreyer, of Cocteau, of Came and Renoir, of Bunuel and De Sica, of Carol Reed, Huston, Mankiewicz. The full measure of the dismal failure of Limelight comes when we place it against its contemporaries. We have been told that Chaplin is a man of wide culture, but Limelight might be the work of the fabled young man who was afraid to read a book for fear it would spoil his originality.
I Lost It at the Movies: Film Writings, 1954-1965. Little, Brown, 1965.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Little, Brown, 1968.
Going Steady: Film Writings, 1968-1969. Little, Brown, 1970.
The Citizen Kane Book. Little, Brown, 1971.
Deeper into Movies: The Essential Kael Collection, From '69 to '72. Little, Brown, 1973.
Reeling. Little, Brown, 1976.
When the Lights Go Down. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1980.
5001 Nights at the Movies: A Guide from A to Z. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982.
Taking It All In: Film Writings, 1980-1983. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984.
State of the Art: Film Writings, 1983-1985. Dutton, 1985.
Hooked: Film Writings, 1985-1988. Dutton, 1989.
Movie Love: Complete Reviews 1988-1991. Dutton, 1991.
For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies. Dutton, 1994.
Conversations with Pauline Kael, edited by Will Brantley. university of Mississippi Press, 1996.
Writing about Jean-Luc Godard in 1968, Pauline Kael said, "It's the strength of his own sensibility that gives his techniques excitement. In other hands, his techniques are just mannerisms." The same goes for her. She brought the vernacular into criticism with a power that, for many of us, left academic language forever suspect, and if you write about the arts, you ignore her at your peril. But since her strength was in her iconoclasm, you succumb to her sensibility at equal peril. A young critic who has that voice ringing in his ears--replete with its convictions and biases, its temperament and tastes--can have a hard time finding his own.
And it was, almost literally, a voice. "I was conscious of the fact that I was writing about a popular art form," she said. "How can you deal with movies truthfully, in terms of your responses, if you don't use contractions, if you don't use 'you' instead of 'one'?" And she said, "Because movies were not taken that seriously, I was able to try to develop my own way of writing about them. I wanted to be accurate to the movie experience and not write about them in the phony, moralistic terms that so many people use." Kael developed her syncopated colloquialism over nearly a decade of radio broadcasts, though one of the peculiarities of her career is that her style didn't really lose its last vestiges of tweed until she got out of radio. But it was accessible, and it was famously wisecracking. Consider this aside from a 1966 review of John Huston's epic The Bible (which she didn't think was half bad):
The stories of Genesis are, of course, free of that wretched masochistic piety that makes movies about Christ so sickly. Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew was so static that I could hardly wait for that loathsome prissy young man to get crucified. Why do moviemakers think that's such a good story, anyway? The only thing that gives it plausibility is, psychologically, not very attractive. (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)
Or this blast at William Friedkin, whose direction of The Exorcist she despised as much as she despised the William Peter Blatty novel:
He has himself said that Blatty's book took hold of him and made him physically ill. That's the problem with moviemakers who aren't thinkers: they're mentally unprotected. A book like Blatty's makes them sick, and they think this means they should make everybody sick. (Reeling)
Early on, especially, she was into cultural diagnostics--"And if it be said that this is sociology, not aesthetics," she wrote, anticipating the objections, "the answer is that an aesthetician who gave his time to criticism of current movies would have to be an awful fool." Looking at films was a way of putting the national psyche on the couch. In the '50s, she sensed the pervasive gnaw under the conformity, and without fully buying the troubled-delinquent pictures of the era (On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Blackboard Jungle), she acknowledged they were alive to something in the culture:
Our economic system, our social order, are accepted, not with respect, but as facts, accepted almost at the same level on which "regular" films are accepted--a convictionless acceptance which is only a hair's breadth away from violent negation....Everything in America makes life easier, and if Americans are not really happy, they're not really unhappy either. If they feel some pangs of dissatisfaction, what can they blame it on? Only themselves-guiltily....What a relief to go to the movies and hear mixed-up kids say it out loud. They don't always say it in attractive ways, but it is a no and somebody has to say it. It's explosively present. (I Lost it at the Movies)
By the '70s, the nature of American self-loathing had changed, and in review after review she worried about its sweep. After the summer of the Watergate hearings, she brooded Today, movies say that the system is corrupt, that the whole thing stinks, and they've been saying this steadily since the midsixties. The Vietnam war has barely been mentioned on the screen, but you could feel it in Bonnie and Clyde and Bullitt and Joe, in Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy and The Last Picture Show, in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and The Candidate and Carnal Knowledge and The French Connection and The Godfather. It was in good movies and bad, flops and hits, especially hits--in the convictionless atmosphere, the absence of shared values, the brutalities taken for granted, the glorification of loser-heroes... If one were to believe recent movies, it was never any different in this country: Vietnam and Watergate are not merely where we got to but where we always were. (Reeling)
But in the following years, as America grew complacent again, there wasn't as much to say in the way of social analysis. In the '70s, as Kael went, in her phrase, deeper into movies, the aesthetician shouldered aside the sociologist; she felt that the gush of great new work (by Altman and Bertolucci and Goppola and De Palma and Mazursky and Scorsese and Spielberg, to name some of her favorites) called for the added aesthetic scrutiny. And "as the seventies gave way to the eighties," she wrote in her introduction to her late omnibus collection For Keeps, "the excitement I had earlier found in the movies gave way to the pleasure I found in writing"; in other words, as movies died, the stylist shouldered aside the aesthetician. Her tack was not just to explain her responses but to re-create them--to put you inside her skin. I used to wonder why she told so much of the plot in her later reviews. Rereading her, I can see that she was turning those plots into her plots; she would figure out what was wrong on the sc reen and fix it in what she wrote, telling the stories the way they ought to be told. Her reviews offered some of the pleasures of beautifully crafted fiction: interesting, rounded characters and, in the commenting voice of the narrator, the play of a fascinating mind.
Actually, there were two sets of characters, the actors and the roles they played. Acting styles meant as much to Kael as the lines did. She hated visible technique ("He keeps us conscious that he's acting all the time. His toes act in his shoes"), and so, notoriously, she could never warm up to Meryl Streep. "She has the external details of 'Okie bad girl' down pat, but something is not quite right," she griped of Streep's performance in Silkwood. "She has no natural vitality; she's like a replicant-- all shtick."
And there were the characters onscreen, whose hooded motives she would divine with an astonishing empathy. A random example: in High Tide, Judy Davis plays a down-and-out mother who, years after giving her daughter up for adoption, unexpectedly meets the teenage girl. "As Lilli," Kael wrote, "one of three backup singers for a touring Elvis imitator, Judy Davis is contemptuous of the cruddy act, contemptuous of herself. Too smart for what she's doing, Lilli is a derisive tease-- a spoiler." That much was apparent to most of us, but she kept going. "You may intuit that her having abandoned the child who was her only hold on life is the reason she has trashed herself. She doesn't look on her failures that kindly, though." Kael was fearless about going out on limbs; she liked it out there. You had to admire the intensity of her engagement even when you suspected her of reading too much in.
Her reviews do something almost unheard-of in reviewing: They take on a life of their own as fully formed, freestanding literature. You can respond to them without ever having seen the movies they're about, and inmost cases you probably should. I don't think this achievement is something a critic can aspire to, though. Criticism, unlike fiction, has a built-in humility; a critic who stops seeing herself as a servant of the work, or at least of what the work might have been, has turned in her critical credentials and is doing something else. Kael had a healthy self-regard, but she never considered herself superior to her subject. (If she had, she wouldn't have been.) Yet most of the movies she wrote about have turned to dust. Her reviews are written in stone.
Craig Seligman is a senior fellow at Columbia University's National Arts Journalsim Program.
When Artforum invited me to write 800 words on Pauline Kael, I asked the editor why we couldn't dispense with 799 of them, as I could certainly summarize my opinion of Ms. Kael with even greater economy than that with which her opinions had for so many years been splashed across movie ads and even, for a time, theater marquees. Besides, the definitive autopsy on Ms. Kael's oeuvre had already been performed, twenty-one years earlier, in the pages of the New York Review of Books, by Renata Adler ("The Perils of Pauline"), and I consider Adler's an impossible act to follow. I have a fond memory of devouring that essay with Susan Sontag, peering over each other's shoulder, in the donut shop that used to occupy the corner of Third Avenue and Fourteenth Street, both of us nearly gagging with laughter at the sly, inexorable trajectory of every sentence, the devastating conclusion of every paragraph, the utterly damning thoroughness with which Ms. Kael's grotesquely inflated, even sacrosanct reputation had been laid out like a corpse for burial.
What Adler had attacked was the weekly spectacle of "a minor celebrity in frenzy," the single-subject critic whose subject could not be of burning interest every week, for whom the job of weighing in on the week's offerings became an exercise in whipping up a sense of urgent indignation over the inconsequent release of a not-very-good film, or, contrariwise, bestowing vast hyperbolic importance on mildly interesting fare; Kael, who may have started out as an interesting and interested commentator on her chosen medium, had developed an obtuse, largely meaningless, and repetitive vocabulary of astonishing ugliness and vulgarity, and a "degree of physical sadism...unique in expository prose." Open any volume of Kael's collected reviews to almost any page and you will find sufficient evidence to indict on one--or more likely several--of Adler's charges. From her review of Earthquake (in Reeling): "Who needs a reason to destroy L.A.? The city stands convicted in everyone's eyes. You go to Earthquake to see L.A. ge t it, and it really does. The picture is swill, but it isn't a cheat, like Airport 1975, which was cut-rate swill." Of Magnum Force she writes (also in Reeling), "Clint Eastwood isn't offensive; he isn't an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor....And acting isn't required of him in Magnum Force, which takes its name from the giant's phallus--the long-barreled Magnum 44--that Eastwood flourishes." When one of the odd assortment of directors she favored produced a derivative, uglily entertaining knickknack such as Dressed To Kill, Kael's boosterism knew no bounds: "The whole film gives you the feeling of evenly controlled energy," she wrote in the New Yorker (reprinted in Taking It All In). "De Palma shows the kind of restless intelligence which suggests that he will want to work in many different forms, and certainly he needs more chances to work on a larger scale ... But he doesn't have to move away from thrillers to prove he's an artist. In his hands, the thriller form is capable of expressing alm ost everything--comedy, satire, sex fantasies, primal emotions." In Kael's mental universe, that is almost everything (though I would question her ability to distinguish a "primal emotion" from a gas-line explosion), which may account for her repeated trashing of directors like John Cassavetes and Antonioni, and the absence of any mention, or a single review, in her keepsake volume (optimistically titled For Keeps) of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter, Patrice Chereau, Chantal Akerman, Barbet Schroeder, Jacques Rivette, Raoul Ruiz, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Sally Potter, John Waters, or any of several dozen other directors who enriched and expanded the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic possibilities of cinema while Kael busied herself distinguishing the "swill" from the "cut-rate swill" exuding from Hollywood each week, valiantly battling, as she declares in her introduction to For Keeps, the squeamish New Yorker editor William Shawn for her right to use the toilet talk, sexual innuendo, and vivid descriptions of viscera so essential to her art.
Despite the cogently argued case Adler made, Kael placidly continued sharing her peculiarly promiscuous, weirdly incoherent, and, if you followed her closely, ossified biases, phobias, and encomiums with the readers of the New Yorker. No lowering of her deafening volume, no thoughtful modulation of tone, no hint of generosity toward her pet scapegoats followed in the wake of "The Perils of Pauline." She blathered on in serenity, apparently ensorcelled by the idea of her own "feistiness." She clearly had a thing for Warren Beatty, for Paul Newman, for various stars whose worst performances, in her view, paradoxically contained their best work; she rhapsodized over horrible hack directors whose "honest" formulaic dreck she preferred to "pretentious" films by superior directors; she was, perhaps, the first critic to make extreme violence onscreen a phenomenon to be parsed aesthetically ("A violent movie that intensifies our experience of violence is very different from a movie in which acts of violence are perfu nctory" [from her review of Magnum Force]), to celebrate mayhem as one of the glories of American cinema. "Audiences hiss the sight of blood now," Kael gripes in a piece called "Fear of Movies" (in When the Lights Go Down), "as if they didn't have it in their own bodies."
She was not entirely without subtlety, and occasionally could tell a good joke; but the subtlety rarely had an illuminating point behind it, and the jokes were usually labored and had no illuminating point behind them. It was Pauline Kael's specialty to extol the bloody-minded, the kitschy, the sexually crude, and the glaringly obvious and to sneer at "arty" films from a Europe she had scarcely ever visited. The European films she gushed over, both good and bad, she drenched in a lyrical syrup of stereotypes that convinced me, at least, that her knowledge of the world beyond the US came almost entirely from watching movies. Flipping through her compendium volume For Keeps, I could not avoid the thought that every superfluous, peacock display of erudition or even of ordinary intelligence outside the territory of film itself--witness her translation of the song title "Nessun dorma" from Turandot in a piece on Scorsese's segment of New York Stories (followed by the patronizing news that "with Nolte sitting there listening, you don't have to know what the words mean to roar with laughter"), or her disclosure that A bout de souffle really means "out of breath" and not "breathless" in French, for example- was something she'd phoned an opera-queen buddy or a French-speaking friend to clarify for her, and not anything casually plucked from a rich store of cultural knowledge.
For a critic who claimed to bring film writing down from academia to the conversational, the slangy, and the vernacular, Kael's reviews are insufferably preachy and condescending: "It's almost painful to tell kids who have gone to see The Graduate eight times that once was enough for you because you've already seen it eighty times with Charles Ray and Robert Harron and Richard Barthelmess... How could you convince them that a movie that sells innocence is a very commercial work when they're so clearly in the market to buy innocence?"
Yet she was quite oblivious to the huge debt David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a film whose originality she praised in what could only be called orgasmic terms, owed to the films of Kenneth Anger, and she seemed to believe that the vital ingredient in the works of Luis Bunuel was his handling of "violence," reproaching his late masterpieces for their lack of convincing mean-spiritedness. The same audience presumed to be utterly uncritical of what they'd just seen in The Graduate until reading Knel's corrective review is constantly being shoveled such shopworn thoughts as (from her credo, "Trash, Art, and the Movies," reprinted in Going Steady): "If we don't deny the pleasures to be had from certain kinds of trash and accept The Thomas Crown Affair  as a pretty fair example of entertaining trash, then we may ask if a piece of trash like this has any relationship to art. And I think it does." Throughout her career, Kael continually invoked issues of "high and low," "major and minor," "art and entertainment," and wreaked predictably silly reversals on these supposedly ubiquitous binary concepts, which by the mid-'60s, particularly owing to the broad impact of Sontag's Against Interpretation (1966), had little relevance in any generative cultural discourse.
The coercive effect of Kael's technique was not simply contrarian, which might have had its praiseworthy aspects; For Keeps makes it clear, as Adler noted years ago, that this is a critic who brooks no contradiction and turns herself into a pretzel to stun the reader into agreement that a worthless film has moments that outshine, and outmerit, actual masterpieces, if for no better reason than that the film was made by one of the directors she routinely fawned over, like De Palma. When it suits her, Kael does a complete volte-face and fetishizes the transcendent artistry of De Sica's Shoeshine, for example, or treats us to an extremely long, extremely ill-informed analysis of how things work in Hollywood to explain "why today's movies are so bad." It is, perhaps, the absence of any real sensibility rooted in any consistent method of analysis that makes Pauline Kael's collections of reviews the kinds of books I don't like having in my house. She's not a real voice but more like a suet of arbitrary, extemporized pronouncements. She is Gertrude Stein's Oakland; There's no there there.
Gary tndiana's new novel, Depraved Indifference, was published by HarperCollins in January.
GLEE TO DISAGREE
In high school and college, on days when Pauline Kael's reviews appeared in the New Yorker, I would read them through (often to the exclusion of anything else in the magazine) with rapt attention and frequent amusement. Having done so, I would proceed to quarrel with them at length, either inwardly or to anyone who would listen. As an enthusiast of Westerns, gangster movies, and lurid horror of the Hammer and Cinecitta schools, a devoted supporter of Samuel Fuller and Sergio Leone, I was aware of belonging to a tribe of youthful auteurists she characterized in tones ranging from contempt to pitying bemusement. Reading her was sometimes like being scolded at a distance by an instructor with a flair for mocking exactitude. I was not to be persuaded out of my tastes even by Kael's finely tuned wit, yet she did raise the uncomfortable question of whether I could mount a defense as articulate, as cunningly modulated, as worldly and self-confident as her attacks. It was one thing to admire Curse of the Demon or Her cules Conquers Atlantis or The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, and quite another thing to find language adequate to explaining such admiration.
Of course I continued to read and reread Kael because of the pleasure she continually afforded in the most unexpected ways: in her quick sketches of actors or scenes, her aphoristic encapsulations (even when they were infuriating) of the American cultural scene and '60s youth culture, the splashes of color and line that enlivened reviews of some of the deadliest movies imaginable, her relentless prodding of anything she found false or inadequate--a misbegotten movie like The Shoes of the Fisherman or The Night of the Following Day--until it seemed to break apart on the page, a wreckage consisting of elegantly turned sentences. She was such great company that it was a pleasure to anticipate renewed quarrels.
Her faculty of sheer humorous invention--not to mention off-the-cuff invective--was extraordinary and keeps her reviews of even the most minor pictures alive. Who else would have described Sandy Dennis in Sweet November as "an icky little rabbit Babbitt" or suggest, in discussing the star quality of Candice Bergen and Omar Sharif: "Perhaps stars like these could be bred, like broadbacked circus horses, or minks." Her disenchantment with the self-deceptions of "youthful" late-'60s film culture would surge up eloquently, as in her review of Joanna: "We are getting the howling banalities of the past brought back in creamy Panavision and fruity DeLuxe color and enough Mod clothes to choke a clotheshorse, and they're brought back not with irony but with moronic solemnity. There's a less publicized side of the generation gap: we remember this stuff from the last time around. Mod filmmakers, it appears, have just discovered the Rubaiyat and are working their way toward The Razor's Edge." Each review was a graph of e nergy, charted in prose whose rhythms were inexorable. Yet--and she insisted on the point--it was experience in the real world that she was writing about, even if only the experience of watching a movie: an act that she rendered with a novelistic density that made most other film criticism seem random or wanly generalizing.
Returning to her writing after so many years, I'm still puzzled by a central ambivalence in her judgments that seems to gravitate around the notions of "art" and "trash." In her celebrated essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies" (Harper's, February 1969)--the closest she came to a general statement of intentions--she wants to celebrate the gaudy pleasures of cinematic vulgarity: "I don't trust anyone who doesn't admit having at some time in his life enjoyed trashy American movies.... Why should pleasure need justification?" She directs withering scorn at those stuffed-shirt humanists who admire Judgment at Nuremberg or Wild Strawberries but can't appreciate The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). But she's equally at odds with anyone who likes trash a little bit too much, likes it enough to think that "trash" is perhaps a term of doubtful use: "If an older generation was persuaded to dismiss trash, now a younger generation, with the press and schools in hot pursuit, has begun to talk about trash as if it were really very serious art." It doesn't help that her examples of yesterday's kitsch now mistaken for art are Shanghai Express and--amazingly for someone who would go on to grossly overpraise the Hitchcock imitations of Brian De Palma--Notorious. She goes in circles on this theme, churning up perplexities about pleasure and puritanism, bourgeois complacency and radical transgression, without ever coming to a comfortable resting point. What is clear is that there is no party of which she wishes to be a member; if she has to declare for anything it will be the sovereignty of her own taste.
Kael defined her own responses with such thoroughness that little room was left for the possibility of anyone responding differently. It was a little like being at the table with the sort of voluble, entertaining, and supremely informed dinner companion who annihilates your counterarguments before you even get a chance to express them. If this was irritating to the opinionated young cinephile I was in 1968, it later proved to be her greatest gift to anyone writing about film. There was all the room in the world for different responses--but only on condition that they were treated with something approaching the same level of detail and forthrightness, the same faithfulness to moment-by-moment experience, the same refusal to deny that movies exist in a world that keeps forcing its way into even the most hermetic of viewing experiences.
Geoffrey O'Brien, editor in chief of the Library of America, is the author of The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century (Norton, 1993).
ECO AND NARCISSUS
Ten years ago, the film industry launched a marketing campaign of maximal intensity for the rerelease of Casablanca on its fiftieth anniversary. Hollywood and the film-critical establishment joined in the lyrical evocation of the film's universal appeal, its casting, the chemistry of its stars, its humor, and its richly textured, enveloping atmosphere. The encomiums were informed, nonetheless, with a sense of the problematic; the festivities were marked by a shadow of doubt. Indeed, the film's very success was held to be puzzling, and the celebrants confronting this issue appeared paralyzed by the enigma of the film's reception. They now wanted to account more fully for that success; they were eager to understand what had made Casablanca "a true classic of the silver screen."
The questions then generated were of the following order: What is the source of this film's power? How and why has its interest or fascination endured over five decades? How can we account for a "universal appeal" that defies cultural and generational boundaries? What, finally, is the secret of its magic?
The conclusion, almost unanimously expressed, was that this magic" was fundamentally inexplicable, that the whole was so very much more than the sum of its parts, that analysis could never do it justice. And the general consensus on this verdict indicated that it was not merely satisfactory but welcome--presupposed, even, as the sole reply to a question that had in any case been merely rhetorical.
But a complete and wholly satisfying explanation did exist, had someone in the industry and its subservient critical establishment wished to acknowledge it: the remarkable essay by Umberto Eco, available in English since 1986 as "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage."
In this text, directed at a general spectatorship and readership, Eco first unpacked the nature of the Cult Film as the category or genre into which Casablanca had over the years made its way. With characteristic perspicacity, grounded in a deep and sympathetic interest in the products of mass culture, and with a delicious wit, Eco then proceeded to lay bare the "secret" of Casablanca's "magic."
Eco's conclusion, supported by a detailed reading, was that this film had become a Cult Movie "because it is not one movie. It is 'movies.'" It then followed that "this is the reason it works, in defiance of any aesthetic theory." Having demonstrated the massive proliferation within Casablanca's narrative structure of existing filmic archetypes, stereotypes, and stock situations, Eco went on to claim that, "When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb Homeric profundity. Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches move us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion." The reader is then given to understand that the spectator, in joining that celebration, submits to its "magic." It is as though "the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime....Nobody would have been able to achieve such a cosmic result intentionally....It stages the powers of Narrativity in its natural state, before art intervenes to tame it."
One might well ask why I choose this text by Eco to introduce my contribution to Artforum's "roundtable" on the critical legacy of Pauline Kael. The reasons are several. They may be subsumed in a fairly succinct exercise in comparison and contrast through which, I believe, one can begin to assess the strength and limits of Kael's contribution to our film culture.
What, then, are the points of contact between and common concerns of these two writers? First, there is the concentration on narrative rather than on the work of camera, of mise-en-scene, of lighting, etc.--although Eco's technique of segmentation obviously differs from Kael's critical outlines of plot and action. They share, as well, keenness of observation, and they display wit in their affection for work that cannot be termed a summit of artistic practice in film. For although Kael seems not to have devoted more than a few paragraphs to Casablanca in her collection 5001 Nights at the Movies, she was a frequent and staunch defender of the "good bad movie," of the "hack job," of the pleasures afforded by what she termed "trash." There are also the brief references to the conditions under which the film was shot and their epitomization of the film itself. All these qualities and interests we find in both writers, although Kael's massive historiographic exercise, "Raising Kane" (reprinted in The Citizen Kane B ook)--one of her significant contributions to film culture--is unique for its time in the scale, detail, and contextualizing of the film's production history and for its resurrection of the contributions of writer, producer, cinematographer, and staff to Welles's great work. We can now read the essay as an early instance of the problematization of the Author.
The very obvious difference of approach lies in Eco's conviction and Kael's denial (both were veterans of journalistic practice for a general audience) that the infusion and support of an evolving body of theoretical effort will work to the advantage of communication with a readership that is literate, and not necessarily academic. Thus Eco's essay is a virtuoso exercise in textual analysis, seductive in its clarity and forthrightness. It benefits from the past few decades of intellectual history to which Eco has been a major contributor. For, the ways in which we may receive and think about cultural production in general, and film in particular, have been enriched, even transformed.
I want, then, to say that Kael's intransigent resistance to the theorization of the subject of her life's work progressively inhibited her ability to account for film's impact in terms other than those of taste and distaste, expressed with increasing vehemence. To have continued to write into the '90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that she ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale. It is this that was ultimately responsible for Renata Adler's punishing assessment of her work, published in the New York Review of Books in August 1980.
To recall Adler's argument: It was directed generally against the deadening or corrupting of the staff critic, obliged week after week, year after year to provide a specific consumer service, and "who, in doing so, begins to inflate the importance, to dramatize the nature of, each professional encounter or task. Kael was diagnosed as a case study of this process, and the relentless examination of her rhetoric was submitted in what appeared to me at the time a convincing demonstration of the narrowing and coarsening of her work. I remember my consequent surprise at the vehemence of the protests in response to Adler's attack on Kael, though it was a diagnosis performed by one who had begun as a sympathetic reader of the earlier work. I did not understand the anger--which generated a real levee de boucliers--directed at Adler's analysis, so plain did the demonstration seem in its careful detail and accuracy of quotation and analysis.
And I was not fully to understand until Kael's death, when the chorus of mourning reached me. Rereading, rethinking the work collected in the successive volumes of the '6os and '70s, one sees clearly the manner in which a generation of fairly casual filmgoers were inducted by her into a literate cinephilia, through work infused with energy, courage, enthusiasm, and an informed intimacy with her chosen field.
Although formed in a developing tradition of a very different sort, I can wholly share the admiration for the many instances of her crusading mission. My own list would include her sustained enthusiasm for the work of Welles (not only for the early work, but involving, as well, an unusually perceptive review of Chimes at Midnight) her valiant and effective championing of Godard (in contrast with her wholly unreasoned dismissal of Kubrick); the shrewd appraisal of Brando's career as he contended with the industry's constraints; her delightfully canny and unorthodox consideration of the Western's role in the film industry, of its geriatric dimension--and of what it must mean for John Wayne at sixty or more to have to go on mounting a horse to earn his living. In contrast, there was her delight in young bodies at play (that of John Travolta in particular). One recalls, too, her review of a mediocre film on Billie Holiday that revealed Kael's deep love of jazz. She was expert in the assessment of a career, sensit ive in the discernment of subtlety in performance, impatient with unsupported claims to profundity, explicit or merely implicit. And, of course, she was proficient in the ax job. Her definitive demolition of Stanley Kramer's role and work is a superb example of the genre.
Reading, or rereading these pieces, one sees clearly what bound her readers to this writer; she had instilled a sense of what was at work, and what was at stake, in the cinema as an industry and as an artistic practice. This--despite the narcissism, the frequently complacent subjectivity of judgment, the hysteria, the insistent denial of alternative methods of approach--has sustained the fidelity of her readers. That fidelity is easily understood. Indeed, during my ten years as Artforum's editor for film and performance, I was proud and happy to welcome as a regular contributor another master of the vernacular. This was the first film critic (discovered long before in the small periodical section of a storefront branch of the Brooklyn Public Library) who had shown me that in challenging canons of achievement and taste one could think seriously and write convincingly about films--a critic whose project was both more modest and more rigorous: Manny Farber.
Annette Michelson is professor of cinema studies at New York University. (See Contributors.)
Pauline Kael was the recipient of considerable invective in her lifetime; attacks which were nor so much the result of her specific opinions, but of her enormous impact on film (and cultural) criticism. She upset the applecart. She meant to. What she didn't know was that there would be no one to put the apples back.
At another time I would have welcomed Artforum's invitation to write about Pauline as an opportunity go back through her reviews line and verse, as an occasion to reread her work and put it into context. Unfortunately, I'm in Los Angeles, far from my film books and notes, deeply steeped in preproduction for a film I'm to begin shooting in a month. So I'll respond with a series of observations instead.
Pauline changed criticism in a number of ways:
1. She removed pop criticism from the purview of the Eastern Establishment (i.e., the Upper West Side Jewish literary world). Pauline was a farm girl from Petaluma; there was always something about the Trilling crowd that riled her. This lay at the core of her objections to "high art." When she came to New York in middle age, the feeling was she'd be incorporated or co-opted into that Establishment. Instead she created her own Establishment, and generations of younger critics still carry her banner. Granted, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, and Amos Vogel were all sniping at the Eastern Establishment, but it was Pauline who breached the walls. She did this by--
2. Taking film criticism to the average filmgoer. She wrote for people who went to movies, not for those who read magazines--a technical distinction, but an important one. She learned her craft writing notes for the Berkeley Film Guild and reviewing on KPFA, the local public radio station. She responded to the experience of filmgoing; she had no vested interest in a publication "of record." This led to--
3. Personalizing film criticism. Pauline's writing was as much about herself as the films. Using the insidious "we" ("We need to respond to movies because ..."), she made the reader part of her experience. Robert Warshaw once wrote that "a man watches a movie and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man." But he never wrote like it. Pauline did. Only she was a woman. This led to--
4. Sexualizing film criticism. Critics rarely investigated a film's sexual subtext, and, when they did, it was never from the woman's point of view. Pauline's voice was not only a blast of fresh West Coast air, it was also West Coast feminine air, like that swept in by those other western girls, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. (Parker Tyler attempted the same thing for pansexuality--more to the point when it comes to the movies--but was marginalized by the times, and by his writing skills.) Because of these four broad contributions--
5. She validated film reviewing. Difficult as it is to believe today, at the height of America's countercultural upheaval movies truly mattered: It mattered which movies were made, which movies audiences saw, and what they thought of the movies they did see. Godard was important, Bunuel was important, Paul Mazursky and Hal Ashby were important. Art was not happening in the museums; it was in the streets and movie houses. Kael was the pied piper of reviewers who made readers believe that movies, even disreputable movies, were important. If movies were important, it followed that movie reviewing was important.
A considerable achievement, and I wish I could say a wholly beneficial one. Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline. She was able to rail against critical snobbery and High Art, defend mass-audience taste and extol "trash" because she never feared for culture. She knew that there would always be standards. Because she had standards. She appreciated great art and literature and opera; no amount of "trash" could change that.
Not long before she died, Pauline remarked to a friend, "When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture." That's exactly the point. She and her foot soldiers won the battle but lost the war. Mass taste has become acceptable taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film's worth. The pop films Kael most loved, such as Hud (1963), if made today, would be considered art-house fare.
Who would have thought the Establishment would crumble so easily? That, forty years after Kael began writing, Harold Bloom would be standing outside the multiplex like a lonely Jeremiah? It was fun watching the applecart being upset, but now where do we go for apples?
Paul Schrader is a film director and critic.
This month's special section on the legacy of Pauline Kael (1919-2001) leads off with the film critic's first review, an irreverent look at Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, reprinted here in full with an introduction by contributing editor Greil Marcus. Reflections by five noted critics and writers follow: Frequent contributors Gary Indiana, Geoffrey O'Brien, and Craig Seligman are joined by special guests ANNETTE MICHELSON and PAUL SCHRADER. Professor of cinema studies at New York University and a founding editor of the journal October, which celebrates its hundredth issue this spring, Michelson was a contributing editor at Artforum from 1966 to 1972 and film and performance editor from 1972 to 1975. Her anthology Andy Warhol, the latest volume from the October Files series, of which she is editor, appeared in December. Schrader, the director of eleven feature films, including Blue ColIar(1978) and Affliction (1997), is the author of Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer(Da Capo Press, 1988) and has written numerous screenplays, among them Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980; with Mardik Martin). He is currently directing Autofocus, forthcoming this fall, a film on the life of the late actor-comedian Bob Crane. MICHELSON PHOTO: PETER HUJAR; SCHRADER PHOTO: ROBIN HOLLAND
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|Title Annotation:||an appreciation of Pauline Kael, New Yorker's film critic|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2002|
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