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Second Glance: Astonish Us

A worthy appreciation of Pauline Kael has to dive right into things: for nearly forty years she was the best film critic in America.

Even an opening such as this seems sluggish and indirect if you’ve been immersed in Kael’s own writing. She bursts into her first sentences as though she’s just walked out of the theater and begun ventilating two-hours of pent-up responses. Each review seems to have been inaugurated by that parking-lot icebreaker, “So, what’d you think?” The delight is fresh, irradiant – I don’t know of another critic who better conveys the afterglow of excitement in a great performance or production, the exultation of having experienced something transcendent. Of course, her outrage is every bit as vivid. When something offended her, she relished delivering the killing blow. Both responses seem born from the ecstasy of the moment, yet her writing is never muddied or breathless, her judgments never reactionary or superficial.

Kael wrote admiringly of film critic James Agee’s “full panoply of loving terms,” and when a movie overjoyed her, she was also profuse and immediate in her praise. Here’s how she begins her review of Robert Altman’s groundbreaking debut:

M*A*S*H is a marvelously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It’s a sick joke, but it’s also generous and romantic – an erratic, episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected.

When a movie angered her, her disgust is every bit as unconditional:

Literal-minded in its sex and brutality, Teutonic in its humor, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange might be the work of a strict and exacting German professor who set out to make a porno-violent sci-fi comedy. Is there anything sadder – and ultimately more repellant – than a clean-minded pornographer?

(Sometimes these opening salvos are so devastating that there’s almost no point in reading on. A brief guillotining of something called The Magic Christian begins, “Unfunny camp is contemptible.”)

There were two stages to Kael’s career, and in the first, between 1953 and 1967, she was an outsider. She lived during most of these years in her hometown of San Francisco, which was close enough to Hollywood but far from the critical establishment in New York. She was raising a daughter alone (the father was the beatnik bisexual film director James Broughton), and had spent much of her thirties working odd jobs as a seamstress, cook, and bookstore clerk, and eventually as the manager of a movie house. Writing criticism began accidently, when the editor of the quarterly City Lights overheard her in a restaurant denouncing Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight.

The fruit of her work as a freelancer is gathered in her first collection I Lost it at the Movies. These are occasional pieces, reviews, retrospectives, transcripts of radio broadcasts, and huge tentacled essays in which Kael tries to touch on everything her lack of a weekly column has prevented her from covering.

You see in these pieces her happy origins as a film lover first and casual critic second. She effortlessly establishes a truth nearly lost in professional reviewing, that for most people movie going is a social experience, very often tied to dating. In her review of West Side Story (“a great musical for people who don’t like musicals”) she discusses the perils of talking about movies with a would-be suitor:

Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider. I have premonitions of the beginning of the end when a man who seems charming or at least remotely possible starts talking about movies…. Boobs on the make always try to impress with their high level of seriousness (wise guys, with their contempt for all seriousness).

Her famous appraisal of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine is the most extravagant example of a critical judgment springing from an intensely personal and private response (if anything, the following mise-en-scene was varnished to emphasize the singular, subjective nature of the reaction):

When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, “Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.” I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?

Kael forged her insights from the moment of viewing, and this naturally set her in opposition to academic and theory-based criticism. The problem with theory, she felt, is that it single-mindedly dictates the right and wrong ways to watch and respond to movies. One school of thought might esteem film for its unique montage quality, another for its trend toward realism – but in either case, adherents of each school are guaranteed to promote mediocre films that fit their theory while dismissing great work that doesn’t. For Kael, for whom the supreme artistic virtues were surprise and eclecticism, “There is only one rule: Astonish us! In all art we look and listen for what we have not experienced quite that way before. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way. Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?”

But there was a larger animosity at work in her polemics. Her reviews from this period focus an attention on other reviewers that becomes borderline obsessive. Another piece begins this way (if I seem to be cherry-picking openings, it’s because, like Emily Dickinson, Kael is most quotable in her first lines):

I wouldn’t have thought A View from the Bridge was worth much discussion, but it has gotten such very-important-picture treatment from the press … that I think maybe I should say a few unkind words.

The reviews frequently spend as much time quoting and demolishing the opinions from Time and The New York Times (names such as Saul Bass and Bosley Crowthers may be doomed to live on in these broadsides) as actually commenting on the film. Her combativeness went in all directions – without a secure writing position, her defenses were also up against her own editors, who were naturally inclined to shape her views to their own tastes. To preserve what was most important to her about movies – the intimate and visceral response that they provoked – she was prone to turn against any group that wanted her as a member, even and especially the art-house crowd. “Vulgarity is not as destructive to an artist as snobbery,” she once warned; she made much of her love for musicals and her dislike of movies with an obvious social consciousness. (This would be a lifelong impulse. In one of the last interviews she ever gave, she took a moment to bash Sam Mendes’s Academy Award darling American Beauty: “Can’t educated liberals see that a movie like [that] sucks up to them at every plot turn?”)

Finally, in 1968, after a brief run as the house reviewer at McCall’s (she was fired for panning to many big commercial releases), Kael was hired by The New Yorker. She was not quite fifty, and embarking on what was arguably the most widely-read and influential run of any critic in any artistic medium in the 20th century.

It was also the period of her finest writing. Now Kael had a berth in the establishment. She was a successor to one of her erstwhile foils, Brendan Gill, and she alternated reviewing with another former target, Penelope Gilliatt. As an insider, she couldn’t spend so much time surveying the writing of her peers and caviling about their philistinism. She was responsible for delivering the first word on the movies, and it galvanized her.

The knottiest problem for mainstream film critics regards the preponderance of trash that they have to treat seriously, or at least entertainingly – what can you say about Michael Bay adventures and Adam Sandler comedies week after week? Today’s most quick-witted reviewer, The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, has never really resolved the dilemma. He seems to write in two completely different registers, depending on whether the film is a noisy Angelina Jolie shoot-‘em-up (in which a fundamental disregard is implied by the vamping plot summaries and Catskill lounge humor) or a small-budget French pastoral drama (in which a fundamental respect is conveyed by subdued backgrounding and delicate scene analysis).

But Kael wrote with the same spontaneity and intelligence about popular entertainment as about the films of Renoir and Antonioni. The key was that her criticism continued to flow from the experience of viewing the film – if it made her feel good, then it was good. In an essay from Going Steady, her first collection of New Yorker pieces, she wrote, “We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with art.” There was, to her, no reason to apologize for being delighted by great car chases or an actor’s style and beauty. She goes on:

Because of the photographic nature of the medium and the cheap admission prices, movies took their impetus not from the desiccated imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip – from what was coarse and common.

When we do find art in movies, it’s as an adaptation of those basic elements of entertainment. So Kael was able to genuinely enthuse about trashy movies, without condescension but also without any illusions that such pictures were deep or significant. She adored the 007 franchise (at least, until Roger Moore came on the scene: “his idea of Bond’s imperturbable cool is the same as playing dead”), and here you can see how she negotiates between lauding the action-flick pleasures of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and owning up to its essential silliness:

The latest episode in the super-serial of the sixties … is marvelous fun. It introduces a new Bond, George Lazenby, who’s quite a dull fellow, and the script isn’t much either, but the movies is exciting anyway. The director, Peter Hunt, is a wizard at action sequences, particularly an ethereal ski chase that you know is a classic while you’re goggling at it, and a mean, fast bobsled chase that is shot and edited like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I know that on one level it’s not worth doing, but it sure has been done brilliantly.

She held rigorous standards for these movies, too, of course. If they were boring or formulaic they were worthless. But even worse were those that succeeded in exciting the senses, but in barbarous ways. Dirty Harry – a paean to vigilante police justice – she felt brought out the “fascist potential” in the action genre. The Exorcist attempted an equally loathsome manipulation: it’s “shallowness that asks to be taken seriously.”

Having developed a lexicon and critical apparatus for popular movies, Kael achieved a camaraderie with her readers that few reviewers enjoy. She was closely observant of audience reactions during screenings, often reporting in her pieces if the crowd was thrilled, or agitated, or nonplussed (and therefore tacitly acknowledging that her own experience had been colored by that of the audience). While her early writing had an edgy underdog bravado that could turn quickly to mockery, these reviews contain a strong sense of moviegoer fellowship, in which the enemies are no longer obfuscatory critics but bad, cynical movie makers.

Kael’s most memorable writing came during the Nixon years (I think that Deeper into Movies, which collects the New Yorker pieces between 1969 and 1972, is her best book). These were some of the worst years in America’s history, and Kael wrote with a passionate fervor against the national disillusionment that was saturating the culture. She treats her readers like allies in her fight: others who love and care about good movies. When something was released that seemed to capitalize on despair or disaffection (she hated the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter as well as, for almost the same reasons, the “glorified vacuum” of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) she is remorselessly vituperative. When she finds a great picture, like Altman’s Nashville (“a pure emotional high”) or The Godfather (her ultimate example of art flowering from trash), there is a sense of collective triumph, a buoyancy very like the feeling inspired by the great film itself.

As was right and proper, when Kael became established she was attacked in her turn, although these takedowns make for mostly disappointing reading. Many come from academics guarding their weedy intellectual patches. The most notable is Renata Adler’s 1980 hatchet job in The New York Review of Books, which dedicates a tremendous amount of verbiage to criticizing Kael’s demotic prose. Some of Kael’s favorite adjectives for movies were “whorey” and “dopey,” for instance, which to Adler made the writing both crude and ad hominem: “a breakthrough in vulgarity and unfairness.” The complaints seem dour and parti pris, especially when set beside some of Kael’s ecstatic fusillades.

There is a chance, however, that Kael held her post for too long. She left The New Yorker in 1991, and the reviews from her final decade of work are noticeably weaker. The pieces read quite well on their own, but Kael had lost touch with her audience. She’s more likely, during these yuppie-Reagan days, to be irritated with the people in the theater for crying during such “wet kitsch” as Rain Man (“Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes”).

Still, all these reviews contributed to a catalogue that ran into the thousands by the time Kael retired. Her books are virtually all out of print, and even apart from the injustice of that fact, it seems like a missed opportunity – whatever the future of books, it’s still the case that everyone watches movies: a Kael compendium is a perfect accompaniment to a Netflix subscription.

Her work will hold, in any case – that’s what’s so remarkable about it. Whenever you get around to reading her – though sooner is better than not – you’ll find those afterglows of anger and excitement as bright as when they first appeared.

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Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and is an editor of Open Letters Monthly.