Brian Kellow’s 'Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark'
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The day after I finished reading Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking, 432pp; $39.00), I watched John Cassavetes’ Faces. It had been nearly 20 years since I had last seen it and on re-visiting the film I had Kael’s voice in my head, so powerful is my memory of her distinct, visceral style; it took me a few minutes before I could give myself over to it. Kael was derisive about Faces and wrote scathingly about both the director and the performers in a review for the New Yorker in 1968. In her critique of his 1970 film, Husbands, she again took him to task for his lack of discipline as a director. That review appeared in her finest book, Deeper into Movies, a collection of reviews from 1969 to 1972, when American cinema was experiencing a halcyon period, just as the studio system had been dismantled and prior to the arrival of the multi-screen blockbuster.
The titles of Kael’s collected film criticism – I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Reeling – indicate something of the sensual, erotic dimension in the movie-going experience. In Deeper into Movies she is indeed swooning, getting high on the works of filmmakers such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Bernardo Bertolucci – directors whose work offered a bridge between the pleasures of commercial cinema and the personal, exploratory aesthetics of the arthouse.
Faces begins with a long meandering scene where two drunk businessmen take a woman back to her flat; I find myself nodding along to my memory of Kael’s voice: the men are boorish, their behaviour is unpleasant. But as the scene develops the provocative antics begin to make sense, as we come to understand that this is the suburban middle-class flailing about, trying to come to grips with the changes around sexual morality and gender roles initiated by the cultural revolutions of civil rights and feminism.
The rawness of the filmmaking – the unflinching gaze of the camera on the faces of this dislocated, ageing bourgeoisie – is a cinematic equivalent of the muscularity and honesty of the best American fiction writers of this period: John Cheever, John Updike, Richard Yates. Nearly 40 years later Mad Men will mine this particular territory; remind us that the suburbs were the real bellwether of change, not the campus dormitories nor the artist lofts of Greenwich Village. So when it came to Cassavetes, Kael got it wrong.
I first started reading Kael as a teenager when I stumbled across Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in the local library. Kellow also discovered her as an adolescent, in the library of his Midwestern town, as he explains at the end of his biography. He was already a fan of film but her writing gave expression to his cinephilia.
For most of us, it was a love for film that led us to those particular shelves. But I think what we responded to in Kael was her playfulness with language. She was a terrific writer: funny, observant, direct but never prosaic. There is vigour and audacity in her style – an earthiness that spoke clearly and eloquently about what art has been, what art could be and what art should be. I hadn’t even started drinking when I first read her but I think even then I could smell the whisky off those pages.
Her candour and evident love for language made it impossible not to treasure her above the dry, ponderous writing of theoreticians and ideologues, the deliberately obtuse jargon of the postmodernists. In time, I was to understand that film criticism needed theory and political engagement. Kael wrote very little about experimental cinema, very little about non-American and non-western European cinema; she was almost wilfully dismissive of most non-narrative film.
Part of her genius as a critic, however, was to give priority to the experience of being in the audience, to understand that going to the cinema was to partake in a communal activity. She instinctively gravitated to the popular. But though she was deliberately anti-elitist, she was never a populist. Her reviews referred to opera, to theatre, to literature, to painting and to cultural and political change. She believed in a thinking filmgoer; her most vitriolic prose is directed to those who pander to the basest instincts of an audience.
But equally she suspected those who would commandeer cinema for an educated urban elite. In one of her funniest essays, ‘The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties’, she argues that the ‘cultured’ audience wallowing in the haute-existentialism of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad is not that far removed from the readers who found pleasure in the rise-and-fall narratives of a Joan Crawford potboiler. She understood that both audiences wanted to revel in the pleasures and luxuries of the idle rich but ultimately wanted to see the protagonists end up unhappy. It feeds into a very simplistic and puritan moralism. Kael’s voice is there too every time I have seen La Dolce Vita. I enjoy the film immensely but in the end, I agree: Fellini and Cecil B DeMille are spiritual brothers.
Kellow’s book sketches out the bare bones of Kael’s biography. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who moved from New York to California and became poultry farmers. She was evidently a precocious and highly talented student but her family’s immigrant and farming roots made her highly suspicious of the East Coast elite that dominated the American arts world. Even though she became one of the New Yorker magazine’s most illustrious writers, she never felt at home in New York.
Unfortunately Kael remains elusive because Kellow is a woefully unimaginative writer. We get no sense of what the Californian Jewish community she was raised in was like, or what her own feelings about this heritage were. You can’t help but sense there was conflict here. (One of her most controversial reviews was a damning evisceration of Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah.)
A fierce iconoclastic individualism is evident in Kael’s writing, which must have played a part when making her way in the world. She’s a woman who had a child to a bisexual experimental filmmaker and poet, James Broughton; who raised the daughter on her own; who for years struggled to find economic stability. She was already in her late forties when she started reviewing for the New Yorker and the one genuine shock of the biography is to realise that she continued to struggle financially even when she was considered one of the world’s leading film critics.
Kellow can’t capture her, can’t give us a sense of what it would be like to sit across from this woman and to argue film, to argue politics. He gives us plenty of anecdotes about her doing exactly this but that’s all they remain, anecdotes: some sweet, some ugly. It is possible that someone who never loved her would have better served Kael. A combatant biographer might have tried to illuminate how the struggles and compromises of Kael’s own life fed into her writing, how they shaped and compromised her critical voice.
Kellow’s shortcomings are most evident when he details Kael’s intervention in the auteurist debate. The auteurist position was initially formulated by a post–World War II generation of French film critics, the generation who would go on to make their own indelible contribution to cinematic language via the New Wave. Across the Atlantic the theory of the auteur – the director as the key ‘author’ of a film – would find its most emphatic partisan in Andrew Sarris, who wrote a polemical essay in 1962, ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory’. Kael responded to Sarris in ‘Circles and Squares’, one of her more incendiary pieces.
Whereas the French auteurists, most notably François Truffaut, advocated a rejection of traditional cinematic tropes – arising from both their philosophical engagement in existentialism and their abhorrence of the horrors of war and collaboration they had witnessed as adolescents (and in which the cinéma de papa was implicated) – Sarris’ essay reflected his New World positivism and pragmatism. He wanted his theory to read as science and therefore devised a set of rules and categories by which a ‘good’ auteur, working in genres such as the Western, the ‘woman’s film’ or film noir, could be discerned and championed above a ‘prestige’ director whose films might score Academy Awards but that lacked cinematic urgency and visual elan. Kael revealed the inconsistencies and absurdities in his categories, particularly the way such a rigid observance to the rules of the auteur invalidated nuanced judgment of a director’s individual oeuvre.
Nearly a decade later Kael wrote ‘Raising Kane’, a long essay on the authorship of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which had, by the late ’60s, become generally recognised as one of the greatest films of all time. Her essay argues for equal weight to be given to screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz as an ‘author’ of the film. Many critics felt she unjustly maligned Welles.
Whatever her critical and ethical mistakes, Kellow fails to read her carefully on the filmmaker. You can’t read ‘Rising Kane’ in isolation: in her reviews of Welles’ Othello, Macbeth and, most vividly, Chimes of Midnight, Kael was attempting to resurrect the legacy of a director whose career was blighted by industry cowardice and indifference. She acknowledges his greatness as a filmmaker but she doesn’t isolate this talent from the world of theatre, his love of Shakespeare and the skills he learnt on radio and on the stage. Many critics have written finely on Welles’ contribution to cinema, but only Kael made me understand the loss to our collective culture that such a talent was never given the opportunity to interpret more of Shakespeare’s plays for a popular cinema audience. And even the Shakespearean films he did complete were dogged by slashed budgets and a loss of control in the final stages of editing.
Kellow exposes some of Kael’s shoddiness as a researcher (particularly when it comes to ‘Raising Kane’) and he diligently summarises the arguments of Kael partisans and Kael detractors, but nowhere do we get a sense of what it must have meant to be a lover of film in a period where such arguments mattered, where they could make friendships or result in longstanding enmities. This was the period when film was the art form of cultural and social upheaval, when the great talents who in previous generations turned to writing or theatre now immersed themselves in cinema.
In our age, where film reviewing has been reduced to a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, the fury generated by Kael’s writing might strike us as odd. The internet has made critical relativism a given and the cinema is no longer the dominant screen technology. Kellow’s prose doesn’t do justice to the passions aroused, doesn’t give us a sense of the history.
Kael loved film. In her best writing she is trying to communicate the difficulty of formulating a critical response separate from the individual elements that cause us to lose ourselves in a movie: getting swept up by the crowd’s response; being captivated by a particular performer; forgiving a journeyman director if she allows us one great dance sequence or gives us one true unforgettable belly laugh.
Kellow does make us understand the personal struggles that informed Kael’s suspicion of academic theory. She is the poor immigrants’ kid who made good but never felt quite at home in the moneyed world of New York society. Her pugnacity and her humour are distinctly American, and in her writing you can hear that she is both cosmopolitan and parochial, rural and urban, democratic and meritocratic. It is that joyous, vexed admixture that is particularly American. As I said, she’s whisky.
It was instructive to go back to Cassavetes after reading Pauline Kael. There are a number of great films that Kael’s criticism led me to (De Sica’s Umberto D; Max Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame de…) and there were specific reviews that made me want to jump for joy because she expressed so succinctly a particular loathing I had for a film (The Sound of Music) or more importantly confirmed my love of a work.
I’m thinking here of her wonderful exploration of Bertolucci’s difficult, confused but exhilarating Marxist epic, Novecento. She outlined the problems with the epic form – the burden so many great directors had when they were attempting to make a grand statement or summation – and though she ripped apart the film’s faults she concluded that, in comparison, “all other new movies are like something you hold up at the end of a toothpick”.
I started reading her at a time when the director-as-author theory dominated writing on cinema and she gave me the courage to express admiration for a film that didn’t tick all the auteurist boxes. But in the end I discovered more writers through her than I did filmmakers, writers such as James Agee and Norman Mailer. She convinced me to try my luck with Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute when I was at an age where opera seemed a most impossible universe. I didn’t need Kael to open up the world of film but I did need her to navigate the pleasures of fiction, and of art in general.
The critics who have been strongly influenced by Kael are sometimes dismissed as ‘Paulettes’, writers who simply parrot her opinions. And indeed, I have winced at times when I have found an unconscious mimicry of her style creeping into my own writing. But what that insult doesn’t do justice to is the notion of mentoring that is an important part of the critic–reader relationship. I think the great critics I love – Kael, Greil Marcus, Harold Bloom, Jonathan Rosenbaum – are all mentors in some way. That doesn’t mean I agree with all their opinions. It means they give me direction. Brian Kellow is a critic himself, of music and opera. He shouldn’t have stepped away from exploring this relationship between critic and reader.
So, I read Kael for her writing rather than her criticism. That isn’t to say that her critical insights weren’t influential, that I didn’t argue with her all the time in my head, but it is the immediacy and range of her writing that first enamoured me. Kellow ends at the wrong place: he should have started with his recollection of being the shy young adolescent roaming the library in the Midwest. Most of us had already ‘lost it at the movies’ by the time we encountered Pauline Kael, knew that cinema was going to be a lifelong passion and a lifelong melancholia (for cinema disappoints as much as it delights). I think her one of the great writers of the twentieth century. I suspect Kellow would agree. But nowhere in this biography does he communicate it.
Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels, including The Slap and Barracuda, and the short-story collection Merciless Gods.