For Pauline Kael, Who Reinvented Film Criticism, On Her Hundredth Birthday
In a blistering essay in a 1980 edition of the New York Review Of Books, Renata Adler accused New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael of doing lasting damage to the critical enterprise. Critiquing Kael’s collection “When The Lights Go Down,” Adler wrote that the book revealed the pitfalls of the critic-in-residence post. By giving Kael a permanent platform, Adler alleged, the New Yorker amplified her writing tics and reduced her once-trailblazing work to exercises in “spite,” “physical sadism” and “knowing,” irrelevant asides.
“What really is at stake is not movies at all, but prose and the relation between writers and readers,” Adler concluded, arguing that Kael’s reviews had become exceedingly flip, scatological and marked by an indifference to cinema by dint of a weekly assignment. Pretty fatalistic stuff, with one allowance made: “Criticism will get over it,” Adler offered.
It never did.
Kael, who died in 2001 and would have been 100 on June 19, forever changed the critical landscape with her writing — both for good and for bad.
Upstart critics, whether they know it or not, are operating in the shadow of Kael’s indomitable style. Those writers who insert their lives into their appraisals of art and are perhaps over-invested in the cult of celebrity, “stanning” for or actively rooting against certain stars and creators (read: most working critics today), owe a debt to the child of Jewish immigrants, born on a Petaluma chicken farm and raised in San Francisco. Over the years, that child never lost her sense of wonder, moving to nearby Berkeley, where she made her name as an outspoken opinion monger with a biting flair for prose.
To readers unfamiliar with Kael’s prodigious output — collected in suggestively-titled tomes like her career-making “I Lost It at the Movies” (1965) — she may be best remembered for her 1972 claim, often misquoted, that “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.”
The full comment — not the paraphrased “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him” — seems to acknowledge the myopia of Kael’s liberal bubble. Regardless, the quote has long been grist for the Republican PR mill intent on painting coastal urbanites as out of touch and entitled.
But Kael’s ersatz critical theory usually carried something of a populist message and her refusal to bow to critical consensus — while read by Adler as nigh-authoritarian in its pronouncements — displayed an eclectic bent. Kael was a contrarian, but she worked contrary to a larger critical establishment that took its cues from marketing machines and socially-conscious fare.
In a way, it all comes down to trash talk.
Two essays from the ‘60s, one written early into her career at the New Yorker, the other while she was still working freelance, reveal Kael’s thoughts on one of her most cherished words — “trash,” which has a somewhat elastic definition.
In her 1963 essay “Circles and Squares,” published in Film Quarterly, Kael issued a point-for-point rebuttal of critic Andrew Sarris’ defense of the auteur theory in American cinema, which credited the director as the true author of a film.
Kael called out Sarris for loving “commercial trash” and accused him of discounting writer-directors such as Ingmar Bergman and John Huston in favor of journeymen like Douglas Sirk or Otto Preminger, whom she saw as forcing their personal style on projects that would, if handled each according to their proper needs, naturally resist such an imposition. (Sarris called this dissonance “tension” and viewed it as commendable.)
But by 1969, Kael was living for trash. In a Harper’s essay titled “Trash, Art, And The Movies,” the newly-minted New Yorker critic delighted in incompetence with touches of clever artistry.
“Seeing trash can liberate the spectator,” Kael wrote. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t admit having at some time in his life enjoyed trashy American movies; I don’t trust any of the tastes of people who were born with such high taste that they didn’t need to find their way through trash.”
While Kael often contradicts herself in her writing, these essays are as close to a critical blueprint as we have from her. They are, in a sense, consistent with one rubric: People, Kael included, like what they like.
What changed in Kael was not so much her philosophy, but the definition of genres of trash — a distinction perhaps akin to that between landfill waste and the more ecofriendly method of recycling. Now there was “bad trash” and “good trash.” The sorting was subjective, but under these terms she sorted Arthur Penn’s 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” into a bin of powerful and subversive rubbish. With hindsight, we may call that film a masterpiece — Kael’s visceral responses were sometimes right on the mark. Sometimes less so.
Kael defended the 1972 film adaptation of “Man of La Mancha” (she adored star Sophia Loren, but was deeply suspicious of people who praised her for her acting ability); loved “the thrill of gaudiness” in “The Warriors” and praised Bernardo Bertolucci’s much-maligned “Last Tango in Paris” for expressing the “physical menace of sexuality.”
Kael hated “West Side Story” (“first you take Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and remove all that cumbersome poetry”); couldn’t say enough bad things about “2001: A Space Odyssey” (“trash masquerading as art”); and was so mean to David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” and “Ryan’s Daughter” that her bad notices supposedly led to Lean’s refusal to direct another feature film for well over a decade.
In her years with the New Yorker, Kael developed, in Adler’s estimation, an obsession with four things: “Frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials,” things we might call “trashy.”
But Kael also completely recalibrated what we value in films and in the work of a critic. People read her work just as much for her voice as for her verdict.
As a weekly writer for the New Yorker, Kael had some weird proclivities when it came to films to be sure. And maybe she was a bit too set on attacking the physical appearance of actors or inclined to come away with the wrong read of a film — but what cinephile acquaintance is guiltless there? It’s unfair to say, as Adler argued, that Kael “ceased to care about” films. She cared too much, if at times about the wrong things.
The legend goes that Kael got her first writing assignment when an editor for City Lights magazine heard her debating a movie with a friend in a coffee shop. This origin story tells you all you need to know about her appeal. She was a kind of companion — your friend who’d tell you about a bad date and what movie she took in while licking her wounds.
“Movies are our cheap and easy expression the sullen art of displaced persons” Kael wrote in “Trash, Art, And The Movies.” “The romance of movies is not just in those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.“
One woman’s trash is the same woman’s treasure.
Quad Cinema in New York has extended its series “Losing It At the Movies: Pauline Kael at 100,” featuring some of the critics most loved (and loathed) films through to June 27. A full program can be found on Quad’s website.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.