Hell to Sit Next To: On Pauline Kael

Her effort, which was often comical in its intensity, was always aimed at aggrandizing herself.

By Richard SchickelNovember 30, 2011

    Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow. Viking Adult. 432 pages.

    PAULINE KAEL: A LIFE IN THE DARK is a very good biography: well-written, carefully researched, admiring of its subject, but not at all taken in by its subject's many vagaries and, yes, several episodes in her career that deserve perhaps to be called sinful (or at least careless to a very large degree).

    It is also, for me, an exceedingly depressing book. That's understandable. I have been a movie critic for national publications far longer than Kael was. Indeed, I am credited in Brian Kellow's book with helping her (belated) emergence as the force to be reckoned with as a reviewer because I wrote a piece in 1965 in The New York Times Book Review, praising (deservedly so, I still think) her first collection of movie articles, I Lost it at the Movies.

    Kael was, at the time, 46 years old, and she had not published anywhere but in little magazines. Nevertheless, she had written, by her own estimate, something like a million words of film criticism, mostly for a radio program for which she supplied reviews or in the form of program notes for a theater she managed in Berkeley. She had, astonishingly, not been paid for most of this output — and what she did collect was more in the realm of "honoraria" than of healthy fees. I think the book I reviewed was pretty much a now-or-never proposition for her.

    Which, of course, turned out to be now-now-now. After the success of I Lost It at the Movies, Kael got some short-lived reviewing gigs — at McCall's, at The New Republic. She even did a piece or two at Life, where I was the reviewer. Those pieces were supposed to be around 700 words, and she regularly turned in 2500 word reviews — which were, I was told, just too damned much trouble to edit down to the available space. Then, in 1967, one of her rejected New Republic pieces, about Bonnie and Clyde, was picked up by The New Yorker. The next year, she was appointed one of its regular reviewers, a post she held, except for a brief spell in Hollywood, until 1991. (She chafed at the fact that she was obliged to take six months off every year so that Penelope Gilliatt could take over, largely, I suspect, so that the editor, William Shawn, could have a peaceful period, free of his endless battles with Kael about the style and content of her pieces.)

    Two things need to be said, I think, about her work in this period. The first is that her style in I Lost it at the Movies is rather staid. The pieces are well-written and lively, of course, but in manner they are very far from the "kiss kiss bang bang" manner of her New Yorker work. They are much more dependent on reasoned argument than on flashy phrases. You won't find her dismissing a movie as "a gloppy mess" in these pages. The second is the matter of her famous picture-saving notice of Bonnie and Clyde. We tend to remember the (deserved) praise in the review's first half (and its role in unseating the hopeless Bosley Crowther from his post as the New York Times critic), but tend not to remember the fairly serious reservations about the picture which she advanced in its second half. And that says nothing about her inducing Joe Morgenstern, perhaps the earliest of her many acolytes, to recant his negative first review in favor of a second, more favorable notice a couple of weeks later.

    Put simply, from the very beginnings of her latter-day fame, Kael established the style with which she would conduct her business for the next 24 years. That was not just a matter of what she put on the page. It was also a matter of how she conducted herself off the page, in her restless, driven campaign to enhance the prestige and power of movie reviewers within the industry, and, more importantly, with the public at large.

    Actually, this makes her sound a bit more selfless and community-minded than was the case. Her effort, which was often comical in its intensity, was always aimed at aggrandizing herself. The rest of the critics, a sizable number of whom were part-timers with other fish to fry, were indifferent — if not blind — to her efforts, content to passively go along with her frenzy for renown. If that meant an extra fifty bucks for speaking in a church basement or appearing on an obscure talk show, what harm was there in it? A rising tide raises all boats and all that.


    Kael had, Woody Allen once said, "everything a great critic needs, except judgement." I think that's true, though his statement requires parsing. Kael had no theoretical basis for her opinions. In a sense, she practiced criticism in much the same way that audiences leaving the theater after a film practice it. "I liked it," we say, or "I hated it." Of course, she had a much wider range of references than the average moviegoer has. And she had her Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo manner to carry her over the rough spots. (I particularly detested her sweeping "we" constructions, in which she tried to gather all her readers into a consensus opinion about a film, even though, given the eccentricity of her opinions, she, more than most critics, could really speak for only one person — herself.)

    Beyond that, she had her favorites, of course — and a rum lot they were. Despite the fact that the most famous piece in I Lost it at the Movies was "Circles and Squares," her assault on Andrew Sarris and the Auteur Theory, she was, in fact, an unacknowledged auteurist herself, although one with far less of a rationale than Sarris and his brethren, among whom I count myself in a limited way. There was no rhyme or reason to directors she favored. What do Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah have in common? Or Brian De Palma and Irvin Kershner (Irvin Kershner?) Just this: All of them (the hapless Kershner excepted) exhibited in their work, most of the time, a kind of free-floating exuberance — a loose, improvisatory, even anarchical manner, that, for Kael, was the opposite of the formalism of a Stanley Kubrick, or her greatest bête noir, Clint Eastwood. She liked things shaggy.

    Or maybe she just liked people who paid her court. After a time, people began to notice that most of Kael's favorite directors were hanging out with her. She was even, at times, right there in the cutting room with them, and free with her advice. To her credit, she was open about this activity, and, it may surprise you to learn, I am OK with it. At least I'm OK with it in a perfect world. In many societies, critics and creative artists have been known to dine and dance with one another, for, ideally, they have in common a concern for the perfection (if I may use that word) of the art they love. The question is whether, where millions of dollars are at stake on the release of a film, the cash nexus changes the relationship between critic and artist. I think perhaps it does, and in the one or two cases where I have become too close to a director, I have ceased to review his work. So far as I know, Kael did not make such withdrawals, though she had occasional fallings out with some of her favorites, notably Altman.

    But, as I've said, I don't care much about this point. We live in a corrupt world, and I don't think a few dubious reviews of a few dubious movies matter much in the long run — especially since some of the pictures Kael over-praised undoubtedly deserved some good press. The real problem with movie reviewing is the sheer stupidity of it. There are many (all right, several) men and women who practice the craft earnestly and honorably, and I am pleased to count them among my friends. There is no question in my mind that, over the last half century, the overall quality of movie reviewing has improved.

    But, honestly, not by all that much. A great deal of idiocy continues to be practiced in the name of film criticism. Kael knew that, and used it to her advantage. I said at the outset that I found this able book to be depressing, and here's what I meant. Perforce, Kellow must deal with 24 years of reviewing by Kael (not counting her endless apprentice years,) and I remember vividly the squabbles that attended the reception of many of the hundreds of film she reviewed, and the year-end battles in various critics' groups about what and who should be awarded this or that prize. Many I recalled only when Kellow reminded me of them. Most of the movies and the reviews I and others wrote of them — well over 90 percent, I'd guess — have blessedly slid almost completely out of memory. An example: Kael wrote that the night Last Tango in Paris premiered at the New York film festival "should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 — the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed — in music history." I haven't quite forgotten the film — especially the moment when Brando shoves his buttered finger up Maria Schneider's delightful ass. It's an amusing movie to re-encounter. It's not nothing. But it's not, as we now say, a game-changer, especially in its second half where it rather falls off the table. Another example: Altman's Nashville. Kael characterized it "as the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen" and "a radical, evolutionary leap," when, in truth, it was merely all right, hardly something we have to conjure with now.

    This thought occurs: the more ephemeral the art form — and most movies are nothing if not ephemeral — the higher and hotter the claims for them must be. And the more absurd they seem when we encounter them, decades later, in the bleak light of a serious biography such as this one. In its curious, unintentional way, the book is devastating to Kael's reputation: so much nonsense peddled in praise and condemnation of forgotten, or at least forgettable, movies.

    In a way, though, that was her strength. She was the perfect critic for people who didn't care much about movies, but thought, in the seventies particularly, that they ought to "keep up," have an opinion about what was widely being proclaimed as the great new Twentieth Century Art Form. She was fun to read, especially in the way she avoided the pompous solemnities that had long afflicted movie reviewing; she learned her manner from such rare, previous masters as Manny Farber and Otis Ferguson and, to a lesser extent, James Agee. Her breathy, noisy presence in screening rooms, where she was hell to sit next to, and in personal appearances and on TV, where she could be counted on to attack a fellow critic who did not, for example, share her enthusiasm for Jean-Luc Godard's lesser works, would cause sharp intakes in breath from the audience. Very simply, she was a kind of performance artist, both on the page and in her presence, always shifting our attention to the drama of her thought processes.

    It's interesting, though, to read the reviews of Kael's own critical collections, which appeared every two or three years. The book pages tended to give them to the literary swells (Irving Howe, et al.) to consider, and they always praised her style and referred to her importance in revivifying interest in movie reviewing. But there is often an air of unease underlying their praise. Howe, for example, noted that Kael "didn't work out of a secure critical tradition. Its absence allows her a pleasing freedom of improvisation, but makes hard the achievement of reflective depth and delicate judgment." Yes, he's a little stuffy in tone, but I think his is probably the most accurate characterization of Kael 's work — the big "yes, but" it always deserved and rarely got.

    There was more of this dubiety ahead of her. High profile literary acts tend to wear out their welcome relatively quickly, though in truth, perhaps, the movies of the eighties were less stimulating to her than they had been in the seventies. She was aging as well and, to be blunt about it, she was making mistakes — not so much in her critical practice, where blown calls are endemic and not-too-serious (it's hard to get your tone down right week after week, with the movies endlessly crashing down on you.), but in her extra-curricular activities as a person of power in her profession who was always lusting for more of it to accrue to her — and, she always claimed, to critics in general. She was, it seemed to me, beginning to overreach.


    Kael was the driving force in the foundation of the National Society of Film Critics in 1966. This was not a bad idea. At the time the most important critics' organization was the New York Film Critics Circle, composed of the city's newspaper reviewers and pretty much dominated by the legions of New York Times movie writers. It had recently opened its membership to a few magazine reviewers (me among them.) That still left a number of magazine critics out in the cold, and it was logical to found their own organization. To that end, a bunch of us met in Hollis Alpert's apartment and started voting our annual bests. Kael was nothing if not eclectic in extending invitations to join (such enemies of hers as Sarris and John Simon were among the founding members) and we had a more ambitious agenda than NYFCC. We published anthologies of our reviews, we held meetings every couple of months where we held conversations with directors (often rather testy ones, with Pauline often leading the baying pack), and we issued statements on issues — largely ones involving censorship — of interest to the film community. On the whole, I think we did more good than harm and, eventually, the group became truly national and the largest of the critics' circles. Score one for Pauline.

    Sort of. As the years wore on and the National Society expanded, it became clear that Kael was organizing a bloc within the group — the "Paulettes," as they came to be known — who, under her instruction, voted en masse for certain films and other awards annually. They almost never prevailed in the voting; there simply weren't enough of them, and I was never certain whether Kael had aimed at creating such a bloc all along or whether it just sort of happened and she took advantage of that fact. It was in a sense comical — a minor fuss about nothing very much. I always found that two or three days after the balloting I couldn't quite remember what pictures and performances we had voted for. What I want to stress here is the paltriness of the stakes.

    Movie history is not written as a result of critical balloting. It is much more mysterious than that, with consensuses emerging over the decades, and often enough involving the rise of films that are not even mentioned in the heat (or lack of same) of the year they're released. I'm not going to pretend that I stood above these many critical frays. I was as passionate as the next person about my likes and dislikes. It is only now, much later, that these battles seem so ridiculous to me.

    I wonder if they came to seem so to Kael? She always busied herself with what she had. If she could get six or eight Paulettes to support her views it was better than nothing. It was, yes, power of a kind — more of it, anyway, than any of the rest of us could command, especially since she at least implicitly pretended that she didn't wield any power at all. What could be more innocent than a group of a serious, like-minded people more or less accidentally agreeing on a slate of movies whose merits they wanted to advance, particularly since they only rarely prevailed in the prize-giving?

    It was occasionally held against Kael that she never wrote a grand theoretical book about the movies, nor a biography of some major movie figure, though there were rumors that something might be in the works. There were only the anthologies every two or three years and some rather good, long pieces — a nice one about Cary Grant in particular, and, especially, "Trash, Art and the Movies," which was a statement of her faith in her populism. It was not until 1971 that she published The Citizen Kane Book, in which her long piece about the creation of the 1941 film appeared as an introduction to the screenplay in a heavily illustrated volume.

    The book was, all in all, a disaster on at least a couple of levels. It was, essentially, an anti-Auteurist screed, undertaking to restore the centrality of Herman Mankiewicz, the film's screenwriter, to the film's creation. This was a plausible enterprise. His contributions to the film had been overshadowed by Orson Welles's rather obvious ownership of it, though they had shared the screenwriting Oscar (the only Academy award the picture received). But, typically, she went too far in her claims, in effect arguing that Mankiewicz was the prime creator of the film, with Welles relegated to the role of something like its interior decorator. This ignored the fact that the director had been very much present at the screenplay's creation and, more important, had supplied virtually all of its arresting visual manner: the stuff that everyone noticed first when this "shallow masterpiece" (as she called it) went into release. Everyone was glad to see Mankiewicz get his due, at last, and to see William Randolph Hearst somewhat comically trashed in the bargain. To put it mildly, the publisher greatly overreacted to the film.

    Kael, however, hadn't reckoned on Welles' supporters, who were volubly outraged by the diminution of his contributions to the film. Their protests reached a climax when Peter Bogdanovich, then one of the leading young directors, published a piece in Esquire pointing out something like fifty errors of fact in Kael's research. (Talk about "shallow masterpieces!") Kellow cites Kael asking Woody Allen how she should respond to what was an unassailable assault. He simply said, "You don't." And she never did.

    But wait, there's more. When she was toying with writing the New Yorker piece on Citizen Kane, Kael learned that a young UCLA film scholar, Howard Suber, had been researching the same topic and was under contract to provide an essay on it for a modest book by two other scholars. She approached him, suggesting a collaboration and even advancing him something like $375 to seal the deal. His wife was dubious, but Suber was flattered that a person of Kael's stature wanted to be in business with him. She then took (one resists the word "stole") much of his material and used it in her piece without credit.

    The Kane article first appeared, in two parts, in The New Yorker, occasioning in film circles a large and furious outcry. At first this centered on her many errors of fact. The largest fallout from the incident was a shakeup of The New Yorker's legendary fact-checking department, which failed to vet Kael's somewhat dubious sources rigorously. It was only later that Kael's Citizen Kane piece appeared as what it was: an ethical breach of large proportions.

    What are we to make of this incident? We could argue that Kael was perhaps not fully aware of the niceties of journalistic ethics having come late to the field, though I think the issues are rather obvious. I think we are dealing here with hubris, plain and simple. She was, at the time, simply too famous, too adored, to hold herself to the standards applicable to others in her field. But the shoddiness of her research and her arrogance in dealing with Suber are evidence of an attitude that is at best careless, at worst non-comprehending, of the common rules governing factuality in reporting. It would have cost her nothing to acknowledge Suber's contributions to her thought essay, and nothing to temper her research with a few signs of tentativeness. Perhaps she learned some sort of lesson: She never again attempted a piece of this character.

    It was close to a decade later that she made a rather foolish, if understandable, mistake, leaving her post at The New Yorker to take a post as a "producer" for Warren Beatty, working on a script by James Toback, Love and Money, which Beatty planned to produce at Paramount. Many of her friends and colleagues tried to warn her away from this project, citing Beatty's short attention span, his habit of losing interest in some of his better ideas. Yet one is sympathetic to Kael's instincts. (I myself did something similar when, in 1986, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in television production, though without the glamorous support she enjoyed.) Kael's relationship with New Yorker editor Shawn was always fraught and her battles with him about usage were exhausting. Then, too, there was the question of money. One of the surprises of Kellow's book is just how little the magazine paid Kael at the time, especially considering how popular her contributions were. Now in her sixties, she was rightfully concerned with her virtually non-existent estate, and Beatty was offering her $150,000 per year: chump change by Hollywood standards, but a fortune for a New York scrivener.

    So a deal was struck, and she set to work, in 1978, on Toback's script, which she did not care for. They wrangled with it for awhile, until Toback went to Beatty and said he could not work with her. Beatty — reluctantly according to him — felt obliged to back his auteur and Kael was left dangling, on a diminished Paramount contract, talking occasionally, impotently, with would-be filmmakers who happened to drop by her office. The writer-director Richard Brooks had an office nearby and told me later that Kael took to dropping by, sometimes in tears, to discuss her troubles. He advised her to use her empty hours to work on her long-planned philosophical book about the movies. But she did not. She felt, he said, that she owed her time to her employers, even if that amounted merely to twiddling her thumbs. By 1979 she was back in New York, suing a somewhat reluctant Shawn for a return to The New Yorker.

    The Hollywood incident cost her. How much one cannot confidently say. She was fatigued. The movies were not what they had been just a few years previously and they did not bring out the best in her except on rare occasions. In 1980, Renata Adler, a sometime film critic and novelist, launched a blistering attack on Kael in The New York Review of Books. The occasion was another Kael collection, When the Lights Go Down, which Adler called "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, without interruption, worthless." It was hard to remember an attack so relentless, so pitiless, by one living writer on another. Kael's supporters, of course, rallied to her defense.

    But great damage had been done. For Adler summarized, in devastating detail, most of the tics and tricks of Pauline's manner, the stuff that her critics had mostly muttered behind her back without openly stating in print or, for that matter, in public forums. It was, granted, one of those two week scandales that so enliven literary life in New York, but a position was taken, a rallying point established. Someone had at last said the empress was scantily clad.

    Kael wrote on for another decade (her last New Yorker review appeared in the issue of Feb. 11, 1991) but in increasingly poor health (she suffered from Parkinson's Disease and a heart condition) and with, I think, diminished spirits. She lived in a house in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, unable to write, but entertaining, when she was able, a large group of loyal friends. There was a quite grand eightieth birthday party for her in June of 1999. She died on September 3, 2001.

    Thus ended what was, nominally, a great career. It is certain that no movie critic was more prominent in the cultural life of this country, for better or worse. By the latter I mean there was so much misplaced passion in her work, so much the sense of a lonely sentry patrolling the ramparts of cultural purity against the surrounding darkness of corruption. One of her least effective canards was the notion that Hollywood was endemically corrupt. It is not, though it surely harbors its share of slippery characters. It is, rather, a normal human enterprise, encompassing a fairly large number of idealistic figures, many of whose work, oddly, she didn't like. She once advanced the preposterous notion that the leading filmmakers should take over the business by producing movies cooperatively, cutting the studios out the production equation. This says something — a great deal, in fact — about how little she knew about how the business of movies actually works. Putting it simply, where in the world would they have obtained the money for such a quixotic enterprise?

    But Kael's salient defect, I think, is something I alluded to at the beginning of this piece: She came so late to her fame, with so much time wasted. She was in a frenzy to make up for that. It accounts for the breathlessness of her writing and the often careless outrage of her tone. She was nearly always playing catch-up ball, swinging for the fences. There was little balance or judiciousness in her writing. It was all about, as Kurt Vonnegut said in another context, "taking a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut." It was also, in the final analysis, about misunderstanding. She worked in a time when movies were at last understood as a major art form, but when movie criticism was misunderstood as a pipsqueak form of commentary, fun to practice (and it was, I cheerfully admit), but of small value to anyone who was not writing it.

    LARB Contributor

    Richard Schickel's latest book is Conversations with Scorsese. He regularly reviews movies for Truthdig.com


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