Though quavering a bit from Parkinson’s disease, her voice was both sassy and savvy, exactly what a faithful reader of The New Yorker between 1968 and 1991 might have expected. When I spoke with her by phone in 1999, Pauline Kael, the grande dame of American criticism, was gracious toward an obscure writer from San Antonio. Yet she did not allow protocols of courtesy to keep her from uttering what was on her agile mind. If she disagreed with me about a movie, and she did, she said so, without fear of offense or error. Famous for refusing to view any feature more than once, Kael wrote and thought on deadline. When she spoke, she was a Gatling gun of apercus.
Kael invited me to visit her at her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Even while employed as film critic for The New Yorker, she lived in the Berkshires, journeying to New York City every few weeks for an intensive day or two of special screenings. Kael did not stick around Manhattan long enough to participate in the palace intrigues that fill so many New Yorker memoirs. She had to return home to western Massachusetts, where she wrote the reviews that made her the most influential American film critic, perhaps simply the most influential American critic, of the twentieth century. I knew that an invitation from Kael was no idle gesture, but I was also wary of intruding on an ailing octogenarian. Besides, most writers are better company on the page than in the parlor, and Great Barrington is not exactly around the corner, at least if the clock on your corner is set to Central Time. So I postponed the visit, until time ran out. When Pauline Kael died, at 82, on September 3, 2001, I lost my chance to learn what she had been thinking for the last 10–unpublished–years of her life. What were her takes on Titanic, Slacker, IMAX, Gong Li, DVDs, Dogme 95, and Michael Moore?
Francis Davis, a jazz critic who lives in Philadelphia, was more brazen. In July 2000, he traveled to Great Barrington and spent two days with Kael. He records her remarks and his observations in Afterglow, a short book that restores the late critic’s distinctive voice as if on a very compact disc. Instead of the roomy, ruminative essays that filled 13 published collections and thousands of pages in The New Yorker, Afterglow glitters with quips. “One of the things that disturbs me about a movie like Boys Don’t Cry is that it works on dread, rather than suspense,” she proclaims, without explaining the distinction. One of the things that bothers me about a book like Afterglow is that it works on sound bites, rather than sustained analysis. It is obvious that this slim volume lacks the high seriousness of Johann Eckermann’s valedictory Conversations of Goethe but also that I am jealous of the time Davis spent with Kael.
Though a rainstorm cancels their plans to go to the movies together, Davis and Kael watch a video of Galaxy Quest, a comic trifle starring Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver that Kael pronounces “sweet.” Watching a film with her must have been like dining out with Alice Waters, and I regret that Davis was not around when the movie maven had something more nourishing to chew on. Kael does offer him a few morsels of gossip, including an account of how Duke Ellington apparently came on to her at a White House dinner and of how she fought and lost a battle with William Shawn, prim potentate of The New Yorker, over covering Deep Throat. According to legend, Kael was fired from McCall’s for disparaging The Sound of Music as The Sound of Money, but she claims it was not her ridicule of the saccharine crowd pleaser but rather budget reductions that cost her the job. She exults in her plebeian taste and recalls it aroused hostility at the urbane New Yorker, which long considered movies too crude to review at all. Bolstered by a cabal of other New Yorker writers, Renata Adler once pronounced Kael’s work “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” Even though she had the support of the magazine’s editor, it seemed grudging and had to be won again each time she panned a piece of cinematic piety or used a vulgar word. She notes the irony that, because of his conservative tastes, Andrew Sarris, her formidable rival, would have been at home at The New Yorker, while Kael was the one who should have been writing for his raffish, insurgent weekly, the Village Voice: “He and I were at the wrong places–it’s one of those flukes of movie history.”
Kael, who calls herself “a mechanical idiot,” wrote her reviews in longhand, in a style that speaks the American vernacular, as if conversing with a companion while exiting the theater. The scourge of sanctimony, she rode out of the West, from rural Petaluma, California, to conduct a personal insurgency against the canons of respectability. The fifth child of Polish Jewish immigrants, she reveled in being an outsider at the most urbane of glossy magazines. Kael got her start in criticism when, while managing a repertory cinema on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, she decided to distribute notes on the films she showed. Her voice acquired authority when she broadcast reviews on the Pacifica radio station KPFA. Kael was almost 50 when she started writing for The New Yorker, managing in fertile middle age to become one of the foremost foes of Old World stuffiness and a champion of youthful American idioms. As Kael recalled in I Lost It at the Movies, in one of her earliest published pieces she was as contemptuous of the entire tribe of movie reviewers, “a destructive bunch of solidly, stupidly respectable mummies–and it works either way, maternal or Egyptian” as she was of Hollywood bombast.
And at 81, Kael expresses disappointment in Steven Spielberg, because: “He turned to making virtuous movies.” Her “feeling for films as aesthetic objects rather than as morally improving objects” led her to pan high-minded projects such as Shoah and Gandhi and praise low-browed entertainments such as Gunga Din and Top Hat. “Who the hell goes to movies for mature, adult, sober art, anyway?” asked Kael early in her career. And in her twilight conversations with Davis, she is still passionate about the need for passion in our art and our conversations about it. Movies, claims Kael, move us because of their erotic power. “One of the great things about movies,” she declares, “is they can combine the energy of a popular art with the possibilities of a high art.”
For Kael, the energy of film must be matched by the enthusiasm, positive or negative, of the critic, and her reviews are exercises in effusion. Her writing abounds with superlatives, and, as if to confirm William Blake’s adage that you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough, her most characteristic way of expressing emotion is hyperbole. For Kael over the years, The Trial of Billy Jack “probably represents the most extraordinary display of sanctimonious self-aggrandizement the screen has ever known.” The Last Tango in Paris “may turn out to be the most liberating film ever made,” and Jaws “may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made.” Kael has written that Jeff Bridges “may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived” and that Carol Burnett “is probably the most gifted comedienne this country has ever produced.” It is as if the New Yorker critic felt a need to jump-start into animation privileged readers benumbed by excessive intellection.
When Davis asks her about movies released after she ceased writing, Kael shows she is probably still the most fervent enforcer of the law of the excluded middle. In the Kael scale of things, it is either the best of films or the worst of films; run-of-the-mill art defeats the critic who is fueled by fervor. When she declares that: “Scorsese was great, but now he’s become kind of blah,” one gets the sense she would have preferred that his recent work resemble American Beauty (“heavy and turgid”) or Eyes Wide Shut (“a creepily bad movie”)–a passionate critic has more to say about caca than blah. Kael pronounces Flirting with Disaster “the best simple comedy from this country that I’ve seen in recent years,” Three Kings “probably the best American movie I saw last year,” and Jim Carrey “the only exciting comedian who’s turned up in movies in the last few years.”
Denouncing the blockbuster mentality heralded by “that awful Star Wars,” Kael despaired of Hollywood: “What you see is a movie industry in decay, and the decay gets worse and worse.” Despite the profusion of “Paulettes,” acolytes–including Elvis Mitchell, David Denby, and David Edelstein–of the sacred Kael in prominent positions, I miss the original, more effective than fluoride in fighting decay. Afterglow restores her voice but lacks the libretto. A compendium of verdicts, it omits the trial transcripts. Siskel and Ebert popularized the noxious notion that reviewing is merely a matter of passing judgment. Critics have become all thumbs (up or down). Kael reminds us they also need hearts, brains, and tongues.
Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and reviews films for the San Antonio Current.