PRINT March 2002

Craig Seligman

Writing about Jean-Luc Godard in 1968, Pauline Kael said, “It’s the strength of his own sensibility that gives his techniques excitement. In other hands, his techniques are just mannerisms.” The same goes for her. She brought the vernacular into criticism with a power that, for many of us, left academic language forever suspect, and if you write about the arts, you ignore her at your peril. But since her strength was in her iconoclasm, you succumb to her sensibility at equal peril. A young critic who has that voice ringing in his ears—replete with its convictions and biases, its temperament and tastes—can have a hard time finding his own.

And it was, almost literally, a voice. “I was conscious of the fact that I was writing about a popular art form,” she said. “How can you deal with movies truthfully, in terms of your responses, if you don't use contractions, if you don't use ‘you’ instead of ‘one’?” And she said, “Because movies were not taken that seriously, I was able to try to develop my own way of writing about them. I wanted to be accurate to the movie experience and not write about them in the phony, moralistic terms that so many people use.” Kael developed her syncopated colloquialism over nearly a decade of radio broadcasts, though one of the peculiarities of her career is that her style didn’t really lose its last vestiges of tweed until she got out of radio. But it was accessible, and it was famously wisecracking. Consider this aside from a 1966 review of John Huston’s epic The Bible (which she didn't think was half bad):

The stories of Genesis are, of course, free of that wretched masochistic piety that makes movies about Christ so sickly. Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew was so static that I could hardly wait for that loathsome prissy young man to get crucified. Why do moviemakers think that’s such a good story, anyway? The only thing that gives it plausibility is, psychologically, not very attractive. (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)

Or this blast at William Friedkin, whose direction of The Exorcist she despised as much as she despised the William Peter Blatty novel:

He has himself said that Blatty’s book took hold of him and made him physically ill. That's the problem with moviemakers who aren’t thinkers: they’re mentally unprotected. A book like Blatty’s makes them sick, and they think this means they should make everybody sick. (Reeling)

Early on, especially, she was into cultural diagnostics—“And if it be said that this is sociology, not aesthetics,” she wrote, anticipating the objections, “the answer is that an aesthetician who gave his time to criticism of current movies would have to be an awful fool.” Looking at films was a way of putting the national psyche on the couch. In the ’50s, she sensed the pervasive gnaw under the conformity, and without fully buying the troubled-delinquent pictures of the era (On the Waterfront, East of Eden, Blackboard Jungle), she acknowledged they were alive to something in the culture:

Our economic system, our social order, are accepted, not with respect, but as facts, accepted almost at the same level on which “regular” films are accepted—a convictionless acceptance which is only a hair’s breadth away from violent negation. . . . Everything in America makes life easier, and if Americans are not really happy, they're not really unhappy either. If they feel some pangs of dissatisfaction, what can they blame it on? Only themselves-guiltily. . . . What a relief to go to the movies and hear mixed-up kids say it out loud. They don’t always say it in attractive ways, but it is a no and somebody has to say it. It’s explosively present. (I Lost It at the Movies)

By the ’70s, the nature of American self-loathing had changed, and in review after review she worried about its sweep. After the summer of the Watergate hearings, she brooded

Today, movies say that the system is corrupt, that the whole thing stinks, and they've been saying this steadily since the mid-sixties. The Vietnam war has barely been mentioned on the screen, but you could feel it in Bonnie and Clyde and Bullitt and Joe, in Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy and The Last Picture Show, in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and The Candidate and Carnal Knowledge and The French Connection and The Godfather. It was in good movies and bad, flops and hits, especially hits—in the convictionless atmosphere, the absence of shared values, the brutalities taken for granted, the glorification of loser-heroes. . . . If one were to believe recent movies, it was never any different in this country: Vietnam and Watergate are not merely where we got to but where we always were. (Reeling)

But in the following years, as America grew complacent again, there wasn’t as much to say in the way of social analysis. In the ’70s, as Kael went, in her phrase, deeper into movies, the aesthetician shouldered aside the sociologist; she felt that the gush of great new work (by Altman and Bertolucci and Coppola and De Palma and Mazursky and Scorsese and Spielberg, to name some of her favorites) called for the added aesthetic scrutiny. And “as the seventies gave way to the eighties,” she wrote in her introduction to her late omnibus collection For Keeps, “the excitement I had earlier found in the movies gave way to the pleasure I found in writing”; in other words, as movies died, the stylist shouldered aside the aesthetician. Her tack was not just to explain her responses but to re-create them—to put you inside her skin. I used to wonder why she told so much of the plot in her later reviews. Rereading her, I can see that she was turning those plots into her plots; she would figure out what was wrong on the screen and fix it in what she wrote, telling the stories the way they ought to be told. Her reviews offered some of the pleasures of beautifully crafted fiction: interesting, rounded characters and, in the commenting voice of the narrator, the play of a fascinating mind.

Actually, there were two sets of characters, the actors and the roles they played. Acting styles meant as much to Kael as the lines did. She hated visible technique (“He keeps us conscious that he's acting all the time. His toes act in his shoes”), and so, notoriously, she could never warm up to Meryl Streep. “She has the external details of ‘Okie bad girl’ down pat, but something is not quite right,” she griped of Streep’s performance in Silkwood. “She has no natural vitality; she’s like a replicant—all shtick.”

And there were the characters onscreen, whose hooded motives she would divine with an astonishing empathy. A random example: in High Tide, Judy Davis plays a down-and-out mother who, years after giving her daughter up for adoption, unexpectedly meets the teenage girl. “As Li,” Kael wrote, “one of three backup singers for a touring Elvis imitator, Judy Davis is contemptuous of the cruddy act, contemptuous of herself. Too smart for what she’s doing, Lilli is a derisive tease—a spoiler.” That much was apparent to most of us, but she kept going. “You may intuit that her having abandoned the child who was her only hold on lie is the reason she has trashed herself. She doesn’t look on her failures that kindly, though.” Kael was fearless about going out on limbs; she liked it out there. You had to admire the intensity of her engagement even when you suspected her of reading too much in.

Her reviews do something almost unheard-of in reviewing: They take on a life of their own as fully formed, freestanding literature. You can respond to them without ever having seen the movies they’re about, and in most cases you probably should. I don’t think this achievement is something a critic can aspire to, though. Criticism, unlike fiction, has a built-in humility; a critic who stops seeing herself as a servant of the work, or at least of what the work might have been, has turned in her critical credentials and is doing something else. Kael had a healthy self-regard, but she never considered herself superior to her subject. (If she had, she wouldn’t have been.) Yet most of the movies she wrote about have turned to dust. Her reviews are written in stone.

Craig Seligman is a senior fellow at Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism Program.