PRINT March 2002

Gary Indiana

When Artforum invited me to write 800 words on Pauline Kael, I asked the editor why we couldn't dispense with 799 of them, as I could certainly summarize my opinion of Ms. Kael with even greater economy than that with which her opinions had for so many years been splashed across movie ads and even, for a time, theater marquees. Besides, the definitive autopsy on Ms. Kael’s oeuvre had already been performed, twenty-one years earlier, in the pages of the New York Review of Books, by Renata Adler (“The Perils of Pauline”), and I consider Adler’s an impossible act to follow. I have a fond memory of devouring that essay with Susan Sontag, peering over each other’s shoulder, in the donut shop that used to occupy the comer of Third Avenue and Fourteenth Street, both of us nearly gagging with laughter at the sly, inexorable trajectory of every sentence, the devastating conclusion of every paragraph, the utterly damning thoroughness with which Ms. Kael’s grotesquely inflated, even sacrosanct reputation had been laid out like a corpse for burial.

What Adler had attacked was the weekly spectacle of “a minor celebrity in frenzy,” the single-subject critic whose subject could not be of burning interest every week, for whom the job of weighing in on the week's offerings became an exercise in whipping up a sense of urgent indignation over the inconsequent release of a not-very-good film, or, contrariwise, bestowing vast hyperbolic importance on mildly interesting fare; Kael, who may have started out as an interesting and interested commentator on her chosen medium, had developed an obtuse, largely meaningless, and repetitive vocabulary of astonishing ugliness and vulgarity, and a “degree of physical sadism . . . unique in expository prose.” Open any volume of Kael’s collected reviews to almost any page and you will find sufficient evidence to indict on one—or more likely several—of Adler’s charges. From her review of Earthquake (in Reeling): “Who needs a reason to destroy L.A.? The city stands convicted in everyone’s eyes. You go to Earthquake to see L.A. get it, and it really does. The picture is swill, but it isn’t a cheat, like Airport 1975, which was cut-rate swill.” Of Magnum Force she writes (also in Reeling), “Clint Eastwood isn’t offensive; he isn’t an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor. . . . And acting isn’t required of him in Magnum Force, which takes its name from the giant’s phallus—the long-barreled Magnum 44—that Eastwood flourishes.” When one of the odd assortment of directors she favored produced a derivative, uglily entertaining knickknack such as Dressed To Kill, Kael’s boosterism knew no bounds: “The whole film gives you the feeling of evenly controlled energy,” she wrote in the New Yorker (reprinted in Taking It All In). “De Palma shows the kind of restless intelligence which suggests that he will want to work in many different forms, and certainly he needs more chances to work on a larger scale . . . But he doesn’t have to move away from thrillers to prove he’s an artist. In his hands, the thriller form is capable of expressing almost everything—comedy, satire, sex fantasies, primal emotions.” In Kael’s mental universe, that is almost everything (though I would question her ability to distinguish a “primal emotion” from a gas-line explosion), which may account for her repeated trashing of directors like John Cassavetes and Antonioni, and the absence of any mention, or a single review, in her keepsake volume (optimistically titled For Keeps) of films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter, Patrice Chéreau, Chantal Akerman, Barbet Schroeder, Jacques Rivette, Raoul Ruiz, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Sally Potter, John Waters, or any of several dozen other directors who enriched and expanded the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic possibilities of cinema while Kael busied herself distinguishing the “swill” from the “cut-rate swill” exuding from Hollywood each week, valiantly battling, as she declares in her introduction to For Keeps, the squeamish New Yorker editor William Shawn for her right to use the toilet talk, sexual innuendo, and vivid descriptions of viscera so essential to her art.

Despite the cogently argued case Adler made, Kael placidly continued sharing her peculiarly promiscuous, weirdly incoherent, and, if you followed her closely, ossified biases, phobias, and encomiums with the readers of the New Yorker. No lowering of her deafening volume, no thoughtful modulation of tone, no hint of generosity toward her pet scapegoats followed in the wake of “The Perils of Pauline.” She blathered on in serenity, apparently ensorcelled by the idea of her own “feistiness.” She clearly had a thing for Warren Beatty, for Paul Newman, for various stars whose worst performances, in her view, paradoxically contained their best work; she rhapsodized over horrible hack directors whose “honest” formulaic dreck she preferred to “pretentious” films by superior directors; she was, perhaps, the first critic to make extreme violence onscreen a phenomenon to be parsed aesthetically (“A violent movie that intensifies our experience of violence is very different from a movie in which acts of violence are perfunctory” [from her review of Magnum Force]), to celebrate mayhem as one of the glories of American cinema. “Audiences hiss the sight of blood now,” Kael gripes in a piece called “Fear of Movies” (in When the Lights Go Down), “as if they didn't have it in their own bodies.”

She was not entirely without subtlety, and occasionally could tell a good joke; but the subtlety rarely had an illuminating point behind it, and the jokes were usually labored and had no illuminating point behind them. It was Pauline Kael’s specialty to extol the bloody-minded, the kitschy, the sexually crude, and the glaringly obvious and to sneer at “arty” films from a Europe she had scarcely ever visited. The European films she gushed over, both good and bad, she drenched in a lyrical syrup of stereotypes that convinced me, at least, that her knowledge of the world beyond the US came almost entirely from watching movies. Flipping through her compendium volume For Keeps, I could not avoid the thought that every superfluous, peacock display of erudition or even of ordinary intelligence outside the territory of film itself—witness her translation of the song title “Nessun dorma” from Turandot in a piece on Scorsese’s segment of New York Stories (followed by the patronizing news that “with Nolte sitting there listening, you don’t have to know what the words mean to roar with laughter”), or her disclosure that À bout de souffle really means “out of breath” and not “breathless” in French, for example—was something she’d phoned an opera-queen buddy or a French-speaking friend to clarify for her, and not anything casually plucked from a rich store of cultural knowledge.

For a critic who claimed to bring film writing down from academia to the conversational, the slangy, and the vernacular, Kael’s reviews are insufferably preachy and condescending: “It’s almost painful to tell kids who have gone to see The Graduate eight times that once was enough for you because you’ve already seen it eighty times with Charles Ray and Robert Harron and Richard Barthelmess. . . . How could you convince them that a movie that sells innocence is a very commercial work when they’re so clearly in the market to buy innocence?”

Yet she was quite oblivious to the huge debt David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a film whose originality she praised in what could only be called orgasmic terms, owed to the films of Kenneth Anger, and she seemed to believe that the vital ingredient in the works of Luis Buñuel was his handling of “violence,” reproaching his late masterpieces for their lack of convincing mean-spiritedness. The same audience presumed to be utterly uncritical of what they’d just seen in The Graduate until reading Kael’s corrective review is constantly being shoveled such shopworn thoughts as (from her credo, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” reprinted in Going Steady): “If we don’t deny the pleasures to be had from certain kinds of trash and accept The Thomas Crown Affair [1968] as a pretty fair example of entertaining trash, then we may ask if a piece of trash like this has any relationship to art. And I think it does.” Throughout her career, Kael continually invoked issues of “high and low,” “major and minor,” “art and entertainment,” and wreaked predictably silly reversals on these supposedly ubiquitous binary concepts, which by the mid-’60s, particularly owing to the broad impact of Sontag’s Against Interpretation (1966) had little relevance in any generative cultural discourse.

The coercive effect of Kael’s technique was not simply contrarian, which might have had its praiseworthy aspects; For Keeps makes it clear, as Adler noted years ago, that this is a critic who brooks no contradiction and turns herself into a pretzel to stun the reader into agreement that a worthless film has moments that outshine, and outmerit, actual masterpieces, if for no better reason than that the film was made by one of the directors she routinely fawned over, like De Palma. When it suits her, Kael does a complete volte-face and fetishizes the transcendent artistry of De Sica’s Shoeshine, for example, or treats us to an extremely long, extremely ill-informed analysis of how things work in Hollywood to explain “why today’s movies are so bad.” It is, perhaps, the absence of any real sensibility rooted in any consistent method of analysis that makes Pauline Kael’s collections of reviews the kinds of books I don’t like having in my house. She’s not a real voice but more like a suet of arbitrary, extemporized pronouncements. She is Gertrude Stein’s Oakland: There’s no there there.

Gary Indiana’s new novel, Depraved Indifference, was published by HarperCollins in January.