PRINT March 2002

Geoffrey O’Brien

Pauline Kael at the New Yorker, ca. 1985. Photo: Christopher Little

In high school and college, on days when Pauline Kael’s reviews appeared in the New Yorker, I would read them through (often to the exclusion of anything else in the magazine) with rapt attention and frequent amusement. Having done so, I would proceed to quarrel with them at length, either inwardly or to anyone who would listen. As an enthusiast of Westerns, gangster movies, and lurid horror of the Hammer and Cinecittà schools, a devoted supporter of Samuel Fuller and Sergio Leone, I was aware of belonging to a tribe of youthful auteurists she characterized in tones ranging from contempt to pitying bemusement. Reading her was sometimes like being scolded at a distance by an instructor with a flair for mocking exactitude. I was not to be persuaded out of my tastes even by Kael’s finely tuned wit, yet she did raise the uncomfortable question of whether I could mount a defense as articulate, as cunningly modulated, as worldly and self-confident as her attacks. It was one thing to admire Curse of the Demon or Hercules Conquers Atlantis or The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, and quite another thing to find language adequate to explaining such admiration.

Of course I continued to read and reread Kael because of the pleasure she continually afforded in the most unexpected ways: in her quick sketches of actors or scenes, her aphoristic encapsulations (even when they were infuriating) of the American cultural scene and ’60s youth culture, the splashes of color and h e that enlivened reviews of some of the deadliest movies imaginable, her relentless prodding of anything she found false or inadequate—a misbegotten movie like The Shoes of the Fisherman or The Night of the Following Day—until it seemed to break apart on the page, a wreckage consisting of elegantly turned sentences. She was such great company that it was a pleasure to anticipate renewed quarrels.

Her faculty of sheer humorous invention—not to mention off-the-cuff invective—was extraordinary and keeps her reviews of even the most minor pictures alive. Who else would have described Sandy Dennis in Sweet November as “an icky little rabbit Babbitt” or suggest, in discussing the star quality of Candice Bergen and Omar Sharif: “Perhaps stars like these could be bred, like broad-backed circus horses, or minks.” Her disenchantment with the self-deceptions of “youthful” late-’60s film culture would surge up eloquently, as in her review of Joanna: “We are getting the howling banalities of the past brought back in creamy Panavision and fruity DeLuxe color and enough Mod clothes to choke a clotheshorse, and they’re brought back not with irony but with moronic solemnity. There’s a less publicized side of the generation gap: we remember this stuff from the last time around. Mod filmmakers, it appears, have just discovered the Rubáiyát and are working their way toward The Razor’s Edge.” Each review was a graph of energy, charted in prose whose rhythms were inexorable. Yet—and she insisted on the point—it was experience in the real world that she was writing about, even if only the experience of watching a movie: an act that she rendered with a novelistic density that made most other film criticism seem random or wanly generalizing.

Returning to her writing after so many years, I’m still puzzled by a central ambivalence in her judgments that seems to gravitate around the notions of “art” and “trash.” In her celebrated essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (Harper’s, February 1969)—the closest she came to a general statement of intentions—she wants to celebrate the gaudy pleasures of cinematic vulgarity: “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t admit having at some time in his life enjoyed trashy American movies. . . . Why should pleasure need justification!” She directs withering scorn at those stuffed-shirt humanists who admire Judgment at Nuremberg or Wild Strawberries but can’t appreciate The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). But she’s equally at odds with anyone who likes trash a little bit too much, likes it enough to think that “trash” is perhaps a term of doubtful use: “If an older generation was persuaded to dismiss trash, now a younger generation, with the press and schools in hot pursuit, has begun to talk about trash as if it were really very serious art.” It doesn’t help that her examples of yesterday's kitsch now mistaken for art are Shanghai Express and—amazingly for someone who would go on to grossly overpraise the Hitchcock imitations of Brian De Palma—Notorious. She goes in circles on this theme, churning up perplexities about pleasure and puritanism, bourgeois complacency and radical transgression, without ever coming to a comfortable resting point. What is clear is that there is no party of which she wishes to be a member; if she has to declare for anything it will be the sovereignty of her own taste.

Kael defined her own responses with such thoroughness that little room was left for the possibility of anyone responding differently. It was a little like being at the table with the sort of voluble, entertaining, and supremely informed dinner companion who annihilates your counterarguments before you even get a chance to express them. If this was irritating to the opinionated young cinephile I was in 1968, it later proved to be her greatest gift to anyone writing about film. There was all the room in the world for different responses—but only on condition that they were treated with something approaching the same level of detail and forthrightness, the same faithfulness to moment-by-moment experience, the same refusal to deny that modes exist in a world that keeps forcing its way into even the most hermetic of viewing experiences.

Geoffrey O’Brien, editor in chief of the Library of America, is the author of The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century (Norton, 1993).