Pauline Kael began writing about movies for The New Yorker in 1967. She was not a “discovery.” She was forty-eight years old, and she had already written for just about every well-known magazine in America but The New Yorker, including The New Republic, Partisan Review, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, Holiday, Vogue, Life, and McCall’s. Before coming to New York in the mid-Sixties, she had made weekly radio broadcasts about movies on KPFA in San Francisco; she had been contributing regularly to journals like Film Quarterly and Sight and Sound since 1954; and a collection of her pieces, I Lost It at the Movies, had come out in 1965 and become a best seller. Mr. Shawn was not taking a gamble on a rookie.
In 1967 The New Yorker was the most successful magazine in America. It owed its prosperity to a formula that can no longer be duplicated: it was a general-interest commercial magazine for people who disliked commercialism and who rarely subscribed to general-interest magazines—a magazine, essentially, for people who didn’t buy magazines. For in the Fifties and Sixties, a literate and unstuffy anti-commercialism was still a cherished ingredient of upper-middle-class taste, and by catering to it, The New Yorker was able to deliver to advertisers several hundred thousand well-educated and affluent people who could be reached through practically no other medium.
It did so with an editorial product rigorously manufactured to avoid any semblance of the sensational, the prurient, or the merely topical—any semblance, that is, of the things educated people could be assumed to associate with the commercial press or television. It also avoided, less famously but with equal diligence, anything that hinted at cultural pretension. And this policy, too, was based on a genuine insight into the psychology of its audience. For New Yorker readers, though proud of their education and their taste, were intellectually insecure. They did not need to be told who Proust and Freud and Stravinsky were, but they were glad, at the same time, not to be expected to know anything terribly specific about them. They were intelligent people who were nevertheless extremely wary of being out-browed.
The New Yorker was enormously attentive to this insecurity. It pruned from its pieces anything that might come across as allusive or knowing, and it promoted, in its writing and cartoons, a sensibility that took urbanity to be perfectly compatible with a certain kind of naiveté. The New Yorker made it possible to feel that being an anti-sophisticate was the mark of true sophistication, and that any culture worth having could be had without special aesthetic equipment or intellectual gymnastics.
Pauline Kael made it possible for people to feel this way about the movies, and although that sounds like a modest accomplishment, it was not. It required disarming both phobias in the sensibility The New Yorker had so successfully identified: the fear of too low, and the fear of too high. It meant overcoming the intelligent person’s resistance to the pulpiness, the corniness, and the general moral and aesthetic schmaltz of Hollywood movies, but without refining those things away by some type of critical alchemy. The New Yorker’s readers did not want an invitation to slum, but they didn’t want to be told that appreciating movies was something that called for a command of “the grammar of film,” either. They needed to believe that it was possible to enjoy the movies without becoming either of the two things New Yorker readers would sooner have died than be taken for: idiots or snobs.
This was precisely the approach to movies Kael had devoted her pre-New Yorker career to perfecting. She heaped scorn on the moguls, and she heaped scorn on the cinéastes. She joined the magazine at the moment the movies seemed to many people suddenly to have caught up with the rest of American culture: her second piece was a seven-thousand-word defense of Bonnie and Clyde. She kept the attention of the magazine’s readers during a time when movies seemed to mean a great deal to them. And she continued to keep it well after the movies ceased being important in most of those readers’ lives. By the time she retired, in 1991, The New Yorker’s traditional readership had lost its cohesion as a distinctive taste-group, and the type of movies Kael had made her name by championing had nearly vanished, too. But she had produced a generation of epigoni, and although the moment for it has long since passed, the manner of appreciation she invented has become the standard manner of popular culture criticism in America.
For Keeps is a greatest-hits package drawn entirely from previously published collections of Kael’s work. Kael estimates, in the introduction, that the book represents about a fifth of her total output. Reviews naturally make up most of it, but some of her retrospective appreciations and most of her occasional “state of the movies” essays are included. She has also reprinted her slightly swoony piece about Cary Grant, “The Man from Dream City” (1975), and her long essay on the making of Citizen Kane, “Raising Kane” (1971), which is easily the finest piece of writing she ever did.
It is not, however, the most famous piece of writing she ever did. There are three candidates for that prize: her enthusiastic review of Last Tango in Paris (1972); her unenthusiastic review of Shoah (1985), which Shawn initially balked at publishing; and her attack on auteur theory, “Circles and Squares” (1963), which won her the undying (or, at any rate, undead) enmity of its chief punching bag, the film critic Andrew Sarris. Only the first of these appears in For Keeps, which suggests that the idea was to create a history of what mattered in the movies, rather than a history of what mattered in the career of Pauline Kael. The result, of course, is a history of what mattered to Kael, and although a volume of almost thirteen hundred pages is possibly not the most convenient way to get it, such a thing is certainly interesting to have.
The simplest way to put it is to say that Kael in her youth fell in love with two completely different kinds of movies, and then awoke in middle age to find them miraculously reborn together on a single screen. Her first infatuation was with the Hollywood genre movies of the Thirties: newspaper pictures like The Front Page (1931), comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and Duck Soup (1933), and, especially, the screwballs, which began appearing in 1934—“the year,” as she put it in the Cary Grant essay, “when The Thin Man and Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night changed American movies.” It was also the year Kael turned fifteen.
Kael thought these were great movies, but it was not “as movies” that she admired them. She did not esteem them for their realization of the possibilities of cinematic form. She esteemed them for their indifference to the possibilities of cinematic form, and in particular for the death blow they delivered to the high-minded sentimentality—what she described as the “calendar-art guck”—of the silent tradition. The silents, she thought, had encouraged a kind of “dream aesthetic,” which associated film with the movements of the subconscious, and led to the production of a lot of misty allegories about “purity” and “morality.” When characters started speaking, the mists went away, and so did the purity and morality. “The talkies,” as she once put it, “were a great step down.”
Two things, in her view, made those Thirties movies go: the writing and the acting. The essay on Citizen Kane is usually remembered as an attack on Orson Welles and the cult of the director—in effect, a sequel to “Circles and Squares.” But the point of the essay is that the reason it is wrong to talk about Citizen Kane as a bolt from cinema heaven is not that Welles was not really a genius; Kael thought he really was a genius. It is that Citizen Kane (released in 1941) was the crowning achievement of Thirties movie-making, the capstone of the tradition The Front Page had started. It was, she thought, simply “the biggest newspaper picture of them all.” What made it great was the script—by Herman J.Mankiewicz, who had been involved, as a writer or producer, in many of the movies Kael loved, including Million Dollar Legs and Duck Soup—and the acting. Charles Foster Kane was the one role in his career in which Welles was perfectly cast; for Welles was a sort of Kane himself, a theatrical monstre sacré, a boy wonder and a mounte-bank. Welles, according to her, may have stolen half the writing credit from Mankiewicz; but Mankiewicz showed Welles naked to the world.
Then the parade ended. The commercial failure of Citizen Kane—the critics acclaimed it, but the industry, intimidated by the other real-life Kane, William Randolph Hearst, failed to stand behind it—drove Welles into the movie wilderness. And it marked, Kael believed, the demise of the supremely smart but supremely accessible Hollywood entertainments of the Thirties. Except in odd corners of the business, such as the comedies of Preston Sturges, irreverence disappeared from the screen. The movies fell into the hands of self-righteous, fellow-traveling hacks: earnestness was prized above wit, and politically correct mediocrity was promoted over talent. “Morality” was back in the saddle. It remained there for twenty-five years.
Kael had a second infatuation, though, and it was with a kind of movie that had nothing generic about it, a kind of movie in which the director was the star. This was the European realist tradition, above all the early movies of Jean Renoir—Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), La Grande Illusion (1937), and The Rules of the Game (1939)—but also the work of the Italian neo-realists, like Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Vitorio de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Miracle in Milan (1951), and of Max Ophuls, particularly The Earrings of Madame De… (1953), a movie Kael called “perfection.”
The technical term for the quality these movies share is “open form.” The camera directs its gaze with equal empathy at every facet of the world viewed. Ordinary things are not scanted or rushed over, since the gods, if there are any, are probably in the details; but grand things are not put into quotation marks, or set up to be knocked down, either, since great emotions are as much a part of life as anything else. The door is opened onto the world “as it is,” without scrims or stage directions; and the world is left, at the end, in the same condition, unarranged, and unboxed by moral resolution.
When Kael arrived at The New Yorker, these were her touchstones—Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, Rossellini and Renoir. It was a canon exceptional less for what it included than for what it left out. Kael’s taste for genre pictures, for instance, was not indiscriminate. She had a distant respect for the early westerns of John Ford, like Stagecoach (1939), because they handled popular iconography in a classical spirit; but she hated High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) for their moralism and their mythic fakery, and she rarely passed up an occasion to say so. She had no special enthusiasm, either, for film noir, a genre barely mentioned in For Keeps, or for other low-rent forms, like horror and science fiction.
Her line about Frank Capra is famous: “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can,” she said of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), “but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” She dismissed most of Hollywood’s postwar efforts at serious moral drama, like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), as embarrassing imitations of European art films. She regarded The Red Shoes (1948) as kitsch on stilts. She considered Fellini pretentious and overrated, and Bergman a “northern Fellini.” And for the high-end imports reverentially mulled over by cinéastes in the early Sixties—Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Red Desert (1964)—she had pure contempt. She called them “come-dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe parties,” and she considered them prime specimens of the Philistinism of anti-Philistinism, intellectual clichés to which repetition and obscurity had given the illusion of profundity.
There were two imports, however, which she did admire: Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). She was drawn to them because they were, in effect, the sum of the two types of movies that had captured her heart in the Thirties. They were genre pictures whose forms had been imaginatively opened up: pulp plus poetry. So that when Bonnie and Clyde, directed by an American disciple of Godard and Truffaut, Arthur Penn, appeared in 1967, it was as though a dream Kael had been having for twenty-five years had come to life. Bonnie and Clyde announced, for her, a Hollywood New Wave. It was a movement that lasted a decade, and produced a series of stylish entertainments people could care about without feeling gullible or pedantic. The first two Godfather movies (1972 and 1974) define the type as it existed in her mind: straight gangster pictures, but with the visual and moral depth of field of Renoir.
In the Seventies Kael consequently became, despite her disparagement of auteur theory, a devotee of directors. Her favorites—Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, Paul Mazursky, Steven Spielberg—were artists of the popular. They loved, without condescension, exactly what the audience loved, and went to the movies to see: pursuit and capture, sex and violence, love and death. They loved the story. Spielberg won Kael over, in his first feature, The Sugarland Express (1974), by his orchestration of one of the most mundane staples of Seventies movicmaking, a car chase, which she described in her review as though it had been a masked ball shot by Ophuls:
He patterns them; he makes them dance and crash and bounce back. He handles enormous configurations of vehicles; sometimes they move so sweetly you think he must be wooing them. These sequences are as unforced and effortless-looking as if the cars themselves—mesmerized—had just waltzed into their idiot formations.
and so on. Even the most authorial of her auteurs, Bertolucci, showed his understanding of big-screen aesthetics in his casting: Trintignant, Sanda, Brando, De Niro, Lancaster, Depardieu. People go for the faces.
The reverse side of Kael’s taste for cleverness was her distaste for cynicism. She disliked most of Stanley Kubrick’s movies because she thought they were unfeeling and aloof; she disliked most of John Cassavetes’s because she felt that they showed contempt for the audience’s desire to be entertained. She disliked The Graduate because it seemed to her patently manipulative while pretending to be original and sincere; and she disliked the Dirty Harry movies because they exploited the visceral appeal of blood. She despised any film maker who assumed that because a thing is popular it must also be cheap, or that an audience drawn to sex or violence deserves to have its nose rubbed in it. This standard is the nub of the problem with her critical judgment.
For the more powerful the movie, the trickier the distinction between cleverness and cynicism becomes. It’s not just that there is an element of cold-bloodedness calculation in all successful entertainment; Kael was the last person to have disputed that. It’s that the cold-bloodedness in some of the movies she championed can sometimes seem a little more genuine than the entertainment. Barbara Harris’s pathetic anthem in the final scene of Nashville, the protracted slow-motion of the pig’s-blood sequence in DePalma’s Carrie, Brando sticking his chewing gum under the railing at the end of Last Tango in Paris: these are scenes that seem to have been created not so much to rip away the last veil of our innocence as to gratify the director’s desire to have the last laugh on humanity.
Kael didn’t defend moments like these in the movies she admired. She just read them differently. She knew perfectly well that De Palma enjoyed being manipulative, but she found his movies playful and witty, rather than smarmy and cynical, just as she found Nashville generous and funny, rather than patronizing and dyspeptic. She sensed pathos where less partisan or less enraptured viewers sensed satire and even disgust. Kael wasn’t interested in satire and disgust. She was a romantic.
Between 1967 and 1978, the American film industry turned out Bonnie and Clyde, written by Robert Benton and produced by Warren Beatty; Shampoo, produced by Beatty and written by Robert Towne; Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, written by Towne; Coppola’s first two Godfather movies and The Conversation; George Lucas’s American Graffiti, produced by Coppola; Altman’s MAS*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville; Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs; Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which he wrote, and Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader; Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which he wrote; Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which he wrote with Marshall Brickman; Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, written by him; Midnight Cowboy; The Graduate; Five Easy Pieces; The Outlaw Josey Wales; Easy Rider; The Last Picture Show; and The Deer Hunter. Kael did not admire all these movies; she panned a few. But she responded intensely to most of them (she divided her column during those years with Penelope Gilliatt), and she shared the sense many of her readers had that these were movies that somehow cut to the bone of the American experience. She was old enough to appreciate the serendipity of the phenomenon, and she assumed the role of its grand interpreter. She was the Hollywood Dr. Johnson.
Then, in 1978, she went there. She was invited by Warren Beatty, who wanted her help with a movie he was producing. That project fell through, and she became a story consultant at Paramount instead. After six months, she was back at the magazine. She denied it in interviews, but the sight of Hollywood from the inside seems to have turned her stomach; and in 1980, she published a jeremiad called “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers,” which blamed everything on the money.1
Well, it usually is the money. That happens to be the flag commercial culture salutes. But whether it was because material conditions really had changed, as her essay claimed, or because Hollywood’s imaginative juices had somehow dried up, or simply because the major screen breakthroughs had all been accomplished, by the end of the Seventies the connection between enjoying a movie and feeling a shock of recognition, a connection that had come to seem almost automatic in the decade before, was severed. It might have been adolescent to have walked out of Shampoo or Five Easy Pieces or Mean Streets feeling that you must change your life, but not even adolescents walked out of Beverly Hills Cop or The Empire Strikes Back or Batman feeling that way. They were happy to feel they had gotten back the price of the ticket.
Kael responded to this decline in the cultural authority of the movies in a peculiar way. She began to overpraise. Hyperbolic abandon had always been the virtual signature of her style. The stakes could never be too high. She equated Nashville and the second Godfather with Melville and Whitman; she equated the opening night of Last Tango in Paris with the opening night of Le Sacre du Printemps. “There are parts of Jaws,” she wrote in 1976, “that suggest what Eisenstein might have done if he hadn’t intellectualized himself out of reach.” And when she didn’t like a movie, she wasn’t just irritated or bored; she was the victim of an intellectual mugging. She condemned The French Connection as “total commercial opportunism passing itself off as an Existential view” (well, yes, but how was the picture?). She condemned the earnest Lenny as “the ultimate in modern show-biz sentimentality.” Words like “corrupt,” “dishonest,” “decadent,” and, for a while, “fascist” were part of her regular critical vocabulary. Dirty Harry she pronounced “a deeply immoral movie.”
“Shallowly immoral” would probably have done it. But you cannot compare the movies you love with Moby-Dick and then let the ones you hate off with a shrug. You have to keep writing as though souls are being saved and lost down at the cineplex every night. In the years when many of her readers found it exciting to treat movies as tests of character, Kael’s rhetoric was just excessive enough. You argued about the movie with your friends, and then you picked up The New Yorker and argued about it with Kael. But when the same people eventually found themselves content to describe the movies they enjoyed as “a lot of fun” and the movies they didn’t enjoy as “pretty stupid,” Kael’s rhetoric began to seem a little curious.
So did her judgment. It became possible to read one of her rapturous reviews—of, for instance, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) (“It may be the best movie of its kind ever made”) or Robert Zemeckis’s Used Cars (1980), which inspired comparisons with Bringing Up Baby, Shampoo, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Melville’s The Confidence Man—and then find the actual movie, when you went to see it, almost unrecognizable. What had caused her pulse to race so fast? The less portentous the buzz around a movie she wanted to like, the more hyperkinetic her exertions seemed to become. Unpopular or unexceptional efforts by old favorites began to receive shameless raves—as in:
I think De Palma has sprung to the place Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies—that is, to the place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is the artist’s vision.
She was reviewing Blow Out (1981). And when the whole movie couldn’t honorably be rhapsodized, a single scene or even a single line would be given a prominently placed homage, a sort of verbal trailer. This is the lead paragraph of Kael’s review of Tequila Sunrise (1988), a slightly underpowered romance/thriller that happens to have been written and directed by Robert Towne:
Michelle Pfeiffer tells Mel Gibson how sorry she is that she hurt his feelings. He replies, “C’mon, it didn’t hurt that bad,” pauses, and adds, “Just lookin’ at you hurts more.” If a moviegoer didn’t already know that Tequila Sunrise was the work of a master romantic tantalizer, Gibson’s line should cinch it. That’s the kind of ritualized confession of love that gave a picture like To Have and Have Not its place in moviegoers’ affections. What makes the line go ping is that Mel Gibson’s blue eyes are wide with yearning as he says it, and Michelle Pfeiffer is so crystalline in her beauty that he seems to be speaking the simple truth…. It’s a line that Gary Cooper might have spoken to Marlene Dietrich….
Stop! I give up! I’ll see the movie!
What had evaporated, of course, was the consensus that it all mattered. The result was a dissociation between the experience and the commentary. In the Eighties, Kael’s disquisitions on the psychology of the American movie audience, which characterized her early criticism, gave way to page after page of word-painting. She would paraphrase almost the whole storyline, and every clever bit in the movie seemed to end up in the review. After you had read her review of Zelig, the movie itself felt like something you had already seen, and not quite as ingenious as you remembered it. She was a pioneer, in effect, of the condition movies suffer from today, when by the time a big-budget production hits the screen, it has been so overexposed in magazines and on television that there is almost no point in bothering to go see it. Which is fine, of course, with magazine publishers and television producers. The coverage competes with the product.
Kael’s manner of overpraising and overdamning has itself been so overpraised and overdamned2 that rereading her reviews is a little like rereading Hemingway after listening to too many parodies: Why can’t she stop trying to sound so much like Pauline Kael? The trademark Kaelisms now leap out from every page: the second-person address; the slangy heighteners, “zizzy,” “zingy,” “goosey,” “plummy,” and so on, and put-downs, like “frowzy,” “whorey,” “logey” (her word for Shoah); the high-low oxymorons, like “pop classic” (for the remake of King Kong) or “trash archetype” (for Carrie); and her most exasperating locution, the conditional universal superlative, which she used promiscuously and frequently bathetically: “The scene is perhaps the wittiest and most deeply romantic confirmation of a marriage ever filmed” (The Right Stuff); “He may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived” (Jeff Bridges).
More general defects are also obvious when the stuff is consumed in bulk. The writing is all in the same key, and strictly molto con brio. There is no modulation of tone or (which would be even more welcome) of thought. She just keeps slugging away. She is almost always extraordinarily sharp, but she is hardly ever funny. And (as she concedes in the introduction to For Keeps) she is clearly working her way through her feelings about the movie as she writes, and this produces garrulousness and compositional dishevelment. Writing in The New Yorker gave her a huge space advantage over other reviewers; she did not always profit by it.
Her reviews are highly readable, but they are not especially rereadable. James Agee, in his brief service as movie critic of The Nation, reviewed many nondescript and now long-forgotten pictures; but as soon as you finish reading one of his pieces, you want to read it again, just to see how he did it. Kael does not provoke the same impulse.
Still, the attractions of the prose are not the whole story. W. H. Auden once praised Agee’s column by saying that he never went to the movies, but that he looked forward to reading what Mr. Agee had to say about them every week. Some people have said the same thing about Stanley Kauffmann, the longtime reviewer for The New Republic who is, in critical terms, pretty much the UnKael. Kael was not a reviewer for people who didn’t go to movies. She was the ideal person to read when you had just seen a movie and couldn’t make up your mind what you thought about it. At her best, she argued it through on the page for you. You know what you think about Bonnie and Clyde by now, though, and so her insights have lost their freshness. On the other hand, she is a large part of the reason you think as you do.
And her influence is everywhere. Kael was, by all accounts, a journalistic queen bee. If she did not orchestrate opinion (something she was accused of many times), she certainly took pleasure in orchestrating the orchestrators. She maintained, even before her New Yorker days, a circle of admirers whose careers she cultivated and whose degree of orthodoxy she monitored closely; and she became an object of personal infatuation for many younger writers who never met her. She has a number of protégés and ex-protégés among active movie reviewers: Terrence Rafferty, who succeeded her at The New Yorker, David Denby, Michael Sragow, David Edelstein, John Powers, Peter Rainer. But her impact extended beyond movie reviewing. The television critics James Wolcott and Tom Shales, the art critics Jed Perl and Sanford Schwartz, the music critic Greil Marcus, and the sportswriter Allen Barra are all her fans, and there is a long list of other writers, in many other genres, whose work would be almost unimaginable without her example. There are also two celebrity epigoni: Camille Paglia, whose style is a virtual pastiche of Kael’s but who (such is the anxiety of influence) has hardly ever mentioned her name in print; and the Hollywood Wunderkind Quentin Tarantino, who mentions her name at almost every opportunity. And properly so; for Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a dish for which Kael spent forty years writing the recipe.
Kael’s followers are known, a little dismissively, as “the Paulettes.” The usual complaints about them are that they imitate mindlessly Kael’s enthusiasm for the cheap-thrill element of popular culture, and that they are all parrots of her journalistic mannerisms. There is no question that Kael’s style proved highly infectious; and there is no question, either, that her appetite for sensationalism, for blood and sex, helped shape educated movie taste. Cataloguing stylistic tics, though, is not the most accurate way to measure Kael’s influence. For her importance has, in the end, very little to do with her style of writing or her taste in movies. It is much greater than that.
The problem Kael undertook to address when she began writing for The New Yorker was the problem of making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular entertainment is not art. This is usually thought of as the highlow problem—the problem that arises when a critic equipped with a highbrow technique bends his or her attention to an object that is too low, when the professor writes about Superman comics. In fact, this rarely is a problem: if anything profits from (say) a semiotic analysis, it’s the comics. The professor may go on to compare Superman comics favorably with Homer, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.
The real high-low problem doesn’t arise when the object is too low. It arises when the object isn’t low enough. Meet the Beatles doesn’t pose a high-low problem; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does. Tom Clancy and Wheel of Fortune don’t; John le Carré and Masterpiece Theater do. A product like Sgt. Pepper isn’t low enough to be discussed as a mere cultural artifact; but it’s not high enough to be discussed as though it were Four Quartets, either. It’s exactly what it pretends to be: it’s entertainment, but for educated people. And this is what makes it so hard for educated people to talk about without sounding pretentious—as though they had to justify their pleasure by some gesture toward the “deeper” significance of the product.
One of Hollywood’s best-kept industrial secrets is that the movies are entertainment for educated people, too. This was a finding that surprised the studios when, in the 1940s, they first undertook to analyze their audience: frequency of movie attendance increases with income and education. Even today, when people complain that they don’t make movies for grown-ups anymore, the percentage of people who say they are “frequent moviegoers” is more than half again as great among people who have gone to college (31 percent) as it is among people who have only finished high school (19 percent). The belief that education makes people snobbish about movie-going is the opposite of the case: 20 percent of people who have been to college say they “never” go to movies, but the figure is 39 percent among adults who have only finished high school and 57 percent among adults with even less education than that. Movie-going is a lot more expensive than television-watching, of course, and no doubt this helps to account for the difference. But the numbers make it clear that film is not truly a mass art form to anything like the degree that television and popular music are. Movies since the Thirties have been designed for the people who have the money and the leisure to afford them. Kael didn’t persuade New Yorker readers to go to the movies; they were already going. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was teaching them how to think critically about them.
One way to think critically about them, the way consistent with thinking about the arts generally during the Fifties and early Sixties, was to identify the formal properties of the medium, and to judge movies by how fully and intelligently they used them. So that the assertion “Stagecoach is a great movie” might be defended against the person who wants to know if that means it is as great as King Lear by replying that Stagecoach is great “in cinematic terms.” This is to defend your judgment with an abstraction; for when you say things like “in cinematic terms,” you are on your way toward developing a theory of film.
Kael had devoted her pre—New Yorker career to demolishing this way of thinking. By 1967, her antiaesthetic has been completely worked out. She hated theories. She didn’t oppose only auteur theory: she opposed all theoretical preconceptions. “Isn’t it clear that trying to find out what cinema ‘really’ is, is derived from a mad Platonic and metaphorical view of the universe,” she wrote in an unreprinted essay in 1966, “—as if ideal, pure cinema were some pre-existent entity that we had to find? Cinema is not to be found; but movies are continuously being made.”3 And in “Is There a Cure for Movie Criticism?” (1962), an attack on the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer: “Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it…. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way. Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?”4
Kael was the most brilliantly ad hoc critic of her time, and she made it possible to care about movies without feeling pompous or giddy by showing that what comes first in everyone’s experience of a movie isn’t the form or the idea but the sensation, and that this is just as true for moviegoers who have been taught to intellectualize their responses to art as it is for everyone else. The idea that a movie critic needs to work from sensations was not new with her, of course. Agee’s persona in The Nation had been that of the ordinary intelligent guy who happens to love going to movies (and who also happens to write like James Agee). Robert Warshow, who wrote about movies for Commentary and Partisan Review in the Forties and Fifties, warned that the critic who trucks a load of sociology and aesthetics into the movie theater will end up missing the show. “A man watches a movie,” as he once famously, and perhaps a shade sententiously, put it, “and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.”5
When Warshow wrote about Scar-face and Agee wrote about National Velvet, they didn’t have much trouble being that man. But that’s because the high-low problem doesn’t kick in with Scarface and National Velvet, movies that don’t tempt viewers to detect “significance.” It kicks in with a movie like Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s black comedy about a serial killer, which few people have patience for any more, but which Agee and Warshow both went solemnly bananas over. Agee and Warshow thought that Chaplin had Something Important to Say in Monsieur Verdoux, and they therefore bent over backward in their appreciation of the movie in order to give him credit for his good intentions.
Kael never gave anyone credit for good intentions. “Art,” as she put it back in 1956, “perhaps unfortunately is not the sphere of good intentions.6 She wasn’t interested in abstractions like “social significance” or “the body of work.” She had to be turned on all over again each time. Her favorite analogy for the movie experience got seriously overworked, and was lampooned as a result, but it does have the virtue of simplicity: a movie, for her, was either good sex or bad sex. For the quality of the sex doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the glamour of the partner. The best-looking guy in the room may be the lousiest lover—which is why nothing irritated Kael more than a well-dressed movie that didn’t perform. “If a lady says. ‘That man don’t pleasure me,’ ” she explained to the readers of Holiday in 1966, “that’s it. There are some areas in which we can still decide for ourselves.”7 She thought that people who claimed to enjoy 2001: A Space Odyssey more than The Thomas Crown Affair were either pretending or were Puritanical about the straight-forward pleasures of trash. She thought these people missed the essentially erotic nature of the movie experience. There were a lot of people like that around before 1967. “What did she lose at the movies?” asked a puzzled Dwight Macdonald when he reviewed I Lost It at the Movies in 1965.8 Case in point.
Kael’s contention that “serious” movies should meet the same standard as pulp—that they should be entertaining—turned out to be an extremely useful and widely adopted critical principle. For it rests on an empirically sustainable proposition, which is that although people sometimes have a hard time deciding whether or not something is art, they are rarely fooled into thinking they are having a good time when they are not. It was Kael’s therapeutic advice to the overcultivated that if they just concentrated on responding to the stimulus, the aesthetics would take care of themselves. What good is form if the content leaves you cold?
The academic term for the kind of antiformalism Kael promoted is “postmodernism.” Postmodernism in the arts simply is anti-essentialism. It is a reaction against the idea, associated by academic critics in the postwar years with modernist literature, painting, and architecture, that the various arts have their own essential qualities—that poetry is essentially a matter of the organization of language, that painting is essentially a matter of composition, that architecture is essentially a matter of space and light. The undoing of these assumptions is often taken to have been the work of high critical theory, of semioticians and Derrideans, and “postmodernism” is thought to refer to highbrow, avant-garde art and literature—to be a distinctly elitist cultural movement.
In fact, the cultural work was done long before “postmodernism” became a theoretical concept in the academy, and it was done by people whose audience was entirely mainstream. If we need to give it a brow, postmodernism was a middlebrow phenomenon. Its champion practitioners were Warhol (in painting), Mailer (in fiction), and Tom Wolfe (in journalism)—all perfectly accessible figures who played to a large nonacademic audience. Its “theoreticians” were Susan Sontag, who was an independent writer, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who were architects, and Kael, who never finished college. For the notion that serious art must be appreciated formally was not so much a feature of modernist art itself—it’s not something most of the great modernists would have claimed about what they were doing—as it was the result of the way modern art and literature were taught to people like the people who read The New Yorker in the Fifties and early Sixties. Excessive critical concern with the formal properties of art—with the “elements of style”—was a middlebrow oppression. It didn’t intimidate poets; it intimidated moviegoers. It made them think there was something they ought to know about called “the grammar of film.”
This liberation of art from abstract prior conceptions was one of the great achievements of American culture in the Sixties. It is now being attacked for encouraging the supposedly dangerously relativist notions that “It’s art if I say it’s art,” and “Anything goes.” People said those things in the Sixties, and I suppose people say them now, but those are not the necessary conclusions of the lesson Kael helped to teach. A dislike of formalism does not entail a dislike of form. And openness to mass culture does not entail identification with the mass audience; it doesn’t require an attitude of épater les intellectuels or a belief that if it’s “of the people” it must be counter-hegemonic.
The critical attitude Kael represented only means approaching a work of art without bias about what “a work of art” is supposed to be. It is predicated on the belief that modern culture is fluid and promiscuous, and therefore that nothing is gained by foreclosing the experience of it—particularly if you are a critic. Pauline Kael understood these things, and she consciously built her practice as a reviewer around them; and that is why she is a supremely important figure even for writers who, although they grew up reading everything she wrote, always strived, in their own work, never to sound like Pauline Kael.
March 23, 1995
Information about Kael’s Hollywood interlude comes from Phillip Lopate’s excellent profile “The Lady in the Dark,” New York Woman, November 1989, pp. 100–107. ↩
Most indelibly in these pages, by her New Yorker colleague Renata Adler, reviewing the 1980 collection, When the Lights Go Down: “The Perils of Pauline,” The New York Review, August 14, 1980, pp. 26–35. ↩
“It’s Only a Movie,” in Film Study in Higher Education, edited by David C. Stewart (American Council on Education, 1966), pp. 143–144. ↩
I Lost It at the Movies (Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown, 1965), p. 292. ↩
The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (Doubleday, 1962), p. 27. The sentence was written in 1954. ↩
“Movies, the Desperate Art,” in Film: An Anthology, edited by Daniel Talbot (University of California Press, 1959), p. 64. ↩
“Incredible Shrinking Hollywood,” Holiday, March 1966, p. 86. ↩
Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 470. ↩