Monday, June 19, 2006

ON PAULINE KAEL'S BIRTHDAY



The great film critic Pauline Kael was born on this day in 1919.

And so much of who I am as a filmgoer and someone who attempts to write about movies, particularly from a personal perspective, can be directly traced back to a Saturday night in Eugene, Oregon, 1977, perhaps 1978, when I entered the Koobdooga Bookstore on 13th Street and picked up the paperback edition of Reeling. I was just looking for something fun to read, and I was certainly aware of Pauline Kael, but I had never actually read anything she wrote. That was quite a collection to start with—it covered the end of the Nixon era, from September 1972 to May 1975. As you may be well aware, an awful lot of good movies came out within that period of time, and not all of them, I would be shocked to discover, were American. For this neophyte seer and thinker, Kael provided as enthralling and infuriating a guide down the bramble-bush path of seeing and thinking about movies as anyone could have hoped for. And the joy of her writing is that, so many years later, she still does.

I remember reading her assessment of two popular actresses of the early ‘70s and thinking I’d died and gone to heaven (you’ll have to forgive me for paraphrasing, but I’m at work and the volume is unavailable to me; I’ll replace the following with the precise quote later tonight):

“Whenever I see Candice Bergen, I’m convinced she’s the worst actress I’ve ever seen. But then I’ll come across an Ali MacGraw performance, and I’ll think she’s the worst actress I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it just comes down to who you happen to be watching at the time.”

A couple of other great quotes from Pauline Kael strung together seem to say a lot about her approach, her sensibility, and the ones (like mine) she helped to cultivate:

“Trash has given us an appetite for art,” and “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”

And yet she remained passionate about writing about them, even when they fell short, only ever feeling perfunctory in her task, in her colloquial art, when the movies themselves, in the mid-to-late ‘80s, became perfunctory, less and less fun to think about, let alone write about. Tonight, for her birthday, I may just pick up Reeling again and refresh myself as to just why she was so important, so vital, such a good read, and how she helped make film criticism an art.

24 comments:

teresa said...

Amen to all that. I wished I had opened up a copy of all those New Yorkers that were lying on my mother's best frineds coffee table back in the 70's instead of just eaying them wearily. I was still a little girl but I'm sure reading and discovering her would hsve changed the course of my movie going life and it wouldn't have taken me so long to discover Kael (about twenty-five years later). I never knew movies could be wriiten about like that.

blaaagh said...

What a nice tribute to Pauline Kael on her birthday. I see her influence everywhere in film writing, and yet no one is her equal. I remember my dad accusing me of buying the New Yorker solely for her reviews, and I was happy to tell him that he was right! (Truthfully, I enjoyed other things in there, too--like the cartoons, and maybe one long article per month, but it's too dense to read the whole thing in a week!).

Anyway, thanks for a touching piece. Makes me want to get out my own Pauline books and read some more.

Edward Copeland said...

Didn't even realize it was her birthday. I know it's fashionable to bash Pauline a lot, but I love here. I disagreed with her more often than I agreed, but she was always a pleasure to read, for her writing and her passion. Whenever I need a good chuckle, I always love to return to her dissection of Dances With Wolves.

Chris Okum said...

It's hard to trust someone who surrounded themselves with that many acolytes and sycophants. It seems to me that the great horror of Kael's life was that anyone would dare be smarter than she was. Which may explain her almost pathological disdain for any whiff of intellectualism in movies. She championed a certain type of cinema (popular, kinetic, earthy), maybe, as a way of throwing people off the scent from movies that aimed directly for the cerebral cortex. Pauline Kael made it her life's job to be taken more seriously than anyone else. She succeeded. So thank her for Armond White, whose knee-jerk contrarianisms are becoming more hysterical and obvious by the week. Anyone who calls Torque a "pop art masterpiece," as White did, is playing the Trojan Horse, scheming for a dumb-downed movie-going populace, all the better to maintain an intellectual space above the fray, where authority is never questioned.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Edward: You mean that one starring Plays With Camera?

Jen said...

Roy Blount, Jr. wrote a charming poem for Kael on her 80th birthday:

http://www.salon.com/books/log/
1999/06/24/kael/index.html

Salon also collected remembrances of Kael from some writers who knew her. Charles Taylor's comments are especially astute, and an interesting counterpoint to Chris Okum's comments:

http://archive.salon.com/ent/movies/
feature/2001/09/03/kael_remembrances/
print.html

(You'll have to cut-and-paste the links, I'm afraid...)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Jen. I remember reading these five years ago, and I can't wait to read them again. (Apparently it was Greil Marcus's birthday yesterday too, oddly enough.)

Chris: I'm at work and under a deadline, but I'd like to take the time to respond to your thoughts later this evening when I have a little more time. It'll be no surprise to you, or to anyone else, I guess, that I disagree with the main thrust of your comments. But that doesn't make me any less grateful that you took the time to post them, and I will be happy to trade thoughts with you re Kael when things calm down in a few hours! Welcome to SLIFR, by the way!

Edward Copeland said...

Yes -- and that also includes "Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in head."

Chris Okum said...

I don't think I was honest enough the first time. What I meant to say is that your mother would never have married a man like you.
She couldn't stand your father.
Your father had a hard time being around other women.
He spent most of his time at the bookstand near the hospital.
Your mother does not understand why any girl would ever want to give up her chance at a good life to support a lazy little boy like you.
You spend all day on your computer.
You watch movies.
You convince yourself that you're smart because you listen to models who know how to repeat witty quips against a computer generated cityscape.
You have a hard time telling the truth.
You want everyone to know that you're just kidding. Life is totally absurd.
Nothing makes sense.
You just don't know how to connect.
No one does.
There is no self.
We have become like fractals.
Blame it on Pruitt-Igoe and the microchip.
Warren Beatty went potty on that girl from Just One of the Guys.
Your mother used to worry.
She said I think he's a sissy.
Your mother hated men.
Your mother hated women.
She was a dumb kid.
That’s what her father said to her.
Did you know that about your mother.
Did you know your mother went to visit her father all the time.
She was by his side when he died.
He said I always thought you were stupid.
That was the last thing he ever said to her.
Look it up.
And you think you know your mother.
Because you’ve seen pictures of her when she was young.
She knew some famous people.
A football player.
The most feared man in the NFL.
How come I know this.
Maybe you talked to her on the phone.
Because you were always her favorite.
That’s what she told you.
I know.
And no one was smarter than your mother.
Because no one is smarter than you.
I know.
I feel the same way.

blaaagh said...

Chris Okum, I reckon it's about time you explain what the dickens you are talking about.

You may have noticed, if you've been reading this blog, that one of its strongest suits is that the commentors don't insult one another, nor do they insult the blogmeister. If insult is not your intention, or if there's some joke I'm missing, kindly let me and the other not-so-hipsters in on it.

Otherwise, if you're not up to honest, open discussion, I suggest you go elsewhere. If you're not a fan of Kael, fine, but why not write a coherent argument?

Dan said...

Dude! how appropriate that I just ordered copy of 5001 Nights at the Movies (having read I Lost It at the Movies as a pup - from my local library - and recently revisiting Taking It All In.

Pauline rocks! I also like Manohla Dargis.

Jen said...

Dan, Dan, DAN... you actually LIKE Manohla Dargis? Ack. Oh, I know, Dennis does, too (as does one of my dearest exes, all the better we never married), and Dargis HAS gotten better since her tenure at LA WEEKLY... but I have to say that one of my proudest literary moments was having a snotty comment about her and (I think it was) John Powers published in the letters section. If memory serves, it went someting like:

"Please lock Manohla Dargis and John Powers in a sound-proof room so they may suck out all the air and put themselves out of our collective misery."

But I'm paraphrasing. It's hard to remember (1997-ish?).

I used to be much cleverer.

Chris Okum said...

You're right.
I am incapable of putting together a coherent argument.
Perhaps I should peddle my wares elsewhere.
But everywhere I go someone tells me that I have to leave.
I thought the internet was going to be different than my natural environment.
It must be me.
I just don't cotton to any type of regimentation.
And everyone seems to have all these rules about what you can talk about and most importantly how you're supposed to talk about what is supposed to be talked about.
I can see that there is not a lot of wiggle room.
That must be one of attractive apects of the internet.
You can control what people say.
They say something you don't like and you lock them out of the community.
All I have to say is that I'm glad you can't do that to strangers you meet on the street.
Someone made a comment about my shoes this morning while I was standing in line for my coffee.
I didn't say anything.
I should've said something.
I should've told him to do something pornographic with his fist.
But I can't talk like that to people when they are right in front of me.
I'm afraid of what they're going to do.
Maybe I should communicate with more clarity.
The next time someone insults my shoes I'm going to say I think you should get out of here and not come back.
Maybe that will work.

J. Bo said...

Okay, I decided not to write anything in response to your "poem" post, BUT, since you press the issue, M. Okum, I think I speak for everyone participating in this blog/thread when I say ...the hell?

Dude, I assure you that you and your discourse are not being dismissed. It's your pseudo-intellectual, self-indulgent, hostile-to-your-host horseshit that elicits a negative response on this otherwise kind-spirited blog.

Dennis would NEVER stoop so low, SO... let me be the bitch and say:

Critically? James Agee, you're not. You're not even Rex Reed.

Intellectually? Stephen Hawking, you're not. You're not even Stephen King.

Poetically? Wallace Stevens, you're not. You're not even Rod McKuen.

P.S. I'm thinkin' maybe another hit of acid might help.

P.P.S. MAN, you've got ugly shoes! Maybe THAT will work.

Chris Okum said...

Of course I'm not Rod McKuen.
That would be awesome if I was though.
I think he sold like over one million copies of his books.
Hold on.
Let me check this out.
He outsold the Beats.
And I think that's good.
You don't seem like the kind of person who would fall for that kind of writing, J. Bo.
He lived in Paris.
He was friends with Jacques Brel.
He sold over 65 million copies.
He recorded The Loner.
A great album.
I think it's time there was a Rod McKuen revival.
So thanks J. Bo.
But there's no need to raise your voice.
And another thing.
My shoes are ugly.
I know that.
But I have to wear special orthotic inserts.
So I had to buy a pair of wide shoes.

J. Bo said...

Oh, deary-dear... I'm the kind of person who knows that the proper locution is:

"That would be awesome if I WERE, though."

Any writer who eschews proper grammar, spelling, and/or punctuation (unless for a specific cultural effect) is a hack.

Voila.

Chris Okum said...

Thinking that you've made your point by finding a typo makes you the hack's editor.
No wonder you're so grumpy.
I would be grumpy too if I had to spend that much energy on what I say.
My advice is too spend about half the energy.
Maybe you need to take a timeout and go watch Last Tango in Paris.
Don't forget the butter.

Parkay.

Thom McGregor said...

Mr. Okum, regardless of whether you're coherent, a good poet or have interesting points to discuss, your posts have set a terrible mood of anger and personal attacks that have never occured on this blog before. Just for this alone, I think I know why you have been asked to leave elsewhere. This is an all-respect, no-personal-attacks, say-anything-you-want-but-with-consideration kind of blog. Put simply, be nice! If you can't be, there are many other blogs out there in blogland (I've seen some) which do not care if the atmosphere of discussion is considerate of others' feelings. They are very easy to find.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

[ Sound of Referree Whistle Blowing ]

Sorry, Chris, but at the risk of coming off like a censorious dictator, your last post is where I've decided to draw the line.

It was my sincere intent to engage your comments about Pauline Kael, with which I largely disagree, in a civil fashion which would be accessible to everyone else and perhaps encourage further civil debate on either side. That is what I'd like to think we can all do on this blog any time we feel like it.

But what I don't want to happen here is for this to become just another one of those message board environments where the point of every post is not engaging in the thoughtful exchange of ideas or commentary or praise or even civilly couched criticism, but instead scoring points off of the last guy and trying to show everyone else how clever and above-it-all you are, especially when the posts end up resorting to crude and insulting humor. And despite your reference to a well-respected, intellectually stimulating art film (one which, oddly enough, Pauline Kael loved, probably as much for its earthiness as its focus on the "cerebral cortex"), that's not enough to elevate your comment above crude and insulting.

For the longest while, I really didn't know what to make of your second post, which is why I was reticent to comment on it. Obviously, Blaaagh and Jen saw something of a hostile intent in it and called you on it, responses which were, I think, well within the established, unwritten "rules" of this forum. After having read your post several times since, I must admit (and maybe I'm just not smart enough, after all, to get it) I really don't know what your point was. And it's here where I think the crux of this particular biscuit lies (alert: earthy, non-cerebral-cortex-related reference). I'd like to use your words to illustrate my point (I've chosen to eschew your poetical structure; the bold emphasis is mine):

"Everywhere I go someone tells me that I have to leave. I thought the Internet was going to be different than my natural environment.
It must be me. I just don't cotton to any type of regimentation. And everyone seems to have all these rules about what you can talk about and most importantly how you're supposed to talk about what is supposed to be talked about. I can see that there is not a lot of wiggle room. That must be one of attractive a(s)pects of the Internet. You can control what people say. They say something you don't like and you lock them out of the community. All I have to say is that I'm glad you can't do that to strangers you meet on the street. Someone made a comment about my shoes this morning while I was standing in line for my coffee.
I didn't say anything. I should've said something. I should've told him to do something pornographic with his fist. But I can't talk like that to people when they are right in front of me. I'm afraid of what they're going to do. Maybe I should communicate with more clarity."

At the point when you wrote these comments, no one had asked you leave this blog. At the point when I'm writing these words right now, still no one has asked you to leave. To be honest, there's more than a little whiff of outsider martyrdom in your bringing it up before anyone ever thought of suggesting banning you from this comments column. And certainly nobody ever suggested controlling what you say. You may have noticed that, oblique and indirect as they are (or were), your comments have not been deleted. But the most potent point that you make yourself is when you say that "maybe I should communicate with more clarity." Assuming you're not using a persona other than your own when you made this statement, I'd say it's right on the money. If you have something to contribute to the argument, why obscure it with shadowy technique and slippery language? This isn't a literary seminar, it's a forum for the good-humored exchange of thoughts and ideas. If nobody understands your point, then it seems to me you haven't made one. I might only conclude, especially as the comments get more personal, that you're obscuring your intent out of either fear or, to go back to your comment regarding Armond White, engaging in a similar practice to, as you put it, "maintain an intellectual space above the fray, where authority is never questioned."

Whatever your intention, Chris, it was never mine or anyone else's here to suggest that anyone who disagreed with my appreciation of Kael and her talents as a movie critic was to be denigrated or insulted or dismissed. That's just not the way things are conducted around here. I appreciated your original comment, and still do, because it was, I thought, a jumping-off point toward a discussion of differing points of view on a cultural figure who isn't exactly noncontroversial, even 15 or so years after she last wrote a piece of film criticism. But by the time we get to you suggesting people relive certain moments from Last Tango in Paris and cleverly signing off as "Parkay," the veil of obscurity has definitely fallen away. I get your point clearly enough, and this point I don't appreciate.

Any time you feel like dropping by with a comment that is germane to the conversation and stated in such a way that anyone beside yourself can understand what you're getting at, you're more than welcome. But in the future I'd ask you to keep any poetically embroidered insults for your personal journal. Perhaps you can start a blog where you won't have to "cotton to any type of regimentation" but your own.

Chris Okum said...

Well said Dennis.
But I have to make a suggestion.
You're not the first person I've said this to but I hope you're the last.
If you don't want any attention-starved riff-raff coming in and ruining the party you should put a velvet rope around your computer.
But I have to say that your site is really stimulating and thought-provoking.
Keep up the good work.

stooge1970 said...

I doubt you'll be the last, Dennis, unfortunately.
And I thought I was a loser hanging around porn sites all day bugging no one of interest.
Guess not.

Thom McGregor said...

Happy Birthday, Pauline Kael! Celebrate with butter and bile! Hope this is the end of the poisonous weirdness.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

At the risk of invoking the image of Phil Collins' head glowing orange out of the darkness, No Velvet Rope Required, Chris, or necessary. You're welcome here anytime, and, by the way, I don't consider you riffraff.

The only thing I ask, of you and anyone else who elects to participate in the conversation, is that we all stick fairly close to the subject at hand, that we be as clear in our points as possible, and that we don't resort to low blows and mean-spirited one-upsmanship.

Thanks for the kind words about the site too, by the way. I hope you'll keep reading, and I hope I'll keep giving you good reason to do so.

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