The following are comments that were submitted to Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule in response to my original posting of “In Defense of the Perils of Pauline” on February 8, 2008. Some comments that originally appeared under the post have been edited, and some have been excluded entirely in an attempt to keep the focus of the commentary here on Pauline Kael. It was “Jonathan Lapper,” who later revealed himself to be Greg Ferrara, that kicked the conversation off three and a half years ago.
Jonathan Lapper (Greg Ferrara):
You counter many of the things I commented on Jim's post so in some ways I feel you have called me out. As such, since few people will probably read the full comments I am copying some of mine here that I made on Jim's page. Originally I wrote:
"I've always loved Kael but in the same way you love Blofeld or Darth Vader. I found her always interesting to read (she was the only reason I bought the New Yorker - once Rafferty took over I stopped) but I found her logically challenged on many fronts. As with Kwai and This Sporting Life she consistently made a solid point and then backed her point up with the wrong movie. You half expected her to launch into a defense of action/adventure as the purest form of cinema (or movies) and then cite My Dinner with Andre as the grandest example.
Also, people who spend time dissecting semantics or noting loudly and often that they use common words (movies) over elitist words (film - and I wasn't even aware it was elite) seem to me to be the most pretentious of all.
As exemplified by the Pink Panther story Kael had a pattern of tricks she employed as a critic. The first trick was to let you know that she was not one of those elitist snobs who look down their nose on common entertainment. The next trick was to let you know that that very same common entertainment could be quite good and was often better than what those snobby elitists liked. And finally, once she had hooked you in, she'd tell you how great this really elitist snobby movie she liked was. But she'd do her best to make it sound like pulp trash. The ones she liked were never snobby or elite. Only the ones other critics liked."
I also commented about “Raising Kane” which for me personally has always signalled a laziness on her part - she had a conclusion she had reached without evidence and put together a book confirming that conclusion based on hearsay. This exemplifies her ethics as a critic. It is why I (and no one else did so you must be talking about me) brought up Casualties of War. Despite your astonishment that I would see this as anything other than a passionate review I can tell that for me it showed the dishonest side of Kael. She had directors she favored and inflated her praise of their films to elevate their reputation among other critics in the hopes that she would look more insightful - yes, this is absolutely opinion on my part. I am not saying this was a conspiracy on her part, I am saying she was dishonest with herself and if you had put another directors name on the same exact film she would not have had the same reaction.
I further wrote:
"Going back to my comments about Kwai & This Sporting Life earlier, she presents points (films should not be muddled or inexplicable - agreed) and then uses two movies (Kwai & This Sporting Life) that are neither muddled nor inexplicable rendering her own words... well... muddled and inexplicable.
Kwai concerns a British Officer obsessed with building a bridge for the enemy for his own personal glory and an American Pseudo Officer escapee making his way back to blow said bridge up. That's it. It's all character study. So when Kael writes, "information crucial to the plot or characterizations was obscure or omitted altogether?" I don't know what in the hell she's talking about. I have never felt there is anything pertinent to the story of Shears or Nicholson that is left out. She just didn't like the movie and when she didn't like a movie it could never be just that for her. There are well-received movies I don't like but I generally understand why they are praised even if they are not to my taste. But that was not the case with Kael. If she did not like a movie it had to be bad. She had to prove that the reason she didn't like it was because it had been poorly pieced together and ineptly shot even if it wasn't. Not to be too much of a psycho-babble pop psychologist but I think she was extremely insecure in her tastes and opinions."
In the end none of this really matters because it's just opinions on the opinions of someone else. A masturbatory metacritical exercise. I like much of what you had to say and Kael was one of the first critics I read with vigor. But as I stated on Jim's post I became less impressed with her the more I saw, learned about and understood movies. I also became less impressed the more I read of other critics and I admit, a little irritated that someone as exceptional a writer as James Agee is not nearly as known or celebrated as Pauline. As I look back her witty writing style is what sustained her and still does but as far as her opinions and tastes go I would say she doesn't hold up well. Not for me at least. It is possible you know for someone to become successful and revered for something they're not very good at. She was great at writing. But as far as "getting" the movies she was watching, I'll trust a thousand other movie voices out there first.
Now everyone can tell me how wrong I am.
Dennis Cozzalio said...
Jonathan, I didn't call you out by name re Casualties of War because you're not the only person I've heard level those charges against Kael and that particular review, and I certainly didn't want to make it sound like I was trying to gang-up on anyone. If anything, from the tenor of the comments on Jim's site, I'm the one likely to get pummeled here. Even so, my comments were simply a reaction to many things I've heard many times, a way to try to get my own feelings, some of which are mixed, down in print-- my critical faculties do not automatically shut down at the mention of her name!
"She had directors she favored and inflated her praise of their films to elevate their reputation among other critics in the hopes that she would look more insightful - yes, this is absolutely opinion on my part. I am not saying this was a conspiracy on her part, I am saying she was dishonest with herself and if you had put another directors name on the same exact film she would not have had the same reaction."
I'm glad you qualified that first assertion, because it's exactly the kind of claim less honest detractors of Kael have put out there as fact in order to prop up their distaste for what and how she wrote. But I have a very hard time believing the second claim simply because the history of Kael's writing on De Palma, from Hi, Mom! and Sisters forward, explicates exactly what it is she understands and appreciates about De Palma's work. If it's so clear to a scrub like me what is great about Casualties, and why the greatness of that movie is tied precisely to what De Palma brings to it as an artist, then why would Kael not recognize it as such simply because it was mislabeled? Is it because, as you say, she was so completely dishonest? Your point, it seems to me, is unprovable because it's one of those classic "what if" propositions that can never be tested. If it were the exact same film as it exists today, in the real world, then it could only be a De Palma film, and I have a hard time believing Kael was so corrupt that she would turn her back on a movie that so obviously meant a lot to her just because somebody switched out "A Brian De Palma Film" for "Directed by Arthur Hiller."
However, I do agree with you that “Raising Kane,” as entertaining as it is in parts, is probably the low point in her career simply because of how far she has to stretch in order to try to get us as readers to discount Orson Welles' contributions to Citizen Kane. Until I read that essay, though, I had no awareness of Herman J. Mankiewicz, and so therefore a whole new chapter of film history was opened up for me.
Finally, we trust who we trust. That's what I find fascinating about the whole idea of film criticism as an art. And I love your comment here:
"It is possible you know for someone to become successful and revered for something they're not very good at."
This is absolutely true, and no less so because it will be such surprising news to the likes of Mary Hart, Billy Bush, Pat O'Brien and the rest of the EntertainAccessTonightHollywood gang, not to mention a few thousand pampered participants in the American film business!
February 08, 2008 2:18 PM
Jonathan Lapper said...
I am currently constructing a time machine so that I can travel back in time, remove DePalma's name from the credits and prove my point. But until then, you're right of course, it's utterly unprovable and just my feeling. I do like her more than I let on and always enjoy reading her old reviews. I just think she... well I think I've said all I can say at this point.
Quick thought: a person can like a director without being an auterist - they can admire, for example, the way a director handles their actors, or the material they've been given, or the camera... none of which makes one an auterist, at least not in the strong sense.
I think Kael might've admired Peckinpah for his storytelling skills and his direction of actors - no one else (including Billy WIlder) ever made William Holden so compelling (one of the reason she must've disliked Kwai - besides its super-structural approach to story-telling - was Holden's wooden performance at what should have been the heart of the movie (a fun essay could be written on how he sabotaged both the bridge on the Kwai River and The Bridge On The River Kwai).
As for Kael, she's the most readable and engaging film critic to have ever put pen to paper. There may be "better" critics (only Agee comes to mind), but there are none as entertaining.
Jonathan Lapper said...
And thank you toshiyano for this: “a person can like a director without being an auterist.” I completely agree. You can like a director (say William Wellman for instance) for his command of the camera and his skill with actors and editing without that director using similar motifs throughout his films. So at least partially speaking, Kael could like DePalma but still decide that Carrie, Blow Out & Casualties of War had nothing thematically in common. Or you could be an auteurist and find similarities in all three (I don't know what off hand but Travolta and Fox in the latter two certainly have the same helplessness in the face of violence towards women). In other words, you could say like De Palma and claim he's not an auteur or like him and claim he was. Which is one reason, perhaps, Kael disliked the theory so much - too wishy washy.
Dennis Cozzalio said:
TY, JL: Thanks for the good points re what becomes an auteur. I think the wishy-washiness probably was one problem Kael had with the "theory," in that she couldn't see how what she saw as a rigid formalist approach could be applied to creations so dependent on the whimsy of fate or chance or luck in them even getting made at all, let alone to the exacting standards of one man whose artistic vision was determined by the tension between his artistic vision and the restraints put on him by the studio system. To top it off, when she went to examine the theory, she didn't see much of a theory at all, just designations she deemed too arbitrary to take seriously. I do think she was auteurist in some of her leanings, just probably not in a way that Sarris would have approved.
Re Kael and the auteur theory. Kael wasn't against the idea that (some) directors are the sole or principal authors of their films, and she would have had to have been pretty stupid to have been an unwitting auteurist. (The concept of an auteur isn't exactly out of high energy physics.) She obviously believed that many directors were auteurs--read what she says about Bergman for example. Her "anti-auteurism" was a protest against the notion that a recognizable, individual style is in itself aesthetically valuable, that, say, Raoul Walsh's films are great because it's apparent that Walsh made them--his "personality" shines through. But apply the auteur argument to another medium. If you can tell that a book was written by Tom Clancy, does that make the book artistically worthwhile? I should hope not. A look at "Circles and Squares" and Kael's review ofTopaz (in "Deeper into Movies") ought to clarify what her position was vis-a-vis the auteur theory.
Larry Aydlette said...
Kael schmael. I want to scream out like Steve Martin in "The Jerk": "The masthead is here! The masthead is here!" (The masthead that currently adorns this blog made its debut with this post—DC) I was wondering what the hell was taking so long. What really makes it isn't the glove, it's the creases from the old fold-up one-sheets. That's a beautiful touch. And I think it's only right to inaugurate the new masthead while talking about Pauline, who would undoubtedly be spitting bullets at the critical turnaround in Eastwood's fortunes.
Matt Zoller Seitz said...
Great piece, Dennis -- too much to absorb in one sitting and respond to, but I'll check back in later. Suffice to say I'm more or less in your camp. Kael had enormous flaws, but overall she was a positive force for film criticism and film viewing, and a liberating influence who wrote about movies the way people talked about them over drinks. She was to criticism was John Cassavetes was to cinema. People read her, after a lifetime of reading criticism that was either more academic or more polite (sometimes both), and though, "Wow, I didn't know you were allowed to do that."
Interesting Kael article at Senses of Cinema on the extent to which her review of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith affected the film's reputation in Australia.
Dennis Cozzalio said...
dm494: I often think of that Topaz review as one of the things Kael wrote that most clarifies her position on the auteur theory. Hitchcock was a director she admired, but one for whose late output she had little use. Agree or disagree, the Topaz review is a powerful dissection of the auteur theory's, shall we say, more generous tendencies. Thanks for reminding me of it.
Larry: I had not thought of it, but yes, it is kind of delicious that the Kael tribute would coincide with the Eastwood masthead. She was well-aware of Eastwood's newfound critical acceptance, as Unforgiven debuted some eight years or so before her death, but I don't recall ever reading what she made of it. Like you said, though, she probably didn't have a whole lot of love in reserve!
Matt: Thanks for the encouraging words. Yours is a perspective I always appreciate, and I was hoping you'd talk some about your experience reading Kael. Did you ever meet her?
And thanks for that link. The Jimmie Blacksmith article is printed out and ready to go. (By the way, whatever became of Fred Schepisi? His last movie was the ensemble piece with Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings, et al., wasn't it? And I have it on pretty good authority that, despite its reputation, Mr. Baseball is actually worth a look.)
It is always amusing to me the degree to which it is often assumed that those who continue to hold Kael in high regard do so with blinders on. I don't feel it's a contradiction to recognize the flaws you talk about without always being able to recognize how her work still speaks to me, up to 45 years or so after it was written, in a way that few writers on film do. I didn't necessarily articulate it as such, but I definitely had my "Wow, I didn't know you were allowed to do that" moment with her, and if I hadn't I doubt I'd be writing this blog today.
Jonathan Lapper said...
“It is always amusing to me the degree to which it is often assumed that those who continue to hold Kael in high regard do so with blinders on.”
I hope I didn't come off as saying that because it wasn't intended. There is no perfect critic to be sure. I think every dignified film lover knows exactly what problems Ebert has, Rosenbaum has and so on. And certainly one chooses to like or dislike a critic and their writings based entirely on subjective likes and dislikes. I just feel for myself that over the years Kael's flaws became bigger to me than her gifts and so I started to veer away from her.
Some of it also has to do with ebb and flow. I veered away from Ebert for awhile too a few years ago, allowing his devotion to the sentimental (in my opinion of course) to bother me too much. Then after some time I swung back to Ebert realizing that whether he loves sentimental hogwash or not, the man has a love for and a knowledge of film that I find captivating and every fourth or fifth review he writes something stunningly perceptive.
Give me some time and I may just swing back to Kael. For now at least after years of youthful adulation the flaws have taken center stage for me. Unfair I'm sure but it's how I explore my likes and dislikes. Often I find myself obsessing on one aspect over another (in film, literature, music, writing, etc.) and only when I have examined all of the constituent parts separately can I look at them as a whole and solidify my views.
Dennis Cozzalio said...
Jonathan, I actually had in mind some of the pieces I read in the weeks after Kael's death in 2001 which came off nasty and petulant, not only about the critic but also about the supposed phenomenon of the Paulettes, a sycophantic cadre of (male) critics who existed in her shadow and often wrote in such a way that either purposefully or through sheer influence echoed her style rather than one of their own devising.
And I can definitely understand the ebb and flow. I've had my own with Ebert-- the fluctuation really began with the advent of Sneak Previews, and it hasn't really stopped going up and down since. Right now, despite his pick for movie of the year (it was Juno!) , it's on an upswing because I've been enjoying his Great Movies books and, yes, because his own sentimental streak kind of lines up with how I've been feeling about him myself over the last couple of years. Thumbs-up populist or not, the man is a walking encyclopedia of film and there's no downside to his accessibility as a writer when you consider that. Sure, there are plenty of occasions to disagree with his opinions and even his writing, but he's really done wonders by carving a popular niche for himself while continuing to honor serious film scholarship and attitudes.
Ed Hardy, Jr. said...
I think I missed the boat on Kael because as a teenager her work seemed too much from a different time and therefore obscure. By the time I came back to her work I had absorbed so much Film Comment and film theory that I felt I had moved beyond the need for her work. Besides which, the insistence on a binary opposition between art and entertainment simply don't apply to the postmodern world--one which was birthing itself into existence right in front of Kael's eyes.
I agree with what both you and Jonathan say about Ebert, and he was a critic I felt I could trust when I was younger and hadn't yet amassed enough knowledge of my own. If he said something was a classic, I knew that I needed to see it, no matter if I was going to love it or not.
Mon-sewer Paul Regret (Stephen Rubio) said...
The tagline for my blog, since I began it six years ago, is a Pauline Kael quote: "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." I suspect this quote offers up explanations both for why people like myself find her work so attractive, and why people less infatuated with her are so frustrated with her legacy.
Perhaps she is the Lester Bangs of film criticism (although I guess it's more appropriate to say Lester was the Pauline Kael of rock criticism). There is no use trying to replicate what she accomplished, because it was so idiosyncratic in its insistence on "I'm writing my memoirs as I construct this movie review." In lesser hands, this approach could be just as dreadful as the writings of Lester Bangs clones who had love for his influence but no talent for writing.
If I had to choose her primary influence on the rest of us, I'd say it was the way she put everything in a larger context, social, literary, artistic, personal. It's not for nothing that someone like Greil Marcus drew a direct line from the work of someone like Leslie Fiedler to Kael to himself, as he wrote his first major text placing Elvis and Melville in the same American world, and went on to a career attempting to tie seemingly disparate elements together.
If I had to pick the most infuriating thing about her to those who aren't her biggest fans, I'd guess it was the way she personalized her writing.
She remains, for my money, a great writer. I don't re-read her just to find out what she thought about The Killer Elite. I re-read her as if I were reading the autobiography of a talented writer who wrote about movies, lived a long life, and brought a lot to the table. I can certainly see why she appears less useful as time goes by, if she is thought of solely as a film critic. But she's not just a film critic to me.
John McElwee said...
Hey Dennis --- Did Kael ever write about her years running that revival house in California back in the early fifties? That was early indeed to be operating such a venue and I'd love to read about some of her experiences booking prints, audience reaction, availability of titles at that time, etc. I'd assume that this was where her enthusiasm for film developed. I'd hate to think she left no record of the time she spent as a repertory programmer.
Dennis Cozzalio said...
I don't know for sure, John, but I will check around and see what I can find out. I'm currently in the midst of Theodore Rosziak's Flicker, a terrific novel, and one of the main characters (so far) is a woman named Clare with whom the narrator has a affair-- Clare is very clearly based on Kael in her repertory days. It's not a document, of course, but it's fascinating nonetheless. I'll keep in touch and let you know if I find anything out.
As for where her enthusiasms came from, I'm pretty sure I recall her mentioning in her early books times her parents took her to the movies in the '30s a lot.
Campaspe (Farran Smith Nehme) said...
God, I have loved this whole exchange, gobbled it up at Scanners and here. The posts, the comments, Jonathan's spirited contributions, the whole debate. Am I being horribly presumptuous in thinking Kael would have appreciated it too?
"She was inconsistent, and maddening because of it. But I can’t find my way toward distrust of her writing or her thinking because of that. She was too provocative a contributor to my own experience and development as a critical thinker (one that is still well in progress, I might add), even though she would have hated to be thought of as a teacher." Just repeating that, because it describes my own feelings so perfectly.
I don't have a contribution to make, I'm afraid, but I just wanted to thank you guys for the mental workout.
Dennis Cozzalio said...
I could be having the roughest, most tiring day, but whenever I hear from you, Campaspe, it cheers me right up! (After a long day yesterday, I went comatose in front of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia last night, so it's no wonder I feel a bit off this morning!)
The ongoing debate about Kael can be, for me, a kind of head-spinning affair because it feels like I have so much of how I feel about and approach movies rooted in my discovery of her writing. I often have to check myself that I don't come off too defensive or otherwise unconcerned with the ways in which she may not "measure up" to other critics and avenues of criticism, because the ways in which she does succeed continue to get me high on movies and writing, even when I think her opinions are off-base. I'm glad that it's been so much fun for you to read all this!
Jonathan Lapper said:
One last thing about Kael before your next post goes up and relegates this one to the ages. I've been re-reading her reviews since all this started and read a quite impressive one last night. It was her review of Roger and Me. If one were to read this review blindly, that is, not knowing who wrote it and when, one would think it was written in the last couple of years as a retro review. Why? Because she so absolutely and completely nails Michael Moore and his brand of documentary filmmaking for what it is right out of the starting gate that it sounds like all the same criticisms it took everyone else years to figure out: The shifting around of timelines, the fudging of facts, the exploitation of "oddball" subjects, and on and on. It was an amazing experience reading it. I don't know why I chose to read that one but I'm glad I did. It was damned insightful and downright prescient. For whatever else I have said about her I will say this: That movie didn't have her fooled for a second.
Ed Hardy, Jr. said...
Jonathan: According to John Pierson's Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, at least the mixed-up timeline issue was definitely on the minds of many critics. He illustrates the ubiquity of that particular point with a quote from a review of Pulp Fiction five years later which opens "Not since Michael Moore was caught playing fast and loose with the timeline of Roger & Me has critical attention been so sharply attentive..."
As for Pauline's identification of Moore's other annoying habits: kudos for Kael!
And to Steven Rubio: Your comment is a beautiful tribute to Kael's legacy and, to me, sort of a last word on the subject.