Friday, February 08, 2008


A few days ago, Jim Emerson offered a post that once again considered, depending on your point of view, either the estimable influence or the declining reputation of Pauline Kael. The Scanners post came in response to the near-44-year anniversary of the publication of her essay, “Are Movies Going to Pieces?”, and by posting it Jim was opening up discussion not only to the continued relevance, or lack thereof, of Kael’s criticism, but also to questions we, as thoughtful moviegoers, are still asking today.

Jim’s post came during one of the busiest weeks of my life (don’t worry, I’ll spare you), yet while I was reading it on the fly I couldn’t help but feel it was there, in a cosmic sense, just for me and that I somehow had to make time to offer up a humble nugget of comment to contribute to the typically thoughtful conversation about it there. So I sat down this past Wednesday night, in the afterglow of Nathaniel R’s Oscar Symposium, and started typing out a few thoughts. Four hours and 3,400 words later, I had a response that I could not possibly send in to Jim’s blog and expect him to publish. So I sent it to him as an e-mail instead because I wanted him to know how much I appreciated his generating the discussion, even as I knew I couldn’t ask him to allow me to trample the brevity and cogency of his comments column so far with my logorrhea, however passionate.

Yet here I was now with this long, rambling essay on What Pauline Kael Means to Me and nowhere to put it. But wait! Oh, yeah! I have my own blog! Why, I could publish it there and could suffer the inevitable slings and arrows without having to mess up Jim’s house! So I have decided to share it with you here. My advice, however, would be to go to Scanners and read Jim’s post, also entitled ”Are Movies Going to Pieces?,” particularly the comments that follow, before reading my own thoughts below. I have not made much of an effort to disguise the fact that my own post started out as a comment/letter to Jim, so therefore it may read as slightly odd or incomplete without that background. There are also references to at least one Scanners commenter by name, as well as several other comments made on Jim’s site, that I refer to assuming that if you’ve made it this far into my own meandering thoughts, then you will of course know to whom and what I am referring and keep on chooglin’. I apologize that I cannot seem to, as Jim’s other readers obviously can, keep my verbosity under control. I’m not sure how I thought I could, given the subject. Someday, perhaps, this will be a skill I will learn. But for now consider the following my own summation of some of the feelings that a 30-odd-year relationship with the writing of Pauline Kael has inspired in me. Then rip, shred, rinse and repeat as necessary.

Oh, and while we’re talking about Jim Emerson (and aren’t we always, at least around here?), go see the post below Pauline, “I’m F***ing Matt Damon’: A Critical Analysis.”. If you do, not only will you be treated (if you haven’t already) to one of the year’s funniest shorts, courtesy of Sarah Silverman, but you’ll also be privy to another of Jim’s sly and intelligent considerations of why comedy is worth taking seriously.

Okay, you’ve had time to read Jim’s piece. Now, without further ado, the perils of Pauline…



Pauline Kael’s criticism most certainly served a different function in the Internet-less world where she once reigned as the most influential film critic in America. She lived and wrote in a world where terms like “roadshow engagement” and “word of mouth” and “platform release” had meaning, where the fate of a film didn’t rest on an opening weekend where it was booked into 3,400 theaters. She had a reason to suspect that she could reach an audience outside the New York intelligentsia by pulling a kind of bait-and-switch on the expectations of both readers inclined to go for mass audience movies and those who wouldn’t be caught dead lining up for anything that didn’t have the imprimatur of art, or at least high-minded intentions. She didn’t worry about whether or not she was consistent in the kinds of movies she praised or disparaged—the luxury of one who operates without a theory to be constantly monitored and more than occasionally violated.

This is both a source of joy in reading Kael, for me, in that I often felt I was getting an uncut reaction, one which often forced me to “re-view” my own reactions through the prism of her intimidating, invigorating point of view, and a source of frustration because I think on some level I wanted to be able to predict where on the spectrum her opinion of a certain movie or film talent would land. I became aware of Pauline Kael as early as 1972 or 1973 or so when I saw her on the old Mike Douglas Show, a syndicated afternoon panel talk show. I wish I could remember who it really was that sat on the panel with her—I’d like to think it could have been a group like Robert Goulet, Shirley Chisholm and Tootie Fields, and it very well could have been. I remained aware of her when big, important movies like Last Tango in Paris and Nashville and many others came out, because it was not unusual to see her name foremost in a splashy blurb in the movie’s advertisement. (I’ll never forget my surprise when her name was stretched out over a long quote trumpeting the virtues of The Way We Were.) And when she panned a movie like The Exorcist, I knew about it because I was reading everything I could get my hands on about the picture and her reaction was inevitably mentioned.

But I never read Kael until I picked up a copy of Reeling when I was 17 years old. I am one of those people to whom Jim referred who was encouraged to articulate their passion about movies and pass it along by my initial, and then repeated, exposure to Kael’s writing. The funny thing about my relationship with her (and I do feel comfortable referring to my reading of her in those terms) is that, as cowed as I could be by her insistence on the kind of false dichotomy that would seem to force a choice between “Art” over “entertainment,” as if there were no possibility for the two to coexist in the same work, the spirited quality of Kael’s writing (some would term it arrogance) encouraged me to more often than not argue with her as I was reading, thus developing my own critical muscles. In this way, she became and remains my favorite critic because I knew in encountering one of her pieces that I could just as easily be swayed as roll my eyes in disbelief, but her writing, which facilitated her very specific voice, the kind of voice (female) that was willing to stand by, accurate or misguided, her claims and her tastes, was fresh and, to use one of her favorite words, liberating. There was something about the way she wrote that was convincing, even if you could still go out and see something she panned and love it for your own reasons. But I never felt, even when she was at her most annoying, that she ever stooped to disparaging actors over their physical attributes, a la John Simon, or adopted anything close to the “my criticism, right or right” stance of someone like Armond White.

As for her famous one-viewing-only policy, Kael certainly never claimed that anyone who did watch a movie more than once was somehow misguided for doing so. It’s always struck me as a personal affectation rather than policy. And I certainly agree with Scanners reader John Porath in admitting that there have been several movies I’ve disliked on first viewing, felt compelled to see again (and again), eventually discovering a different film that I’ve come to love, undoubtedly accountable to the accumulation of my own experience as much or more than a wearing down of resistance to the tactics of the director. This is an experience that would have held little value for Kael, as she claimed to know how she felt about a movie immediately upon viewing it. This aspect of her methods is one I’ve always found troublesome—there’s an implication there of a movie’s having a kind of canned artistic life which could be wholly absorbed on one viewing, which seems in direct contrast to the expansive quality inherent in really seeing movies. A case could be made that each time you see a movie it has the potential to offer up something new, a phenomena based largely on the fact that, given the passage of time, no person is ever the same person when she encounters a movie a second or third or fourth time. If we are different people, then we will bring new perspectives to a film, or any piece of art/entertainment, through which we will experience that art/entertainment. If this is true, then no movie, not even The Pink Panther, is sealed in amber, or exposed and finished celluloid.

And certainly think John is also right in that there is value in a film being held up as a classic, an example of importance in film history that should be seen. In 1964, when this Atlantic piece was written, I suspect film academia was still trying to figure itself out. There were not even 30 years between the publishing of the Kael article and 1939, what many consider Hollywood’s greatest year, and certainly many of the movies that now do carry a kind of critical stamp of approval, films like L’ Avenntura or Last Year at Marienbad, were still relatively new on the scene. Yet given the passage of 44 years or so and all the critical knowledge that has amassed about film history and culture, I’m damned glad when someone I trust insists that I must see something, and I can rest in some assurance that the viewing of a film generally heralded as a classic or a milestone that I have not yet seen probably has a great deal of merit. Then if my experience is somewhat less than overwhelming, I don’t have a problem giving the film the benefit of the doubt and trying again later. I think that’s the essence of true cinematic scholarship, that kind of openness that can coexist with one’s own critical faculties. It’s possible that I’ll never “get” , but that won’t keep me from giving it another shot. Kael would have probably dismissed this idea out of hand. But it’s partially my engagement with her and her tendency to argue against this kind of approach to film that has given me the confidence in my own assertion that this approach is right for me. She probably wouldn’t see it as being open to new experiences from the same film but instead, since a film can only yield what it has to offer on the first try, as a kind of mummification of one’s own responses. In fact, on the occasion of the current re-release of Last Year at Marienbad, I am initiating a kind of campaign to revisit many of the films I disliked or felt indifferent to when I first saw them as a college punk. Those films would include, yes, , and also Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Guerre est Finie, Herzog’s Nosferatu, Alice’s Restaurant, Antonio Das Mortes, Red Desert and many, many others. It’s going to be interesting to me to gauge the way I look at them now with the benefit of adult eyes.

And despite how Andrew Sarris may have couched his introduction to the auteur theory as being already on its way out, the fact is, it was a theory of major importance to the way a lot of critics and film enthusiasts gauged their own willingness to look at movies that were often below even the kitsch radar of Pauline Kael. And if the word “theory” implies some sort of rigorous application of a template of looking at art, then, mean-spirited or not (and what critic has not at one time or another been accused of being mean-spirited?), Kael’s infamous “Circles and Squares” decimation of Sarris’s writing served a serious function, certainly for me as a film student being instructed in a film school where the auteurist approach was not encouraged but insisted upon by the staff of professors who formed the curriculum. We were not allowed to seriously challenge the tenets of the auteur theory, as it existed in 1980 anyway, openly in class, and attempts to do so in papers were to be considered off-topic. So I fully delighted in Kael’s irreverence for Sarris’s pantheon and subsets of directors of varying artistic worth, even as I delighted also in discovering the great value and substance hiding in plain sight within classic Hollywood A- and B-movie fare in class and on my own moviegoing adventures in local revival houses. In other words, Kael’s tactics were never an end-all for me, any more than Sarris’ proclamations were.

And speaking of delight, it was with delight that it slowly dawned on me just how much of an auteurist Pauline Kael really was. Ever contrarian to Sarris, she just insisted on a different pantheon, and the directors she admired were almost always the ones that were shaking up what the ones in Sarris’s academic appreciation had established and excelled at. Kael would delight in De Palma, and while she didn’t indiscriminately love Hitchcock, she liked him enough to use him as a measuring stick to evaluate films like Carrie and The Fury. Of course she wasn’t afraid to use her influence to try to get people to go out and see something like Casualties of War, and yet somehow that particular review is often held up (as it has been in Jim’s comments section) as evidence of her speciousness as a critic. I don’t understand when I hear people get their hackles up about how she responded to this film in her review, as if the whole thing were calculated to bludgeon other critics into getting in line with her view of the movie. Well, we certainly know that if that was her intention it did not work, nor did it necessarily encourage anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to endure the nightmare De Palma had in store for them to do so. So if this is true, are we to call Kael’s review nothing but bluster? I remain confused as to how one can look at her words on Casualties of War and not see them as a highly passionate, at times personal response to a movie that clearly moved her in a way that, by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, had become increasingly infrequent. No critic would shrink from the opportunity to try to express to others what such a movie would have meant to them. Yet, puzzlingly, Kael’s turn here is looked upon as a browbeating directed at other critics, a late attempt to wield her still considerable powers of influence. Personally, I look on that review as one of the major highlights of her career, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that I concur with her that it is perhaps De Palma’s greatest film. (Does saying that make me an insufferable Paulette? It is in the eye of the beholder…)

She also loved early Walter Hill; she highly valued John Boorman (Kael is the only major critic who ever admitted in print there were things to admire about Exorcist II: The Heretic); of course she was instrumental in the appreciation of Robert Altman, even as she recognized his inconsistencies, beginning with Brewster McCloud; and she constantly promoted Godard, until she began to become impatient with the process of what she envisioned as the director eating his own tail, stylistically speaking; and of course she loved Peckinpah. There were times, it seemed, that Kael’s appreciation for “Bloody Sam” was based more on her own tempestuous personal relationship with the director, which could be sussed out of pieces like her long, circuitous, anecdotal review of The Killer Elite. This essay, a recommendation of a late-mid-period Peckinpah sow’s ear, reads the movie as a personal tale of Peckinpah’s own self-disgust and refusal to knuckle under to the studio bosses and corporate bigwigs who wanted to cram him into an unwieldy mold and slice away at his talent and dignity. To read that review is to realize that no one else could have that particular perspective on The Killer Elite because none of us knew Peckinpah like that. (Note the ad copy on the one-sheet: "Long career doubtful.") Yet this kind of familiarity has been adopted through osmosis by a lot of reviewers who now look at Peckinpah’s work almost exclusively through this prism of presumed knowledge of the director’s demons. Kael’s personalized criticism, as well as powerful works of biography and criticism by the likes of David Weddle and Paul Seydor, have all contributed to this intimacy between the audience and a director who never courted such closeness.

This leads me back to Tarantino’s comment about subtextual film criticism not having much at all to do with the filmmaker’s intentions. Pauline Kael rarely wrote with subtext in mind. Her feelings and fears and enthusiasms were right there on the surface, and no less rich for their accessibility. But I think she did a lot to expose the truth of what Tarantino is asserting here, that directors, writers and actors who often work awfully close to the surface may still have subterranean levels of achievement or purpose or commentary that they themselves may be least qualified to articulate. It’s what’s behind her disdain for Antonioni’s pontificating at the Cannes film festival; it’s what behind the high percentage of uselessness of proliferating DVD commentaries in which we get to hear every dull anecdote, redundant explication of plot development and any other inanity that strikes the director of the latest Jennifer Aniston rom-com to blurt out breathlessly; and it is what’s behind a director like Eli Roth, who tailors his films’ subtexts as afterthoughts to be bleated out in defensive bursts on Larry King. (You said it best, Jim, when Hostel Part II was the talk of the blogosphere last summer: next time, Eli, let your movie do the talking for you.)

And it’s what’s behind Kael’s often autobiographical approach to film criticism—in many ways, she is the template for the kind of film criticism that has become more familiar on the Web, for better and for worse, which attempts to weave personal experience and taste into a cogent way of arguing for a position on a film. (Her review of Frederick Wiseman’s High School, reprinted from a KPFA radio program, I believe, in one of the early books, is one of the prime examples I think of when I think of Kael’s personalized slant, and of course there is her famous consideration of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine, which she reviewed through the prism of having just broken up with a lover.)

Jim, I don’t know if I’ve managed to articulate anything here that gets at anything specific about the way Kael argues, or anything really specific about the points she makes in that Atlantic piece or any of her other writing. It is true that she would often bait the reader with a rather high-minded assessment of something she appreciated that she would still classify as a bauble or a trifle. Is she denigrating an entire class of American film by calling Charade the best American film of 1963? Or is she saying that the vitality of movies like Charade, trashy as they may be, are more valuable, at least to her, and perhaps to film culture, than the obsessive high-mindedness of some of the accepted artifacts of “Art” that she routinely dismissed as others piled on the praise? In reading Kael I always tended toward an interpretation that skewed toward an appreciation of the fact that she was open to the glories of Hollywood films like His Girl Friday or To Have and Have Not, and perhaps her reluctance to confer greatness upon them was that to do so might align her too closely with the auteurist film buffs she so regularly disparaged.

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. She reveled in her influence, of course, but if I am to believe someone like David Edelstein, as much as she enjoyed being admired she did not court, nor did she much tolerate sycophancy. (Am I being incongruous right now in that the image that just popped into my head is one of Graham Chapman’s ugly American film producer heading up a boardroom full of terrified yes-men who can never cough up the right answer, which is, of course, splunge ?) I have made peace with the fact that I could not possibly ever approve of every opinion she offered, or observation she made, insistence she insisted upon or deficit she assigned in her 30-some years of writing. Instead I’ve found in her, over the years, a critical voice I can argue with, be amazed by, dismiss or find completely convincing, as well as one who always kept her arguments for her own conception of anti-intellectualism sharp and open to challenge, sometimes from herself.

(I do tend to think, as one of your readers suggested, that anti-intellectualism is its own form of intellectualism, insofar as it is defined not by a resistance to independent thinking, which is how someone in this anti-intellectual political climate like A—C------ might employ the phrase, but by an examination of the ways in which thinking can become rigid and sap the possibilities of experience within art. This is more anti-academia than anti-intellectualism, I think, as Kael clearly valued the use of her brain.)

Inclusive of all her maddening traits, I value the insights I’ve gleaned from reading Pauline Kael over the past 31 years more than any other film critic I’ve ever encountered. Many others have adopted her voice as film critics, with diminishing results. Yet it is encouraging to have become familiar with so many writers on the Internet over the past four years, yourself most prominently, with whom I am becoming similarly comfortable, both in reading and in engaging in discussion—the advantage here is that when I argue with these new writers, they argue back! (It’s not just that insistent voice in my head imitating Kael’s frail chirpy delivery anymore!) Myself, I have tried to understand what she does and how it can not be imitated but instead used to feed the impulses of creative expression that I believe define film criticism as its own art form. Such a definition, of course, requires exposure to many other voices besides one as forceful as Kael’s, and I’ve enjoyed the process of getting to know and evaluate them too, even if I never held any of them quite so dear. For me Kael set the bar. I believe she is a great critic, not just a good one. Maybe she wouldn’t have survived as well in an online world where her every argument would be subject to round upon round of contrary opinion. But I believe she would have written what she felt just the same, and for those of us willing to search it out, in much the same way we can search out voices worth listening to amongst the competing din of a thousand Harry Knowleses, it would have resonated with similar fervor and excitement.




Greg said...


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.

Greg said...

Oh and by the way, I anxiously await the comments of Anonymous, Keeper of the Flame for the Kael Estate's Copyrights.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hey, Jonathan! I was really thinking that Anonymous would come gyrating out of the box like the Tasmanian Devil after this one. But it'll make her/him feel much better to know that I remain blindly devoted!

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, dwn 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 someboy 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 Herbert Manciewicz, 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!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

See? Even now my awareness is not what it should be. I, of course, meant Herman Manciewicz.

Greg 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.

Oh yeah, and the second thing I'm doing with my time machine is investing in Microsoft and Google on their I.P.O's. Definitely.

Anonymous said...

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.

Anonymous said...

Dennis, keep working on that awareness: it's Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Greg said...

Or just call him "Mank." That's what Welles did.

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...

Griff: And I knew about the J. too! I cop to consonant/middle initial laziness!

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.

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Excellent new banner!

Anonymous said...

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 of "Topaz" (in "Deeper into Movies") ought to clarify what her position was vis-a-vis the auteur theory.

Greg said...

Hmmm... something about your site looks different but I can't figure out what. Did you change the comment section perhaps?

Great new look Dennis and Kimberly. Just one thing though - the links on the side are outdated. You've got "Bad for the Glass," "No More Marriages" (both now defunct) and (gasp!) no Cinema Styles, a blog run by this super cool totally awesome guy named Jonathan Lapper. Really! I even helped out a bit with some html code for this new look. Harumph!

But this aside, may I just say Kimberly did an excellent job. It looks great!

Greg said...

Oh and one more thing: I love the baseball glove on Eastwood's hand - that's a great touch.

The Mysterious Ad[ B)e;ta]m.a.x. said...

The new site design rocks, but me saying so is probably a useless comment.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I don't want to distract too much away from Dennis' post on Kael (I may not like her myself, but I do respect her and what Dennis wrote about her!) but I'm still working on helping Dennis organize the links and I hope to have them finished up soon.

The new blog design was really a team effort between Dennis, myself, Jonathan and an unknown friend of Dennis. I'm sure he'll have more to say about this himself, but in the meantime...

Onward with the Kael chatter!

WelcometoLA said...

Kael schmael. I want to scream out like Steve Martin in "The Jerk": "The masthead is here! The masthead is here!" 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.

Anonymous said...

LOVE THE NEW LOOK! The poster-folds in the logo are an inspired touch.

And I don't know if you saw it, but after I checked with you I actually did publish a Very Short Version in the comments on Scanners.

Congrats on the redesign!

Anonymous said...

Aaaah!! Change!! Difference!! My world is upside down!!

Matt Zoller Seitz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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.

Jonathan: Your powers of observation have not failed you! CInema Styles was definitely in there, and I'm pretty sure I had replaced Bad for the Glass with Welcome to L.A. too. But as Kimberly said, you may have caught it when she was making the upgrades. At any rate, I fooled around a bit tonight and figured out how to update the new template, so the blogroll should be okay now, barring any further futzing on my part.

Though I intend to do so more formally in a day or so, I would like to say thank you to you and especially Kimberly for doing all the work to help this poor computer illiterate adopt this great new design after three and a half years of the same look. The design is all Kimberly, folks, from the baseball glove on the Man With No Name's hand to the Dollars-izing of the logo and all the new template details. She handled the switch-over to the new look too. Jonathan helped with some work on the sidebars, and my friend and graphic design whiz Peet Gelderblom is the one who brilliantly crumpled, yellowed and otherwise posterized that logo header. Like I said, more front-page acknolwdgements in a day or two, but for now, my deep appreciation. I literally did nothing to create this-- Kimberly, Peet and Jonathan get all the credit for a job superbly done.

Larry: Again, please bow in the general direction of the Netherlands where Peet does his fine work. I absolutely agree that the posterizing is a magnificent touch. And 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!

Jim: I did indeed see the excerpted paragraphs! :) Thanks so much for indulging me. And thanks for the advice on the design too.

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.

Anonymous said...

Dennis, Schepisi's last film was actually the made-for-HBO Richard Russo adaptation EMPIRE FALLS (2005), and between that and LAST ORDERS he was hired to direct the ghastly Douglas project IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY, which probably would have been a lot worse with someone else helming the camera. I think Schepisi is yet another Hollywood director having a very hard time getting his projects financed: he has his own website where you can check out how many films he has planned. Whether any of them get made is a different story.

And speaking of CHANT, I'm wondering if Criterion wouldn't mind making that film available on a nice DVD. (And how about DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND while they're at it.) It's the least that could be done for such a badly neglected filmmaker.

Greg 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 apsect 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'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.

Eddie Hardy 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 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.

girish said...

Dennis and Kimberly -- Lots of fun reading here in this post, and I'm lovin' the new design!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Girish! It is always good to hear from you! And I can't emphasize too much just how much I appreciate Kimberly's influence and work on this page. She's delightful, and she did a great job!

The Siren 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.

The Siren said...

oh, and the banner is priceless. I am so glad you didn't change the name of the blog.

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!

And I agree too, I'm so glad I didn't change the name! I've been going over that whole episode in my head the last couple of days. Thank heaven for cooler heads and some wonderful comments from readers whose advice I was wise enough to heed. And thank heaven for talented people like Kimberly and Jonathan and Peet who really have brightened up the joint!

Greg said...

I had no idea you were thinking of changing the name. That's insane. Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule is one of the most recognizable (and best) film blog names out there. Christ, look at the name I chose - Yaaawwwwwnnnnnn. It's a snoozer but even I wouldn't change it at this point because that's the name that's known and something something, if it ain't broke, something.

Anyway, I just wanted to stop in to say 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.

Eddie Hardy said...


According to John Pierson's SPIKE, MIKE, SLACKERS & 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!

Eddie Hardy said...

to Steven Rubio:

Your comment is a beautiful tribute to Kael's legacy and, to me, sort of a last word on the subject.