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Pauline Kael

Photo by Deborah Feingold

Pauline Kael died last week at the age of 82. Her readers have always tried to figure her out, film critics in particular, and they’re still trying. As so frequently happened when she was alive, most of us have been trying to figure her out in relation to our own lives and work, to position ourselves next to or apart from her. It couldn’t be any other way, really. Kael wasn’t just the most important film critic in America, she was one of the most personal. You were always reading a human being, not a byline or an ideology, which is what made her work so distinct and sometimes maddening. Her tsunamis of words and rhetoric were forcefully intimate, at times bullying, and she never stopped taking prisoners, not once. The key to her persuasiveness was her voice — a self-revealing writing voice that continuously and effortlessly slid between two registers of the first person as if they were the same. With Kael, they were. In one sentence she would write “I think,” and in the next inject an insistent, devouring “we,” sweeping her readers up with her. After a while, the I and the we were inseparable, a flourish that both reinforced her authority, in the way of a father, and bound readers close, in the way of a mother.

Kael didn’t just want us to see what she saw, to feel what she felt — she demanded it. It’s no wonder so many people disliked, even hated her. It’s one thing when a critic suggests that perhaps you’d like this or that movie for this or that reason, but it’s another thing entirely when a critic essentially damns you as a fool — or, more incriminatingly, as “educated” or “pretentious” — if you don’t. It’s worse still when that critic is a woman. Kael wasn’t just the most important film critic in this country, she was also a woman, a great and obvious fact that both she and many of those who’ve written about her have tended to ignore. (That, and the fact that she was Jewish.) Though not always. In 1963, in a broadcast on KPFA, the Berkeley radio station where she was reviewing, Kael launched a humorously caustic rejoinder to one of her many detractors, a woman listener who’d assumed the critic wasn’t married, because “One loses that nasty, sharp bite in one’s voice when one learns to care about others.” Kael ventured that “Mrs. John Doe and her sisters,” having cleaved to a bad strain of pop Freudianism, seemed to believe “that intelligence, like a penis, is a male attribute. The true woman is supposed to be sweet and passive — she shouldn’t argue or emphasize an opinion or get excited by a judgment.”

Kael, as her listeners and readers would learn, was born to argue and defend opinions; to the end of her life, she was excited by judgments, right ones and wrong. But this early defense of her gender, her identity as a female critic, was unusual. Kael didn’t hide behind an anonymous first initial, as many women of letters once did, but neither did she factor her sex into the equation, I suspect, because being a woman critic was a challenge and sometimes an affront to the world. (It still is, to gauge by the invective that has seeped into recent remembrances, including some obituaries.) My guess is that Kael also wanted to be read, loved and loathed not as a woman critic but as a critic, precisely because she was toughing it out in a man’s world. The majority of the filmmakers she wrote about were men, as were the film critics against whom she railed. All the more ironic, then, that most of her acolytes, who, often uneasily, bear the diminutive sobriquet “Paulette,” were men.

I met Kael once and thanked her for her writing. I didn’t thank her for being a gutsy woman writer, but I wish I had. Somewhat abashed by the experience, I didn’t tell many people that I’d met her, because I didn’t want to trade on her name, to insinuate myself into the legacy. I also didn’t want to be labeled a Paulette, in part because it was such a lousy fit; if we’d been writing at the same time, I doubt very much we would have clicked, temperamentally or aesthetically. Then there was the reality that the world of film critics is so small and clannish that admitting to visiting with Kael was tantamount to running up her colors. I didn’t need the grief.

I’d come to Kael late, in my early 30s, well after I’d started writing about movies for pay. The New Yorker had been too middlebrow for my bohemian parents, who didn’t need Kael’s permission to love movies. They were avid filmgoers and took me to everything, regardless of theme or subtitles. By the time I was in second grade, my two favorite films were Jules and Jim and Orpheus. That’s hard enough to live down, but it got worse, and by the time I finally backed into film reviewing it was through academia, where I was under the spell of theorists such as Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey. I didn’t know Pauline Kael from Manny Farber, and what’s more, I didn’t care.

Once I found Kael, I was enthralled — though I was alternately amused and appalled by a taste in movies that seemed not only alien but capricious, and analytic reasoning that was often convoluted and numbingly redundant. It didn’t matter. I rarely agreed with Kael, but I almost always found her work exciting, invigorating. Her support of Altman at his most fraudulent, De Palma at his most sadistic, didn’t matter next to words that were as perfect and piercing as diamond tips. (Usually — there’s a reason she never anthologized her disgraceful review of Shoah, in which she complained about “whiny” Jews rather than simply admitting that the film had worn her out.) I started reading Kael shortly after I became a full-time critic, and was trying to figure out how to write reviews that didn’t lean on plot, that said something about the world and — this was crucial — didn’t bore me, much less my readers. More than once, stuck midreview, when I couldn’t figure out how to get from here to there, I would take out one of Kael’s collections, lie on the floor and start reading wherever the book fell open. Somehow reading her calmed me down, got me through my hopelessness as a writer. She didn’t just make writing about the movies and the world seem possible, she made writing itself seem possible.

Kael became a talisman for me, something to hold onto. It mattered that she was a woman. Born in 1919, she was a late bloomer by male standards, but she was also a pioneer, a woman intellectual and California original, like M.F.K. Fisher or Joan Didion. Kael was 34 when she first began reviewing; she was in her mid-40s when, in 1965, she published her first volume of essays, I Lost It at the Movies. (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had been published two years earlier.) Part of Kael’s radicalism was that she took on tough topics and tough directors, including those steeped in a clubby, often violent masculinity that shuts women out, and from which many women gladly recoil. She wrestled them — and other lesser opponents — to the ground like a barroom brawler, and while her posturing could sometimes seem like macho braggadocio, it was clear from the start that she was the equal to any film or filmmaker. She drew from literature, art, opera without blinking, duked it out with Norman Mailer and wrote about Brando not simply as an actor, but as an icon of male sexuality. She’d probably hate this, but often when I think of Kael, I think of Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and the scene in which Dorothy Parker, dead drunk, has just typed, “I wish I could write like a man.” I don’t like the line, but I understand it. I never wanted to be Kael; I just wanted her guts, and some of her words.


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