FIERCE COMPANY: Review of PAULINE KAEL: A LIFE IN THE DARK

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark examines the personal life and career of Kael, who established herself, largely through her writing at The New Yorker, as the preeminent voice of 20th Century movie criticism. The book is well-written, well-researched, and Kellow does a good job of staying out of the way. What comes through is Kael’s voice. Whenever it’s quoted, it takes over the page. (Kael on The Way We Were “’…a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes which comes snugly into port.’”) Kael’s voice—needling, wisecracking, imploring, full of opinions and sharp little asides to take the gas out of an opposing view—was how she made a name for herself. It’s why this biography has been written. Kael challenged herself and she challenged a movie audience—any audience she was talking to, really—to respond to what they were seeing. On a radio broadcast on KPFA in 1962, she asked listeners, “Do you really want to be endlessly confirmed in the opinions you already hold? Don’t you ever want to hear a good case made for other points of view, so that you can test and sharpen your own theories?”

Kael was the daughter of California chicken ranchers. She was extremely intelligent, but she wasn’t a snob. She rejected what she saw as the East Coast intelligentsia (as in a letter sent to a friend in 1940, “’…[New York] is cluttered up with “promising” young poets who are now thirty-five or forty writing just as they did fifteen years ago or much worse”) although she lived and worked there for many years. She championed things that she responded to directly—with gusto. A turning point in her career was her review of Bonnie and Clyde. What was revolutionary, she felt, was that “ ’Audiences…are not given a simple, secure basis for identification…they are made to feel but are not told how to feel.’” Kael wrote with the kind of authority that comes from a single-mindedness of vision and purpose. As screenwriter James Toback observed, ‘”She thought…I just happen to be writing interestingly about a popular art. And you don’t have to know what [esteemed critic] John Simon knows to be the best at it.’”

The other thing that comes through in this book is Kael’s ahead-of-her-time thinking. She detected the shifts in the culture that the movies reflected, or sometimes anticipated.  She wasn’t crazy about Stanley Kubrick’s movies, for example, but what disturbed her about A Clockwork Orange went beyond the artistic content of the film:

At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact desensitizing us.”

While Kael “resist[ed] any feminist interpretation of her career” while she was alive, her writing anticipates the strange, strained relationship between the sexes in the 21st Century. Kael “thought…that there was a great difference between male objectification and male appreciation, and she did not see that much good could come from the sexes being increasingly isolated from each other.”

I’ve read all of Pauline Kael’s collections of criticism with their cheeky, suggestive, sometimes trashy titles ( I Lost it at the Movies; Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang; All the Way, et al) and this book makes me want to read them again—just as her writing makes me want to see the movies she writes about, or experience them again—seeing things through her eyes, with fresh insights.

If I have a criticism of Kellow’s book, it’s his overly-pointed, sympathetic storyline about Kael’s long-suffering daughter, Gina. An author’s note tells us this book was made without her cooperation, although it was sought. You don’t have to read between the lines to see that Pauline was a lousy mother. But I don’t think Kellow needed to keep putting a patronizing arm around Gina’s shoulder. When Pauline dies, at eighty, Gina’s eulogy makes the strength of her own feelings quite clear:

“’Pauline’s greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and a critic. She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects. She refused any consideration of that possibility and she denied any motivations or personal needs…This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.’”

By this time, I think it’s widely understood that talent is no mark of character. I wouldn’t have wanted Pauline as a mother. But she appreciated her readers. She took the time to write back to everyone who wrote her—postcards or letters. She let her audience know that she heard them.

Kael had her admirers, her detractors, and a group of younger writers whose sensibility she shaped (“The Paulettes”). As film critic David Edelstein remarks, “’ I do believe that she couldn’t have written what she wrote if she didn’t on some level believe in an oversoul, some sort of interconnectedness that I think the great artists tap into and that she tapped into when she wrote about their work. I am sure she would snort like crazy if she heard me talk about it in those terms. I believe she was an extremely spiritual person without being in any way, shape, or form a believer…Pauline could be transported—she could go to another place without identifying it as religious.’”

I count myself among those who admire Kael’s writing. I sometimes imagine her “diminutive” frame—she was under five feet tall—standing over my desk, clucking her tongue, balling her hands into little fists, impatient for me to get it right. “No, no, no, like this!” Kellow’s book deepened my appreciation for Kael’s work, but even in my imagination, she’s fierce company.

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow, Viking, 2011, Hardcover, 417 pp.