When we were in high school, my friend Carl and I used to await her dispatches the way the Hebrews awaited tablets from Sinai. Every other week, we rushed to People’s Drug and grabbed a New Yorker off the newsstand and read her latest review on the spot — savoring the smart, profane, feisty music of her sentences. We loved Pauline Kael because she made us feel smarter and saner — more alive.
And in a weird way, I think, sexier. The titles of her collections were no accident: “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “I Lost It at the Movies,” “Reeling.” Kael practiced an erotics of criticism. You could disagree with her — you had no choice at times — but you couldn’t love or want or need movies more than she did.
I’ve already used more dashes than usual. That’s her doing, too.
Her fellow critic David Thomson once theorized that she would have given up everything to play one great scene in a movie. But what casting director would have taken the chance? She was diminutive, unglamorous, quick to argue. An unorthodox Jewish childhood (some of it spent on a chicken ranch in Petaluma, Calif.) led to philosophy studies at the University of California at Berkeley and then a long period of struggle that only in retrospect looks like apprenticeship: dead-end jobs, a daughter born out of wedlock, a bad marriage, doomed attachments to gay men.
And yet there was something celluloidal about Kael’s first break. She was 33, holding forth at a Berkeley coffeehouse, when a magazine editor sitting nearby asked her if she wanted to review the latest Chaplin picture, “Limelight.” Kael loathed it and told the world, and a career was born.
She reviewed for a local radio station; she organized and annotated film revivals; she gained a toehold in journals such as Film Quarterly and the Partisan Review. But it wasn’t until 1967 that Kael won her catbird seat: a permanent reviewing slot with the New Yorker. The money wasn’t great, and she had to wage bloody war with her editor, William Shawn, to preserve her earthy, idiomatic voice. But she had the platform she craved, and she made full use of it, challenging musty Europhiliac aesthetics, championing the redemptive powers of trash and pushing for a cinema of vibrancy, sensation and disorder.
“She wanted,” recalls one admirer, “to open the windows and let in some air.” And, just as urgently, to let out some air. With no space restrictions to stop her, she drew readers through Melvillean digressions that her biographer, Brian Kellow, usefully compares to jazz riffs, veering off from the main theme but always reconnecting in the end. The result was a kind of criticism that no one had seen before: raucous, personal, scornful of theory and received opinion — and focused above all, as Kellow writes, on “the confluence of what happened onscreen and what happened in life.”
Part of me, I admit, wonders what would have happened if a writer of comparable talent had been asked to evaluate Kael’s career. And then I remember it’s been tried. Renata Adler’s infamous scorched-earth attack on Kael in the New York Review of Books had all of Kael’s aggression and none of her wit. So let us be grateful that Kellow’s admiring but even-handed approach in “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” so neatly captures the unruly emotions his subject provoked.
For the legend of Kael, unlike that of other critics, derived as much from her quirks and blind spots as from her gifts. We knew she refused to see any movie more than once. We knew she could push her judgments to untenable extremes. (Could any movie have merited the encomium she lavished on “Last Tango in Paris”?) She encouraged the adulation of younger critics — the much-mocked “Paulettes” — and abandoned any pretense of critical detachment by befriending directors such as Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman and then pushing (and sometimes panning) their work in print.
Indeed, until I read Kellow’s biography, I hadn’t realized quite how embedded Kael was in the film industry, chatting it up with Barbra Streisand, vetting the scripts of “Taxi Driver” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” long before they went into production, and lobbying Stephen Frears to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Liaisons.” (Good move.) Seen in this light, her brief and disastrous stint as a producer for Warren Beatty was a natural extension of her love-hate relationship with the Dream Factory — and, it must be added, her inability to maintain boundaries, either in art or in life.
But what, finally, is the source of any critic’s value? Not simply her judgments, which falter and date, but how those judgments are expressed. And that’s why Kael still matters. Open “5001 Nights at the Movies” or the new Library of America collection of Kael’s writings, and you’ll find, on every page, something that makes you laugh out loud or opens up a new space in your brain. Three examples, chosen at random. Ingrid Bergman’s “good, solid” psychoanalyst in “Spellbound,” “dispensing cures with the wholesome simplicity of a mother adding wheat germ to the family diet.” From a review of “Bloodbrothers” (1978): “Richard Gere is to De Niro and Brando what the singers in ‘Beatlemania’ are to the Beatles.”
And from a review of “Weekend”: “Godard has already imposed his way of seeing on us — we look at cities, at billboards and brand names, at a girl’s hair differently because of him. And when others pick up the artifacts of his way of seeing, we murmur ‘Godard’ and they are sunk. . . . They do what Godard himself has already gone past, and the young filmmakers look out-of-date before they’ve got started; and their corpses are beginning to litter the festivals.”
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His most recent book is “The School of Night.”
By Brian Kellow
Viking. 417 pp. $27.95