The New Yorker
October 25, 2011
n the fall of 1965, a season that brought movies as distinct as “Alphaville” and “Thunderball” to the screen, Pauline Kael came to dinner at Sidney Lumet’s apartment, in New York. Lumet was then a prolific young director, having just finished shooting his tenth feature, “The Group,” for United Artists. Kael was a small-time movie critic who had recently arrived from Northern California. Her hardcover début, “I Lost It at the Movies,” had appeared that spring, to critical and popular acclaim, but she had never been on staff at any publication, and had only recently begun to write for major magazines. Lumet liked Kael’s work. Over the previous few weeks, he had allowed her on his set as a reporter, hoping she would learn something about shooting technique. Also present that night was the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and after a few drinks—actually, after quite a lot of drinks—Hirschfeld and Kael started quibbling about the uses of movie criticism. Finally, Hirschfeld asked her point-blank what she thought critics were good for. Kael gestured toward Lumet. “My job,” she said, “is to show him which way to go.” The evening ended soon afterward. Lumet later explained, “I thought, This is a very dangerous person.”
Within a few years, most of Hollywood agreed. From the moment Kael began as a film critic at The New Yorker, at the start of 1968, she presided over the movies in the manner of Béla Károlyi watching a gymnast on the balance beam—shouting directives, excoriating every flub, and cheering uncontrollably when a filmmaker stuck his landing. She spent much of her career chastening Hollywood’s excesses while brushing off complaints about immoderation on her own part. She did not regard this as a hypocritical endeavor. Kael wrote quickly and at length, regularly pulling all-nighters into her Tuesday deadlines with the help of cigarettes and bourbon (till she gave up both). Her kinetic passion, her chatty-seatmate prose, and her detail-heckling made her a pop-culture oracle in an era that desperately needed one.
These qualities also formed the basis of her style. Kael had found her critic’s voice writing radio broadcasts, and her concern for the way a piece of work “played” in real time and on first encounter shaped her reviews and her concept of the moviemaking craft. Writing on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” in 1969, she explained:
Courage is not a virtue frequently associated with the criticism beat, but it lies near the heart of Kael’s achievement—not because she was unsqueamish about praising and slamming movies (though she was) but because, from the time she wrote her first review until the moment she retired, in 1991, her authority as a critic relied solely on her own, occasionally whimsical taste. This was not the norm in the milieu where she started writing. Kael cut her teeth reviewing for small, specialized or highbrow journals at a moment when criticism aimed at being systematic, intellectually lucid, and tightly defended. “Intuition” was a gooseflesh-raising word in this context—it still is in many circles—but it was one that Kael flaunted in the face of formalism. At inspired moments, she performed her criticism like a driver cruising down a familiar mountain road: braking rarely, speeding around the tricky turns, and swerving, with the faith of instinct, through a maze of potholes. It’s an approach that accounts for a lot of paradoxes and self-contradictions in her taste. It also made for a thrilling, inimitable ride.
A new selection of Kael’s writing, edited by her friend Sanford Schwartz, culls from her ten main collections and provides a useful overview of that route, beginning in the fifties and reaching to her retirement. (Kael died in 2001.) The book is called “The Age of Movies” (Library of America; $40), and although that title is supposed to represent her whole career, it might refer, more aptly, to the fifteen-year stretch between 1964 and 1979, when Kael wrote almost all the reviews on which her reputation rests.
A couple of theories have arisen to explain Kael’s critical ascendancy during this period. One holds that movies in those years were just exceptionally good. It was the time of “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), “The Godfather” (1972), “Nashville” (1975), and “Taxi Driver” (1976), and Kael praised those pictures’ innovations at length. Another theory suggests that Kael changed the rules of criticism, setting up a new way of evaluating popular art, without concern for prestige or self-conscious sophistication: in her view, a freshly entertaining or arresting movie was successful, and a movie that seemed tired or required unpacking was a flop.
Both theories are true. Still, neither is entirely satisfactory. The art and the criticism of the sixties were blurring the boundaries of high and low culture—and finding a language to talk about that change—long before Kael’s influence was felt. Beat-inflected critics like Seymour Krim helped bridge the gap between the literary tradition and the vernacular mainstream; cultural theorists such as Susan Sontag argued, in the early sixties, for appraising art outside the straits of hermeneutic habit. And, though these decades did produce extraordinary new movies, so did almost every other era; many of the seventies’ classics—“The French Connection,” “Chinatown,” “Manhattan,” almost everything by Kubrick and Cassavetes—Kael actively opposed. She was constantly goading the industry to try harder, but dismissed pictures that seemed to try hard.
Brian Kellow’s illuminating new biography, “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” (Viking; $27.95), dutifully attends to both theories. The book traces a plot in which Kael rises up against an élite critical establishment; champions mainstream pleasures in the movie house; makes a name as a critical iconoclast; and, at The New Yorker , ushers in a great age of American filmmaking. A more surprising story, though, is hidden in the shadows of his narrative. The Kael who comes into focus in the long shot is a different sort of critic, haunted by the old classics and obsessed with the place of movies in the canon of lasting art. Her key insight, it becomes clear, was seeing American creativity in the context of a culture whose premises were being overturned.