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Reading: "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark"

By admin Published: January 3, 2012

Be ready for some rambling.

In Brian Kellow's biography of the influential film critic Pauline Kael, one moment finds Kael aruging about the function of a critic with artist Al Hirschfeld during dinner with director Sidney Lumet. When Hirschfeld demanded Kael's description of what a critic should do, she pointed at Lumet and said, "My job is to show him which way to go."

I can't say that I agree with that position. I've tended to be more of a consumerist in my reviewing -- recommending to audiences what they should see or hear -- with the hope that the consumers' enthusiasm will nudge the entertainment industry in a good direction. Of course, that does not happen all that often, but neither did Kael's criticism create what she might have considered a grand new cinema. Indeed, Brian Kellow's biography of Kael finds a writer with diminishing enthusiasm for the form she loved; film critic David Thomson, an admirer of Kael with reservations, once argued that she retired in 1991 because "the pictures weren't talking about."

Of course, there are always pictures worth talking about. But when one has ridden that incredible wave of the movies of the '60s and '70s, it is easy to see how the blockbuster era and beyond would be less exciting. In her devastating critique of Kael, Renata Adler is to a large degree arguing that Kael was not immune to the burnout that afflicts critics compelled to write regularly about a form. I think it was also the critic John Leonard who, when giving up writing about television, lamented the sameness of the job -- the burden of the annual fall preview, the annual Super Bowl piece, the seemingly required revisiting of topics about which there was little to say.

Yet, for a very long stretch, Kael had plenty to say. Sometimes too much, and sometimes the wrong thing. She could be as infuriating as she was invigorating, and I often found myself in disagreement with her. But one thing I never disagreed about was the sheer delight to be found in the movies, the getting lost in the screen images, sitting in a dark theater, an experience which -- big-screen, HD television notwithstanding -- simply cannot be duplicated at home. We may have had different enthusiasms, but the overall feeling was still there. And, when reading Kellow's biography, I found myself scribbling a list of movie titles, ones I had seen but not in a long time, and some I had not seen, to look back not only at Kael's reviews (available in several print collections and in a DVD set of the complete New Yorker from a few years ago) but at the movies themselves -- to see what got her so jazzed up.

(Continues after the jump.)

Kellow does an admirable job of presenting Kael's life, her ambition, her frustration, her complicated relationship with her daughter. He notes examples of her often unnecessary rudeness. He offers balance in addressing not only the Adler piece but her analysis of "Citizen Kane," which was at once wrong-headed and grounded in plagiarism. Kellow ably considers Kael's place at the New Yorker, and the battles she fought there (many of which involved her pithy language), as well as her dealing with the so-called Paulettes, critics who admired her and courted her approval. He duly notes that her language was at times too blunt, even careless, especially as standards changed.

Throughout Kellow's account, we see a writer who indeed wanted not only to convince the public of her rightness (of which she had no doubt) but wanted to change the ways movies were made. But Hollywood veterans like John Gregory Dunne found her knowledge of the film biz to be weak, and Kellow's account of her one extended foray into moviemaking shows her on a path that was bound to end badly.

But if you are trying to understand the '70s in American culture, you should look not only at the movies of the time but at Kael's considerations of those films. She wallowed in them, she adored them, she captured that feeling that many of us -- much younger than Kael herself -- felt when discovering Scorsese and Coppola and Altman. Kellow's own judgments are at times open to question. (His distaste for "Network" is, to me, incomprehensible.) But he gets at the essence of Kael, that she was never really alone in the dark; she wanted always to bring us along, to sit with her, not only to know what she felt but to feel it, too.

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