Has it really been 10 years since Pauline Kael died? Yes, 10 years tomorrow, September 3, was the day we lost America’s greatest film critic. Pauline – somehow you wanted to call her Pauline – left a legion of acolytes and imitators, but there was only one Pauline.
Here she is in high rant in 1963 demolishing one of my favorite movies Fellini’s 8 ½, a film mostly about a famous director trying to make a movie and running out of ideas:
Creativity is the new cant – parents are advised not to hit it with a stick, schoolteachers are primed to watch for it, foundations encourage it, colleges and subsidized health farms nourish it in a regulated atmosphere; the government is advised to honor it. We’re all supposed to be so in awe of it that when it’s in crisis, the screen should be torn asunder by the conflicts. But the creativity con-game, a great subject for comedy, is rather embarrassing when it’s treated only semi-satirically. When a satire on big, expensive movies is itself a big, expensive movie, how can we distinguish it from its target? When a man makes himself the butt of his own joke, we may feel too uncomfortable to laugh. Exhibitionism is its own reward.
You get the full Pauline in that passage: the slangy truth-telling, the summarizing aphorism, and the relish in pointing out that a great European director is wearing no clothes, at least in this film. I disagree with Pauline here, emphatically, but much of the pleasure of her writing is that when you differ with Pauline, you have a lot to quarrel with and you need to stretch your brain to make your best case. In her Introduction to the last collection of her writings For Keeps (1994), Pauline says she always saw her relation with her passionate readers as “true conviviality – a variation of the intense discussions that I’d had with friends in high school and college.” Exactly.
Pauline could bash a bad movie with the best of critics, but she was also a great appreciator of films. Nobody I’ve ever read could make you want to see a film the way Pauline often did.
I began reading Pauline every other week in the New Yorker in the mid-1970s (she alternated in those days with Renata Adler as the magazine’s house film critic ). Like many, I opened the magazine to her pieces the first thing every week – even before checking out the cartoons. I loved movies but had never thought of writing a review.
Pauline let me know that the raw power of one’s emotional reaction to a film was paramount, that as a critic you had to be true to that impression and maybe dig down deep to uncover it. I was coming out of grad school and the world of academic writing, and so found her frequent use of the pronoun “you” both shocking and refreshing. By putting what she thought and felt in terms of a “you,” Pauline seemed to be saying that, of course, you and she saw it the same way – as any sensible person would.
Later, when I learned something of Pauline’s history as a reviewer, I admired her all the more. She’d begun as a true amateur – that is, a lover of film – writing program notes for an art theater in Berkeley, CA. There were years reviewing movies for a local public radio station and little magazines before she was discovered well into her 40s by the New Yorker editor William Shawn and brought east to join the staff.
Shawn had the genius to hire a born rebel for the most established of magazines. Apparently, neither realized at the time that this would be the beginning of years of epic battles over every word Pauline wrote and that the famously refined and meticulous Mr. Shawn felt obliged to edit. “William Shawn and I squared off like pit bulls,” as Pauline puts it in For Keeps:
Once when I compared the sets of a movie to a banana split, his suggested alternative was a pousse-café. When I quoted Herman Mankiewicz’s famous line “Imagine – the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass,” he insisted that it be “Harry Cohn’s derriere. (I won out).
That parenthetical “I won out” is vintage Pauline. Looking back over her writing in For Keeps, she calls her 23-year reign as the New Yorker’s film reviewer “the best job in world.”
But it didn’t come about quickly. I had written about movies for almost 15 years, trying to be true to the spirit of what I loved about movies, trying to develop a voice that would avoid saphead objectivity and let the readers in on what sort of person was responding to the world in this particular way….
A friend of mine says he learned from reading me that “content grows from language, not the other way around.” That’s a generous way of saying that I let it rip, that I don’t fully know what I think till I’ve said it. The reader is in on my thought processes.
Pauline is gone, but that’s pretty much the way we try to do things here at 317am. Let it rip and damn the saphead objectivity.