Kaze: Through with Pauline Kael

A couple of Fridays ago I tucked myself in on the couch and watched, for the fourth or fifth time, The Red Shoes. I’m no expert on ballet movies, but my guess is that The Red Shoes is the most renowned and widely beloved ballet movie ever made—and, for what it’s worth, I would add, deservedly so. Shot in Technicolor in 1948 and recently restored, it’s a dazzling experience.

The best movies are, on some level, myth-makers.  They create a world into which you enter and live, for awhile, by its rules.  I love The Red Shoes, which creates a world in which one’s art really counts. When it was over I went through my collection of film anthologies to read more about it . . .

And made, as I sometimes do, the mistake of picking up a volume of the late Pauline Kael’s mini-reviews, those single-paragraph pieces of the kind that appear in the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section.  (A Kael biography, by the way, has just come out, along with a Library of America volume of her selected writings.  What’s more, Ras is a big fan.)  Over the course of her career at the New Yorker and elsewhere, Kael wrote some 11,000 movie reviews.  Most of them were much longer than a paragraph, of course.  I’ve read a lot of them.  I agreed with some, disagreed with others, and found nearly every one unpleasant.

image of Moira Shearer dancing in The Red Shoes

Moira Shearer, dancing in "The Red Shoes"

Critics are, as they say, paid to have opinions.  I can’t recall any serious critic I disliked for her opinions.  It’s taste, not math.  There is no equation by which to prove or disprove the validity of a critic’s opinion, though it is fair to expect that she will make plain to us the standards she’s drawing upon, so that we can decide to apply or reject them ourselves.  But Pauline Kael’s standard was always Pauline Kael.  I get the sense whenever I read her that, by her lights, the true measure of any film is her own esteem.  If so inclined, she will concede some small measure of it, like a pat on the head.  Of Casablanca, for example, she says:  “It’s far from a great film, but it has a special appealing schlocky romanticism . . .”  This is condescension—a trait of which I am, I must confess, often accused—and by which I am nearly always put off.

When Kael loves a movie, she loves it—La Grande Illusion, The Leopard, The Godfather—but even in the midst of the pudding we’ll usually find a razor blade, and we won’t necessarily know what anybody did to deserve it.  Here’s a line from her review of Glory—a movie Kael likes—in which she praises the acting of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher:  “They’re performers of such skill that they’re vivid, and almost persuasive, as enlistees who bicker and quarrel before they shape up and become fine soldiers.”  Oh . . . almost persuasive.

image of pauline kael

Pauline Kael

It’s this attitude—that of someone who has decided her judgments are infallibly superior to those of the people who make movies and those who go to see them—that whirs like an operating system behind everything Kael writes.  Put another way, it’s a particularly haughty, mocking, capricious, unaccountable and frequently joy-destroying climate we enter into when we read her.  Today’s weather may be hot or cold but the climate’s always Kael.  Some of us can take it and some of us just want to turn and flee.

Back to The Red Shoes. Here’s the mini-review by Pauline Kael that I found that night, exactly as it appears in her collection called 5001 Nights at the Movies. The only change is that I have inserted 10 footnotes of my own.  If you’d like, you can scan back-and-forth or just read the notes all at once.  Take your time—I’ll be decompressing.

The Red Shoes (1948)—The most “imaginative” [1] and elaborate backstage musical ever filmed, and many have called it great [2].  The film contains a 14-minute ballet, also called “The Red Shoes,” based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about a wicked shoemaker who sells an enchanted pair of slippers to a young girl.  Delighted at first with the slippers in which she dances joyously, she discovers that the slippers will not let her stop dancing—and the bewitched, exhausted girls dies.  The film’s story is, of course, the same story, spelled out in more complicated terms, with the shoemaker of the ballet (Leonide Massine) replaced by the megalomaniac ballet impresario (Anton Walbrook).  The exquisite young Moira Shearer is the ballerina; the cast includes Marius Goring as the young composer, Robert Helpmann, Albert Basserman, Ludmilla Tcherina, and Esmond Knight.  Blubbery [3] and self-conscious [4], but it affects some people [5] passionately [6], and it’s undeniably [7] some kind of classic [8].   Written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—master purveyors [9] of high kitsch [10].  Choreography by Helpmann; music by Brian Easdale; conducted nby Sir Thomas Beecham.  color

[1]  Note the quotation marks around the word imaginative.  These are called scare quotes.  Kael is highlighting the word as the lamest of choices—a word applied by viewers who have been so callow as to mistake style for imagination.  There must be many of them.

[2]  Yes, there are many of them.  But Kael’s usage here—many have called it great—dismisses them as plebes, and brushes aside as absurd any notion that she might ever be caught gushing over piffle.

[3]  With the word “blubbery,” Kael lets us know how faux are the emotions portrayed in or evoked by The Red Shoes. “Blubbery” can also mean “characterized by blubber.”  Either usage would be intended as mockery . . .

[4] . . . and mockery would be a meal of razor blades for these filmmakers in particular, whose seriousness Kael derides as self-consciousness, as well as for . . .

[5] . . . the some people (of whom, you will recall, there are many) . . .

[6] . . . who are feckless enough to care so passionately about The Red Shoes that Kael italicizes the word—a patronizing shake of the head if ever a mere font could portray one.

[7] [8] But here, at last, is a crumb for those poor dears who did respond so passionately to the movie:  “it’s undeniably some kind of classic.”  Yet by including the word “undeniably,” Kael’s telling them this is a grudging concession at best.  And the very next words, “some kind of” tell them that it’s really no concession at all.  If it’s a classic—she’s toying with them here—it’s merely some kind of classic, which could mean anything.  Let them eat cake.

[9]  Here, at last, the gloves come off.  There’s hardly been a movie more intent on portraying and embodying the artistic impulse than this one.  So Kael calls the people who made the movie “purveyors.”  A purveyor is a merchant, as in “purveyor of dry goods.”

[10]  But there’s nothing so honorable here as dry goods.  Instead, it’s “high kitsch.”  And we all know there is nothing quite so contemptible as someone claiming to create art while selling kitsch instead.  What’s more, any viewer of kitsch who calls it great or responds passionately has been, at best, taken in, and, at worst, shown to be without intelligence or taste.  He or she is probably prone to blubbering as well.

That gentle exegesis of the text was probably a slog for you, but it felt good to me.  I figure that if Pauline Kael could indulge her prejudices, I ought to be able to indulge my resentments. The particular subset of “prejudices” on display here is called snobbery. I don’t care whether Kael liked the movie or not; I care whether she would insult as fools or suckers those who don’t agree with her.   How telling it is that the publisher’s blurb on the back of the volume says, “THE INTELLIGENT PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE MOVIES.”  I’d put that intelligent in scare quotes.

You may have my copy.

And, by the way, from 1980, here’s Renata Adler’s famous take-down of Kael in the New York Review of Books.

5 Responses to Kaze: Through with Pauline Kael

  1. At peril of offending Raz, I have to say your view is much closer to mine. But I have to add, that after I initially complained about his syrupy post on Kael, I read some more and even bought the book of reviews you mention. Keep up the great work, I really enjoy the posts by the two of you. Wonderful thought food.

  2. How telling it is that the publisher’s blurb on the back of the volume says, “THE INTELLIGENT PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE MOVIES.”

    It does seem telling that it’s “the intelligent person’s guide.” Why focus on the reader rather than on the writing inside the guide? The blurb could easily have praised the guide by calling it “an intelligent” or “an insightful” or “a witty” etc “guide to the movies.” Of course, it may well be that (a) the publisher does that elsewhere in the blurb, (b) most/all of the readers of this book are indeed intelligent people, and (c) an overwhelming proportion of intelligent readers prefer this guide to any other, but I wonder if in this particular part of the blurb what the publisher is really trying to do is appeal to people who are somewhat insecure about their intelligence and might seek to bolster their confidence by buying books marketed like this.

  3. I think I mentioned before that this Kael woman makes me sick, BUT she is a damn good example of how NOT to write reviews. I already own the book, thank you. I use it to throw at certain creatures out to harm me (and I know that you know I am not joking). For intelligent people? Kael? Okay, then I’d rather be stupid.
    The Red Shoes … aaaah, this here old ballet dancer has seen it ??? times and still loves it. Superb choreography, marvellous dancing, acting that’s still acceptable even today, it is like a monument for great dancers like Shearer, Helpmann, Tcherina and Massine.

  4. I felt bad to see the end of Pauline Kael’s reviews, with which I rarely agreed, but which I enjoyed reading for their color and vividness. I avoided reading them before seeing the film under review and when I finally read the review it sometimes infuriated me with what I thought was its wrongheadedness. Still, if I had seen the movie, her review was one of the first items in the magazine that I read. Oh that Renata Adler could write with such verve.

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