What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, directed by Rob Garver. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema.
Pauline Kael capitalized on counterculture snobbery, the pecking order of the oh-so-enlightened.
In 1966, film critic Pauline Kael famously proclaimed that trash has its invigorating rewards. But who is going to enjoy a documentary this bad? Rob Garver’s film is weak tea, filled with useless movie clips, meager historical context, too little of Kael’s distinctive voice, and far too many boneheaded observations from current and former loyalists. The film fails miserably at its mission: to hymn Kael’s enduring importance. She would have been a terrific reviewer on Twitter, a critic/fan tells us with a straight face. Kael will be best remembered for bringing her “humanity” (!) into her critiques, says another. In a revealing moment, Kael calls herself a “propagandist.” Not all critics see themselves as publicists (though Kael can be credited with helping to blur the boundary lines), but her notion of reviewers as hawkers, pushing film nirvana via hyperbole, is revealing. It suggests that, along with her favorite artists, Kael was selling herself. She would have been scathing about this lame marketing effort.
Still, part of the problem is that it is becoming harder to see how Kael’s virtues compensate for her considerable failings. And I’m not just referring to the accusation of plagiarism, the sexist descriptions of women in her reviews (no one in the film dares call Kael a feminist), her conflict-of-interest canoodling with filmmakers, her appalling political vapidity, her overseeing her own bullying “cult,” and the jackhammer she wielded, at times with evident cruelty, during her tenure at the New Yorker (1968-91). For me, Kael’s primal sin was to privilege gut instinct over rational judgment. Can a first-rate critic be anti-intellectual? I don’t think so, but it is a winning American strategy. Criticism becomes a training ground for the “elect,” a way to separate the sheep from the goats, the insiders from the outsiders. In her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Kael enthuses that “a good movie can make you feel alive again.” Who is that “you”? And what if “you” didn’t feel as Kael did? For her, that meant you must be a square, a lost soul: “For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?” Kael capitalized on counterculture snobbery, the pecking order of the oh-so-enlightened. In the process, she tossed aside what makes for fair and cogent persuasion. (It was so “Establishment,” as was any semblance of intellectual consistency.)
She didn’t argue for the “subversive gesture” of trash, a mix of anti-academic frisson and adolescent thrill, but proselytized for it, with undeniably juicy flair, fiercely denigrating whoever disagreed with her. Louis Menand’s best-case defense is that “the critical attitude Kael represented only means approaching a work of art without bias about what a ‘work of art’ is supposed to be. It is predicated on the notion that modern culture is fluid and promiscuous and therefore nothing is gained by foreclosing the experience of it — especially if you are a critic.” Openness is a merit, but Kael, a self-admitted propagandist, was rigid, even doctrinaire; she hamstrung her sensibility by refusing to admit that rebels have an expiration date: that explains why, once she raved about the brilliance of minor directors such as Brian De Palma, she kept cheering on her chosen ones well after the jig was up. She bet that, somehow, her kind of critic would have the God- or Kael- given instinct to distinguish the real from the phony — and she lost big time. Washed away by the tidal waves of trash.
To appreciate Kael’s strengths and weaknesses, she needs to be placed in historical context. The documentary suggests that before Kael there were no talented film critics, but James Agee, a reviewer of the ’40s whom she admired, stands as a major predecessor. In fact, I would argue that Kael’s approach was partly shaped by her rejection (the anxiety of influence?) of his left-wing Christian humanism. For Kael, unlike Agee, superior movies were fun rather than politically responsible; promulgated no life-enhancing message (liberal or otherwise); were not organic experiences (it was fine to like a junky film if there was a good line or performance). Despite all this, Kael tried to retain Agee’s humanism (he argued for the greatness of De Sica’s Shoeshine in a lengthy piece), but only after she had completely undercut its moral and political force. That made her stance daring in the ’60s and early ’70s. After that, her rebel yell began to wear very thin.
As for Kael’s zesty voice, the film suggests she created it herself. In truth, she was a member of the New Journalism movement, along with Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, and Truman Capote, an expert practitioner of its slangy, tangy, and effusively personal prose style. None of this background is provided in the film: those who might contribute some substance, David Thomson and Menand among them, are not heard from. The most accomplished critic here is Kael’s longtime friend Greil Marcus. We hear from a few aging Paulettes (followers/groupies), but it is better to stay out of that rabid rabbit hole. At least one member of the Kael club, nearly two decades after her death, wonders whether it existed or not: “This fantasy of a controlling shrew has been given a considerable boost by writers, some of them at one time her friends, who, deciding association with her no longer served their careers, wrote articles and memoirs about their escape from the cult of Pauline.” Betrayal! The plastic knives are out — but who cares?
My Arts Criticism students at Boston University don’t get Kael’s obsession with the inviolate power of the low, her disdain for all things academic. Why can’t movies proffer a meaningful message and be fun at the same time? They respect that she was a vital advocate during a fertile period in American independent filmmaking, supporting (then) young directors like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Steven Spielberg. Still, for them and me, her prose style is what remains captivating, its excitement driven by her ability to reflect the informal ways people talk about movies.
The documentary would have provided a much fuller portrait if it had gone beyond “what she said” and served up some of the replies of the period’s other estimable critics—from those she attacked, such as Andrew Sarris, to Penelope Gilliatt, the late John Simon, Renata Adler (whose acidic putdown of Kael in the New York Review of Books is mentioned), and Dwight Macdonald. In 1967, Simon characterized Kael as a “curious combination of lively shrewdness, sentimental-hysterical self-indulgence, and dependably plebeian tastes.” Macdonald, in a 1966 letter to the managing editor of Esquire, observes that Kael is “intelligent as to all that surrounds a movie (culture-socio-politically), not as to its value as a work of art.” (A wonderful photo flashes by of a panel discussion attended by Kael, Simon, and Macdonald.) She didn’t think so, but film criticism is not simply the art of selling favorites, but generating dialogue about value, an exchange that is healthy because it is made up of clashing perspectives and ideas. The Kael mystique is partly the product of good timing; movies and critics (not just her) were taken seriously in the public sphere back then — in those days, something was at stake.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.