Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Image of Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
Release Date: 
October 27, 2011
Reviewed by: 

“Brian Kellow delivers. . . . the filmic rise and fall of a woman of true brilliance, huge ego, and no small amount of neuroses.”

To make a personal assessment of the work of a film critic within the context of a critique of a book written on the life and work of that critic may be a bit of a dodge, but here goes: For me, and, I think, for many others who follow one way or another in her footsteps—and, indeed, her footsteps were so broad and so deep that it seems impossible that anyone could write any form of media criticism and not in some way or other follow the path she blazed—the thing that separated the criticism written by Pauline Kael from the fine work done by many, many others—Judith Crist, Andrew Sarris, David Denby, and Rex Reed included—is that, for Kael, the art of criticism was an evolutionary thing.

Where the others were guided by their deadlines in the films that they saw in a given week and wrote about for public consumption only to turn around and do it again the next week and the next, ad infinitum, Kael was a writer of a different sort. Kael was less willing to rinse and repeat than were the rest, and one who tended to view each film—especially those that she thought particularly fine—within the context of the culture and of the evolving lives of the artists involved—the screenwriter, director, film editor, actors, etc.—so that each film ended up being something a little like a snowflake: unique among the thousands of other films that surrounded it, and something that represented a cultural moment, briefly frozen in time.

For her film was perhaps best seen as a snapshot, or as a group of vacation slides, in that it defined the thing photographed, and through the process of filming and editing helped us to better understand where we were as a nation and a people, where we are, and where we are headed.

Which brings us back to this book, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow.

In choosing his subject matter, Mr. Kellow, ominous subtitle aside, surely understood from the get-go that Pauline Kael, a complicated soul, would require a good deal of finesse on his part to fully evoke on the page as clearly and concisely as characters are on the big screen. For that is biography as art film, graced with meaningful looks and noir lighting, the sort of work that would have been directed by Mike Nichols for a studio, or, perhaps by John Cassavetes as an independent project.

What was needed—in this world in which biographies have all too often been reduced to narratives similar to teenagers’ texts, to complete and completely feckless lists of places reached, accolades gathered, and places aspired to (“I’m at the mall, then I going home.”)—was a warts and all biography, wrought largely in extreme close up, sort of A Woman Under the Influence, but with popcorn and an extra large Coke with very little ice and 400 pages of text to play around with.

Luckily, Brian Kellow delivers.

After spending what seems like an inordinate number of pages explaining to us just why Pauline Kael felt so out of place in the farming community of Petaluma, California, the book gets to the good stuff. Once our girl finds her passion for film and ultimately gets to the New Yorker and her semiannual reign as America’s most influential film critic (New Yorker editor William Shawn required that Kael share her work annually with British screenwriter and critic Penelope Gilliatt, each taking six months of the year, Gilliatt in spring and summer, Kael in autumn and winter), the book becomes a marvelous record.

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark chronicles not only a great film writer being given an amazing run of films to write about (The Godfather, Cabaret, M*A*S*H*, The French Connection, which Kael considered proof that American film had become “what we once feared mass entertainment might become: jolts for jocks,” as well as Last Tango in Paris and Robert Altman’s masterpiece, Nashville—all of which are dealt with in depth in terms of Kael’s view of them, as well as in the ways in which Kael’s reviews impacted the films and those who made them), but also the filmic rise and fall of a woman of true brilliance, huge ego, and no small amount of neuroses.

Having risen to some prominence in the San Francisco art cinema movement of the 1960s, Kael stars in a story that is largely one of being in the right place at the right time—later, just as clichéd, it will become a tale of staying too long at the fair), for she was a writer who took the art of film very seriously during an epoch in which our nation began to produce some of the finest filmmakers in history, perhaps thanks to the turbulence of the time.

Her career at the New Yorker, which began with Bonnie and Clyde and ended with Steve Martin’s personal musing on Annie Hall called L.A. Story, described a span of time in American film in which the director was king.

Francis Ford Coppola gave us Apocalypse Now. Martin Scorscese produced Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Altman redefined the western with McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Peter Bogdanovich produced three triumphant films in a row, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon. And Paul Mazursky redefined the film heroine in An Unmarried Woman.

And Pauline Kael responded to them all, carefully committing her first impression of each film to the printed page. (Kael famously refused to see more than once any movie that she was reviewing, as she felt that her first impression was not only her strongest, but her most accurate as well.)

In her early years as a critic, from 1968 until 1972, she was seen as a visionary of sorts, a critic gifted with the ability to speak to the film process not as a consumer advocate indicating which of that week’s movies was the best bargain, but as seer of sorts who judged a film’s place in history.

While she was often unpredictable, even off track, with her assessment of a given film, only twice did Kael, according to our author, miss the implications of a single film’s success or failure.

The first was Heaven’s Gate, Michael Cimino’s 1980 box office disaster, in which Cimino, who had rocketed to fame with his 1978 film The Deer Hunter, nearly managed to bankrupt United Artists, and in doing so, changed the way Hollywood would operate from then onward.

Pauline Kael, who did not see Heaven’s Gate as being as bad as others insisted, mildly defended the film, but failed to grasp that with its failure at the box office, the era of the film auteur, which had produced so many of the films and filmmakers that she had so championed, had ended.

The second film whose impact Kael failed to register was Star Wars, George Lucas’ 1977 film that again redefined the structure of Hollywood—this time introducing the concept of the “summer blockbuster,” which, again, was another step in the demise of the sort of film that had been, for Kael, her raison d’etre.

In other words, “jolts for jocks.”

In her later years, Pauline Kael, who stuck to her guns in terms of what she considered right and good in film art, faced issues of eclipsed fame and a reduced authority in film criticism.

Author and sometime film critic Renata Adler famously fired the first shot in the uprising against Kael when she published a review of Kael’s 1980 book When the Lights Go Out entitled “The Perils of Pauline” in The New York Review of Books. As Mr. Kellow puts it, “Adler’s essay was a broadside against Pauline’s lofty reputation, an aggressive attempt to discredit her—with the nation’s literary community occupying a ringside seat.”

From there Kael’s downward spiral continued. She struggled with health issues (heart troubles and Parkinson’s disease) and financial crises. Evidently the famously cheap New Yorker never at any time paid her enough for her work to enable living full time in New York City, so she bought a house in Great Barrington, MA, and commuted into the city every two weeks to see a number of films.

Worst of all, she had to face the fact that the world and the culture had changed around her, as had the nature of film. Raised on Jean Arthur movies and the films of Bette Davis, whom she adored, and having cut her teeth on the films of the New Wave, followed by the era of the film auteur, she now was commenting on the likes of Rocky (to which she gave a mixed review); Pale Rider, a work by Clint Eastwood, whom she despised as a filmmaker and an actor; and, worst of all, Scenes from a Mall, in which her sometime-friend Woody Allen was himself reduced to work for hire in a thudding comedy filmed on location in a mall in Stamford, Connecticut.

At the end of this excellent, detailed, and evocative biography of Pauline Kael, author Brian Kellow comes to three conclusions:

The first is that “she lived to see the infantilization of the great moviegoing audience she had always dreamed of and believed in.”

The second is that “Pauline’s great victory was that, like a visionary novelist, she widened the scope of her art—she redefined the possibilities of how a critic could think, and how a critic’s work might benefit the art form itself.”

The third, and most important, is that “to call what she did reviewing, of course, is to trivialize it. She was not writing snappy, easily quoted opinions that would fit neatly into twelve column inches. She brought us into the experience of sitting next to her in a darkened movie theater.”

Thus perhaps it can be concluded that thanks to Pauline Kael, all of us have lives that can—to one degree or another—be spent in the dark. And perhaps that’s not such an ominous thing after all.