Deeper Into Kael

Pauline Kael, at one time arguably the best film critic in operation, has turned into the Hubert Humphrey of film criticism. She comes on chatty and playful when talking about film techniques, valuing good stars above acting and sensual excess over rigor, all the time letting us know that under that tigress bite of hers beats a heart which overflows with sympathy. She makes sufficient noises in the vague directions of liberalism to insure our recognition that she cares in the correct way about moral and political issues which the films she sees might raise. She is overwhelmingly ebullient, yet most of the time manages to restrain her verbal sweat glands and channel her energy into vigorous writing. But if you sweep away her layers of reputation -- her accolades, her past accomplishments, and her present heroic-scale fame -- you find that there are no firm intellectual roots to her analysis, and no rational bounds to her emotionalism. Pauline Kael has become just another opinionator, more fiery and more skillful than most, but without any broad vision to separate her from the herd.

Rarely has this been more apparent than at Kael's April 16 appearance at Leverett House. (Of course, the new style of Harvard audience -- spruced up and ready to kiss ass - almost insured the result.) Ms. Kael was introduced by a fellow in a three-piece suit who uttered some innocuous pleasantries about how disappointed he and the others were when Leslie Fiedler and not Kael dominated the podium at a recent PMLA convention. Two hours later, as Kael finished answering questions from the film buffs and cognoscenti who surrounded her, the more skeptical among us wondered what it was that she and wildman Fielder could possibly have disagreed on.

Kael mostly spoke about the rareness of integrity in film work, and relied heavily on the shared liberal assumptions of her listeners to persuade them that individual honor in a decrepit industry is worth anything. (Besides, she's been beating that same dead horse for years). Her talk boiled down to a celebration of herself. As a self-styled grand protector of the true, heart-felt way of seeing movies, Kael urged her audience to protect their "individual responses" to films; she said that critics should be read as interference-runners for filmgoers, helping audiences to better appreciate "new kinds of films" even if they appear without due warning.

Now, Pauline never explained what the nature of an "individual response" is, or what is a "new kind of film". In fact, like a self-conscious frontierswoman, she used the words "new" and "individual" as conundrums. It soon became clear that Kael is a dyed-in-the-sawdust anti-intellectual. The "experience" of a movie, for Kael, is both dramatic, and visually, sensually evocative. But, while standing on the line which divides those who look to narrative art for a structured vision of the world from those who just like movies for the fun of it, Kael comes down hard for the fun whenever possible. She thinks that all education in film studies is evil because it gets between a movie and that mythical "response" of the viewer. She thus lacks any consistent set of critical criteria, or any goals for art broader than immediate pleasure. (She even brags about seldom changing her opinion on a film after she has seen it once). The only base on which her criticism stands is her own jumbled psyche. It's no wonder that her proteges -- men like Gary Arnold of The Washington Post or David Denby of The Atlantic--are, in critical profile, her exact tintypes. And it is all too possible that these images will proliferate.

The Leverett House audience merely followed where Kael led. Remarks which were not only irrational, but implicitly racist were skimmed over. At one point, Kael claimed that the best films of the next two decades would come from blacks. When pressed to reconcile this with the mediocrity of previous black films, Kael answered that cultures other than Western white ones, which did not possess structured literary traditions, could use film to find "exciting" new ways to express their sensuality. A black friend of mine then hissed. Kael got upset, and asked for the objection to be verbalized. So another friend inquired, "Are you implying that films can be made by morons?" At this, Kael threw up her hands, and the liberal crowd hissed in accord. Outside of that Leverett context, however, the question seems eminently reasonable.

Pauline Kael's transformations are upsetting not only because of her influence, but because of what some of us once felt Kael herself could have become. If the early '60s, when she wrote for small film journals, literary quarterlies, and an occasional Atlantic or Harper's, she seemed one of the few writers since Agee able to avoid the occasional literary pretensiousness of Eastern critics, the self-justifying defenses of Hollywood hacks, and the gassy theorizing of academics. However, especially since her third book (Going Steady) appeared in 1970, she has become an established New Yorker commodity, and increasingly self-indulgent: her responses to films are at times based solely on their generalized erotic content. She has made claims that "male actors need a little bit of fascism to make them attractive." She has been seduced by the camera wizardry of Bob Fosse and Bertolucci, and turned off by the supposed machismo of Straw Dogs. She has also gone bananas over movies just because they have been vehicles for Streisand.

In I Lost It At the Movies, Kael recalls that when she was broadcasting reviews for KPFA in San Francisco, she received the following letter:

Dear Miss Kael, Since you know so much about the art of film, why don't you spend your time making it? But first, you will need a pair of balls.

Miss Kael replied: "Movies are made and criticism is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination and discrimination. I suggest it is time you and your cohorts stop thinking with your genital jewels." And I suggest that now is the time for Kael to return to the standards of the first sentence before her own gems get out of hand.