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[whitespace] Citizen Kael

Richard von Busack recalls the impact of film critic Pauline Kael

By Richard von Busack

Let me tell you about the state of film criticism before the late Pauline Kael entered the fray. Traditionally, the daily newspaper film critic was busted down to that beat due to drinking or decrepitude--just as an old horse might be turned out to pasture if you didn't have the heart to shoot him.

At the larger newspapers, particularly The New York Times, condescending critics watched films through a monocle and wrote in "that horrible debonair style," as Kael put it. A few lady journalists also worked in this vein, writing the way Margaret Dumont talked.

Kael, who died Monday, Sept. 3, at the age of 82, changed all that with her prose. She became a film critic despite the perceived disadvantages of being working class, a woman and a Westerner. She was a Northern Californian, born in Petaluma and raised in San Francisco. Her appreciation for that city never died. In her review of Phil Kaufman's terrifying remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, she notes:

"The story is set in San Francisco, which is the ideally right setting, because of the city's traditional hospitality to artists and eccentrics. Probably nowhere else have people considered so many systems of thought and been through so many interpersonal wars ... there are no a-priori rejections in San Francisco. ... San Francisco is a city full of people who are sure they could write better than the successful writers in their midst, and probably could, but they're too busy living and griping to try."

Prefacing her review of Dirty Harry, a film about a tough San Francisco cop hamstrung by left-wing coddlers, she writes: "I grew up in San Francisco, and one of the soundest pieces of folk wisdom my mother gave me was 'If you're in trouble, don't go to the cops.' "

In some review I can't pinpoint, a subordinate clause informs the Manhattan chauvinists of something they know at heart: "Everything's better in the West."

That Western background served her well during the Reagan years. Kael was a firm enemy of wholesome corn-fed movies: The River, Witness, On Golden Pond. Knowing the rural life, she wasn't seduced with dreams of how pure farm living is.

The Sound of Criticism

Kael went to UC-Berkeley in 1936 and became an art-film maker and a movie exhibitor. For a time, she booked the Fine Arts Theater in downtown Berkeley, one of the last of the revival theaters. Her calendar notes for the screenings landed her at Berkeley's embattled KPFA.

After moving to New York, she was fired by McCall's after panning The Sound of Music, although hers was a judicious review, really, considering the size of the provocation. Some obits have credited Kael with calling that unkillable musical The Sound of Money.

In fact, it was one of the movie trade papers that came up with that headline--it was a compliment, you see. What Kael really wrote was: "Whom could it offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated."

Kael wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. She debuted her writing for a national audience just as the Old Hollywood was at last disintegrating; she ended her career just as home-entertainment technology made it possible to possess movies on tape--and, later, on disk.

She was at her post, then, at the beginning and ending of a crucial period in cinema history. She began her work when even the best movies ever made could be elusive. A rare film might make one brief appearance for a week and then vanish into a kind of limbo, only living in the memory or turning up unheralded at 3am on low-watt television.

Now, of course, we view movies as our possessions, to be run and rerun, plagiarized, looped, cut up and used as electric wallpaper. Reading reviews of hip-hop music, it occurs to me that the citation is everything now. It doesn't matter how clever an artist is as long as the material he's toasted is well chosen.

In the public mind a musician crafty enough to have looped the opening of "Kashmir" is just as clever as Led Zeppelin. In movies today, our geniuses are people who were smart enough to have seen John Woo's films before he came to the United States--he who quotes first is the real artist, and every movie can be appropriated.

Tracking Film

Still, Kael only needed one shot at a movie, perhaps because she was raised in an era when films could be such rare birds. Supposedly, she never took notes or saw a movie twice before writing it up. Throughout her writing, we find examples of a prodigious memory; she would reminisce about a joke or a gesture she saw 20 years before, as if it were as fresh as the potboiler she saw yesterday.

Like critic Manny Farber, raised near San Francisco in Vallejo, and one of the few in her league, Kael broke down a movie into striking scenes, performances and images. She didn't take the usual critical path, the dutiful copying down of plot, capped with the guessing of a film's chances at the box office. Kael picked up the metaphysics of a movie; she seized the image that defined a movie's spirit.

Here she is on The Shining: "Over and over, the camera tracks the characters, and by the climax, when we're running around in the hedge maze on the hotel grounds, the rhythmic sameness has worn us down. It's like watching a skater do figure eights all night."

Check a sentence like that against the usual praise for Kubrick's formal, chilly and flawed horror movie. Incidentally, she's described the ending without giving it away, a trick other critics ought to pick up upon.

While Kael loved the personal anecdote--she was often scorned for this--she avoided too much revelation. You have to read Phillip Lopate's essay on Kael in the book Totally, Tenderly, Tragically to learn the crucial details of her life, including the ending of one of her marriages and the health problems of her daughter.

I never met her, though I was a constant reader. The example of Kael's work has led me throughout this strange career. Reading her was a gateway into cinematic analysis that I wasn't getting anywhere else. When she was acid, I still sensed her empathy for those enduring the isolation of someone sitting in a crowded theater, unable to respond to the latest cinematic lollapalooza.

Through her own ideas and approaches, I could puzzle out what had haunted me about movies. When I worked at the Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills, we couldn't wait to hear what "St. Pauline" was going to write that week. (Tending the crowds of silly rich people lined up to Cousin, Cousine exposed us to the depressing side of "sophisticated" French comedy, as opposed to the "childishness" of Superman II; Kael was a solace as well as an inspiration.)

Kael's retirement was a loss to all film fans. With Parkinson's disease, she no longer had the strength to stand in a ticket line in New York weather. Even retired, though, Kael was still the most influential film critic alive. The Chicago Reader's erudite Jonathan Rosenbaum grumbled about Kael's "kindergarten," just as others have complained of how the film-critic ranks are full of Kaelites-"Paulettes" as James Wolcott snidely put it. Not a lot of Woolites around, are there?.

Have a look at the aphorisms in Trash, Art and the Movies. Read her analysis of the role of money in 1980s film in The Numbers (essays found in her last collection For Keeps). Have a look at her essays in 1966's collection, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in which she confronts the vagaries of the nouvelle vague. There, she forecasts the troubles that plague the digital instant-movies: "Kids who can't write, who have never developed any competence in photography, who have never acted in or directed a play, see no deterrent to making movies."

Kael was, as she wrote of Farber, an education even when tearing up a film you like. Compare her to the best out there today, because comparing her to the mainstream is too sad. The Internet is responsible for the minting of hundreds of new critics. On the whole, though, the new media has created the same old daily newspaper problems: more writing about film as a species of unsolicited advertisements. Hundreds of hacks try earnestly to make the best out of a bad situation; they massage the advertisers and coax moviegoers into settling for less.

And because of Kael's example, we are stuck with bad impressionist critics, too, who expand on Kael's distrust of critical fuzziness to promote the crassest anti-intellectualism--even daring to consider stupidity a stance. As if, in the era of the Farrelly brothers, there were some tremendous risk in preferring dimwit films.

Kael had her personal prejudices and "blind spots," as she put it. But she manifested an underdog's fury against muzzy thinking by the most honored and prestigious directors and stars of her age. Often she was alone. More often, she was right. Her bravery was rare when she was alive and working. It's near extinct now that she's gone.

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Web extra to the September 6-12, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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