Pauline Kael: The critic wore cow boy boots
By Uditha Devapriya
Her sentences never stopped, even when she seemed to be done with them. She went on and on, piling up one opinion after another, hoping perhaps to compensate for the limitations of viewing a film only once before writing about it. She was the world's first real movie critic, though there were several before her who had set the standards for her profession. Her enthusiasms, erratic though they were, knew no bounds; that was her greatest virtue and worst demerit. I didn't grow up on the movies. I didn't lose anything at the movies. Reading her, though, it almost seemed that I had. I read about films before I watched them. I read her before I read any other critic.
The world's first movie critics were journalists and novelists. Both Gorky and Tolstoy wrote on the cinema. When the Vitascope was invented in 1895 and The Great Train Robbery was released in 1904, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer devoted space to them. However, these were not exercises in criticism. In the case of the novelists the verdict was clear: movies were entertainment. In the case of the journalists the verdict was also clear: movies were an offshoot of photography. Both of them were united by their uncertainty over the direction the cinema was heading. Perhaps the most prescient prediction about it came from Tolstoy: "It is closer to life." However, that was before the movies embraced sound: when movement, not conversation, determined the verisimilitude of the most industrial art ever conceived.
In 1941 Time Magazine hired their first real film critic, James Agee. Agee had a way with words. He was spare, never one for the purple prose that characterized his successors, and always on the dot when it came to his enthusiasm for, or derision of, particular movies. He had his favourites: Chaplin, the neo-realists, Laurence Olivier. He had his not-so-favourites: pretty much everything that mainstream Hollywood threw up. "In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today," W. H. Auden once observed. Auden was no cinephile ("I do not care for movies very much") and he despised the idea of film criticism as a literary genre, but in Agee he saw a rejection of his fears. Agee was a master of the understatement. He was sparer, more comprehensible, when it came to jotting down ideas and suggestions. He cared.
Consequently, his wit showed in flashes. Brilliant as ever, he could sum up an entire movie, or for that matter a sequence or scene, in a few sentences. Sometimes this sparseness overran itself until you expected no more than a few words; these were the first few days of movie criticism, after all, and journalists were still very much treated as writers, not critics, when they wrote on what they were hired to write on. Of that 1948 musical comedy You Were Meant for Me, for instance, all he had to say was, "That's what you think." He had us laughing and smiling, he chastened us, and all the while, pretty much like Chaplin and Keaton and the other silent era comedians he paid a tribute to in an essay written for Life Magazine ("Comedy's Greatest Era"), he said everything even though he hardly said anything at all. Always a stickler for accuracy, he never failed to correct himself if his reviews were inaccurate.
Agee wrote that essay on the silent comedians in 1948, the year he retired from The Nation. The only real writer movie lovers looked forward to reading in America abandoned journalism to opt for a freelance career, firstly as a reviewer and later as a scriptwriter. The period during which he worked – World War II – reflected his prose, which was as dismissive of mainstream Hollywood as it was overjoyed about the new movements that were springing up outside America: the neo-realists in Italy, Bunuel in Spain, and the new Chaplin, who had directed The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, and Limelight. It's no surprise that the monopoly that the American cinema had exerted over the rest of the world was, though not completely challenged, certainly changing: the year Agee retired was also the year in which the United States Supreme Court enforced the single most influential judgment against the Hollywood studios, the Paramount Decree.
It was to say the least an exciting time for American movies, because what had characterized them until that point – the technical mastery, the efficient mechanisation, the star system – were envied the world over. In the fifties the French saw otherwise puerile directors and films from Hollywood as great, undiminished artists and works of art, which is how and why they elevated Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and of course John Ford to the status of true artists. To consider these French writers, who wrote to the Cahiers du Cinema and were fathered to a considerable extent by the indefatigable Andre Bazin, as film critics is wrong, however; they were film theorists, and in the various theories they propounded they saw movies, and directors, as embodying art more than entertainment. It was the Cahiers critics who first argued that the director was the auteur.
Just as it was an exciting time for Hollywood, therefore, it was also a depressing time. Television had arrived. The old classics of the Chaplins and the Garbos and the Keatons were being telecast. The exciting and depressing time had at the same time become nostalgic (here I quote David Denby: "Nostalgia is history altered through sentiment.") However, with Agee gone there was no one to restore film criticism to the country that had fermented it: America, the Land of the Free, where anyone could come in and direct a movie if he or she had the capital and the talent to fine-tune that capital with. And although Hollywood was a country within a country, the fifties had somehow returned the cinema to its original creators, the French. The dichotomy between High and Low Art, once thought unnecessary in the medium, quickly materialized in the movies. On the one hand you had the auteurs: Bresson, Resnais, Bunuel. On the other hand you had directors who worked not as auteurs but as entertainers but were still venerated as auteurs by the Europeans: Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford. This dichotomy needed someone, anyone, to be done away with. That someone and anyone was Pauline Kael.
Agee was born 10 years before Pauline, and Agee died 10 years before Pauline published her first collection of reviews, I Lost it At The Movies. The differences between the two couldn't have been more apparent, because Agee was the first real voice of American criticism in the 20th century and had done more, much more, for his age (he was rather young when he died, at 55) than Kael ever would. (He also revered Chaplin, while she did not: "He made me cry, and I didn't want maudlin feelings at the movies.") "I waited a very long time in my life to get paid for my writing," she admitted at a writer's workshop, and it's true: she was all of 45 when I Lost it At the Movies was published, whereas Agee was 33 when he began writing to The Nation. It took a great many more years, even with her long tenure at the most widely read magazine in America, the New Yorker, for her style to be accepted. She was not really a "voice" that Agee had been. Which was for the better, I should think: to consider her a "voice" would mean judging her on the standards that everyone had created before her. She transcended those standards. She wrote like a cowboy, so much so that one of the readers who wrote to her contended that she trampled through the magazine pages with boots covered with dung.
But those cowboy boots did their job, and soon Kael became arguably the most widely read movie critic in America. There are writers who stick to a particular theory, make veneration and adulation part of their overarching style, and therefore become consistent in what they write. Pauline Kael was neither consistent nor overarching in that sense; she made you read her reviews less for the movies they were about than for the fact that they were, even at their worst, written in her inimitable tone. And she diverged wildly, moving from the good to the bad to the downright ugly while not caring for the fact that, all in all, she never saw a film more than once. Her rationale, that when you go to the theatre over and over again you tend to see more of the flaws and the mechanics rather than the intrinsic workings and texture of a film, was not exactly off-the-mark, but it helps explain why nearly all her reviews are so brash, so holier-than-thou, that superficially at least they leave no room for doubt. That was her virtue: she was simply irresistible. And in being irresistible, she voiced opinions not many shared, much less admired.
In 1980 Renata Adler wrote a review of Kael's sixth collection of articles and essays, When the Lights Go Down, and penned down the following extraordinary words: "It is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." Worthless was hardly a term you used when talking about what Kael wrote. But Adler had a point: she was notorious for her voice, which derided objectivity and sought to make its own standard (always alive, never in one place) its own vindication, its own fall.
You either loved it (as I did) or hated it (as Adler did). She separated her preferences from those directors she disliked with probably the only principle that guided her: if you liked a movie, and liked it so damn well, you never ever wrote about its defects. Not every critic and reader would have liked that, and not everyone did. But for every Adler, there were plenty of readers who did.
I would suggest that this issue, which is really a problem to many budding reviewers and academics, goes into the heart of the medium it revolves around. Movies are like aphrodisiacs at times, because they are so connected with our instincts.
At one point they almost became the synthesis of literature and theatre: the latter for its live sense of exhilaration, the former for its veneer of high-flown elegance and sophistication. As the world's youngest art form, the cinema was hence unparalleled in its ability to pick and choose, to play on the prejudices and the sentiments of entire collectives. Griffith may or may not have shared the views of the Ku Klux Klan but many people who watched, and cheered, The Birth of a Nation had.
So when the critics came marching in, creating their own standards, their own benchmarks, they had one excuse to give for their free-flowing styles: the movies were young, so their relationship with culture was sufficiently young for them to arbitrarily praise, censure, and offer comment. It goes without saying, then, that no other art, before it, had emboldened critics so much. 113 years after The Great Train Robbery, many film critics are still bold as ever.Continued next week...
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