Pauline Kael: The critic wore cowboy boots

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By 2018-02-04

By Uditha Devapriya

The greatest damage inflicted on the movies and their critics was the creation of a dichotomy between art and entertainment. This dichotomy, as I pointed out before, was inadvertently conceived by the French, especially Bazin and his disciple, Alexandre Astruc. Pauline was responsible for doing away with this artificial rift, and along the way was responsible also for the elevation of kitsch, or rubbish as ivory tower academics were wont to call it. The question we might have asked here would be, "Is

entertainment art?" The question Kael would have asked, on the other hand, was, "Is art entertainment?" Which meant that more than half those arty pictures that the French critics and their American emulators (among them Andrew Sarris, with whom she had a lifelong tussle) admired were, in her opinion, pretentiously insufferable. She admired L'Avventura (which she considered the best film of 1961, the year that saw La Dolce Vita, West Side Story, and Judgment at Nuremberg, all of which she detested), but hated Antonioni's other work, especially Blow-Up. They didn't entertain; they bored.

Experts tend to disparage Kael's reviews on the basis of their appeal to emotion over reason, their at-times baseless denigration of non-American directors, and their frequent inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies. But in conflating such inaccuracies (of which there were plenty, as I will point out in a while) with what they felt to be her inabilities they got everything muddled up about her. Pauline Kael disparaged High Art and elevated kitsch for the same reason that Walter Benjamin had decades before her: that unlike the former, the latter was so utilitarian that it did not critically distance the objet d'art from its audience. In other words there was no rift between the creation and the consumption of art, a rift that Marxist critics love to talk about (because it exists). Kael was no Marxist, but she was plebeian in her views.

She did not necessarily pander to the notion that the cinema didn't have to be or get serious but she was critical of directors who believed that they HAD to be serious. So out of her window went Frank Capra, Stanley Kramer, the later Costa-Gavras, and of course Charlie Chaplin. Instead she revered the wild ones – the directors of the screwball comedies, including Hawks and Preston Sturges, along with Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, and later, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, and the early Spielberg and Bertolucci. I particularly love her take on Kramer ("The Intentions of Stanley Kramer"), where she demolishes, word to word, the myth of the man as the embodiment of Hollywood's conscience. Kramer wanted to be known as a filmmaker who condemned countries and men and women that put expedience above ideals, yet he was committing the same crime in the arts by resorting to a balancing act between controversial themes and the drawing power of big stars.

In the American cinema there has always been a gap between production values and aesthetic merit. In other countries too such a gap exists, but the purveyors of Hollywood were quick to deny it in their world. Movie techniques in the hands of the continental directors of the sixties – Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini – usually weren't interesting to Kael, and it is a testament to her integrity that they weren't interesting even when they were in films from her own country. The lush extravagance of a sixties musical (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and of course her most hated movie of all time, The Sound of Music) tends to confuse technique for craftsmanship and craftsmanship for imaginativeness. "The success of a movie like The Sound of Music makes it difficult for anyone to try to do anything worth doing, anything relevant to the modern world, anything inventive or expressive," she wrote in 1965 (that sentence was enough to kick start the second phase of her career with the New Yorker), and to a considerable extent she was correct. We adulated the epics of David Lean and DeMille and William Wyler as children; she had matured faster than any of us because she found a reason for adulation (to the same degree) in the clumsier but more honest forays of De Palma and Altman.

But just as America was the one country where the rift between technique and imagination could be sustained while pretending that there wasn't such a rift in the first place, it was also the one country in the world where an individual critic could come in and demolish that attitude of pretension. America was never really the Land of the Free, but in the arts it was the freest of all lands, so when one standard and set of prejudices got demolished, and when the Goldwyns and the Mayers and the big studio bosses drowned in the wake of television and the Paramount Decree, another set of standards and prejudices were heralded and got rooted. Kael was no exception to this, which is where I get to the Kael I didn't like very much: who seemed to think, and believe, that the American cinema was greater in every respect (based on her standards, that is) than the cinema of other countries. She was no bigot, no racist, but she was considerably shallow.

In the arts, philistinism is often venerated as the surest sign of the rebel. But philistinism can only be vindicated if the values which the philistine rebel seeks to flay are the same ones he or she refuses to project. With respect to Kael I think the reviews she wrote violated this principle. She refused to subscribe to the auteur theory, for instance, yet her admiration for De Palma, Altman, and the early Spielberg bordered on that same theory. Worse, she not only violated such principles, she also violated the critic's fidelity to accuracy and clarity. Where she was at her ostensibly most journalistic, therefore, she was at her worst. In her review of Kramer's Ship of Fools, for instance, she picks on a remark of Lowenthal, the Jew aboard the ship, that there are six million of his race in Germany. "Really," she wrote, "it's more than nitpicking to point out that German Jews numbered close to half a million than six million." She should have done her homework: what Lowenthal actually said was "nearly a million." And then in her review of Jeremiah Johnson she observed that Robert Redford returns an Indian's salute with his middle finger. Again, she didn't do her homework: he doesn't give him the finger, he returns that salute. Such inconsistencies were bad, and frequently so.

And none of those inconsistencies, all of which revealed not just her at-times insufferable disregard for the truth but also her shallow, narrow political prejudices, showed more clearly than in her review of 1954's Salt of the Earth. Directed by Herbert Biberman, written by Michael Wilson, and produced by Paul Jarrico, it was perhaps the first and only independent American film made completely by blacklisted artists (even Jarrico the producer had been a victim of the purge), and it depicted a dramatic retelling of the 1951 strike against a mining company in New Mexico.

Kael would have known of the blacklist, the crude irrationalities it propagated, and the many talents and lives it threw away, needlessly, to the dust. (The blacklist was primarily a conflict, the way I see it, between the big actors and directors on the one hand and the intellectuals and writers on the other; the former were endowed with force, the latter with intelligence.) She would have known that many of those blacklisted were barely communists; they were, by the time they were ordered to testify at Congress, lapsed socialists. She would also have known of the anti-unionism that prevailed in the fifties, the poor and the wretched that were denied their rights by their employers. And yet she did not mince her words: "If American working people seek an image of their attitudes and beliefs they will find it in Hollywood films – they have helped to put it there. Though a Hollywood version glamorizes their lives, it does justice to their dreams. If they did go to see Salt it is not likely that more than a small proportion would see anything that struck home, and that perhaps would be only as a reminder of depression days." For her at least, Salt was for the "liberals and progressives" whose thinking never went beyond the thirties, which was not true. As untrue and inaccurate were the dialogues from the film she referred to, because seven of them appeared in a newspaper, and not in the movie. Jarrico was spot on when he rebuked her, hence: "I do not question Kael's right to dislike Salt, and to give it a negative review. My reaction is subjective, admittedly, but what she seems to have lost at the movies was not her innocence but her

honour." Years later George Roy Hill would make roughly the same remark after she noted that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had been shot indoors, when it was actually shot outdoors.

It's easy to see how Pauline Kael reigned despite these limitations. For one thing, she started writing on the movies at probably the most exciting juncture in the history of the American cinema: the juncture where Peckinpah, De Palma, Coppola, and Spielberg came out. And although it's ridiculous to suggest that the films of these directors were the most exciting things to happen to Hollywood, they were certainly products of their time, which happened to be filled with exhilaration and joyous, almost casual rebellion. Who doesn't watch Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and see in them a sort of zeitgeist, a summing up of the periods in which they were set and directed (which, in the case of Bonnie and Clyde, were not the same)? It's easy to trivialize a director like De Palma now, and easy to think that Kael inflated his reputation. But that was when movies mattered. Today, as David Denby (who had his own run-ins with Kael, as an ardent follower and then a spurned student) has pointed out in his essay "Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?" published in The Atlantic, the richness of imagination that characterized the American cinema has all but completely drowned in the richness of technology at present. We currently live in an era of superheroes and super-villains fighting against each other and even against and amongst themselves. The future of the industry is, hence, nowhere.

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