Film Criticism, the Desperate Art: Pauline Kael at 100
“There is so much talk now about the art of the film that we may be in danger of forgetting that most of the movies we enjoy are not works of art.”
—Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies”
“Everybody is forever saying that the essay is dead. This is always said in essays.”
—John Leonard, “Funny Things to Think About and Eat”
Pauline Kael, eloquent, incisive, histrionic, and stubborn, engendered the idea of the amateur-as-critic. She didn’t study film, nor did she study writing, and yet for three decades she was America’s preeminent writer on film, the progenitor of modern film criticism as well a reminder of what criticism no longer is. The conflation of the personal and the critical begins in earnest with Kael. She wrote for the Partisan Review at the beginning of her career, where she did much of her best work, and rose to prominence with a long, sprawling, enthusiastic review of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), a mainstream film whose unprecedented display of violence shocked many critics; her former employers, The New Republic, refused to run the review without making significant edits, at which point Kael, indignant and ingenious, sold it to The New Yorker, who shortly thereafter hired her as a film critic. The fervor of her writing galvanized readers, and soon Kael had a legion of fans and more power than any American film critic had ever possessed.
Kael was something of a duelist during her tenure at The New Yorker, shooting it out with editor William Shawn and trying — desperately, futilely — to get her fellow film critic, Penelope Gilliatt, fired. (Shawn did not give Kael a word limit, so her reviews could go on like short stories, her provocations unspooling languorously, loquaciously.) As Sanford Schwartz notes in his introduction to The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, she was, like Saul Bellow, the progeny of European Jewish immigrants, and her writing is, like many of the great white male American novelists of the epoch, imbued with and compelled by the desire to sound “American.” Kael wrote of Last Tango in Paris (1972) as having a “primitive force . . . thrusting, jabbing eroticism.” This also describes her writing. Her prose flowed with an astute sense of rhythm, and she had a penchant for hyperbole — in 1980, Kael claimed that movies had been, for the last few years, “rank.” (Movies that came out in the rank year of 1979 include Alien, Apocalypse Now, All That Jazz, Stalker, Manhattan, and Legend of the Mountain.) A pent-up licentiousness is palpable in her prose, as if cinema is her great aphrodisiac.
Kael’s essay “Movies, The Desperate Art” begins: “The film critic in the United States is in a curious position: the greater his interest in the film medium, the more enraged and negative he is likely to sound . . . A few writers, and not Americans only, have taken a rather fancy way out: they turn films into Rorschach tests and find the most elaborate meanings in them . . . the deficiency of this technique is that the writers reveal a great deal about themselves but very little about the films.”
Kael is right, of course: in writing about a film, the critic is, whether intentionally or not, writing about themselves, their own affinities, their own biases, revealing the extent and limits of their knowledge; the way a critic extrapolates political and social meaning, the way they evaluate formal qualities, the details they choose to emphasize, describing their emotional involvement — it’s all an act of memoir. “The critique must be as emotionally ambitious as the work it is interpreting if it to give us back the taste of our own experience,” Vivian Gornick wrote in n+1 in 2006. To write criticism is to allow one’s self to become vulnerable, and Kael, more than any other critic of her generation, wrote highly subjective and personal criticism. She eschewed theory in her writing, but peppered her essays with generalizations about the current state of cinema and society (always seen through the prismatic lens of her own perspective). She reacted viscerally to film rather than intellectually, and no one was better at capturing their own feelings — unadulterated, unapologetic — about a film. (Margo Jefferson referred to this approach as a search for “a kind of raw emotional drive,” in an interview with The Millions, a turn of phrase that aptly describes Kael’s writing.) As Roger Ebert noted, Kael wrote from her heart, from her gut. She did not adhere to any rules. This sometimes lead to self-contradiction: consider, for instance, how she abhorred Andrew Sarris’ idea of auteurism, yet she displayed similar penchants (i.e. in her adoration for Brian De Palma).
Kael’s claim that critics who have “an interest in the film medium” are more likely to be negative is a complaint still being made today. Kael here sounds like any irate fan on the Internet telling a critic “Let people enjoy things.” And yet Kael was one of criticism’s most unrepentant, trenchant, exacting voices, and it is when she is being unrepentant, trenchant, and exacting that she is at her most compelling, even when you disagree with her intensely. (Only Renata Adler comes to mind immediately as a more lacerating critic.)
Film criticism needs more negativity, more critics who have a great interest in the medium, and fewer fanboys grabbing their ankles for big mainstream movies. Film criticism has changed profoundly since Kael’s days. It has transmogrified into a toothless monster. Social media hasn’t helped — what is referred to as “Film Twitter” can frequently feel like an incestuous circle jerk. It’s as if critics are afraid to say anything serious. The critic was in a position of power during Kael’s tenure at The New Yorker; she had influence, acolytes. She spat fire and didn’t hold back. David Thomson recently referred to Kael as “crazy” and “unhinged,” and that’s what we need more of in film criticism. Give me an articulate and unhinged critic over a complacent blogger any day. (Renata Adler’s infamous evisceration of Kael, “The Perils of Pauline,” in which the acerbic, almost acrimonious Adler called Karl’s writing worthless, comes to mind. When was the last time mainstream criticism gave us something so seething, so daring? It’s worth noting that Adler isn’t even remembered for her criticism today, but for her novels, with their aphorisms and sharp observations and brief, no-word-wasted anecdotes that always seem to end on a profound note.) Since the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of amateur criticism, criticism has lost its expertise. To be knowledgeable is to be elitist, inaccessible. Kael wrote “Movies, the Desperate Art” in 1959, the same year the inimitable Elizabeth Hardwick wrote her essay “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which begged literary critics to write more seriously about craft. In 2014, 55 years after Kael and Hardwick lamented the pathetic state of criticism, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an essay for RogerEbert.com called “Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking,” which received a not insignificant amount of backlash from bloggers and writers. Why is it that most mainstream critics refuse to acknowledge craft? The most popular outlets peddle in fanfare, not serious critical discourse. It’s a concatenation of buzzwords and performative political safety. For every erudite writer, every Nick Pinkerton or K. Austin Collins or A. S. Hamrah or Chuck Stephens, there is a bevy of bloggers posting homogenous articles devoid of any erudition. We get 17 lists of the best Avengers memes and the obligatory ranking of Quentin Tarantino’s movies every few years. As Truman Capote once quipped, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”
The dearth of experts writing about film is one of two serious issues that make modern criticism feel so listless, so insipid; the other is the prose. Kael may not have understood the formal aspects of film as well as Andrew Sarris or the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, but she was, like John Leonard or Manny Farber or Elizabeth Hardwick, a prose stylist, a writer who could conjure vivid images with mere words, and in this regard she is sorely missed. Most criticism today, as with most books released by the big publishers, has a casual, conversational vibe, accessible and unchallenging. Criticism is a literary form and attention should be paid to prose, but most critics write as if they’ve never read a book before. “What must it be like for those who know and love only movies, and not literature as well?” Kael wrote. “Even if they don’t consciously miss it, surely the loss of the imaginative ranging over experience is irreparable.” Criticism should challenge readers because criticism is literature. Most editors want simple prose because simple prose appeals to the masses, which means more clicks, which means more ad revenue, which means the writers who are the most prolific and most successful are those who appeal to the masses. You can learn a lot about a person by the energy — or acedia — of their writing.
François Truffaut once said, “I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” I feel the same about film criticism. It should be as alive as the person writing it, as passionate and as flawed.
Pauline Kael wrote for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. Her centennial was on June 19.