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What She Found in the Dark

Pauline Kael, an American film critic who wrote for the New Yorker from the late 1960s to 1991, believed a film could and would change your life.

Book review, Oct. 22, 2011

'The Age of Movies' is described as the first new selection of Pauline Kael's work "in more than a generation." That the last selection of her work came out just 17 years ago suggests a generation in America is becoming alarmingly brief. And yet somehow one knows what the Library of America is getting at. Moviegoing today is a completely disposable experience; the only question a reviewer is supposed to answer is whether a movie lives up to its hype. Kael spent her whole career working with the certainty that movies could mean something profound to the audience and to the culture at large – an attitude that belongs not just to an earlier generation but to a lost geological epoch.

Kael was a movie reviewer at the New Yorker from the late 1960s until 1991. She was an unlikely hire. Before her, the typical New Yorker movie reviewer had been urbane, witty and condescending; none of them appeared to know or care particularly about the movies. (This tradition resumed after she retired.) Kael wasn't often witty, was never urbane and she cared about movies with an intensity bordering on the desperate. One of her early, pre-New Yorker reviews, of Vittorio De Sica's classic "Shoeshine," set out her characteristic manner:

When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming. . . . I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine.

She was often laughed at for passages like this, but moviegoers had never read anything like it, and by the time she settled in at the New Yorker she had become the most discussed reviewer in America. "The savagely written book by America's most controversial movie critic!" announced the front cover of "I Lost It at the Movies" (1965), her first collection of reviews. It sold 150,000 copies.

The savagery has mostly faded away by now. It's true that she ridiculed the big-budget Hollywood behemoths of that era like "The Sound of Music" and "Doctor Zhivago" (both 1965). But while her disrespect was an invigorating novelty in those days, today it doesn't look like much compared with the snark uploaded by the hour into the film-geek blogosphere. The controversy looks pretty quaint now, too. Kael spent a lot of time in her early years feuding with other reviewers, particularly Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice – in the pages of magazines like Partisan Review, Sight and Sound, and Film Quarterly. And while there are brilliant lines scattered through these pieces (Kael was always a fine, needling polemicist), it would probably take acres of footnotes to elucidate exactly what they were all arguing about.

What remains vital is the freshness and independence she brought to her trade. She was hostile to theory and believed in going entirely on her own instincts. She revered the classic directors of world cinema like Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray and thought the then art-house gods Antonioni and Bergman were bores. She loved the vitality of American popular moviemaking, particularly the musicals and screwball comedies and gangster films of her youth, but she didn't think their directors were major artists. She knew film history but didn't dwell in the archives; in fact she was almost supernaturally good at spotting new talent. She wrote rave reviews of the early movies of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Jonathan Demme and David Lynch. She called the now-obscure 1974 "Sugarland Express" "one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies" – a judgment that would look preposterous today if the director hadn't been Steven Spielberg and his next movie "Jaws."

She had no use for the pretentious, the overbearing, the solemn, the would-be profound. She became infamous for calling "Citizen Kane" "a shallow masterpiece" – people didn't realize that this was her way of paying it a compliment. (If it had been only slightly deeper, it would probably have been unwatchably dull.) Her example of a perfect movie, where the energy of American commercial entertainment was thrillingly balanced against the high style of the European classics, was "The Godfather."

It's hard to believe now just how angry people got at her. When I was in college in the mid-1970s, my film-major roommate made a weekly habit of reading Kael, and about halfway through each review he'd be spluttering with so much rage he could barely speak. (Maybe that week she'd praised Barbra Streisand or else made some slighting remark about his supreme artistic hero, Alfred Hitchcock.) That scorn still persists today. The recent "Film Snob's Dictionary" says that Kael's work stood out for "its bracing, provocative prose and the author's loony, irrational taste."

Loony and irrational? That doesn't sound good. Is it necessary to point out the double standard at work behind such haughty dismissals? Any reviewer who writes for long enough is bound to make foolish judgments, but Kael was unmercifully slagged for it while more decorous male reviewers were excused. James Agee, the revered critic for the Nation in the 1940s, simply couldn't understand what anybody saw in "Casablanca" – readers shrugged this off as a harmless blind spot. Kael defended Brian De Palma movies, and people thought she was clinically insane.

Still, there was something else behind the hostility. Kael's prose could make her judgments seem unnaturally lurid. She herself referred to her "crowbar style." She bullied readers into going to see movies she liked. She once claimed that "Last Tango in Paris" was as important a cultural event as Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." You'd feel like a real oaf if you skipped it then, wouldn't you? She violently contradicted herself from review to review and sometimes from sentence to sentence. She described everything with such extraordinary force that she was continually breaking up the decorum of the review form. She wrote furiously, torrentially, determined to get down on paper every thought and emotion that occurred to her as a movie unspooled – every flash of pleasure, every jab of annoyance, every half-formed insight and doubled-back reflection and blind alley and stray tangent. (See her fiercely ambivalent reviews of Sam Peckinpah's movies for her style at its most tumultuous.)

Yet she was uniquely good at describing the peculiar intimacy of the moviegoing experience. She took it for granted that watching movies was fundamentally erotic. She liked teasing her readers by brazenly discussing which movies worked for her sexually, and why. In one early review she warned her readers not to see a particular Japanese movie "if you've never wanted to keep the light on during intercourse" – that was heady stuff for the "Mad Men" generation. She frequently gave her books double-entendre titles ("I Lost It at the Movies" is one of the cleaner ones). She analyzed the sex appeal of both actors and actresses in loving detail, and she was distinctly more enthusiastic about the actresses, which caused a lot of speculation about her private life back in the day.

To judge by Brian Kellow's biography, her private life is still a live question. The trouble is, Kael doesn't appear to have had a private life outside of her own head – or if she did, nobody who knew anything about it was willing to discuss it with Mr. Kellow. He dutifully trolls for excitement in Kael's early years: her childhood in rural California, her salad days in San Francisco, her scattering of early romantic relationships (all with men, it happens) and her career as a freelance reviewer. That gets us up to page 101, when Kael hires on at the New Yorker. And then Mr. Kellow draws a blank. Apparently Kael did nothing after that but watch movies and then write about them – as though she were Emily Dickinson with a dirty mind.

One's heart goes out to Mr. Kellow, who must fill up his book somehow. Page after listless page straggles past filled with nothing but summaries of the movies Kael saw and what she thought of them. The only external drama he can find is in Kael's fights with her editor, William Shawn. Most writers see themselves as engaged in apocalyptic grudge matches with their editors. Kael's and Shawn's barely amount to spats. The high point comes in 1979, when Kael quits the New Yorker and goes to work for a Hollywood studio as a consultant. She didn't much like it, and Shawn hired her back a few months later. End of story. You can't have a good grudge match if nobody's holding a grudge.

Mr. Kellow also makes everything he can out of the odd coterie that developed around Kael in her later years, a group of younger (mostly male) movie reviewers who became derisively known as the "Paulettes." Mr. Kellow tries to make them sound somehow sinister – a cult of sleeper-cell infiltrators out to overthrow the movie-reviewing establishment in Kael's name. And maybe they were. Hell, for all we know, maybe they even succeeded. If they did, how could anybody tell? The less occult possibility is that Kael liked to sit around and drink and gossip and lay down the law with a bunch of her admirers – and who can blame her for that?

Stultifying as all this is, it at least permanently closes off any lingering prurient interest the reader may have in Kael's personal life and puts the focus exactly where it ought to be: on her books. But which books? "The Age of Movies" isn't a bad place to start?it does contain a plausible sampling of Kael's reviews, with the stress on the young directors she championed. (The only other Kael title that's readily accessible, an encyclopedia of capsule reviews called "5001 Nights at the Movies," should be avoided?she was no good at the capsule form.) But it's not the definitive retrospective we've come to expect from the Library of America. Too many crucial pieces have been omitted?pretty much all of the early controversy and savagery, as well as late hot-button reviews like her pan of "Shoah" (she thought the subject matter was causing people to overlook Claude Lanzmann's deficiencies as a director). Many of the weaker ones that are here seem to have been picked only because they're about movies that a modern audience is likely to have seen.

The biggest loss is that there's nothing from Kael's most sustained work, "Raising Kane" (1971). This is a brief book on the making of "Citizen Kane" that provoked a hurricane of furious denunciations in the film-geek world?she was accused of deliberately suppressing evidence of Orson Welles's contribution to the screenplay as part of an invidious attack on his genius. The counterattacks now seem wildly overstated. Whether or not she got some of the specifics wrong, she was clearly right on her larger point, which is that Welles was at his best when he had strong collaborators. In fact, reread now, the book proves to be a subtle, searching and brilliant meditation on authorship and collaboration in old Hollywood. It should be regarded as one of the few genuine masterpieces of American movie writing?and maybe it would be if readers had an easier time getting hold of a copy.

But the real problem with "The Age of Movies" is simply that Kael doesn't lend herself to abridgement. No matter what was chosen or left out, even at 800 pages, the book feels skimpy. Kael's own best-of selection, "For Keeps" (1994), which "The Age of Movies" is largely drawn from, is more than 1,200 pages of microscopic type. (It feels both skimpy and crushingly overweight.) Kael needs to be read the way she wrote: in bulk with all her crotchets, perversities and forgotten controversies intact. Her 10 books of collected reviews can be seen as a single, grandly catch-all chronicle of movies and American pop culture over four decades and an equally exhaustive record of one writer's intensely rich interior life?a work comparable in size and importance to the long shelf of Edmund Wilson's books or to fellow New Yorker writer Janet Flanner's countless, endlessly fascinating (and still mostly uncollected) "Paris Letters."

Read on those terms, Kael's writing grows steadily more impressive. I myself have never thought all that highly of De Sica's "Shoeshine," and I'm guessing that not many viewers now would be so moved by it. But surely it doesn't make any difference whether or not Kael overrated "Shoeshine" in particular: What matters is that people really can feel that kind of transformative passion about a movie, as they can about any work of art, and nobody ever described that experience better than Kael did. There's a famous poem by Rilke that describes with miraculous intensity a surviving torso of a ruined classical sculpture and then ends, without a word of transition or explanation: "You must change your life." If you've ever been stirred that way at the movies and thought, however briefly, that nothing was going to be the same, then Kael is the writer for you.

This article appeared Oct. 22, 2011, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael edited by Sanford Schwartz (Library of America, 828 pages, $40), and Pauline Kael by Brian Kellow (Viking, 417 pages, $27.95)