#30: PRAISING KAEL. If you’re ever in the mood for conversational combat, go into a roomful of movie buffs and mention Pauline Kael. Half of the room will go into raptures; half will make great noises of disgust. Kael was for many years the film critic for the NEW YORKER; she bloomed, first and particularly, during the late sixties and early seventies, when American cinema was in a brief glory period of inventiveness and
pointed relevance, and American receptivity to foreign film was at a new high. She’d already been an influence, programming San Francisco art cinemas, lauding the French New Wave films, and getting fired from McCALL’S for her review of what she called “The Sound of Money”. As time goes on we’ll be able to sort out Kael’s blunders and biases and put her work in perspective; I want to get at her as an example of American vernacular writing. One of the blessed streams of American prose, from Thoreau and Twain on, has been a kind of irreverent truth-telling, and which surfaced early in American movie reviewing with James Agee. A phrase I often use is “By conservative estimate, the god-damnedest thing ever seen” (I used it once of the Albert Memorial).
That’s Agee, and that streak of verbal barbed-wire is the reason he’s still so much more fun to read than Otis Ferguson or Andre Bazin. Note the word: fun. Kael shamelessly associated movies with fun, with playing hooky, with a good time out. “It must be art, because it sure as hell isn’t entertainment.” She loved the irreverent American comedies—she did a book-length essay on “Citizen Kane”—but her raucous attitude
could be pressed into greater service: her review of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” is still the best thing done on that film because she captures the movie’s overwhelming silliness as well as its greatness. I’m not talking that inhumane sophistication that so often poisons the NEW YORKER—I’m talking getting in there and having at it. And no critic since Kael can match her range of familiarity with the other arts— opera especially, her favorite point of comparison. Her peculiar effectiveness was in loving movies as an escape from the enforced appreciation of the academically respectable older arts. “At the movies you’re left gloriously alone. You can say it stinks and nobody cares.” That mischievous-schoolkid freedom may not hold true any longer, but it survives in Kael’s essays. Start with FOR KEEPS (Plume, 1996), her own selection—from there you may want to go on to the individual collections, even if they’re studded with reviews of movies long forgotten.
Of Kael’s successors at the New Yorker, my great favorite is Anthony Lane. Rereading the lovely literary portraits that nicely weight the second half of NOBODY’S PERFECT (Random, 2002), Lane being almost the only film critic who will admit that movies by themselves may not be a complete cultural diet, I almost skipped the reviews of crap like “Deep Impact” and “Showgirls,” forgetting for a moment that reviews of really, really bad movies are often more fun than the reviews of good ones. Lane is more affable than Kael, but don’t provoke him, and he is past master of the innocent tagged-on remark: wait for “Anything I can do to help?” and “I bet he is.” And his essay on “Sing-Along-A- Sound of Music”—your mother’s beloved favorite treated as a combination karaoke event-cum-costume party—is pure bliss. My, what people do get up to.
As for Agee, his essays and reviews were collected in the first volume of AGEE ON FILM (the second volume, his screenplays, is less interesting). Another favorite quote, his review of “I Walk Alone”: “The picture deserves, like four out five other movies, to walk alone, tinkle a little bell, and cry ‘Unclean, unclean.’” It’s still in print from Perigee books, as it bloody well should be. The 2005 Agee volume FILM WRITING AND SELECTED JOURNALISM in the Library of America contains everything from the Perigee edition plus some uncollected pieces. Have fun.