Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Critic Pauline Kael -- sharp eye on Hollywood

The movies -- from "The Jazz Singer" (1927) to "The Empire Strikes back" ( 1980) -- are as familiar to Pauline Kael as her own family photo album, and they mean nearly as much.

Kael is fascinated by how those celluloid dreams connect with real life, and she explores the connections tirelessly -- as a film critic fr The New Yorker magazine, as a lecturer at UCLA's and other movie schools, and most recently as a consultant at Paramount.

About these ads

Kael's parents started taking her to flickering two-reelers near their home in the San Francisco area when she could barely see over the seat ahead. Later she tagged along with older brothers and sisters to the talkies, where she soaked up the excitement and romance.

"Things were a little prim at home," she says. But at the movies, "you picked up how to behave on dates, and what made you attractive and what made you unattractive. You knew the difference between Ralph Bellamy and Cary Grant!"

Pauline Kael's moviegoing has spanned the careers of many legends -- Chaplin Garbo, Gable, Hepburn. In her newest book, "When the Lights Go Down" (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), she writes about one of those legends with intimacy and authority, and also with the wonder of a spellbound ingenue basking in the screen's magic:

"Many men must have wanted to be Clark Gable and look straight at a woman with a faint smirk and lifted, questioning eyebrows. What man doesn't -- at some level -- want to feel supremely confident and earthy and irresistible?But a few steps up the dreamy social ladder there's the more subtle fantasy of worldly grace -- of being so gallant and gentlemanly and charming that every woman longs to be your date. And at that deluxe level men want to be Cary Grant.

"Men as far apart as John F. Kennedy and Lucky Luciano thought that he sould star in their life story. . . . Who else could demonstrate that sophistication didn't have to be a sign of weakness -- that it could be the polished, fun-loving stule of those who were basically tough? Cary Grant has said that even he wanted to be Cary Grant."

During 27 years of critiquing the movies in her witty, intelligent style, Kael has also carved out a special niche. Today's generation of moviemakers, who teethed on her reviews and signed up for her college classes, would have to call her Hollywood's godmother.

Kael can rail about moviedom's latesst monstrosity with a motherly sort of caring, or occasionally wax ehthusiastic over an ambitious film that nonetheless contains a few distasteful scenes. She looks at movies through the rosy glow of a special affection for them, which the twice-a-year moviegoer may find hard to fathom. You can detect it in her contagious enthusiasm when she comments:

About these ads

"I still can't believe that so many people didn't respond to 'Godfather II.' For me, in sequence after sequence I thought [director] Francis Ford Coppola had grown by leaps and bounds. What an incredible development -- that he's trying to make something Shakespearean out of this material! And he did it. There were scenes where he had it.

". . . I'm sure you get a kind depth of sensibility from reading Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or another great writer that uou don't get in the movies, but you don't get that sensual completeness and that immediate understanding."

It's this sort of closeness to the movies that contributes to Kael's equanimity about a film like "The Warriors." Detached viewers denounced it as a paen to violence, an incitement to urban streets gangs. But Kael writes:

"The Warriorsm is a real moviemaker's movie . . . [I]t's a slum kid's vivid fantasy of the hardships and adventures of a group of boys who have to prove their courage, their disciplone, and their fighting skill to survive the night. . . . Fighting means morem to them than if they were actually defending their own land or property: fighting is its own reward -- it ennobles them, and this macho pride is all they've got. And so the movie expresses something that's international: why the poorest boys of so many countries form disciplined, loyal tribal units and attack other boys as poor and scared and powerless as themselves. The physical action is so stylized . . ., and so contrapuntal in the Oriental-martial-arts-dancing manner that you have no thought of pain or gore."

Well, perhaps not if you see if through herm eyes. Passages like this might have exposed her to charges of being "radical chic," but few critics have argued that shehs missed a beat. It's her supersharp eye and ability to get it all down on paper that make her reviews so rich that they even attract readers who disagree with her aesthetic judgments.

How did this quintessential fan get started writing reviews? After studying philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, where she was also interested in music and painting, she worked as a free-lance journalist, writing for a number of magazines on a variety of subjects over the years. In 1953 her first film review was published in City Lights.

"somehow, when i started writing movie reviews everything came together," she says. "It just had an ease and assurance. The other forms of writing were more self-conscious."

Gradually Kael gave up the other subjects to concentrate entirely on film, writing for The New Republic and other publications. In 1968 she joined the staff at The New Yorker, doing half-yearly stint there and giving her courses and compiling her reviews for books during the other six months. "When the Lights Go Down," her seventh book, contains rougly 250 reviews written in the winters from 1975 to '79, plus a critical essay on Cary Grant.

Her work has brought her laurels as well as a constant trickle of mail from the readers and filmmakers who disagree with her. She won a National Book Award in 1974 for "Deeper Into Movies." According to one critic, reading Pauline Kael is more fun than going to the movies.

Kael counters by saying that she hopes that's not true -- at least for the good movies. Her conversation is vivacious, funny sharp. And it is buoyed by a steady current of caring and decency. Like her writing, it is rich in detail and connections.

Ask her what makes a movie great, and she refuses to be cornered:

"You can define greatness in terms of scale or in terms of wonderful -- it all depends. You can define greatness so it includes things like the Marx Brothers in 'Duck Soup,' or, say, 'California Split,' because it has wonderful moments and great charm. Movies come in all different sizes, and they can do almost anything.As [Jean-Luc] Godard established, they can be an essay, they can be journalism, they can be fiction, they can be nonfiction all wrapped up inone.

"And yet I think movies are also marvellous when they touch the child in us. I mean 'Jaws' is a wonderful movie in a primal, scary way. It's a horror comedy in a way. [Director Steven Spielberg] reminds us of how movies terrified us when we were first going to movies. The scares are so funny because we can laugh at ourselves for being frightened. He has a wonderful sense of the visual frame and of just how to hit you with the scare. And the sense he had in 'Close Encounters . . .' of a magical child's universe, the little boy walking at night on the prairie -- I mean, that has some of the same qualities as "The Wizard of Oz,' a wonderful naivete. Well, you can't call that high art, but it sure is wonderful."

Among the newer films Kael like are "Breaking Away" and "The Black Stallion." Yet she points out that Hollywood seems increasingly reluctant to make films like these.

Lousy pictures are making money," she says. "I mean there are companies that haven't had a good picture in years, and yet the executives are treated like heroies; they're given bonuses and so on. The studios know how to get their money . . . in advance -- between sales to television here and overseas. cassettes, etc. . . .

"You can sell -- for a lot of money -- an international jewel theft picture with a big star cast -- you know, one of those things with Richard Burton and Sophia Loren. Throw in Herny Winkler and the late David Jansen . . . and you've got a property you could maybe make more on in advance than the picture is going to cost. What you get from the theaters is gravy, and you don't worry about the poor [schnook] who puts down his $4.50 and gets stung."

She says the director of "Breaking Away," a picture with no big stars to presell, had to bargain for more than five years before he could find a company that would underwrite the film.

"People took at it and say: "Isn't that a simple, wonderful movie!' but that is the hardest thing to finance. And I'd say 'Black Stallion' would never have gotten made if it hadn't been for Francis Ford Coppola, who arranged financing for it and put his name on as producer and encouraged the project at every step."

Kael has known and admired the work of the "Black Stallion" director, Carol Ballard, ever since he was a student at UCLA, but for many years, she says, no studio would finance the kind of pictures he wanted to make.

"It's taken Carol Ballard, who's really quite gifted, to the age of 42 to make his first feature -- which is terrible when you consider how short the really creative life of a movie director is, how important physical strength is and the assurance of youth."

Kael knows firsthand what is required behind the camera. Last year she took an extended leave of absence from The New Yorker to become a producer at Paramount for Warren Beatty.

"I know Beatty fairly well," she says, "and I think he was fundamentally right that I would make a good producer. . . . because he said what I do in a review after a movie comes out is what needs to be done ahead of time.

"But what I realized -- which I had a hard time convincing him and other people of -- was that . . . I don't have the patience for dealing with all the small problems, or going over a scene five or ten times, for discussing points endlessly with the director.I began to realize how much sheer bullying strength it was going to require, how much diplomacy, how much it would tke out of me, on projects that weren't necessarily as close to me as my own writing."

Kael says she asked to withdraw as producer after a short time, and with the agreement and support of Beatty and Paramount's chairman she became a consultant to the studio in May 1979, scouting and suggesting writers for projects, persuading people who had never written scripts to try, recommending casts, and pointing out where scripts went wrong.

"I signed a contract to serve as executive consultant for five months, which I did very happily," she says. "I had a wonderful time, a marvelous time, and I feel I did some useful things. I have a standing offer from Paramount, various offers as a matter of fact. . . ."

Although she has been writing again for The New Yorker since June of this year, Kael has ambivalent feelings about continuing as a steady critic. Reviewing is a strenuous, full-time job, she says, that has to be undertaken in New York, where she finds the pace a little hectic. Instead, a steady stream of profiles and features seems attractive because that would allow her to work more at her home in the Berkshires.

In additon to these concerns, she's "a little afraid of going on, afraid of repeating myself, being a slave of my old ideas. I watch what happens to older writers, and it is frightening to see how rigid they become and how hostile to anything new." Yet she sfinds it "like a small deth to sy I don't want to write anymore; I feel I've got to write, but I'm not sure whether I have to review. And yet, when I read other reviewers I get so burned. . . . I mean, there are all these things I want to say about a movie, and there are none of them in the review. I think, 'Well, we looked at different pictures.'"

What makes for competent criticism, in Kael's estimation?

"I'd say a good critic is one who has enough respect for writing in itself, for the art from he is writing about, and for readers to try to do justice to the art form. That means writing a review that is writingm . . . . If you don't believe in writing, how can anybody think you believe in painting, or music, or movies?"

When she's reviewing, she sees a film just once, something her readers may find hard to believe, because nothing seems to escape her attention -- actors, scripts, direction, lighting, costumes, sound, scenery, in fact nothing that shows up in a film, on purpose or inadvertently. Kael sometimes takes film more seriously than the filmmakers, searching for meaning where none was intended and criticizing a movie's vacuousness.

If she takes any notes at a screening, it's a line of dialogue she wants to quote or a detail. Though she doesn't have the review formulated as she walks out of the theater, she says, she does know whether she liked the film or not.

"If it's an interesting movie, your reactions grow and develop as you write about it. . . . I've written a long review in an hour, and there are some where I've stayed up for two nights. If the picture is fundamentally not very interesting, I may work the hardest and have the smallest to show for it. . . . You feel when a work is bad that it is almost dragging you down; you're fighting , pulling the other way, determined to write a decent piece of prose even if that was not a decent movie."

After finishing a draft, Kael likes to show it to her daughter, Gina James, an artist who can be coaxed into editing on occasion.

"She's the only one who can knock out paragraphs and say, 'Don't be a bore. You said that last year.' She's a painter, but she's very knowledgable as an editor, and she simply knows the way my mind works. She doesn't let me get by with anything.

"I write very much the way I talk, in the same rhythms. I think what I don't have is that wonderful sense for language and brevity. I think Graham Greene's criticism is marvellous in the mid to late '30s because he has a real novelist's use of language. I write with a kind of brutal simplicity often. But on the other hand, I write very consciously; there's nothing in those reviews that I don't mean to be there."

If proved wrong in her judgment about a movie, "others . . . will write the balance. It seems to me that a review is yourm action. If there is an injustice , it was yourm injustice.

"I try not to be rough on small films. Generally, when I'm really rough, it's on something that I know is going to be a big hit, and that everybody is going to go for it, and I think it's an atrocity -- that's fair game. I'm . . . interested in discovering talent, and in trying to explain why I think someone is talented. I'm more interested in that than I am in panning."

Asked what in Hollywood today she finds most worrying, she answers, "I think the disturbing thing is he switch now from the self-hatred and cynicism -- which was a little exhausting . . . -- to the bland kind of thing which you see now on television in 'Amber Waves' and just the beginnings of in movies, say in 'Serial'. We're getting a swing back to the World War II optimistic, patriotic spirit, as if people wanted to deny everything that they have been feeling, and get back to that happy mood, which happens to be a very warlike, patriotic mood.

"I think the signs of this are all over the place -- the eagerness of women to get into uniform, and the talk. This could be a terrible retrogression, because, after all, that bland, cheerful thing is really a denial of all the pressures that we know about. And it was always a middle-class, white culture that was being sold in those movies. I think people have forgotten how implicitly racist all those happy MGM pictures were and how ugly in spirit. The denied the tensions of the underclass to rise. They were always saying: Everything is fine; keep the lid on. And there is a desire to get back to that; you can just feel it."

With Pauline Kael around, one thing is certain: Any retrogression won't slip by unnoticed -- or unchallenged.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.