Having Fun with The Lights Out: Pauline Kael Bio “A Life in the Dark” Reviewed
Pauline Kael’s writing remains totally addictive, casually immersive and consistently exciting.
Editor’s Note: Michał Oleszczyk is just days away from defending his Ph.D dissertation on Pauline Kael. He has spent the last five years poring over every item of Kaeliana he could find. He has taken a break from preparing for his defense to share his thoughts on the new Kael bio A Life in the Dark, and Kael’s writing at its best (and worst).
Already in its second printing at the time of this writing, Brian Kellow’s celebrated Pauline Kael biography A Life in the Dark is nothing if not timely. Faced with the daunting task of recounting the life of the world’s most galvanizing film critic, Kellow must have realized that Pauline Kael – not just as a critic, but as a person – has been an object of fascination for generations of her readers. No matter how often you find yourself cringing at her judgements (would De Palma’s Fury  truly leave Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese and Spielberg “stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter”?), or how low your jaw drops at her casual flogging of a movie you happen to cherish (The King of Comedy  as a “little inflatable pool toy”?), there’s no denying one basic fact about her writing: it’s totally addictive, casually immersive and consistently exciting. One has to wonder what kind of a person was capable of producing this steady, multi-decade flow of state-of-the-art perceptiveness, as well as what kind of a life enabled it.
Kael’s critical prose – propelled, as it were, by the underlying erotic thrust of her rapturous response to cinema (she regretted having to read subtitles at the screening of Satyajit Ray’s Distant Thunder , for “it took precious time away from the faces and the bodies”) – has still the power of pulling you in so completely into her sensibility, that suddenly, as Anthony Lane pointed out, you don’t mind reading a 3,000-word dissection of a seemingly disposable movie like Popeye (1980). Kael’s greatest strength as a writer – one that is still not recognized properly – was her ability to alleviate the central contradiction of criticism between individual sensibility and analytical judgment. Those who condemn her writing as “too emotional” are not only subscribing to an ugly streak of casual sexism (which was expertly pointed out in Self-Styled Siren’s wonderful essay on Kael), but also fail to notice how fiercely analytical she was in scrutinizing her own response to a film and trying to see the work in all its complexity. I dare anyone to read her review of Reds (1981) or The Right Stuff (1983) and keep saying that she relied on gut feeling alone. While she tremendously enjoyed the latter as “a stirring, enjoyable mess of a movie”, she was still alert to what she recognized as a reactionary core of the film’s moral outlook. She boldly likened the film to The Four Feathers “and all those other cultural artifacts which poisoned the lives of little boys (and some girls, too), filling them with terror that they might show a ‘yellow streak’”.
The other popular misconception, which Kellow successfully defies, is that the quality and force of Kael’s writing had to do with feeding off the innate energy of the New American Cinema, which she first heralded in her Bonnie and Clyde (1967) breakthrough-essay and was then (by her own account) “lucky” enough to cover. This deeply offensive notion of Kael possessing a sponge-like, purely reactive sensibility fails to notice that the same era and films couldn’t extract similar results from, say, John Simon. If one can speak of luck here at all, it was the collective luck of American audiences and readers, who witnessed the synergy of a great critical mind whose brash voice and unique perception matched a fertile movement of rich experimentation and deep commitment to film art that hasn’t happened in America since.
Part of the fascination that Kael’s life has always held for her readers stems from the personal details that consistently seeped into her reviews. We all knew she cried her heart out after watching Shoeshine (1946), which she saw after a near-mythological lovers’ quarrel with (as Kellow reveals) poet/filmmaker James Broughton. Her review of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987) makes the reader pause with the startling reminiscence of Pauline at sixteen, so upset at the humiliation of the eponymous heroine of Alice Adams (1935), that she bolts to the door of her local movie house, then stops, pulls herself together and returns to her seat. Last but not least, many would pay any price to witness the screening of Kentucky Moonshine (1938) during which Pauline (dating a guy who “later became a judge”) literally fell off her seat laughing.
Since Kael herself suggested in the foreword to her self-edited 1994 mammoth collection For Keeps (which, incidentally, deems the rather attenuated 2011 Library of America volume sort of superfluous) that her reviews were her memoirs, one has to admire Kellow’s main achievement, which lies in incorporating large chunks of Kael’s film writings into the narrative of her life. The story Kellow tells is one of a ferociously intelligent, brilliantly talented West Coast rebel, who fought against all odds (both gender- and class-related) to became part of the nation’s collective cultural voice – and succeeded with a vengeance. Her quarter-century long presence at The New Yorker (suspended only for the sake of a 1979 folly as a Hollywood consultant) is presented by Kellow in loving detail, so much so that upon finishing the book one thinks of nothing else but of revisiting Kael’s collections back-to-back.
Kellow succeeds in making his book something more than a mere recounting of a life – he infuses his narrative with enough historical background to make A Life in the Dark a highly readable history of a transitional moment in American culture, when the chasm between “high” and “low” started to shrink rapidly and new ways of looking at movies emerged. It was a time when the whole nation had to rethink its relationship to the popular forms of expressions it spawned in the first place. When seen in this light, the famed auteur theory controversy between Kael and Andrew Sarris is even more salient, since it’s clear now that the real bone of contention wasn’t authorship at all, but what it meant to establish a cultural canon. Kael feared (rightly, as it turned out) that Sarris the auteurist was planting a canonical order of taste right in the center of America’s mass culture experience.
Ironically, today Sarris’ auteur-centric approach to validating a film has arrived at a point of self-parody. If we speak of “early Zack Snyder” or “vintage Michael Bay” at all today, it’s thanks to Sarris. But if we embrace the guiltless visceral pleasure of cheering through the CGI-gore-fest of 300 or Transformers: Dark of the Moon without resorting to high-minded assessments, it’s thanks to Kael. Even though she probably would have hated both movies I just mentioned (or not?), she prepared the ground for all kinds of trash redemption, not least by her ecstatic, high-powered rave about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), about which she was happy to say that “there isn’t a letdown anywhere in it”.
To be fair, she, too, had an auteurist streak in her, being always on a lookout for a distinctive personality (what, pray, did she mean when she said of Daniel Petrie that “though he makes movies, [he] is not a moviemaker”, if not that he wasn’t an auteur?). Still, she never bowed before a director’s oeuvre the way Sarris did: she could write a near-orgasmic appreciation of Altman’s Nashville (1975) – rather fittingly entitled “Coming” – and then thrash A Wedding (1978) and Quintet (1978) to pieces without missing a toke. Same goes for her allegedly unqualified adoration of Brian De Palma (she was highly critical of both Scarface  and Body Double ).
Where Kellow’s book fails, I think, is in the mostly reverent tone he assumes each time he recounts an argument Kael made in her pieces. Kellow is a tad too complacent towards Kael’s reasoning, and rarely – if, indeed, ever – do we get the feeling that her reviews could be genuinely surprising (even shocking) due to her doggedly idiosyncratic taste. I once had the good fortune of interviewing Craig Seligman, the author of Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me, and I will never forget his story of a collective reading of Kael’s review of A Clockwork Orange (1971) with a group of college friends. All giddy and excited after the screening, which seemed to them nothing less than revelatory, the group was shattered to find out Kael hated the film, and after the reading was over, all that was left was “a stunned silence”. Reading Kellow’s book, you rarely get the feeling that Kael’s voice might ever outrage you – A Life in the Dark stays almost exclusively on the side of unqualified admiration, which is not the best mode to receive Kael’s writings. To fully appreciate her voice, one has to allow for some of the outrage she elicits.
On the other hand, the book provides enough material for the reader to all but imagine a full-blown Kael biopic (starring Meryl Streep, perhaps?). There are details here so vivid and funny one can’t get them out of one’s head. Kael’s accepting a sexual gesture from eventual (and, as it turns out, only) husband Ed Landberg with a saucy one-liner (“What have you got to lose?”) almost lives up to the imaginary Kael alter ego conjured up by Theodore Roszak in his novel Flicker (“Her belly shook with laughter beneath my chin. ‘Silly! That was Eisenstein!’ And she abruptly returned my head to its salacious assignment”). Above all else, one has to smile at the mere thought of all the emotion Streep would milk out of a scene cited by Kellow at one point: that of Kael entertaining her San Francisco house guests with a rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Moon and I” from The Mikado. (Kellow doesn’t quote the key passage Kael might have relished: “There’s not a trace / Upon her face / Of diffidence or shyness”.)
Whatever one’s final opinion of Kael’s writing, one thing goes without saying: there’s an unmistakable feeling of urgency in her criticism that is all but absent from film reviews today. For Kael, movies mattered and the stakes were high. She was hardly ever casual. She still exerts a posthumous stylistic power over her disciples (it’s hard not to hear her voice shining through when one reads David Denby declaring The Rise of the Planet of the Apes  “a pop epiphany of freedom”). Nevertheless, it is fair to say she has no heir (or heiress) that would continue to write about movies as if the whole world depended on how good they were at any given moment. For many of us, movies are substitute religion; for her, they were as much objects of love as of deep concern, and – at times – of plain irritation, which itself is the flipside of affection. Her review of Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) serves as her private creed of undaunted levelheadedness:
A movie for the movie-struck (…). It’s for those (one meets them on campuses) who can say, “I love all movies”. It’s not for someone like me, who can walk out on A Touch of Class without a twinge.
Michał Oleszczyk is a contributor to “Kino”, the Polish film monthly and author of the first Polish monograph of Terence Davies (“Bitter Exile”, Kraków 2008).