music friday: bohemian love pad
#37: from here to eternity (fred zinnemann, 1953)

pauline kael: a life in the dark

I’ve finished Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael.

Kellow was inspired by her work, and he’s an astute critic of same, so this isn’t a hatchet job. You get a good feel for why she was “Pauline Kael”. She could be incredibly supportive of rising talents (film makers and writers), but you didn’t want to get on her bad side. If she loved you and then fell out of love, it was worse than if she’d never loved you at all. All of us who bristled at the notion of “Paulettes” but still wanted to be one might change our minds after reading this book. To be a Paulette was to be insecure about your status. Easier to just admire her from a distance.

I can’t say I learned any key new insights about her writing. Kellow does well in showing what Kael did, what made it different and important, and why she ended up influencing all who came after her, whether or not they liked her work. But I mostly knew that stuff already. He has a good sense of which of her pieces were the most important, although at times, he seems content to just quote her. He’s willing to address her blind spots, and he helps us understand why she became so addicted to superlatives (as I interpret it, it’s related to her stance about never seeing a movie more than once, and about how she tried to write about a movie as soon as possible after seeing it … she wanted to write while the feelings the movie inspired were still fresh, and we’re always more ready to say “greatest ever” in those first hours, before distance gives us a more measured approach). He nonetheless reminds us that those superlatives were easy for others to criticize. In her later years as a critic, movies became something different than they were for her in the heady post-Bonnie and Clyde years, but Kellow shows us how it wasn’t that movies passed Kael by as much as movies let her down. And we get a real feel for how her physical frailties as her Parkinson’s worsened were especially trying for someone who had spent her whole life trying to be in charge.

There are two stories that struck me as particularly damaging. I had heard the rumor long ago that her negative review of Ryan’s Daughter made David Lean so depressed he didn’t make a movie for more than a decade, but this really hits home in the book, partly because by the time it turns up, we’re already aware of Kael’s capacity for hurting others, and partly because she didn’t just attack the movie in print, but also to his face (in fairness, it was in a group of critics, and she wasn’t the only one).

More serious is the story of the writing of “Raising Kane”, her controversial take on the classic film whereby she argued that Welles was far from the sole, or even largest, contributor to its success (she championed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz). Kellow explains that Kael became aware of the research of a UCLA film professor that worked along a similar path to her own. She convinced the professor to work with her (she already had a contract to write about Kane) and split the money. She gave him just under $400, never managed to finalize a contract with him, wrote her essay (which became part of a book), used a lot of the professor’s research, and never mentioned him anywhere in the final product. About the only positive thing I could take from this is that Kael had to take 100% of the attacks that came her way in the wake of the book’s controversies.

We needed a Kael biography, and this is a good one. Reading it, you get the context to her career, which will be especially helpful to future generations who might read her criticism and want to know more about where it came from. I don’t think any less of her, now that I know what a shit she could be … it’s not like I didn’t suspect it already. Perhaps the final word comes from her daughter, Gina, who declined to participate in the book. She comes across as a very sympathetic character … it wasn’t easy having Pauline Kael for a mom. Kellow quotes her in his concluding chapter, from the speech she gave at Kael’s memorial tribute:

My mother had tremendous empathy and compassion, though how to comfort, soothe, or console was a mystery that eluded her. Pauline tried to make me aware of people’s needs and she taught me to be considerate of other people’s feelings. But when Pauline spoke to someone about their work as if it had been produced by a third party, it had repercussions. There was fallout. In my youth, I watched what she left, unaware, in her wake: flickering glimpses of crushed illusions, mounting insecurities, desolation. … She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects. She refused any consideration of that possibility and she denied any motivations or personal needs.... This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.

Kellow concludes with his own, final take on Kael’s legacy:

Pauline’s great victory was that, like a visionary novelist, she widened the scope of her art—she redefined the possibilities of how a critic could think, and how a critic’s work might benefit the art form itself. …

We should be grateful that once she found her subject, she never deserted it, never grew bored with it—the trap that awaits nearly every critic. Her almost childlike optimism about the screen’s possibilities, even her unsuccessful time in Hollywood, was an attempt to draw herself closer to her subject. She lived her entire life the way so many of us do only for a brief time as college students, staying up all night in coffee shops with our ragged copies of Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor, reading and debating, unable, yet, to imagine that we could ever grow weary of the world of books and music and movies and ideas.