The Carnal Critic
Pauline Kael and the primacy of pleasure.
She spent her career taking Andrew Sarris to task for his director-centric “auteur theory,” but she was not above tying herself in knots to defend even the lesser works of filmmakers she lionized, like Brian De Palma (whose work she preferred to his master Hitchcock’s). Kael’s resistance to any semblance of being systematic—the stubborn idiosyncracy of her passions—could be both a weakness and a strength in her work. She wrote so directly from the gut that she risked elevating personal response into a critical principle, and she could be dismissive and contemptuous of responses that differed from her own.
A philosophy major who dropped out of Berkeley her senior year, Kael was 48 years old when she wrote her first review for the New Yorker (an inspiring fact to learn for any writer regretting her failure to achieve early success). She’d already had one short, failed stint of trying to make it in New York as a writer, sandwiched between years spent in the Bay Area scrambling for a living as a freelance critic and knockabout public intellectual. She was a popular unpaid radio commentator on the legendary left-wing talk station KPFA, and also managed (and wrote well-received program notes for) Berkeley’s Cinema Guild, a two-screen theater owned by a man to whom she was briefly and, from the sound of things, indifferently married.
Kael’s domestic life was as unconventional as her career path, and it’s here that Kellow’s biography leaves the reader wanting more. After her divorce from the theater owner, Kael seems never to have had a romantic involvement again (though she enjoyed the company of young male filmmakers like James Toback and Paul Schrader). The closest and longest-lasting partnership of her life was with her daughter, Gina James, from an earlier relationship with a bisexual experimental filmmaker. James considered speaking to Kellow, but finally declined, leaving a blank space at the center of this otherwise vividly detailed biography. Gina lived with her mother till she was over 30, typed up her reviews after Pauline stayed up all night writing them in longhand, and gave up both college and a shot at a dance career to serve as her mother’s caretaker, companion, and driver.
Even if a sit-down with Gina was impossible, I wish Kellow had gone to more trouble to flesh out the portrait of the two women’s life together. It’s hard not to crave more specificity when Kellow cites the text of the breathtakingly passive-aggressive eulogy that Gina delivered at her mother’s funeral in 2001: “My mother had tremendous empathy and compassion, though how to comfort, soothe or console was a mystery that eluded her … . Pauline’s greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and critic . … she turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.” Kellow opens the final chapter of his book by quoting Gina’s funeral speech at length, but his only response to these damning words is to briefly note that “her comments were remarkably brave and unsentimental.” Given how ghostly Gina’s presence has been throughout the book, this last-minute glimpse of a misused daughter’s resentment seems worthy of a closer reading.
In her review of Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (which, unlike the majority of Bergman’s films, she admired), Kael offered a perhaps unintentional glimpse of her own relationship to writing when she wrote: “If a movie director cannot control both the thematic material and the flux of visual material, it is far better to have inner order and outer chaos, because then there is at least a lot to look at.” Kael’s own “outer chaos” is discernible in her shaggy, peripatetic, marvelously readable prose style. She wrote film criticism that offered a lot to look at, so much so that, 40 years later, we’re still not done looking. Her “inner order,” at least in Kellow’s retelling, is harder to get at; like one of the “supremely juicy” movies she loved, Kael’s life and career remain captivating in their sprawling ambiguity. But maybe Kael’s right—her tell-all personal memoir is already there for us to read. She wrote it at the movies.