When America's Most Famous Film Critic Got It Wrong

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 28 2011 3:29 PM

When Pauline Kael Was Wrong

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In her review of the new Pauline Kael biography, Slate’s Dana Stevens says that “if you write about movies in America today (and in the age of the Internet, who doesn’t?), you define yourself at least in part in relation to Kael.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

It’d be hard to disagree. Kael herself, though, prompted plenty of disagreement, among friends and foes alike. With that in mind, I asked several critics to pick a review by Kael with which they especially differed, and to explain what that point of difference meant to them.

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Stephanie Zacharek, the long-time Salon reviewer who’s now at Movieline, knew Kael well (see, for instance, this lovely tribute she wrote after Kael’s death in 2001). She told me she probably “disagreed most strongly with Pauline’s take on Vertigo, and with her view of Hitchcock in general.”

She distrusts Hitchcock’s mechanics—the whirring of the gears at work always bothered her. But I think he gets poetry out of those gears—albeit a kind of stark, manicured poetry—particularly in Vertigo. It’s the most wistful of all his films, even if it’s a rather cold wistfulness; I think all the emotion he can muster is right there in the craftsmanship.
That said, I don’t think I really struggled much with any review by Pauline that I disagreed with. I do feel that movies we love are worth arguing about, and I prefer those arguments to be fiery and passionate rather than calm and meticulous and reasoned. Because movies reach us in places that are beyond the reach of language—that’s what makes talking about them, and writing about them, so damn hard and so fulfilling. So when I read Pauline, I don’t feel I’m entering some boxing ring in which taste, determined movie by movie, is ultimately the great arbiter. I don’t think criticism is about taste at all. It’s wonderful when you share a sensibility with a critic, a similar set of basic likes and dislikes, or a consonant way of looking at things. But ultimately, I think that what attracts me to a critic—any critic, not just Pauline—is some electrical current of enthusiasm and love, a way of looking at movies that connects them to life instead of holding them at arm’s length for our careful, measured scrutiny. And a sense of humor, too. The thing about Pauline’s work is that her arguments are so forceful and airtight—her detractors have often seen that as a kind of arrogance. I prefer to call it confidence, and I’ve always loved the challenge of her confidence. Agreement or disagreement is barely an issue.

J. Hoberman would, I suspect, take issue with that argument; when I asked him to name a review he disagreed with, his first reply was, “Wow—there are so many!” He continued:

Pauline calling her friend Phil Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake a “masterpiece” without reference to the classic Don Siegel original, Pauline knocking Jarmusch’s terrific indie Stranger Than Paradise as some sort of “mousy” faux-East European comedy. In 1985, I replied in print to her willfully obtuse review of Shoah, which she panned as both bad filmmaking and bad history. The piece attracted some attention (and plenty of hate mail from her fans).

That piece does not appear to be online, but it’s included in Hoberman’s 1991 anthology Vulgar Modernism.

Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club pointed to Kael’s 1969 essay for Harper’s, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” which Phipps describes as the closest thing Kael wrote to a mission statement.

It’s a must-read, filled with quotable lines like “The critic shouldn’t need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together” and “Kicked in the ribs, the press says ‘art’ when ‘ouch’ would be more appropriate.” It’s also head-noddingly right in general and spectacularly wrong when it gets to particulars. Kael takes a potshot at a film I love—The Red Shoes—then thoroughly beats up three films I consider all-time favorites: 2001: A Space OdysseyThe Graduate, and Petulia, a tragic romance directed by Richard Lester against the backdrop of San Francisco in full counterculture swing. Her thoughts on the latter two feel off to me, talking about the blankness of Dustin Hoffman’s Graduate protagonist as if that were a failing instead of the point of the character and calling Petulia a “hate letter to America” when, to my eyes, what she calls “hate” simply feels like the temperature of the times. But there is something to her attack on 2001. ”The secondary title of Dr. Strangelove, which we took to be satiric, ‘How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb,’ was not, it now appears, altogether satiric for Kubrick,” Kael writes. ”2001 celebrates the invention of tools of death, as an evolutionary route to a higher order of non-human life. Kubrick literally learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.” That’s not my reading of the film, but it’s one anyone who loves the movie has to at least consider. Even when she’s wrong, she’s worth reading. I can’t think of any higher praise for a film critic.

Lastly, Michelle Orange, a colleague of Stephanie Zacharek’s at Movieline, pointed me to Kael’s 1970 review of Gimme Shelter “as an example of the tricky parts of both Pauline Kael’s reviewing and film criticism in general.” The questions Kael raises about the line between “news and art or entertainment, the actual and the arranged,” are, according to Orange, “strikingly prescient,” but Kael reduces the film “to little more than a platform.”

Kael’s clearly deeply felt response to Gimme Shelter is dispersed too freely over too much ground. Framed as a moral argument about the uses of vérité, she questions the orchestration of the event itself, suggesting everything from the fact that the stage for the Altamont concert was lit like a stage to the Mick Jagger-ness of Mick Jagger as inducements to murder. For every gotcha (she accuses the Maysles brothers of hiring an actor for their earlier vérité doc Salesman, a charge they denied) there is a corresponding overreach or flight of quaint fancy, like framing a rock concert in the language of satanic ritual. 
Her confidence is overwhelming, as it’s meant to be, but in a review like that one it strikes me as a weakness, where the language of certainty undercuts a critic’s public grappling with the issues raised by a relatively new concern—what is (good/bad/sham) cinema vérité and where might it lead us? Kael’s review of Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital that same year gives a sense of how unsettled she was on vérité’s questions of truth and manipulation, exposure and exploitation. She wrote the kind of glowingly urgent review of Wiseman’s look at the patients and workers at a New York City hospital that critics sometimes do when well-made films might double as a work of social activism (or as news, as Wiseman’s previous film, the mental hospital exposé Titicut Follies, did more plainly). More friendly to vérité in her review, Kael found Hospital superior to “the habitual cant and concealments” of most “conventional, guided documentaries,” which seem “chintzy and puritanical and fundamentally insulting” by contrast, and praised the fact that the material “does not appear to have been transformed in the editing process.” It’s a revealing call, especially when applied to her endorsement of the film as a challenge to “middle-class good taste.”
Curious praise from someone who derided Gimme Shelter for being, among other things, the same exact thing. Though her contradictions can be frustrating if you’re into being frustrated by contradiction, ultimately they are what make me feel for Kael most—her greatest consistence was in rising to interesting times with a pounding heart, and without backing down. Ever: I recently read that after being told that her Gimme Shelter review still ate at Albert Maysles’s thirty years later, Kael made a chipper reply: “Tough shit!”

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