Assayer of the silver screen

Lawrence O’Toole July 14 1980

Assayer of the silver screen

Lawrence O’Toole July 14 1980

Assayer of the silver screen


Pauline Kael

Lawrence O’Toole

If Bette Davis wrote movie criticisms she’d be Pauline Kael. In her columns for The New Yorker since 1968, Kael’s writing on the movies has had the bracing effrontery of a puff of cigarette smoke blown out of the mouth Davis-style. In a single withering line she can dismantle a movie: “Charming young girls setting their belligerent jaws and singing about their ovules”—One Sings, The Other Doesn’t. On California Suite: “Herbert Ross is on record as believing that Neil Simon is a ‘classicist’ on a level with Molière and Shaw. I may go out of my intelligent mind.” Once she’s through scouring and scorning them, bad movies rarely have a leg left to stand on, but great movies linger in the mind after she has pinned their virtues, like butterfly wings, onto the page. Her new book, When the Lights Go Down, a collection of reviews done for The New Yorker between 1975 and 1979, including her dreamy, blithely swooning profile on Cary Grant, is Kael at her raciest and most perceptive. Her writing is tart, vicious, rapturous, pigheaded, slangy, wicked, loose and, on occasion, prescient. Her style is as distinctive as a —_ personal scent; from

the very first line

of a review you can almost smell a rose or a raspberry on its way to a director. The distinctive, direct personalitytough cookie with plenty upstairs—has weaned an entire generation of critics and moviemakers. She’s a brazen Bible of opinion, news and knowledge.

Having been barred from screening rooms when she stirred up some dust in the ’60s with her uncompromising reviews for McCall's, a ladies’ magazine, she is now regarded with equal parts

fear and respect within the industry. And though she says she writes only about the evidence up there on the screen, her reviews reflect an insider’s knowledge of how movies get made. (She writes in longhand, after a single viewing, usually with the geiger counter of a movie audience, not the vacuum of the screening room.) A 61-year-old diminutive woman (she has referred to herself as “dumpy”) who wears nondescript clothing and sips tea, she’s nonetheless a subtle, powerful presence. And she’s still consumed by the movies; that’s all she talks about.

Most people think of criticism as a pedant’s paradise, which is anathema to Kael. “I write from my first experience of the movie. I feel that it’s a record of how I felt at the time, so I don’t really worry about overor underpraising. If I went to see it 10 years later, I’d be a different person. I don’t think you need to go back; I mean movie criticism isn’t heart surgery. It’s when I’m caught up in something emotionally that I notice everything the most. I love the quick.”

The sensibility to emerge from her writing favors the barrel-ahead energy and drive of American directors such as Scorsese, De Palma, Peckinpah and Spielberg over the tasteful, “profound” and often labored art film from Europe. I (Her writing has always been a reaction h against what she once called “stultifyÍ ing good taste,” and she writes in When b the Lights Go Down: “I’d rather stand l with the slobs.” Over the past few years,

she theorizes, North Americans have developed a dread of movies that put them in touch with their own deepseated fears and anxieties, or that investigate “the sexual tensions between people.” “Can you believe for a minute that those two from Kramer vs. Kramer ever f—ed?” she asks.

When she makes a crack like that, and she’s seldom a slouch in that department, and gets off a good one, she chortles with glee. As entertaining as she is, that, unfortunately, is what people remember—the volleys of vitriol, never the strokes of velvet. (Of the aged

Ingrid Bergman in A Matter of Time:

. . with her gowns hanging straight down from her shoulders she’s as tall as a legend.”) Taken as a whole, Kael’s work—/ Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Going Steady, The Citizen Kane Book, Deeper Into Movies, Reeling— is the most lucid and compelling body of criticism, movie or otherwise, from the past 20 years.

Suddenly, about a year ago, she took a leave of absence from The New Yorker and stopped writing about movies. She headed for Hollywood. Stories spread that she was chasing the bigger bucks, that she was fired as executive producer from her friend Warren Beatty’s film, Reds, and/or that she was after an exposé of the movie industry. “Publishers are always trying to get me to do an inside-Hollywood exposé. They think, quite rightly, it will clean up,” she says. “I wasn’t fired from Beatty’s picture. Being an executive producer wasn’t for me.”

Not having written reviews for more than a year, until she returned to The New Yorker a few weeks ago with a stinging and polished pan of The Shining, she’s eager to comment on the direction movies are taking. “I think we’re swinging back to a kind of phoney reprise of the Second World War—patriotism, cheerfulness, blandness. Because of the self-hatred that developed during the Vietnam War years—the skepticism about past American values which alienated older people and pleased mostly students—a lot of people turned to TV. Students are no longer students, they’re not going to movies as much, [they] are more centred on jobs and have a straighter, squarer point of view.”

The reason for the drain on excitement, according to Kael, runs even deeper. “If a movie executive makes a big movie with big stars and it fails, he’s in the clear because he played the game everyone is playing. The conglomerate heads will say, ‘We were unlucky.’ But if he spends a quarter of that money on something unsafe and subtle, his head is on the block if the movie fails: he can’t get anything in advance for a picture like that”.

Kael sees movies being cleansed of their possibilities as a visual medium, and as a sociologically exciting one, partly because there are so many minority groups ready to jump. “Remember when feminists picketed Get Out Your Handkerchiefs? Every group wants media space. And really, you can work up a case against any movie. I was really shocked by the demonstrations against Cruising and I think they succeeded in wrecking the movie. I felt your

sympathies were always for the victims. You felt horrified by the killer. If the director hadn’t chickened out and the cop became, as in the book, a killer of homosexuals, it would have been a very powerful and unpleasant movie. But people are afraid of violence, of anything that upsets them emotionally.” She makes a telling distinction between schlock and violence: “What you get in most action movies is the point of view of the killer—how’s Clint Eastwood going to kill the next guy? —and that disturbs me. Suppose Cruising had put you in the position of a guy who is enjoying beating the s— out of that poor guy tied to the bed?”

Kael has always been a stray sheep and during her early years was often viewed as the biggest bitch on the block. She still gets 50 letters a day and recalls, “It was women who wrote the most vicious mail. They resented another woman doing what I did and assumed I must be frustrated, frigid or a lesbian.”

A Depression child from outside San Francisco, Kael made it the hard way, managing an art house in Berkeley and selling free-lance pieces. Even when she wrote her columns for The New Yorker for half of the year, she has had to make a living during the other six months, mostly by lecturing. Her books don’t make her rich, either: “All told, you can make maybe $10,000 on each.” Her private life is preserved in the Berkshires where she lives in a big, rambling old house next door to her daughter, Gina, her editor. “We’re very close. Gina edits ruthlessly and she’s the only one I’ll trust with my copy. ”

Some say she’s carried her personal torches too far, preferring the energy of Animal House to a great work such as Alain Resnais’s Providence, which she finds too formal. The words “lewd” and “dirty” appear in her writing so often that some might wonder aloud, “You got a problem, lady?” But she won’t run with the pack. When everyone jumped on the remake of King Kong because the word filtered down that even the studio didn’t have much faith in it, she wrote: “When the 40-foot Kong stands bleeding and besieged at the top of the World Trade Center and his blonde . . . pleads with him to pick her up so that the helicopters won’t shoot at him, even Wagner’s dreams seem paltry.” Perhaps such sentiments stem from the fact that she brings as much openness as cynicism to a movie, because she’s “insanely susceptible—I’m the one who screams from the back row.”

Recently a young reporter asked the difference between reviewer and critic. Replied Kael: “That’s such a bulls— distinction. As far as I can see it, if you get to be good as a reviewer they call you a critic.” The woman has no time for the triteness of splitting hairs.