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when the lights go down

9.4.01

"If art isn't entertainment, what is it? Punishment?"
- Pauline Kael, 1919-2001

A great voice was silenced on September 3; it took death to silence that voice, because nothing and nobody else could do it. Pauline Kael, who reviewed movies for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1991, has died at 82 after ten years of retirement from regular criticism, during which she still didn't keep quiet. Every now and then, an interviewer would contact her, and she'd end up slashing a handful of current films (Forrest Gump, Titanic, Eyes Wide Shut) she never got the chance to bash in print, or praising other films (Vanya on 42nd Street, Chasing Amy, The Fisher King) she never got to rhapsodize about in "The Current Cinema."

Kael was bullheaded and direct. She liked what she liked, she hated what she hated, and she didn't hesitate to tell you. Early in her reviewing career, she recognized talent before most other critics did -- Scorsese, De Palma, Altman, Coppola, Bertolucci, Peckinpah. At the same time, she didn't go easy on those directors when they made a film that disappointed her; if anything, her disappointment was greater -- she would much rather have been writing about something amazing than shaking her head in sorrow over a dud.

If there seemed to be little middle ground for Kael -- a film was either a masterpiece or garbage -- that's only because her passages of ecstatic praise or withering scorn stand out more in memory. There were many middling films she tried dutifully to find something good in -- something to write about. You very rarely catch Kael writing something like "This is okay for what it is." If a film didn't move her either way -- joy or wrath -- there wasn't much point in discussing it.

Kael's forcefully expressed opinions won her an avid readership, but also a good number of enemies. Her lengthy piece on Citizen Kane, in which she dared to suggest that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz had at least as much to do with the great American movie as Orson Welles did, drew fire from people who thought she was dumping on Welles (she wasn't; she was merely sticking up for the writer, an act that was and still is heretical among adherents to the auteur theory).

I own Kael's collected writings, and for me her peak was the '70s, when she was excited by one movie after another. The '80s brought boredom, and by February 1991, when she resigned from The New Yorker, the movies just weren't sustaining her energy any more. Her last original collection, Movie Love, is a slim volume of reviews covering mostly dull films; yet even in this low-wattage book you can see Kael at her most exuberant (a massive hymn of praise to De Palma's Casualties of War) and at her most devastating (her famous slam at Dances with Wolves, "Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head").

Kael was no elitist. She preferred Steven Spielberg the entertainer (E.T. and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom both got her seal of approval) to Spielberg the uplifting Oscar winner (in interviews she more or less yawned at Schindler's List). She had a great time at The Re-Animator, loved Kurt Russell in Used Cars, and was a fair booster of comedians Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and Richard Pryor. The harder a film tried to be important, the less Kael liked it, and vice versa.

Many will say "I didn't always agree with Kael, but..." That isn't the point. Kael loathed my all-time favorite director (Kubrick) and made a sport of savaging some of my other favorites (George Romero, Oliver Stone, Blade Runner, etc.). She also championed some of my favorites (David Lynch, Tim Burton, etc.), but that isn't the point, either. You don't read a critic just because he or she mirrors your own opinion consistently. You read a critic for the same reason that you read any other kind of writer -- you enjoy how their mind works and how they express what's going on in there. I'll gladly take Kael dumping on my favorite Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange over most of today's bland, four-star-system reviewers, who are more like consumer reporters than like critics telling you what they think and feel -- critics who can get you breathless with anticipation to see something, or breathless with laughter at a merciless pan of some inflated Hollywood trash.

Pauline Kael was the grandmaster of that brand of criticism. She hadn't written a review in over ten years, but I never really heard the silence until today.

PAULINE KAEL BIBLIOGRAPHY

- I Lost It at the Movies (1965) - David Rabe used this seminal book as a prop in his play Streamers; in return, Kael criticized some of the more speechy passages of Rabe's script for Casualties of War. In this first collection, which includes a truly funny bit when she answers irate reader mail (back when she was writing reviews for the radio), Kael gets to tackle Truffaut, Kurosawa, Godard, and most hilariously, her scorched-earth diatribe on West Side Story. She was just getting warmed up.

- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968) - Kael nicked the title of this one from a poster for an Italian movie. This collection includes pieces on Brando, Kurosawa, Chimes at Midnight, the review of The Sound of Music that got her booted from McCall's, a lengthy report from the set of The Group, and almost 200 pages of "movie notes" that are sort of a dry run for her later 5001 Nights at the Movies.

- Going Steady (1970) - Kael on Norman Mailer, Mel Brooks, Planet of the Apes, Yellow Submarine, Coppola before he was Coppola, and the great, huge essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies," in which, among many other things, she definitively brings her admiration for Kubrick to an end ("...maybe some people love 2001 just because Kubrick did all that stupid stuff....In some ways it's the biggest amateur movie of all...").

- The Citizen Kane Book (1971) - Kael's hotly debated (mainly by Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich) epic essay "Raising Kane" was packaged with the original screenplay for this out-of-print collection. Kael's essay was later reprinted in its entirety in For Keeps.

- Deeper Into Movies (1973) - The fireworks begin. Kael skewers more than a few critic's darlings (Butch Cassidy, A Clockwork Orange, El Topo, Husbands) and popular hits (Billy Jack, Dirty Harry), but also discovers Altman (M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Fosse (Cabaret), and Coppola (The Godfather). This is also where you'll find Kael's famous summing-up of Peckinpah's Straw Dogs as "the first fascist work of art."

- Reeling (1976) - And the hits keep on coming -- it begins with her singing the praises of Sounder and The Emigrants, and towards the end she hauls out her infamous Nashville rhapsody (infamous because she published it long before the movie was even released). Somewhere in there she's also got Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Last Tango in Paris, and The Sugarland Express, the debut of some guy named Steven Spielberg ("uses his gift in a very free-and-easy, American way -- for humor, and for a physical response to action....If there is such a thing as movie sense...Spielberg really has it").

- When the Lights Go Down (1980) - Kicks off with "The Man from Dream City," Kael's mammoth tribute to Cary Grant. As Kael moves into the mid- and late-'70s, you can see the beginning of the end -- Kael grows more and more exasperated as movies like Star Wars ("like a box of Cracker Jacks which is all prizes") rule the roost. Still, she works up enthusiasm for Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver, Citizens Band, De Palma's back-to-back telekinetic blockbusters Carrie and The Fury, and even B-movie stuff like King Kong (yes, the remake) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

- 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982; expanded in 1991) - Essential collection of capsule reviews -- many are short versions of reviews in her other books, but tons of them are older movies you won't find Kael covering anywhere else.

- Taking It All In (1984) - This one picks up Kael after her return from her six-month tour of duty as a consultant at Paramount. She jumps right back into the thick of things with a slam at The Shining ("It's like watching a skater do figure eights all night, or at least for two hours and twenty-six minutes"), then follows that with a beefy essay called "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers." She gets to praise two more De Palma movies here (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out), slap Spielberg down to size (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and then lift him back up (E.T.), and write a review of a Richard Pryor concert film that's really an excuse for her to discuss his greatness in general. She also deals Scorsese a one-two punch with unimpressed takes on Raging Bull and The King of Comedy (the latter of which she hated, hated, hated).

- State of the Art (1985) - No big central essay on the status of movies (in fact, her next two books don't have one, either) -- just reviews, reviews, and more reviews. Kael has to find good stuff in an awful lot of unremarkable movies here. Still immensely readable, from her baffled disappointment in De Palma's Scarface to her "what the hell, it's fun" review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the beginning of her hate affair with Tom Cruise (Risky Business is "like a George Bernard Shaw play rewritten for a cast of ducks and geese").

- Hooked (1989) - One last hurrah, mainly because she discovers a lot of new talent in the wasteland of the '80s -- Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It), Tim Burton (Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice), as well as new gems by old favorites (Lynch's Blue Velvet, Mazursky's Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Almodovar's Law of Desire and Matador, Huston's The Dead, Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being). It was really her last real run of meaty, zesty films to cover. As Kael herself says in her intro, "The period covered in this book...begins rather lamely, and then suddenly there's one marvellous movie after another" -- just like old times. Not that Kael doesn't open a can of whup-ass when called for, either -- her hoots of disbelief at Tom Cruise and Top Gun are hilariously cruel ("The best part of the movie comes when he's suffering: he speaks in a little-boy voice and looks such a Nautilized, dinky thing").

- Movie Love (1991) - Kael in decline. You can't really blame her for losing steam, forced to make do with stuff like Punchline, Always, Beaches, and Madame Sousatzka. Still, she finds glowing things to say about Batman, Scrooged, Vampire's Kiss, Vincent & Theo, Glory, My Left Foot, and of course De Palma's Casualties of War. But Kael giveth and Kael taketh away: the collection also includes Kael's what-was-he-thinking pan of De Palma's The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sacred cows like Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Dead Poets Society, Roger & Me, Field of Dreams, GoodFellas, Edward Scissorhands, and The Little Mermaid also fall under Kael's broadsword. She finishes off the Godfather trilogy with a rather depressed-sounding "oh how the mighty have fallen" review; Kael's overjoyed reviews of the first two Godfather films are included in For Keeps, but her dispirited review of the third one isn't, maybe because she couldn't bear to kick Coppola one more time. Her very last published review is of a Steve Martin comedy, L.A. Story, which is sort of fitting -- she always loved his style. But she retired a week before The Silence of the Lambs came out, and damn, I would've loved to have read a Kael review of that. (In a later interview, she said she wasn't very impressed with it.)

- For Keeps (1994) - Or, The Portable Pauline Kael, except it isn't portable (thought I'd swipe a line from her review of Bertolucci's 1900, included here) -- it weighs in at 1,291 pages. It's a decent sampler of her work, which is a good indication of how much writing she produced, when a 1,300-page book is only a sampler. If you buy this without owning her other books, be warned that the omnibus may well drive you to bookfinder.com in search of her entire output (much of which is out of print). I don't actually open For Keeps very often -- I prefer to swim around in a movie period along with Kael ("Okay, Pauline, tonight we're going to revisit 1975-1978"), reading her reviews as she wrote them, week in and week out.

- Also recommended: Conversations with Pauline Kael (1997, edited by Will Brantley), a collection of interviews with Kael spanning four decades (1966-1994), including a lengthy chat with Hal Espen in the pages of The New Yorker three years after she left it. This is where you'll find her talking off-the-cuff about some movies that came out after she put her pencil down.


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