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Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

by Brian Kellow

Viking | 2011 | 419 pages | $27.95

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva

Any filmgoer born after 1970 might well wonder why anyone would want to

write a biography of a film critic.  A film director?  Yes, certainly, anyone can understand detailing the life of a film director, especially one tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist.

A film actor? Of course it’s an actor’s job to be interesting, so a book about an actor’s life would, it is assumed, also be interesting. A film producer?  Well, maybe if he or she is sufficiently flamboyant and is widely covered by TMZ.

A screenwriter?  No, of course not, screenwriters are just creatures who do some scribbling on paper or tapping on a laptop before a cinematic dream is created, just as film critics are creatures who scribble a little bit on paper, or babble a little bit on TV upon the cinematic dream’s release.

But any filmgoer — especially a passionate filmgoer — who lived through the 1970s, will understand immediately why Brian Kellow has written his fine biography of the late Pauline Kael, famous (and infamous) in her time as the most influential film critic in America.

Kael’s “time” spanned the years (1968 to 1991) when she was a film critic for The New Yorker, a magazine then and now of much cultural significance as well as entertaining cartoons. It was a time that saw a glorious culmination of the art form of the Twentieth Century turn into the birth of blockbuster entertainment — an art of sorts, but not one of which Kael totally approved.

Film, born as a hand crank curiosity at the end of the previous century, matured into a full fledged cinematic art form of dramatic and comedic mime in the 1920s, only to suffer the hiccup of sound, which, for a few years, locked down the camera and film’s artistic growth — but only for a few years.

Soon film found its feet again, especially in the New York banker backed but film loving and mogul ran Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s.  Then, in the 1950s, there arrived the shock of television, which sucked audiences home to make their own popcorn; also, the revelation of postwar foreign films that emerged to awaken, thrill, engage, and stimulate the filmic tastes of American filmgoers and future filmmakers.

In the 1960s and 70s the moguls were starting to fade away, like the good old soldiers they were, and the bankers and their marketing minions started to come into focus. But at the same time, the activist and rebellious spirit of the 60s combined with the influence of foreign films giving rise to a new breed of filmmakers that made eye-opening films; mind expanding and engaging films that made film’s glorious culmination in the 1970s.

Kael did not, at first, perceive this time as a culmination. Indeed, she had hoped it was a time that would bring a new birth of ongoing cinematic excellence, one that would not only entertain, but nurture audiences. Sadly, though, by the end of her professional life she realized that Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, which had risen up and attacked like Bruce the shark from Jaws, was destined to take over American cinema, and that its future output would be far different from the cinema she had loved and which she now knew, sadly, had culminated during her years at The New Yorker.

Kellow, who is the features editor of Opera News and author of three previous biographies, was introduced to Kael’s film criticism at the Tillamook County Library in Oregon when he was a seventh grade student. He came across Kael’s second book of reviews and essays, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. One has to wonder if it was the title that drew this pre-teen to the book, expecting perhaps a James Bond adventure. There is no question, though, that it was the quality of Kael’s writing that kept him there.

He writes that “...her sentences had such drive and pulse and snap that they took complete hold of me...So I kept reading Pauline Kael quietly. This wasn’t diligent reading, like my progression through the novels of John Steinbeck. This was impassioned reading.”

Later, as a subscriber to The New Yorker, Kellow attended movies with “Pauline Kael” as his guide. A guide, not a guru; intellectual vistas were revealed to him by Kael’s guidance, but he didn’t always agree to go down her opinionated path.

In all cases, however, he was thrilled by her fine writing but more importantly, he was stimulated by her raw, almost unbounded enthusiasm for film.

These two points — Kael the fine writer and Kael the enthusiast — provide the spine to Kellow's biography, keeping his admiration of Kael ramrod straight even as he adds the burdensome flesh of her quirks, her difficult personality, her loving befriending and angry de-friending of proteges who did, and then on occasion did not, measure up to her high standards, her ego that demanded being the center of attention, and her needy domination of her only child, among other human frailties..

It is a measure of Kellow’s talent that despite learning of these personal faults, the reader still comes away sharing Kellow’s admiration of Kael’s not-easy achievement: becoming an artist in her reflections on an art.

Pauline Kael was born in California in 1919, and she was always intensely proud of coming from the American West. Despite being associated for years with The New Yorker, she never really considered herself a New Yorker, and certainly never an East Coast intellectual.

She spent her early years on a chicken ranch in the agricultural community of Petaluma, which had a large Jewish population. Her parents were secular Jews and Kael went beyond that by never really becoming even a cultural Jew — except in one detail: she early on developed and maintained throughout her life a thirst for knowledge and culture.  It was a thirst well quenched after the family moved to San Francisco, a city vibrant with such cosmopolitan treats as dance, theater, art — and most significantly, movies.

“The city was full of grand-scale picture palaces, and Pauline went as often as she could to the Fox, the Roxie, the Castro, and to the Paramount over in Oakland,” Kellow writes.   

One might have thought that Kael as a young girl watching movies during the Depression would have favored the musicals and comedies that tried to take the minds of the audience off their thin pocketbooks, but she displayed a strong individuality, not to mention a blessedly unladylike toughness that never left her. She preferred the rough gangster flicks turned out by Warner Bros., which “seemed committed to portraying the ways that American life had been altered by the Depression in what were Hollywood standards at the time -- realistic terms.”

It was a mark of Kael’s later criticism that she continued to favor films that dealt with life as it is — messy, improvisational, full of shocks and detours and violence, yet always vital — as opposed to life as one might wish it to be.

Kael enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley in 1936. Despite having a huge love of literature, she refused to become an English major, fearing it was a door that opened only onto a career as a teacher — the last thing she wanted to become.  Although Berkeley had a beautiful campus with a great atmosphere of learning, Kael never acclimated to academia.

When she wrote papers, she wanted to write them in colloquial English, injecting always her personal voice into her essays, a voice that shouted out her intense, no-holds-barred responses to literature, music, and art.  Her teachers were not happy about this, for the Academy demands a language of its own, and so Kael had battles to fight.  It must have been satisfying to her later in life that what academia did not like about her writing was loved by her readers, and was the source of her fame.

Kael never graduated, and in 1941, a few credits shy of a degree, she made her first trip to New York thinking that if it was indeed the Big Apple, then  she needed to be there. But she never really liked New York, nor most of the people she met in New York artistic circles, and after several years she returned to the West Coast, became the lover of the poet James Broughton, and gave birth to his child, who she named Gina James.

In her struggle to survive as a single mother, her one constant source of pleasure was going to the movies — and talking about them afterwards.  On one such occasion, in a Berkeley coffee house while sitting with a friend, she was overheard by Peter D. Martin, who had recently launched the magazine, City Lights, which was devoted to film commentary.

“Martin,” Kellow notes, “was intrigued by the stream of articulate, independent opinions he heard Pauline expressing, and he asked her if she would like to review the new Chaplin picture, Limelight, for City Lights.” 

It was the beginning of what became, as Kellow’s subtitle ironically notes, a life in the dark. Ironic, because Kael became famous for bringing light to the consideration of motion pictures not only as art form, but as a force shaped by, and indeed starting to shape, our culture. 

Fame was still years away, though, giving her life a long first act, and it wasn’t until she was forty-eight that she became a film critic for The New Yorker.  In between she was a programmer for the Cinema Guild, a legendary Berkeley revival house, and a struggling freelance writer of incisive essays for publications both obscure and mainstream, which were gathered into her first book, I Lost it at the Movies. It sold 150,000 copies, and not just because of the double entendre title.

Soon after its publication, and possibly spurred on by its success, she moved back to New York because “...she would in a sense be going back a star.”

There she continued to freelance, eventually finding her first steady employment as a film critic for McCall’s Magazine. It was not a good fit, and she and the magazine soon parted, but later, in 1968, after a short stint with The New Republic (also not a good fit), The New Yorker soon became one.  The magazine’s editor in chief, William Shawn, allowed Kael as much space as she needed to write her often long essays/reviews, and he allowed her to write them in her very personal voice: subjective, opinionated, and wide-ranging.

From this point on, much of Kellow’s biography is a chronicle of Kael’s time at The New Yorker, mainly through a consideration of her reviews of films and filmmakers, championing some enthusiastically (over enthusiastically, some readers felt), and condemning others aggressively, even hurtfully. 

Kael was not a half-measures kind of person; she did not equivocate in her opinions and she did not believe in being objective when it came to art, even popular art.

In chronicling Kael’s reviews, Kellow also chronicles the films of this time, especially the films of the 1970s, such as Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, M.A.S.H., The Godfather, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Last Tango in Paris, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and other films that brought changes to the art, and engendered excitement among filmgoers, many of whom were reading Kael religiously.

This is no small contribution to the value of Kellow’s book.

Brian Kellow has provided a proper assessment of the importance of Pauline Kael to this period of film history. Our current era consists of Hollywood blockbusters, tent-pole, 3-D, mega-entertainments with heroes both super or just super good-looking, and an era in which major universities have film schools, and film studies courses that exist not just to provide easy-A’s. If Kellow’s book can find a readership among the denizens of both Hollywood and academia, then it is a book of great importance and one that will not be soon forgotten.

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