A pugilist, thank god: Pauline Kael

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That The New York Times‘ premier film critics consider the legacy of Pauline Kael contentious enough to transcribe a “conversation” between them as a preview/review of the Library of America’s edition of her work and Brian Kellow’s new biography affirms the collapse of the monoculture. Of course we will never know another figure as central to film appreciation as Kael; the Internet hasn’t made things worse for criticism so much as accelerated the apotheosis of certain trends, such as the impossibility of any serious daily newspaper tolerating more than a handful of one- or two-star reviews of big budget movies (the critic instead does more twisting in the wind than a weather vane) and the obsession of certain young scribblers with Metacritic scores. The only comparable personage is Armond White, bedeviled, if you’ll pardon the expression, by his own paradoxes.

If I’m supposed to believe Manola Darghis’ own subtle j’accuse, Kael suffered from similar deficiencies, namely “a pugilistic writing style” and “ethical lapses and cruelties,” none of which interest me as much as Dargis’ claim that at present Kael functions as “player and signifier in certain discussions about ’60s and ’70s American cinema.” As a distillation of Kael’s faults she adduces, of course, Kael’s review of Robert Altman’s Nashville (before its final cut!). “Hyperventilated,” Dargis sniffs. By the time Nashville sent her into convulsions Kael had dismissed, with varying degrees of sorrow, Brewster McCloud, Images, and California Split. After 1975 she saw little worth preserving in 3 Women (she never published, oddly, a full review) and loathed Buffalo Bill and the Indians, A Wedding, and several other enervated Altman productions in the eighties. Calling her style “pugilistic,” holding the Nashville review up to the light, Dargis turns Kael into a dingbat. Kael may have loved the possibilities opened by the best examples of that wobbly synecdoche known as Seventies Cinema enough to spend a brief, troubled spell in Hollywood, but it’s obvious to me she loved Jane Fonda as much as Barbra Stanwyck, and George Segal as much as Joel McCrea (“a talented romantic comedian who because a fine, quiet, and much underrated actor,” she writes in “Notes on New Actors, New Movies”), and pre-Oscar validated Jonathan Demme as much as Preston Sturges. She had the sense to acknowledge when she saw an epochal picture and the wisdom to avoid mush. “Remember how it was in the ’60s and ’70s, when movies were hot, when we were hot? Movies seemed to matter,” she was supposed to have said, but can any admirer of Kael believe this drivel?

Here’s why the age at which you discovered Kael matters: even in the 1980’s, a decade whose dreariness made A.O. Scott pause in a published reminiscence last year, Kael wrote as if the movies she watched mattered and were hot, as if she stayed hot. This was the period when her style was at its most baroque and generous; this was when she wrote elaborate eight-hundred-word defenses of Club Paradise, Songwriter, and Moscow on the Hudson; of Debra Winger in an odd, not terribly good movie called Mike’s Murder; of Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange’s chemistry in Crimes of the Heart; of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, an appraisal which comes closer than anything I’ve read to delineating how camp and high seriousness can enjoy a fecund interaction. She gave me the courage to love John Malkovich’s performance in Dangerous Liasons (“reptilian and fey make an odd combination”) and nurture a well-watered, ripe suspicion of Meryl Streep (“She makes a career out of seeming to overcome being miscast”). In full bloom was my favorite of her stylistic tics: the imperious declarative sentence, with a devastating aperçu waving its fingers on the other side of a dash or semicolon (Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People “uses his terrific comedy timing; he gets laughs and manages to pick up the pace, but he’s just doing wise, warm Jewish schtick”). Like Dylan, Neil Young, Ferry, Bowie, Reed, and other boomer icons, she struggled in the eighties; unlike most of them she triumphed anyway, wresting control from the studios sending her terrible and popularly validated Eddie Murphy comedies and Streep-baited Oscar catches.

These lapidary exercises — collected in volumes with ruthlessly affirmative titles like Taking It All In and Movie Love — are far from the bullying, “pugilistic” Kael of Dargis’ conclusion. She set herself the challenge of writing her most searching prose to explain crap. Joel McCrea, Barbra Stanwyck, and Robert Altman understood you do what needs doing.

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