Read Jonathan Baumbach on Pauline Kael from Shots in the Dark

The Kael Book of World Records 

Partisan Review. Vol. 44, No. 3, Summer 1977 

It surprised me to discover that I had read all—not almost all but all—of the essay-reviews in this 478-page collection* which covers a three-year period of Pauline Kael’s New Yorker film-going, when they originally appeared in those glistening pages. That’s testimony of some sort—of curiosity and interest if not unequivocal admiration. Kael is mostly a pleasure on a week-to-week acquaintance, particularly on films toward which the reader is indifferent or tending toward her viewpoint. She writes with energy and wit, has retained a generous sympathy toward the new, is as sharp as any of her fellow assassins in needling the pretentious and inept. Yet these pieces, like most occasional journalism (movie reviewing is a subgenre of both journalism and show biz), don’t survive rereading. The book as a whole, because of its inordinate length and the piecemeal quality of its judgments—there is no informing aesthetic vision to sustain haphazard and eccentric particularities—seems overwrought and dated. Even the very best journalism beyond its moment can seem like old news. 

Journalism is the operative word here. The pressures of deadline over an extended period of time lead inevitably to shortcuts of preconception and formula. Feature journalism—TV news coverage is the most blatant example—is concerned not with anatomizing an event but laying claim to its most newsworthy aspect and presenting that as if it were all. Kael does her own version of such benign distortion. She tends to take a facet of almost every film she reviews—a performance, an unsung scriptwriter, some barely related private obsession— and by elaborating on a marginal perception, gives it disproportionate implication. The event of the film is displaced by the performance of the reviewer. The most attractive movies to review are the ones that lend themselves to the most amusing and dramatic (and newsworthy) pieces. The medium, its own best subject, becomes a determining factor and consequently shapes and modifies standards. 

A reviewer can’t be tentative in making judgments without undermining the prerogatives of what is essentially a self- assumed authority. Doubts are for the unanointed. Kael has a debater’s style and zeal, a seemingly messianic assurance of the rightness of her immediate impressions. To make her pronouncements notable, she tends to flights of hyperbole, in competition with the devalued language of media hype. The films and performances that matter produce world records. Of Jeff Bridges, she writes: “He may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived.” Of The Long Goodbye: “It’s probably the best American movie ever made that almost didn’t open in New York.” Of The Godfather: “The best gangster film ever made in this country.” Of Shampoo: “the most virtuoso example of sophisticated kaleidoscopic farce that American moviemakers have ever come up with.” Of Mean Streets: “[It] has a thicker textured rot and violence than we have ever had in an American movie, and a riper sense of evil.” Of The Godfather, Part II: “...may be the most passionately felt epic ever made in this country.” Of Thieves Like Us: “...so sensuous and lucid that it is as if William Faulkner and the young Jean Renoir had collaborated.” There is something ingratiatingly loony in such rhetorical excess. And something sad as well. If no one is listening, says the private voice behind such prose, you have to scream to be heard. 

I am unable to define the nature of the vision that informs these film essays—an uneasy admission when dealing with such overwhelming judgments. (The pieces add up, incidentally, to a kind of autobiography of a temperament.) Kael has high regard for the work of Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us and Nashville but not Images), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, I and II, The Conversation), Hal Ashby (Shampoo more than The Last Detail), Jan Troell (The Emigrants and The New Land), Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris: “a landmark in movie history”), Louis Malle (Lacombe, Lucien), Satyajit Ray (Days and Nights in the Forest), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets and, with grudging reservations, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), Woody Allen (Sleeper), Ingmar Bergman (though not particularly Cries and Whispers), Barbara Streisand (a long piece on the misuse of her in Funny Lady), Sam Peckinpah (not The Getaway however), Elaine May (The Heartbreak Kid) and Paul Mazursky (“Has there ever been another self-satirist like Mazursky—humanly understanding and utterly freaked out?”). 

On the other hand, Kael has little sympathy for the genre films of Don Siegel, for the middlebrow impersonality of George Roy Hill (The Sting and Waldo Pepper) for the cool elegances of Alain Resnais’s Stavisky and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (preferring to Badlands the trashy Sugarland Express, an odd though telling insistence), for the decadences of Visconti’s Ludwig (though she is no fan of the great early works either), for the dry comedy of Tati’s Traffic and more significantly, for the work of Chabrol (ignored in this volume) and Losey and Antonioni (although not reviewed here, cited as examples of style divorced from substance. Interestingly, years back when Kael was doing movie reviews over KPFA radio in Berkeley, she was one of the first American critics to herald L’Avventura.) On the evidence, Kael prefers the hot to the cool, gut experience to intellectual, subject matter to form; she is a moralist, has a liberal journalist’s respect for important social content (is a sucker for good causes like Serpico and Conrack and Sounder and State of Siege), is ware of easy sentiment, is moved by the star turns of charismatic performers, gives more weight to the sound of a film (clever dialogue gets high marks) than its look, distrusts visual elegance (and beauty, one might add) almost as if it were a species of fraud, as if there were something decadent or antihuman in aesthetic suasion. 

Although reviewed on the front page of The New York Times—what stronger claim to a book’s importance?—Reeling is essentially a non-book, a collection of occasional pieces (except for one longer more thoughtful essay on culture) which have lost their occasion. Not many of the films reviewed here in the charged moment of their release, over-praised or damned or given even-handed justice, still seem worthy of the passion Kael invests in them. Even the much admired Nashville (“the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen”), reviewed by Kael from a rough cut months before its release, seems less and less like a masterpiece, or even a significant work of art, as the impact of its immediacy diminishes. One concedes Altman’s considerable talent. In a fallow time, he is arguably one of the two or three most interesting directors currently working in American cinema. His films, of which Nashville is the most obviously ambitious, have a characteristic and by now easily recognizable eccentricity, a manic off-beat rhythm that suggests nothing happening in a great hurry, a frenetic world caught unawares by a documentary camera. Controlled hysteria is the director’s mode. The subliminal signs say, “the world is coming to an end,” but what a painful good time it is getting there. Nashville is an exhilarating entertainment with self-insistent claims to larger importance—full of the kind of pretensions Kael would excoriate in a less sympathetic filmmaker. 

The self-advertised seriousness of Nashville is a commercial for a product still to be conceived. The Country-and-Western music capital is not so much a microcosm of America, as the film pretends to us (the assassination at the end is an egregious miscalculation), as an occasion for Altman to reinvent his vision of the culture—that is, to give it the look, and feel of an Altman film. His actors write their own country and western material, better and worse than the real thing, though clearly inauthentic. The amplitude of Nashville—it has all the signposts of a big Hollywood film—has to do with its Grand Hotel narrative scheme. The multiplicity of character types and intersecting plots are held together through the device of a BBC interviewer who wanders through the film’s landscape asking inane questions of the stars and whose fatuousness seems a parody merely of itself. Nashville is better than its worst, but its weaknesses are suggestive of Altman’s weaknesses as a filmmaker. His crassness runs deep. The vision of American life that informs Nashville (and California Split and M*A*S*H and The Long Goodbye), though perhaps it is less a vision than a series of enlarged perceptions, is that there is no business but (and like) razzle dazzle Show Biz. It is a vision close enough to Kael’s own for her to grant it almost everything. 

Film reviewing, like most jobs, tends to justify its own importance by elevating the consequence of its occasion. Kael has a predilection for going farther in this direction than most, in part because she wants to command an audience for the movies that please her. She has a messianic view of her role that is sometimes attractive, sometimes maddening. She writes, for example in her piece on Day For Night: “I ask for the extraordinary from films, while Truffaut, who finds moviemaking itself extraordinary, is often content to make films everyday.” Apart from the self-congratulation of this remark and the outright dumbness, one forgets for the moment that Truffaut makes films—some of them extraordinary—while Kael only writes about them. I single this remark out unfairly—it is not really characteristic—to indicate how self-infatuating reviewing can become when its subject evolves into the fine calibrations of one’s own sensibility. 

Popular culture tends to confuse reviewing with criticism, tends to make more of the seismographic responses of mostly intelligent laymen than such transient (and often arbitrary) judgments warrant. The movie reviewer, like the television newscaster, is susceptible of becoming a celebrity, more important by general consent than his nominal subject. The feature journalist is the prophet of the immediate, not so much ahead of fashion as no more than a half step behind. Kael tries hard to stay on top of things, but the old-fashioned moralist in her queers the act. For all her talk of “turn on” and “dig,” all her with-it-ness, Kael’s criteria for film art, when not improvised for the sake of justifying a particular judgment, seem to come out of some fifties high school textbook. All that talk of credibility and inhabiting a character and making us feel human emotions (as if there were other kinds available to us) seems inadequate to the sophistication of her perceptions. One suspects that she’s not so much writing down to her audience (though that too), as giving her intuitive judgments some kind of academic respectability. 

Although Reeling represents only about half of the films of more than routine interest released in the U.S. between 1972 and 1975—Kael does her New Yorker column six months out of the year—it is nevertheless a sad reminder of the thinness of the period. The older masters are dying off or out of work. Eccentric European films—the two dazzling Rivettes of the ’75 New York Film Festival, for example—are no longer getting distributed here. There is no Godard reviewed in this collection, no Antonioni or Bresson (although Four Nights of a Dreamer had its quiet release in this period), no Ford or Hawks, no Chabrol or Losey, no Bellocchio or Olmi, no Rossellini, no Hitchcock, no Welles, the last and least of De Sica, a minor Fellini, no Kurosawa or Ozu, a mixed bag of Truffauts. There is a masterwork by Buñuel, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which Kael admires though feels no need to overpraise (consequently, it seems in context less considerable than the super-kitsch of Altman and Coppola), and a wonderful Satyajit Ray film, Days and Nights in the Forest, which is the occasion here of Kael’s most luminous and sensitive piece. The emergence of the work of Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola (and De Palma, Malick and Peckinpah), among the general run of inflated Hollywood trash (what a vulgar trifle Shampoo really is) seems insufficient compensation for what’s been lost. Does Kael really think we’ve gone through a marvelous period of movies or is that the publicist in her hyping the talent in the room? 

Kael says with characteristic inflation about the heroine of Thieves Like Us: “She seems to be herself on the screen in a way nobody has ever been before.” With some minor adjustment, the remark holds true for Kael in the pages of The New Yorker. The remark—it has that kind of elasticity—also (with adjustment) holds true about the rest of us wherever. If Reeling is about anything, it is a book about vicarious world records that Kael and the rest of us share with the stars. 

Order Shots in the Dark here