Undercover: Making Sense of the Movies (Pauline Kael) (05/06/76)

To say that Pauline Kael is the best practicing movie critic is to say nothing new; she’s been my idea of a critic since I read her first book, I Lost It at the Movies, in 1966. Outside of Manny Far­ber, whose work appears only erratically and whose best stuff (collected in Movies, Hillstone paperback) dates from the Fif­ties, I haven’t noticed much real competition.

In terms of the way Kael works, there isn’t any. Farber is a more inventive stylist (his writing anticipated the swift ironies and blazing cuts of Godard); no writer is more authentically modern. Godard himself, as a critic (1950-1960), was more extreme than Kael in his loves and hates; he wrote like a Maquis terrorist leading raids on Vichy, as if every film represented either betrayal or liberation (see Godard on God­ard, translated by Tom Milne, Viking paperback). But no movie critic assumes a context as broad as Kael does; no other critic uses so many resources in the attempt to make sense out of a movie; no critic is as involved in the adventure. ­

Reeling (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 497 pp., $12.95), Kael’s fifth and longest collection of pieces, is made up of her fall-to-­spring New Yorker writing from ’72 through ’75. It includes memorable reviews of Last Tango in Paris, Lacombe, Lucien and The Godfather II, her prerelease review of Nashville, and “On the Future of Movies,” a long polemic from the summer of ’75. It offers a critic who can write; who has a vast and visceral knowledge not only of movies but of books, music, history and politics; who combines a desire to understand the constant shifts in fads, fashions and social beliefs with remarkable sensitivity to questions of value; who has a sense of humor; and who has a shit detector that is beyond belief. (Kael on William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist: “He has said that Blatty’s book took hold of him and made him physically ill. That’s the problem with moviemakers who aren’t thinkers; they’re mentally unprotected. A book like Blatty’s makes them sick, and they think this means they should make everybody sick.”)

Kael is also our most valuable critic of cheap, fraudulent nihilism in popular culture. (She proved long ago that she knew, and respected, the real thing for what it is, with her reviews of Forbidden Games and Fires on the Plain.) Kael is perhaps more effective in this role in Reeling than before, probably because she thinks such attitudes are more dangerous, and audiences more vulnerable to them, than in other times. She is unsparing with movies that exploit the public cynicism created by Vietnam and Watergate, and devastating when she confronts the sadism and brutality that have, along with facile cynicism, become so fashionable. On John Milius: “He had it written into his contract with Warners for Jeremiah Johnson that he would get to shoot the numerous animals that his script (later modified) required to be slaughtered. He has already directed his first feature… if that’s a hit, he can probably get a contract to shoot the actors in his next one.” And in the same vein–since in the movies cynicism is ordinarily a product not of despair but of smugness–it is no accident that Kael was, as far as I know, the only critic who refused to let George Lucas get away with his disgraceful coda to American Graffiti.

Still, for all this (and for a score of passages it pains me to omit here), Reeling bothers me. Again and again, Kael’s work is marred by the clichéd construction Veronica Geng gratuitously satirized in the New York Review of Books last December, and by the kind of modernisms that sound dated and forced whenever they appear in print, even if that happens to be the day after they appear on the street (“charged up,” “draggy,” “zippy,” “zizzy,” “kinky,” “flaky,” “zonked,” “wacked out,” “nutty,” “bombed out,” “a high,” “jacked up”).

Kael’s positions are undermined by the repeated use of absolute superlatives, which is what one expects from a critic who is unable to convince a reader by argument, allusion or example. Thus, in Reeling, movie after movie is cited as the greatest, best, most something-or-other in history. The Godfather II “may be the most passionately felt epic ever made in this country” (I yield to no one in my love for that movie, but more so than Birth of a Nation or Intolerance or even Orphans of the Storm?; Nash­ville “is the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen”; and in one piece we go from Streisand as “the greatest camera subject on the contemporary American screen” to “Carol Burnett is probably the most gifted comedienne this country has ever produced” with only a little white space between the accolades. The point is not that movie to movie Kael is right or wrong. It’s that this kind of praise (or, in some cases, damnation) ceases to mean anything. It robs meaning from the review, from the movie, and worst, from the movie past.

The pieces are often clogged with overwriting; Kael’s ideas fragment under the weight of four sentences when one will do, under multiple adjectives, redundant descriptions, disjointed arguments. She will write: “Jacque­line Bisset is so velvety a projection of masculine fantasies that she doesn’t have enough rough edges to be alive. She isn’t just richly made up; she’s anointed. She’s a walking ad for soft, sleek curves and luscious passivity.” The first sentence says it all; the next two, with their triple repetition of “she,” virtually bury it.

When Kael is not writing against deadline, as with the off­-season “On the Future of Movies” or her wonderful profile of Cary Grant (not, for some reason, included in Reeling; get the July 14th, 1975, New Yorker out of the library), the fog lifts. Her writing regains its clarity, her perspective its force. A statement like this is the result: “Perhaps no work of art is possible without belief in the audience–the kind of belief that has nothing to do with facts and figures about what people actually buy or enjoy but comes out of the individual artist’s absolute conviction that only the best he can do is fit to be offered to others.”

It’s that kind of sentence, and that kind of moral vision, that has kept me looking to Kael for ten years. But it is also what keeps me from making the connection with Reeling that I want to make.


Rolling Stone, May 6, 1976


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