Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, ed. by Sanford Schwartz

The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, ed. by Sanford Schwartz. New York: Library of America, 2011. Hardcover, 750pp, $40.00..

As perhaps the most well-known name in film criticism, Pauline Kael has become associated perhaps with the “old guard” — the print media pundits, a signifier of bourgeois respectability. Her reviews were, after all, originally published in the New Yorker, and as with most icons the bourgeoisie embrace as their own, there’s been some softening of her edges over the years, a streamlining down to a period in the 1970s when hers was the defining voice that helped launch the Easy Riders/Raging Bulls era and opened up what film criticism could be. Yet, over time, since her death in 2001, that defining anti-establishment critical voice has become the establishment (the bourgeoisie love to revere rebellious voices once they can’t rebel against softened misinterpretations of their work)

The fact is, the lions of literary fustiness may have adopted her as their own, but just read one of her pieces and you realize our irreverent saint of cinema was edgy and brave above all else, and she regularly, daringly scolds and condemns her highbrow friends for doing the very thing with cinema that they have since done of late with her writing, namely validated and lionized and sanctified, and therefore eroded the very meaning of it

So now, to set the record straight and liberate us from all the old yellowed library hardcovers and expensive, heavy paperback reprints with her strange hawk-like visage on them comes the third volume in an invaluable retrospective of film criticism, “The Age of Movies.” The previous volume was The Complete Writings of Manny Farber, but if you’ve never heard of either Farber or Kael, start with Kael as a more accessible primer for Farber’s unapologetic crazy horse obscurantism. The book culls the juiciest stuff from her long array of books:  I Lost It at the MoviesKiss Kiss Bang BangGoing SteadyDeeper into MoviesReelingWhen the Lights Go DownTaking It All InState of the ArtHooked, and Movie Love. The reviews begin around the time of Easy Rider in 1969 and end with The Grifters in 1991

A word about the book itself is required, since with this tome we forever dissolve the difference between hard and soft cover. It’s listed as hardcover but the truth is the cover is a kind of vinyl that bends without breaking, and with the thin, lovely pages it’s clearly meant for heavy travel, a long shelf life, and relative to its girth, kind to arthritic hands.  If I were 16 again — the age when I discovered Kael at the library — it would be my bible for sure. Since receiving the book it’s already inspired me to rewatch Brian De Palma’s The Fury, a film he made in the wake of his huge-grossing, ESP/psycho-kinetics-craze-launching Carrie. Kael writes: “De Palma is the reverse side of the coin from Spielberg. Close Encounters gives us the comedy of hope, The Fury the comedy of dashed hope” (566). Foregrounding this statement, she notes “Most other directors save the lives of the kind, sympathetic characters; De Palma shatters any Pollyanna thoughts — any expectations that a person’s goodness will protect him. He goes past Hitchcock’s perversity into something gleefully kinky” (564)

The very idea that a supposedly respectable Upper West Side New Yorker critic could approve of such things is what gives me hope to live another day. Her contempt for her less adventurous peers is all over her writing from the era: “When acquaintances ask me what they should see and I say The Last Waltz or Convoy or Eyes of Laura Mars, I can see the recoil. It’s the same look of distrust I encountered when I suggested Carrie or The Fury or Jaws or Taxi Driver or the two Godfather pictures . . .” (569). She adds that most critics feel it their duty to protect such people, because violence upsets them, they want to be safe from their own masochistic reactions. Other critics feel it’s their duty to judge these “intense movies,” and Kael is keenly aware:

What’s more natural than that they would share the fears of their readers and viewers, take it as their duty to warn them off intense movies, and equate intense with dirty and cheap, adolescent? Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art — of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theater. So we’ve been getting a new cultural Puritanism — people go to the innocuous hoping for the charming, or they settle for imported sobriety, and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision . . . (570)

She loved the amoral gaze of the loner in Scorsese, the on-location shooting in Manhattan that brought grit and edge to everything filmed there, noting: “New York City is always New York City; it can’t be anything else, and, with practically no studios for fakery, the movie companies use what’s really here, so the New York-made movies have been set in Horror City” (296). She was thrilled by the sleazy Times Square grindhouses that thrived in the 1970s, noting the audiences as “highly volatile,” and “explosively live. It’s like being at a prizefight or a miniature Altamont” (297-98)

Clearly she had an eye for talent, guts, and vision. She recognized the genius in Herzog right off the bat: “During the last New York film festival, I . . . was impressed by [Signs of Life] even though the film was maddeningly dull and lacked flair and facility, because Herzog was clearly highly intelligent and was struggling toward a distinctive new approach” (195). And she had no tolerance for “craftsmanship” or prestige movies, noting: “Television commercials and the tricks of thousands of clever technicians have devalued facility; it’s like the graceful literary style of all those college writers who will never have anything to say” (195). And when she saw a movie that dared associate amorality with positive reinforcement, she had its back:

Our desire for grace and seductive opulence is innocent, I think, except to prigs, so when it’s satisfied by movies about Fascism or decadence we get uncomfortable because our own enjoyment is turned against us. One wants modern directors to be able to use the extravagant emotional possibilities of the screen without falling into the De Mille-Fellini moralistic bag.” (277)

And best of all, she loved to trash her fellow critics, and the “prigs”! She stuck up for her favorite films with adoration and tenacity, and if she panned something she did it with kindness — and mainly attacked the critics who panned it worse than she did. You might still want to see the film just to be armed with her ideas like a can opener allowing you to pry open the badness and see to the core of truth. Hers was the voice that made Bonnie and Clyde a hit by recognizing some great nouvelle vague essay going on in its margins. She became a celebrity in her own right, a two-fisted intellectual Louella Parsons. Everyone read her reviews, or had heard what she said, and wanted to see the film again, armed with her insights — and her insights became ours because they were so open-ended. She didn’t have to nail a film to the wall to prove she was intelligent; she didn’t look over her shoulder at the other critics to make sure she wasn’t left dangling on some new trend; she didn’t like an artsy film just because she should or hate a trashy one for the same reason

We miss her and need her today — someone with enough literary clout that her praise can define and refine the response to a movie the way she helped define and refine the responses to Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and Carrie. There are recent movies that have gone panned and forgotten but would surely have been embraced by Kael, like Observe and Report (she would have saved it from getting lumped with Paul Blart, Mall Cop), Enter the Void, and the Twilight series (panned by adults who haven’t seen it or are ashamed to admit they have — she would no doubt recognize that they fill a too-long-ignored, underserved demographic). She was confident enough to get wise to Fellini’s and Woody Allen’s essential shallowness; she wasn’t fooled by the youth viewer’s love of “trip” films — and she was wary of film critics who prized themselves for elitist judgments. “I don’t trust critics who care only for the highest and the best, it’s an inhuman position, and I don’t believe them. I think it’s simply their method of exalting themselves” (265)

I think she would have gone to the mattresses to defend Antichrist as one of the great works of the twenty-first century

She went all out, for example, in her gushing review of Mean Streets: “Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is a true original of our period, a triumph of personal filmmaking. It has its own hallucinatory look . . . It has its own unsettling episodic rhythm and a highly charged emotional range that is dizzyingly sensual.” (376)

You can tell she’s turned on. There are few writers these days who let themselves be turned on (i.e., able sublimate sexual ignition into their criticism without being juvenile or clinical) like this, so luckily for us we have this enjoyable, comprehensive but easy to carry volume to get us pumped in the old 1970s sense to experience the films she discusses, all the dangerous films from those “horror city” theaters available at our fingertips now, for enjoyment in the privacy of our own homes, and if the element of danger from a “miniature Altamont” theater crowd is gone, Kael’s writing brings it back. She brings the ’70s mix of sexually charged danger and go-for-broke aesthetic surrender back into movie watching. Don’t let the bourgeoisie put up a velvet rope around her and keep you away from this book just because they want to do some grant-spending idolatrous stunt like having an exhibit at MOMA of her typewriter, glasses, favorite film screenings, and original typewritten pages and notes. Fight the power, grab this book, see The Conformist through her eyes, awaken her vision in yourself, and set the both of you free once more, even if it’s only until the next blue credits.