Live-blogging the Pauline Kael biography

[Kael with French actor and producer Jacques Perrin an Cannes in 1977.  AP photo from NYT:]

Well, not really, I just finished it (Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: a Life in the Dark)… It might be of limited interest to anyone lacking at least some pre-existing interest in Kael’s career and movie criticism — most of the key events of her life did involve movie reviews — but it was irresistible reading for me and made me realize how influential Kael was on my thinking as a kid/teenager.  Among other things, the book is simply a great chronological digest of some of her most memorable pieces and greatest lines.  It would be a good double feature with the great Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (by Peter Biskind).  Kael with some justice viewed the late 1960s through the mid 1970s as “equivalent to some of the great literary epochs in history,” and she was lucky enough to take on her perch at the New Yorker just in time to cover this epoch.  She didn’t just cover it, she influenced it in a major way, the biography shows, including in some ethically questionable ones: she palled around with many of the directors and writers she wrote about, advised them about casting and script choices, visited them on set and engaged in overt boosterism (Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah are the most obvious– she had very close relationships with them both, and unfounded rumors circulated that she was sleeping with one or the other.)

Part of her genius lay in her obsessive/overwhelming love for movies, a love so strong that it trumped almost any consideration of personal feelings.  You can see how she believed that her relationships with directors did not affect her judgments, since she was willing to turn rather viciously on anyone whose work took a direction she found mistaken (although someone like Altman seemed immune to such reversals).  In her writing, she talks you through her own process of response to a film, drawing you into the complex judgments and emotions she herself experienced.  She thought critical objectivity was a crock/delusion, and this sometimes led her astray, but also invested her writing with a special kind of passion.

A few memorable details/moments:

  • She grew up in a Jewish chicken-farmer family in Petaluma, CA.  “She was extremely precocious, and her older siblings delighted in the astonishing observations that routinely popped out of her mouth.”  One thing I’ve always loved about Kael is her late-bloomer quality.  She was a single mother (with a daughter with a congenital heart defect) who got by for years doing odd jobs like managing a dry-cleaner’s and, eventually, working as the manager of a repertory theater in Berkeley.  This is where she really got her start, writing eventually-legendary program notes and programming innovative double features in the 1950s.  (She was also an unpaid film commentator on WKPA, Berkeley’s listener-supporter FM station).  She didn’t write her first piece for the New Yorker until in her late 40s.
  • Her time in the 50s in Berkeley has a slightly idyllic quality in this account– it was the period when she found her voice and acquired a reputation but was still quite poor and mostly known only in film-aficionado circles.  She entertained all the time:  “She had two beloved basenji dogs, Polly and Bushbaby, who frolicked with her guests, and several of her friends noted the irony that a compulsive talker like Pauline chose to have dogs who couldn’t bark.  There was an upright piano in the living room with characters from The Wizard of Oz painted on it, and Pauline loved to sing Gilbert and Sullivan songs, with The Mikado‘s “The Moon and I” a particular favorite.”  She was always a Westerner and a rural California girl, never seemed completely to view NYC as a home.  (Once she made some money, she and her daughter moved to a big house in Great Barrington, MA, where she did most of her writing.)  There’s an intense moment late in the book when Kael is sitting at lunch with someone in the city in 1989 and sees a man knifed on the street; she goes out and holds his hand until the ambulance arrives.  “That cemented her loathing of New York.”
  • She could be hilariously crude/vulgar.  She found Billy Wilder’s 1961 comedy One, Two, Three, for example, “overwrought, tasteless, and offensive – a comedy that pulls out laughs the way a catheter pull out urine.”  A very funny developing theme concerns her endless battles with William Shawn at The New Yorker over her use of slang, vulgarisms, and references to violence and sex.  Here’s my favorite passage along these lines:  “In the opening sentence of her review of Goin’ South, Pauline rendered a vivid description of [Jack] Nicholson, an actor she was still trying to come to terms with: ‘He bats his eyelids, wiggles his eyelids, and gives us a rooster-that-fully-intends-to-jump-the-hen smile.’  Shawn’s note in the galley margin read, ‘This piece pushes her earthiness at us, as if she wants us to see how far she can push us, too.  It’s the tone of the whole review.’  Later in the same review she wrote of the actor, ‘He’s like a young kid pretending to be an old coot, chawing toothlessly and dancing with his bottom close to the earth.’  Shawn wrote in the margin, ‘Her earthiness, her focus on body functions.’  The description on Nicholson’s bottom being close to the earth was deleted, as was a later reference to Nicholson’s being a ‘commercial for cunnilingus.’  Shawn circled the phrase and wrote, ‘This has to come out.  We can’t or won’t print it.'”  !!  I really wanted to use that phrase as the title of this post but decided it would attract the wrong audience.
  • Another famous one along these lines: she pans Terence Malick’s Badlands and Shawn (whose son Wally Shawn was college buddies with Malick) tells her, “I guess you didn’t know that Terence is like a son to me.” Her reply: “tough shit, Bill.”

Don’t have time right now to write more, need to pack and return the library book!  The book ends with her memorial service at which Pauline’s daughter Gina delivers a rather sharp, albeit appreciative judgment: “When Pauline spoke to someone about their work as if it had been produced by a third party, it had repercussions.  There was fallout.  In my youth, I watched what she left, unaware, in her wake: flickering glimpses of crushed illusions, mounting insecurities, desolation.  Those she was not dismissive of, those who valued her perception, judgment, integrity, and extreme forthrightness, did feel her sting, but also felt that she was totally real and that she affirmed and valued them as human beings…. Pauline’s greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and critic.  She truly believed that what she did was for everyone’s good, and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects… She denied any motivations or personal needs.  This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice.  She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.”

I gotta say, I kind of love her, I would probably have been thrilled to be a Paulette.  Sarah got sick of me reading excerpts out loud.

This is my favorite image of her, from the mid 1950s when she was programming the Cinema Guild theater in Berkeley: “Friendly, gregarious, and bawdy, she was becoming something of a local character…[L]ocals grew accustomed to seeing her up on a ladder changing the Guild’s marquee, a hip flask filled with Wild Turkey dangling from a belt loop.”

By the way, this A.O Scott/ Manohla Dargis discussion of the biography is worth reading.  Also, here’s a chance to hear her voice — & check out the cute sneakers.

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