What’s left to say of the film critic who haunts all others? To risk an unoriginal sentiment, I’m inclined to say that Pauline Kael remains the best critic with which the movies have ever been graced. She wasn’t the sharpest or the most acute with detail (her friend Manny Farber could write circles around her in that regard), but like most great writers of all shapes and sizes, she was able to obliterate that often insurmountable distance that exists between the writer’s intent and the reader’s interpretation. Kael drew the reader directly into her obsessions and predilections, and to do that she often embraced an unapologetic recklessness that was exhilarating and infuriating in often equal measure. Like many young(-ish, sigh) aspiring film writers battling the blank page, the day I discovered Kael was a legitimately life-changing one.
As many others have sadly written, there’s now at least a generation of filmgoers who have no idea who Pauline Kael is, and most of her books are distressingly out of print. The work of a giant such as Kael is, in these slam-bang hyperbolic times of Internet-empowered film illiteracy, more important than ever, and so it’s somewhat comforting that The Age of Movies, a new collection of her work, has been released at nearly the same time as her first true biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark.
I admit that I approached A Life in the Dark with trepidation, as I was afraid of a hagiography in the tradition of the mostly useless interview book Afterglow. But biographer Brian Kellow, though clearly an admirer, hasn’t lost his head: A Life in the Dark is pared, disciplined, and maintains a questioning distance from its subject that conveys a greater respect for Kael than if it were shallowly fawning. As Kellow says at one point, Kael, though controlling and requiring of her friends a certain unquestioning deference to her authority, was also quick to resent what she might read as dull sycophancy.
Cinephiles will probably find the second half of A Life in the Dark most interesting. This is the portion, after all, that details Kael’s legendary tête-à-têtes with critics Andrew Sarris and particularly Renata Adler, who once proclaimed a collection of her work to be “entirely useless.” There are also remarkably detailed recollections of Kael’s dust-ups with New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn, who often bristled at her informal, street-wise, sometimes nearly pornographic passages, as well as, as far as I know, never-before-told stories of her surrogate Queen Bee/Mother Hen presidement over the younger generations of adoring film critics that were eventually dismissively called the “Paulettes,” which includes alumni such as David Edelstein (interviewed here), Armond White (pointedly absent), David Denby (also interviewed), and defected-Paulette-turned-filmmaker Paul Schrader (interviewed).
This portion is juicy without being gossipy, an accomplishment that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and Kellow humanizes Kael by daring to casually paint her as egomaniacal, insecure, and occasionally vicious. In other words, a writer. But the first half of the book, detailing Kael’s childhood in a once prosperous Jewish family that fell on hard times through her successful administration of a Berkley theater that hosted such notables as filmmaker Jean Renoir, is even more revealing. This portion of the book deflates, without self-consciousness, the myth of Pauline Kael as someone who mythically rose out of nowhere to assume the prestigious post as headline earning film critic at The New Yorker. Kael was in her 40s before she even began to make her mark as a writer, and she often had to borrow from her sisters and take odd jobs in order to make ends meet for her daughter Gina (conceived in a casual relationship with the mostly gay poet James Broughton). Kellow portrays Kael, in the tradition of most writers who’ve made any kind of real indention on mass consciousness, as tough, sharp, iron-willed, and basically capable of anything.
Kael’s essential asexuality—she basically gave up on romantic relationships early in her adulthood after a number of ambiguous flings with mostly gay men—is also gracefully, unobtrusively elaborated upon with Kellow’s characteristic finesse and good taste, and this part of Kael’s life, if you’ll indulge me, is strikingly revealing of the sensibility that governed her reviews. The overheated, nearly purplish prose, the brazen, lengthy, naked ruminations on stars’ physicalities, as well as long indulgences into often unsupportable—yet nearly as often brilliantly intuitive— pontifications as to what may be going on in said stars’ heads, speaks of a classic kind of authorial compensation. Movies were sex to Kael, and her greatest contribution to film criticism was her ability to summon and govern her private demons in the effort to capture the narcotic pull of the film medium, a feat worth a hundred of the kind of cold, self-congratulating pieces that typically characterize the publications aimed at cinephiles.
So, yes, Kellow furnishes Kael with something of a Rosebud: She was probably a terminally lonely person who relied far too much on her daughter Gina as companion and creative springboard (Gina declined to participate, and her absence is the single most regrettable aspect of A Life in the Dark). But Kellow has managed to somehow humanize Kael without diminishing her legend and that’s the kind of tonal somersault that Kael herself might’ve admired. This slim book is humane and intelligent. It doesn’t have Kael’s passionate reckless verve and ballsiness, but, in these times of turmoil in which grounded, well-considered writing of all kinds is seemingly in danger, it doesn’t really need to.
Viking Adult released Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark on October 27. To purchase it, click here.