Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Pauline Kael became the voice for a new generation of film-goers.

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark By Brian Kellow Penguin Group 432 pp.

Pauline Kael is reported to have said to Robert Altman, after the screening of his film Three Women, “I loved the first part of the movie, Bob, but I hated the second part.”  My response was similar to Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow’s biography of the celebrated film critic. 

Part of this can’t be helped. It’s always more interesting to read the fortunes of a rising star, battling her way to the top, making friends and enemies along the way, surviving on a shoestring. 

Kellow offers a detailed account of Kael’s childhood at a chicken farm in the Jewish community of Petaluma, Calif., her stint at Berkley (she dropped out as a senior), and her hard-won career as a film critic – culminating in her hire as the reviewer for The New Yorker at the age of 48. [Correction: This review originally misstated Kael's age.] Kael’s struggles and rise to fame make for a compelling read, as does the backdrop against which it is set: the evolution of the movies out of the Hollywood Production Code and Studio System (established in the 1930s and crumbling by the 1960s) as well as the broader social history, culminating in the rise of the counterculture and the anti-war movement. 

Kael, though not young herself, became a voice for the generation that reveled in films like Bonnie and Clyde and M*A*S*H, movies that an older generation of critics dismissed. Likewise, her very style of writing pushed film criticism to reflect a new voice, one that dropped the pretense of objectivity in keeping with New Journalists like Joan Didion and Norman Mailer, and leaned on the vernacular and the occasional sexual metaphor.  (Battles between Kael and genteel New Yorker editor William Shawn over her salty language were regular occurrences.)

Though she spoke for youth culture, Kael herself hailed from the Greatest Generation, and as a writer who was neither male, Gentile, nor from the East, her reflection of that generation’s belief in hard work as a means to an achievable end served her well in writing her way into the New York literary establishment. 

Her reviewing became a passionate advocacy for what the movies could and should do – that is, “depict American life with some degree of authenticity,” as messy as that might be – and driven by this passion, she moved from margin to center. In this way, Kael’s is an American success story, if not quite from rags to riches, then from obscurity to prominence and influence.

Having achieved success, Kael, like many before her, at times abused her power. In one unsavory episode, she offered to collaborate with a tenure-track professor at UCLA, who had conducted substantial research on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz for a book on Citizen Kane.  Kael took his research, only to use it, unacknowledged, to produce one of her most celebrated and controversial essays, “Raising Kane.”  (Watching poor Howard Suber handing over his interviews, eager to be affiliated with Kael, is a little like watching a horror flick – one wants to cry out, “don’t go into that room!”)  Also problematic was Kael’s influence on a younger generation of critics, the “Paulettes,” who circled in tight ranks around her, competing for her favor.

Ok, so I didn’t hate the second half of the book, but I did find it tedious. Comprised of short paragraphs describing Kael’s take on particular films in the 1970s and 80s, its choppiness may tire even the most avid moviegoer (apart from the last 35 pages or so, which describe the shifting fortunes of The New Yorker and Kael’s softening in her later years).  Surely, there must have been a better way to organize this material.  Another minor weakness lies in the way Kael’s daughter, Gina, appears briefly only to vanish for many pages (i.e., years) in Kellow’s account. It’s not her story, yet given that she was Kael’s only child, who lived with her mother well into her 30s, she seems oddly peripheral.  That Gina declined to contribute to this project may account for Kellow’s reticence here.

Nonetheless, it is Kael, the critic, that movie aficionados will care most about, and they get her here in spades. Given the dearth of powerful women in American culture who aren’t either Barbie dolls (see pretty much every female newscaster) or vilified by the mass media, I could be tempted to give this book to every young woman I know.  And in our age of sound bites, “thumbs-up’s!”, “rottentomatoes” reviews, and what Kellow astutely refers to as the “infantilization of the great moviegoing audience,” Kael’s voice is missed indeed.

Elizabeth Toohey is an English professor at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., where she specializes in postwar American culture.

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