book cover imagePauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
by Brian Kellow.
Viking Adult, 2011.
Hardcover, 417 pages, $28.

After Richard Nixon was re-elected President in 1972, Newsweek magazine quoted acclaimed film critic Pauline Kael as saying: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are, I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.” It is a quote that has taken root in American culture. It has been misquoted, wrongly attributed, and updated a decade later to apply to President Reagan. Conservatives frequently use it as proof of the deaf insularity of the elite liberal intelligentsia. A closer study of Kael’s own contrarian writing and history suggests that this may very well have been her exact point.

Few other film critics have commanded the cult of personality that Pauline Kael achieved. Perhaps the recently deceased Roger Ebert came close. But his fame is largely due to his television career where his catchy thumbs up/thumbs down approach successfully reduced the art of movie reviewing to movie recommending. Very few besides Kael have been taken seriously as art critics, while simultaneously maintaining popular appeal. In his sympathetic biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow attempts to analyze her personal relationship with cinema and explore the impact she made on films and film criticism.

Pauline Kael was the youngest daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland who managed a chicken farm in Petaluma, California. The first thirty years of her life read like a poor Mary McCarthy novel. The Great Depression forced her family to move to San Francisco when Pauline was a teenager. There she attended Berkeley, studying philosophy and literature. Eager to enter the literary community, she left before graduating and moved to New York. While she succeeded in making the acquaintance of notable artists such as composer Samuel Barber, her vicious wit and personality would soon alienate them. She struggled to find employment as a writer, and was forced to take menial work while watching the plum jobs and assignments go to insiders in the East Coast intellectual circles. It would spark a lifelong resentment of that class. By 1950 she was back in San Francisco, working as a tailor, and a single mother to her only daughter Gina.

Her path to a career in film criticism was a circuitous one and, for a long time, unrewarding. By chance, the editor of City Lights, a film journal, overheard her arguing about movies with friends at a coffee house. He was so impressed with her articulate opinion that he asked her to review the Charlie Chaplin film Limelight for him. The review was a devastating but entertaining assault on Chaplin’s traditional sentimentality and it brought her to the attention of several publications. She was soon writing essays for Sight and Sound, managing and scheduling shows at a small cinema, and broadcasting weekly movie reviews on KPFA-FM, a listener-supported radio station. She had found a career, albeit not a profitable one.

Her reputation was growing; so much so that she realized she was worth more than the zero KPFA was paying her. She insisted on being paid a salary by the station. When they refused, she resigned on-air. She collected the essays, reviews, and film-notes that she wrote for her cinema programs and published them in the provocatively titled I Lost it at the Movies, the first in what would be a series of best-selling collections of essays. The book’s success was her ticket to a regular writing paycheck from a national magazine. Her acerbic wit and disregard for objectivity quickly proved too much for the readers of McCall’s and The New Republic. But she eventually found a place at The New Yorker, where she remained for the next thirty years.

It was at The New Yorker that she cemented her reputation as the rare movie critic who had achieved celebrity herself, partly by changing the nature of film criticism.

Movies can never be as radical or revolutionary as other art forms. There is usually too much money involved. More importantly, there are too many people involved in creation, production, and presentation. Most critics and academics have subscribed to the “auteur theory”—that one person, usually the film director, is the singular guiding creative voice behind a great film. It is a theory that works neatly in composing film courses and biographies of such filmmakers as Renoir and Hitchcock, whose visual marks and imprint can be spotted from film to film. Kael strongly rejected this view, arguing that, unlike a poem or a painting, a film is the inevitable collective work of many disparate and accidental voices. Her 1963 essay “Circles and Squares” articulated her low opinion of auteur theory and became one of her more famous attacks on the artistic pretensions of the movie industry.

One vital factor in Kael’s professional reputation was timing. Her career coincided with the evolution of “film culture.” She started writing reviews just as the golden age of Hollywood ended. Movie studios were divested of their theatre chains, and foreign and independent films grabbed the attention of moviegoers. While some critics made a name for themselves by promoting or attaching themselves to a movement or school of film, Kael did the opposite. She built her reputation on what she did not like in the new post-war cinema—stately, self-indulgent art films; empty wide-screen epics, and “good-intentioned” message movies that congratulate audiences for their liberal sensitivity. She eviscerated such movies in print. She also attacked the critics that praised and encouraged such films. The articles in I Lost it at the Movies could more accurately be described as reviews more of critics than of movies.

Kellow recites an anecdote that captures both Kael’s character and her impact on film criticism. In 1969, Universal Pictures banned Kael from their complimentary press screenings. The studio feared, justifiably, that her contemptuous snorting and audible comments during the show might have a negative impact on her fellow critics. She was unbothered by their action. She preferred seeing the movies in a public cinema where she could watch the reaction of the audience members in addition to the action on screen. For Kael, the public response and the impact film had on society was as important and fascinating a topic as the movies themselves. Her reviews ignored objectivity because they were meant to be interactive discussions, even arguments, with her readers.

This may have been the reason she became so frustrated with movies that overplayed their hand and arrogantly lectured to the audience. While she enjoyed melodrama, she had no patience for the heavy-handed, socially uplifting sort that liberal moviemakers like Stanley Kramer produced on a yearly basis in the Fifties and Sixties. She was particularly appalled by Kramer’s post-JFK assassination film The Chase, which portrayed contemporary white Texans as lurid, lecherous, and violent as Philistines in a Cecil B. DeMille Bible epic. Likewise, she was alarmed at the narcissism of young Americans and the forgettable movies that flattered them. Kael resisted all forms of dogma, whether religious, social, or political, because she saw how easily they could be propagandized on a giant forty-foot screen. She wanted films to portray a more authentic America, not one that flattered either filmmakers or audience.

One wonders how such a contrarian writer clicked with the self-satisfied readership of the genteel The New Yorker. Perhaps it had to do with her bracing, earthy writing style. Kael could be nasty and bullying, and completely self-confident. She used sexual metaphors whenever possible. Even her book titles were double-entendres—Reeling; Going Steady; When the Lights Go Down. It is no coincidence that her peak years of influence coincided with the “New Hollywood,” when young filmmakers in the late sixties and seventies injected new levels of brashness, violence, and sexuality into studio films. The movie that many point to as the pioneer of this movement, Bonnie and Clyde, was also the very first film Kael reviewed for The New Yorker.

There were also her entertaining public feuds with her colleagues. The seductions, alliances, and betrayals described in Keller’s book make the New York film critic community a surprising soap opera. Perhaps now that she was living among the sophisticated New York literary elite, her old resentments were unleashed.

Eventually however, Kael surrendered to many of the same faults that she called out in other critics. Her bullying tone grew more ugly. Despite her longstanding anti-auteur stance, she adopted favorites among directors, such as Robert Altman and Brian DePalma, whom she over-praised and publicized. She grew inappropriately friendly with the film community, even briefly accepting a job developing scripts in Hollywood. Her attempt to work on the other side of the screen lasted a short, frustrating six months.

Keller’s biography also has its faults. He dutifully follows her life story for fifty years and a hundred pages. But once Kael begins her job at The New Yorker, the book becomes a general history of film in the 1970s, from a singular point of view. Maddeningly, one film after another gets forced through the political filter of Watergate-era politics, regardless of Kael’s own take. Kellow mentions all the prominent movies of the decade, the talent involved, and Kael’s reaction to them, usually accompanied by excerpts from her original reviews. It doesn’t so much enlighten readers as encourage them to seek out Kael’s own (mostly out of print) books. Given her highly personalized writing style, one would expect to find more substance in her own sentences than in Kellow’s.

The book picks up again at the conclusion as it addresses her retirement and her final years struggling with Parkinson’s disease. On the whole though, the biography has too many blind spots, too many periods where Kellow seems to skip over entire years. These years could probably be filled in by Kael’s daughter Gina, who was home-schooled and over-protected as a child, and later worked as her mother’s secretary. She was Kael’s constant companion during the peak years of her career. Unfortunately she chose not to participate in this biography and her contribution is missed. Without a family member’s insight, Kael remains the enigmatic subject of her admirers and colleagues’ lively anecdotes.

The subtitle of Kellow’s book, “A Life in the Dark,” is well chosen. He clearly intended for it to follow in the tradition of Kael’s own suggestive book titles. But it aptly describes the highly private nature of her life. The closest personal connection anybody could ever make with her was as a face in a darkened cinema, watching the screen while she watched their response.  

Patrick McCarthy teaches at Marymount Manhattan College.