What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Louis Menand's "The Popist: Pauline Kael": A Critique

Has there ever been a more wrong-headed interpretation of Pauline Kael’s work than Louis Menand’s “The Popist: Pauline Kael” (included in Menand’s 2002 essay collection American Studies)? I don’t think so. In his piece, Menand faults Kael’s style. He says:

Her writing is all in the same key, and strictly molto con brio. There is no modulation of tone or (which would be even more welcome) of thought. She just keeps slugging away. She is almost always extraordinarily sharp, but she is almost never funny. And (as she conceded in the introduction to For Keeps), she is clearly working her way through her feelings about the movie as she writes, and this produces garrulousness and compositional dishevelment. Writing in The New Yorker gave her a huge space advantage over other reviewers; she did not always profit by it. Her reviews are highly readable, but they are not especially rereadable. James Agee, in his brief service as movie critic of the Nation, reviewed many nondescript and now long-forgotten pictures; but as soon as you finish reading one of his pieces, you want to read it again, just to see how he did it. Kael does not provoke the same impulse.

I totally disagree. I return to Kael's writings regularly, not for the benefit of her opinions, but for the great pleasure of her prose. Kael was a brilliant writer – where brilliance means rich, sensuous, textured, analytical, detailed, passionate, vivid. No less a judge than William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor for thirty-five years, thought so. In his Foreword to Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies (1991), Shawn says:

The originality of Pauline Kael’s mind and temperament, her formidable intelligence, her eloquent use of the vernacular, her extraordinary analytical powers, her insight into character, her ability to shed light wherever the real world intersects with the world of film, her enormous gift for social observation, the wit and energy and clarity of her prose all go into making her the singular critic she is. What she is primarily is a writer; one reads her for the sheer pleasure her writing affords. Her opinions are forceful, convincing, often unexpected, but whether one agrees with them one comes away from her writing in a state of exhilaration.

Let’s take a closer look at some of Menand’s criticisms. Regarding his claim that Kael writes “all in the same key,” “strictly molto con brio,” that there’s “no modulation of tone or of thought,” that “she just keeps slugging away,” consider the following passage from her review of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (“Pipe Dream, The New Yorker, July 3, 1971):

A slightly dazed reaction to the film is, I think, an appropriate one. Right from the start, events don’t wait for the viewers’ comprehension, as they do in most movies, and it takes a while to realize that if you didn’t quite hear someone’s words it’s all right – that the exact words are often expendable, it’s the feeling tone that matters. The movie is inviting, it draws you in, but at the opening it may seem unnecessarily obscure, perhaps too “dark” (at times it suggest a dark version of Sam Peckinpah’s genial miss The Ballad of Cable Hogue), and later on it may seem insubstantial (the way Max Ophul’s The Earings of Madame de … seemed – to some – insubstantial, or Godard’s Band of Outsiders). One doesn’t quite know what to think of an American movie that doesn’t pretend to give more than a partial view of events. The gaslight, the subdued, restful color, and Mrs. Miller’s golden opium glow, Leonard Cohen’s lovely, fragile, ambiguous songs, and the drifting snow all make the movie hazy and evanescent. Everything is in motion, and yet there is a stillness about the film, as if every element in it were conspiring to tell the same incredibly sad story: that the characters are lost in their separate dreams.

I don’t get a sense from this paragraph that Kael is “slugging away.” If anything, her tone is soft, sensitive. The whole review is in this key. But there are delicate modulations in tempo. For example, the above-quoted paragraph begins in uncertainty (“A slightly dazed reaction …”; “One doesn’t quite know what to think …”) blooms into sensuous description (“The gaslight, the subdued, restful color, and Mrs. Miller’s golden opium glow, Leonard Cohen’s lovely, fragile, ambiguous songs, and the drifting snow …”) and ends in perception (“the characters are lost in their separate dreams”).

Kael wrote very close to the texture of the movie that she was reviewing. If the movie was like McCabe & Mrs. Miler and had a poetic feel, she embodied that feeling in her prose. If it felt fevered, as, say, Taxi Driver does, she enacted it on the page (“He’s so closed off he’s otherworldly; he engages in so few conversations that slang words like “moonlighting” pass right over him – the spoken language is foreign to him. His responses are sometimes so blocked that he seems wiped out; at other times he’s animal fast. This man is burning in misery, and his inflamed, brimming eyes are the focal point of the compositions”). Sometimes she came out slugging, e.g., when she detected artistic pretension, as she did in Badlands (“The film is a succession of art touches. Malick is a gifted student, and Badlands is an art thing, all right, but I didn’t admire it, I didn’t enjoy it, and I don’t like it”). Her writing could be, as Menand says, molto con brio, but not strictly so; it could also be passionate, angry, lyrical, blissed. It all depended on her response to the movie under review.

When she’s really flying, her writing seems to cascade Niagara-like down the page. It’s like having access to her thoughts as she’s conceiving them. Menand appears not to appreciate this effect. In his “Popist” piece, he says, “she is clearly working her way through her feelings about the movie as she writes, and this produces garrulousness and compositional dishevelment.” This contrasts with William Shawn’s appraisal above, in which he talks about “the wit and energy and clarity of her prose.” I think Shawn is right. But I agree with the first part of Menand’s observation: Kael’s writing does give the impression of someone “working her way through her feelings.” That’s one of the things I like most about her writing. “Not a thought, but a mind thinking,” is how Elizabeth Bishop described Gerald Manley Hopkins’ approach to poetry writing. It’s an apt description of Kael’s style, too.

Regarding Menand’s statement that Kael is “almost always extraordinarily sharp, but she is almost never funny,” I infer that he doesn’t get Kael’s kind of wisecracking humor, the tough-minded humor of the thirties screwball comedies that Kael so admired (“It was the comedy of a country that didn’t yet hate itself,” she says in “Raising Kane”). A typical Kael quip is the one-liner she cracks near the end of her brilliant review of The Deer Hunter: “He was hotter for the deer” (“The God-Bless-America Symphony,” The New Yorker, December 18, 1978). Another line I remember is the barb she zings at Norman Mailer in her review of his Marilyn: “Surely he’s getting ready to do Norman? Why leave it to someone who may care less?” Her reviews are peppered with all kinds of provocative, subversive lines, lines aimed at puncturing ego, pretension, condescension. I love them. They’re a hallmark of her style. When she scores a direct hit, she makes me smile. Her humor is not as caustic as, say, Roseanne Barr’s, but it's similar in its aggressiveness.

Another questionable statement made by Menand, in “The Popist,” is that “Her reviews are highly readable, but they are not especially rereadable.” I find her work endlessly rereadable. Why? Because I want to revisit and understand the pleasure that her writing gives me. Who, besides Menand, would not want to reread one of the greatest prose stylists of the second half of the twentieth century? If objective proof of her rereadableness is required, see Dwight Garner’s recent short essay “A Great Guide (Apolgies to Its Author)” (The New York Times, July 14, 2011), in which he says, “rereading [Kael’s] Hooked was a treat, like someone taking me to Grand Central Oyster Bar and saying, ‘Amigo, the check’s on me.’ I can’t imagine a better beach book in 2011.”

The most objectionable statement in Menand’s piece is his comment about what he calls her “anti-aesthetic.” He says, “She hated theories. She didn’t oppose only auteur theory; she opposed all theoretical preconceptions.” I think this is wrong. Yes, she famously opposed the auteur theory. In her review of Hitchcock’s Topaz (“Americana,” The New Yorker, December 27, 1969), she refers to it as “this theory of the superior hack as hidden artist.” Her dislike of the auteur theory rested on an even greater theory, one that she fervently espoused, and even wrote a whole essay about – her greatest non-New Yorker piece of writing, in my opinion. I’m referring, of course, to “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (Harper’s, February, 1969; included in her 1970 collection Going Steady, and her 1994 collection For Keeps), in which she develops “that simple, good distinction that all art is entertainment but not all entertainment is art.” “Trash, Art, and the Movies” is a beautifully, persuasively argued piece. Her rejection of the auteur theory is an aspect of the “not all entertainment is art” limb of her argument.

Even though “Trash, Art, and the Movies” contains Kael’s most explicit and nuanced statement of her artistic credo, Menand doesn’t mention it in his piece. What he does is provide a dumbed down version of her “all art is entertainment” theory, describing it snobbishly as a “middlebrow phenomenon.” A couple of sentences later, he points out that Kael “never finished college.” Menand is a very class-conscious writer. He regularly uses the elitist brow system to make his arguments. He classifies Kael’s critical approach to movies as "middlebrow" because he says it rests on “antiessentialist assumptions” the “undoing” of which “is often taken to have been the work of high critical theory, of semioticians, Derrideans, and postmodernists.” “And that undoing,” he says, “is associated with highbrow, avant-garde art and literature.” How Menand decides that semioticians, Derrideans, and postmodernists are highbrow, he doesn’t say.

Menand’s “The Popist: Pauline Kael” purports to praise Kael (it says she’s “a supremely important figure”), but it does so condescendingly. He calls her “the most brilliantly ad hoc critic of her time,” making it sound as if she didn’t have any ideas, any governing aesthetic. But he’s wrong about that, as he’s wrong about so many other aspects of Kael’s work. She laid out her critical principles in “Trash, Art, and the Movies," and everywhere you look in her writings corroborative passages leap to the eyes:

Spielberg can’t redeem it all, but he gets away with it; he’s one of those wizard directors who can make trash entertaining. (“Sugarland and Badlands,” The New Yorker, March 18, 1974)

Yet when a movie has startled people, like The Towering Inferno, or enlisted their sympathies and made them weep, like Walking Tall, or made them feel vindictive and sadistic, like the Charles Bronson film Death Wish, the hardest thing for a critic to do is convince them that it isn’t necessarily a great picture. It’s almost impossible to persuade people that a shallow, primitive work can give them a terrific kick. (Foreword to Reeling, 1976)

Now, whether the hero is life-loving or life-hating, this kind of movie is trashily sentimental or it’s nothing. But Sydney Pollack recoils from his own deals – he signs up for a Love Story and then munches on it as if he were Antonioni. (“The Sacred Oak,” The New Yorker, October 3, 1977)

Scorsese is putting his unmediated obsessions on the screen, trying to turn raw, pulp power into art by removing it from the particulars of observation and narrative. He loses his lowlife entertainment values of prizefight films; he aestheticizes pulp and kills it. (“Religious Pulp, or The Incredible Hulk,” The New Yorker, December 8, 1980)

Credit: The above 1980 illustration of Pauline Kael is by David Levine.

1 comment:

  1. You've provided an excellent, convincing corrective to Louis Menand's condescending views about Kael (although I hear more praise for Kael in his essay than you might). I recently read Menand's introduction to the recent reissue of Dwight Macdonald's AGAINST THE AMERICAN GRAIN, and what Menand said about Macdonald reminds me a lot of what he said about Kael—especially the ostensibly anti-snob criticisms of Macdonald's theory of cultural categories (masscult, midcult, highbrow, middlebrow, etc.). As stylists and thinkers, Kael and Macdonald had a lot in common, including an ability to hide their critical theories in a homespun skepticism that initially seems antitheory.