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.

Friday, October 28, 2011

October 24, 2011 Issue

What to make of Nathan Heller’s Pauline Kael piece (“What She Said”) in this week’s issue? I confess I didn’t much like it. Here are eight reasons why:

1. Heller reduces Kael’s thinking to the level of “whimsical taste.” He says, “from the time she wrote her first review until the moment she retired, in 1991, her authority as a critic relied solely on her own, occasionally whimsical taste.” He says that she flaunted intuition “in the face of formalism,“ and that “She was dowsing for film classics with her nervous system.” Intuition,” “taste,” and “ dowsing with her nervous system” do not do justice to Kael’s approach. Each of her reviews is an unfolding of thought. Did she have an interpretive or ideological a priori? Yes and no. She wasn’t locked into a system the way, say, a Freudian or Marxist critic is. But there are theories implicit in her criticism. Her love of “open form,” for example, governs her aesthetic response. And her great essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies” (included in her 1970 collection Going Steady), develops “the simple good distinction” that she repeatedly applied in her criticism: “all art is entertainment but not all entertainment is art.” Heller, in his piece, fails to mention “Trash, Art, and the Movies.”

2. Heller asserts that “the fifteen-year stretch between 1964 and 1979” is “when Kael wrote almost all the reviews on which her reputation rests.” Even though he’s saying “almost,” he’s still leaving the impression that the writing Kael did between 1980 and February 11, 1991, when she wrote her last review, is of secondary importance. I disagree. In that eleven-year period, Kael produced four brilliant collections: Taking It All In (1984), State of the Art (1985), Hooked (1989), and Movie Love (1991). Also, in 1982, the first edition of her magnificent 5001 Nights at the Movies was published. It’s a collection of several thousand capsule reviews she did for The New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” department. In the foreword to 5001 Nights at the Movies, William Shawn says:

A master of synopsis, Pauline Kael has contrived to tell us between the covers of one book what eight decades of film are about and who is in them and behind them, and to reflect, swiftly but astutely, on what they signify. No one else has done that; no one else could have done that.

Heller, in his piece, fails to mention 5001 Nights at the Movies.

3. Speaking of William Shawn, I was surprised to read in Heller’s article that, when Kael tried to return to The New Yorker, after spending less than a year working in Hollywood, “William Shawn balked.” Heller says, “One of her former editors prevailed on him, but the homecoming was awkward.” This is the same Shawn, who, three years later, writes in his Foreword to 5001 Nights at the Movies that “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 on 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.” In light of the foregoing, it’s hard to imagine Shawn passing up the opportunity to rehire Kael. Heller doesn’t disclose his source for the information that “William Shawn balked.” Perhaps it comes from Brian Kellow’s new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. If so, he should’ve said so, rather than report it as established fact.

4. Heller says that Kael “had few qualms about blackballing young writers on her turf, and otherwise using her influence for ill.” This verges on slander, unless substantiated. Heller fails to do so. But he does indicate his source for this nasty tidbit: “In 1970, Kellow tells us, Kael conned a U.C.L.A. assistant professor, Howard Suber, out of publishing an essay on 'Citizen Kane': she promised a collaboration, vanished with Suber’s proprietary research, and ultimately used it for an extended piece of her own, 'Raising Kane' (1971).” This is absolutely the worst story I have ever heard told about Pauline Kael. I question whether it’s true. And so should Heller and The New Yorker question it. What was the nature of the promise? What proof is there of it? How “proprietary” was the research? What part, if any, did Kael use?

5. Heller uses the old, elitist High-Low structure to describe culture. At one point, he says, “The art and the criticism of the sixties were blurring the boundaries of high and low culture.” At another point, he says, “In truth, most of her early pursuits reached for higher cultural ground.” And at another, he says, “And when she started to write seriously about movies, much later, it was her passion for the high-art canon that helped set her bearings.” Kael was against High-Low distinctions. In “Trash, Art, and the Movies, she said, “Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It’s the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings.” Heller is wrong. Kael didn’t have a “passion for the high-art canon.” She wanted that high-art canon overturned. Her passion was for “the subversive gesture.” That’s one of the reasons I admire her.

6. Heller claims that Kael “actively opposed” “many of the seventies’ classics.” He names three of them: The French Connection, Chinatown, and Manhattan. It’s true that she disliked The French Connection. She said, “It’s certainly exciting, but that excitement isn’t necessarily a pleasure.” But with regard to Chinatown, her opinion was mixed. She says, “It’s all over-deliberate, mauve, nightmarish; everyone is yellow-lacquered, and evil runs rampant. You don’t care who is hurt, since everything is blighted. And yet the nastiness has a look and a fascination.” That doesn’t sound like “active opposition” to me. Regarding Woody Allen’s Manhattan, she didn’t review it, not even in capsule form. In her review of Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, she refers to Manhattan as part of his “ongoing poem to love and New York City” (“Couples,” Hooked, 1989). Therefore, Heller is wrong with respect to two out of the three movies he says Kael “actively opposed.” And, contrary to what he says, there were many seventies’ classics that she praised, e.g., Last Tango in Paris, Mean Streets, The Long Goodbye, The Godfather, Part II, Nashville, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Deer Hunter.

7. Heller rarely quotes from Kael’s writing. And when he does, it’s not to celebrate her style, but to embarrass her reputation. For example, his quote from her Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid review is a bridge to a wretched anecdote in which George Roy Hill calls her a “miserable bitch” because she conveyed the impression (apparently wrong) that some of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s dialogue was taped in a studio. In his piece, Heller constantly tells us what Kael was doing, instead of showing us by adducing examples from her work: “She was constantly goading the industry to try harder, but dismissed pictures that seemed to try harder”; “She worried – and this is essentially an avant-garde worry – that audiences suckling a teat of cynicism and easy entertainment would lose their appetite for creative urgency”; “She reviewed many of these movies [late sixties’ films] with gusto”; “Kael didn’t just say, This is a bad movie because it fails to turn me on. Instead, she strung movies loosely together, as if mapping out the lines of tradition, and weather-tested them against a couple of things: authenticity of experience and the proved canon of noncimematic art.” Reading this stuff, I found myself thinking, For gods sake, Heller, shut up for a moment and let Kael speak. The same goes for his endless theorizing. “What She Said” is awash with airy theories, e.g., “Kael fell in love with writing about movies, because, unlike every other creative form at the time, they had no “tradition” from the audience’s point of view.” Really? James Agee was in the audience from 1941 to 1948, writing reviews for Time and The Nation. He and countless other moviegoers (including Kael, of course) had a very clear sense of movie tradition stretching back to Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and beyond. Kael fell in love with writing about movies because she loved writing and she loved movies. In the introduction to her wonderful For Keeps, she says, “As the seventies gave way to the eighties, the excitement I had earlier found in the movies gave way to the pleasure I found in writing.”

8. This brings me to my main complaint about Heller’s piece. He fails to see that it's Kael’s writing that accounts for her work’s endurance. He talks about how a lot of people today dream of lost opportunities, and he says, “Kael’s great achievement was to fight this way of thinking, to persuade her readers that work is always done with the machinery at hand.” Maybe that’s one of Kael’s achievements, but it’s not her greatest. Her greatest achievement was the creation of a style of writing that let you in on her thought processes as she wrote. Before she came along, no one did that. She was the first. Now, almost every critic writes that way, her way. She changed the way writers write (and think) about art. I yearn for a close, literary study of her work, one that considers her writing from the level of language, syntax, structure. Heller’s piece is just about as wide of the mark as you can get.

Postscript: Elif Batuman enriches this week’s issue with a cabinet-of-wonders piece titled “Natural Histories” that, in its combinative strangeness, its mixture of history, ecology, eco-poetry, wildlife, biology, literature, politics, travelogue, and memoir, is some sort of masterpiece. Its final two paragraphs are exquisite. Carolyn Drake's photograph is superb.

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