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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Kael's Combines

Pauline Kael (Photo by Jerry Bauer)
Charles McGrath, in his "Is Everyone Qualified to Be a Critic?" (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, September 1, 2015), says, “The great critic of my life was Pauline Kael (who deserves some renewed appreciation now that Renata Adler’s famous takedown of her is back in circulation).” McGrath’s comment resonates with me. Kael was one of the great critics of my life, too. In response to McGrath’s call for “renewed appreciation” of Kael’s work, I want to focus on what I call her “combines” – delightful, surprising, collage-like constructs of description, quotation, reference, and response. For example,

There’s a pleasant matte of Manhattan with five Chrysler Buildings, and there are charming, slightly miniaturized yellow Checker cabs that suggest Red Grooms, but then when Dorothy and her companions arrive to see the Wiz at the Emerald City and it’s the World Trade Center Plaza, you think, My God, that’s where King Kong died.

That’s from Kael’s marvelous “Saint Dorothy,” a review of Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz. The unlikely combination of “matte,” “Manhattan,” “five Chrysler Buildings,” “slightly miniaturized yellow Checker cabs,” “Red Grooms,” “Dorothy,” “Wiz,” “Emerald City,” “World Trade Center Plaza,” and “King Kong” is ingenious. It’s the verbal equivalent of a Cornell box. Here’s another one, also from “Saint Dorothy”:

Nipsey Russell is a vast improvement; his first lines are funny, and he gives them rhythm and beat, and though the lyrics of his song “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” are unbelievably feeble (“What would I do / If I could suddenly feel / And to know once again / What I feel is real?”), he sings them in Dapper Dan night-club style – like a suave carnival barker – and on a nearby carousel the painted heads of girl angels provide a backup chorus.

How I love that final, surreal “and on a nearby carousel the painted heads of girl angels provide a backup chorus.” Consider this beauty from “Pods,” a review of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

When the four principals run down Telegraph Hill, with a phalanx of pod people in pursuit, and dash to the Embarcadero, they cast long shadows, like figures in one of de Chirico’s almost deserted piazzas.

When was the last time you saw “Telegraph Hill,” “Embarcadero,” and “de Chirico” conjoined in the same sentence? And those textured six “p” words –  “principals,” “phalanx,” “pod,” “people,” “pursuit,” and “piazzas” – are also pleasing.

One more example – this one from “Boss Ladies,” a review of Michael Lindsay Hogg’s Nasty Habits:

When she speculates, “If the thimble was a symbol,” there’s a bit of the hypercivilized impishness of Bea Lillie’s “You will find the dinghy by the jetty” in On Approval – a movie that Nasty Habits, in its heraldic camp, somewhat resembles.

Only Kael, with her deep mental reservoir of movie associations, would think to connect “If the thimble was a symbol” with “You will find the dinghy by the jetty” from two movies made thirty-four years apart. Her conjunction of “hypercivilized impishness” and “heraldic camp” is brilliant.

All of the above excerpts are from reviews in Kael’s 1980 collection When the Lights Go Down. This is deliberate. I want to show that this book, far from being “jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless,” as alleged by Renata Adler, in her notorious "The Perils of Pauline" (The New York Review of Books, August 14, 1980; included in her recent After the Tall Timber under the bland title “House Critic”), contains some of Kael’s most alluring, artful writing.

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