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The Pronouncements of Pauline : Movie lovers haven't necessarily agreed with critic Pauline Kael--but the more heated the debate, the more she felt she was doing her job : FOR KEEPS: Thirty Years at the Movies, By Pauline Kael (Dutton: $34.95; 1,280 pp.)

October 09, 1994|David Ehrenstein | David Ehrenstein is a free-lance writer and author of "The Scorsese Picture."

Over the years Kael has come to be the elder statesperson for a group of younger critics--Michael Sragow, Peter Rainer and David Ansen among them. One of the most hilarious spectacles in fourth estate chat circles is listening to the ominous tones her critics take when they talk about these "Kaelites"--as if they were a band of Kali-worshiping thugs out of Gunga Din. Though some of them try their best, none of these acolytes has ever managed to write like Kael. Few of them even agree with most of her opinions. And none of them have any clout at the box office. Moreover, neither does she.

A Kael rave has never added so much as a penny to a project's coffers. So much for "power." As for "influence," in 1979, when Warren Beatty asked her to come to work for Paramount Pictures as a script adviser, the critic who expended more ink than any other about the way Hollywood should be run, lasted all of five months. Clearly Kael knew she was better off back home in Great Barrington, Mass., writing about the "beautiful pipe dream of a movie" Robert Altman had made in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"; the awe-inspiring "vision of Hell" Jean-Luc Godard had conjured up in "Weekend"; the way Louis Malle makes sure that "everything doesn't hit you on the noggin" in "Atlantic City"; and "the enormous pleasure to see a movie that's really about something" she found in "My Beautiful Laundrette."

If Pauline Kael has any "power" or "influence" it is here; contributing to the literature attendant on works that will withstand the test of time, rather than the "bottom line." You'll find all these examples of Kael at her best in "For Keeps," along with her witty profile of Cary Grant ("The Man From Dream City"), her refreshingly unstuffy tributes to silent classics ("Intolerance," "Napoleon"), and her even more refreshing attacks on overstuffed "prestige pictures" ("Gandhi," "On Golden Pond"). But you will also find what can only be called Kael at her worst--essays where critical principles are so pulled out of shape that they begin to dovetail into ethical violations. And it is because of such violations--which have nothing to do with simple matters of opinion--that Kael, for all her rhetorical authority, falls short as a critic.

There's a constant refrain running through "For Keeps"; a hymn of praise directed at films that "don't take themselves too seriously." There's nothing particularly alarming about this notion, when Kael is using it to promote the "vitality and distinctive flavor" of commercial Hollywood films; "the freshness and spirit that make (them) unlike those of any other country." Not unreasonably, she has often found them preferable to the art-house cinema favored by friends of her class; "academic and professional people," whose basic indifference to Hollywood has always annoyed her to no end. At one level her cavils have consisted of little more than taunting these shrinking violets for avoiding the likes of "Hud," "Convoy," "Eyes of Laura Mars" or the 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"--slickly made products unaccountably praised by Kael to the skies. But there is something else at work beneath the surface, this epater l'academie effrontery: an almost instinctive hatred of seriousness. "An actor's scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a bit of sense," Kael remarks in one of her position-paper essays. It's seems like a perfectly reasonable observation, until you put it alongside others, such as her complaint about "Blade Runner": "The moviemakers haven't learned that wonderful, simple trick of bringing a character closer to the audience by giving him a joke or having him overreact to one." Surely a critic capable of appreciating rich, multifaceted, works such as "The Golden Coach," "The Leopard" and "Once Upon a Time in America" knows that quality is scarcely incumbent on cheap, crowd-pleasing gimmicks. Yet throughout "For Keeps," Kael keeps running to the shelter of films she calls "trash"--as if doing penance for ever having had anything nice to say about Ingmar Bergman. This would just be a minor quirk if Kael hadn't lost her bearings when writing about a film that was both serious and full of "vitality and spirit": Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." "Raising Kane," her two-part 1971 broadside against Welles set off a firestorm of controversy that hasn't subsided to this day. And the heart of that firestorm is Kael's peculiar notion of the value of films that "don't take themselves seriously."

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