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The Perils of Pauline

AFTERGLOW: A Last Conversation With Pauline Kael, By Francis Davis, Da Capo: 134 pp., $18

September 29, 2002|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield teaches in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University and is a contributing writer to Book World. She is writing an intellectual biography of Pauline Kael.

Jazz critic Francis Davis spent two days interviewing Pauline Kael at her home in the Berkshires in July 2000; she would die of Parkinson's, at age 82, on Labor Day of the following summer. "Afterglow" thereby bills itself as her "last conversation." Though Kael's characteristic tart wit and lapidary intelligence light up this slim volume, it is essentially a sad document. Not because Kael was in decline, or backtracking from her most provocative ideas--quite the contrary. But here is a chance to listen in on one of the greatest critics (and writers) of the 20th century, a woman who challenged us to rethink our responses to, and ideas about, movies in particular and American culture in general. Yet what Davis gives us, for the most part, is not an exploration of those ideas but 100-odd pages of sycophantic chitchat about favorite television shows and movie stars. The schmaltzy title of this book (so at odds with Kael's insistent anti-sentimentality) could be replaced with "Wasted."

This missed opportunity is especially too bad because Kael's key ideas have seeped into the culture--and into the writing of far too many critics--in vastly simplified if not deformed ways. Like those who lazily, mistakenly claim that Marx was interested only in economics and Freud only in sex, a vulgar Kaelism--which posits that trash and art are synonymous, and that any film enjoyed by large numbers of people must be a work of meaning--underlies much of what passes for criticism today.

Of course, film is a mass art form, and it's true that Kael, like her predecessors Gilbert Seldes and James Agee, loathed the pretensions of middlebrow culture and dug the spunky, demotic aspect of American life and culture. But she never mistook trash for art; never thought it elitist (or unimportant) to distinguish the two; never put forth that there was any connection, organic or otherwise, between the widely accepted and the good. Kael believed that every moviegoer could develop an aesthetic--but not that one necessarily would, just as she believed that a talented filmmaker could use lowbrow forms to create art, but not that the ability to master such forms could ever make one an artist. In short, she was a democrat but not a populist.

It has also been all too easy to mistake Kael's hatred of moralistic movies for moral relativism. Kael, like Agee, despised films that were sanctimonious, respectable or self-righteous. But this doesn't mean she was immune to questions of value, nor that she adhered to the odd notion that if it makes you feel good, it is good. (She was often most suspicious of precisely those films that made audiences feel good, and wondered why they did and at what cost.) No one who has read, say, Kael's paean to "Shoeshine," one of the great humanist works of the 20th century--or, alternately, her fierce denunciation of the exultant sexual sadism in Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs"--can doubt her moral seriousness. Her criticism--admittedly often vitriolic--of uplift films was evidence not of moral obtuseness but of her ethical spine. She regarded "virtuous" films as too easy, too smug, too evasive, as instruments with which audiences could flatter themselves about their unerringly good intentions and unquestionable moral superiority.

In short, she regarded such films as advertisements for ourselves, and she regarded them as sleep-inducing lies. What she sought instead were movies that revealed some truth (whether large or small, tragic or hilarious) about us: as lovers and spouses, children and parents, citizens, Americans, modern men and women. It was authenticity, not sincerity, that interested Kael.

Glimpses of all this appear in "Afterglow." Kael reiterates her antipathy to "Schindler's List" and, more controversially, "Shoah." Her views on violence remain nuanced, focusing on the what-for rather than the how-much: Thus she denounces "The Silence of the Lambs" as "hideous" while the almost unbearably brutal "Casualties of War" remains, in her view, a "beautifully felt" work akin to "Grand Illusion." "Afterglow's" flaw is that these nuggets remain just that, unexamined and undeveloped by Davis.

Kael also approaches the high/low question in her characteristically textured way: "One of the great things about movies is they can combine the energy of a popular art with the possibilities of a high art," she says. "What's wonderful about someone like Altman is that mixture of pop and high art. He's an artist who uses pop as his vehicle. That's part of the excitement in a movie like 'Nashville' ...Godard's 'Weekend' is another case in point." Here, in a nutshell, is one of Kael's key critical insights, one that underlies so much of what she wrote and admired and wanted other people to see and grasp and debate. Again, though, rather than follow up on this--and what an interesting, though perhaps less glowy, last conversation that would have been--Davis inexplicably asks about Kael's writing schedule at the New Yorker.

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