The pint-sized Pauline Kael (at left) put an outsized mark on American film – or rather on American film critics, although many such scribes would like you to believe the difference between those two accomplishments is even tinier than Kael was herself.
Indeed, the debate over that difference has been running off and on now for decades – since only shortly after Ms. Kael’s compelling, colloquial style vaulted her to the New Yorker, from which she long held forth (while securing similar perches for her acolytes in journals across the country). But get ready for a new surge in the urgency of the argument, as we’re passing the 40th anniversary of both Ms. Kael’s most famous review, of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and, of course, the movie it praised – even as the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni remind us of everything that Ms. Kael and the “Paulettes,” as they’re known, left out of their reviews in the last four decades.
A.O. Scott (at right) of the New York Times recently offered his contribution to the dialogue, complete with the usual grandiose claims: Bonnie and Clyde represented not just “a new mode of expression and a new set of values entering the cultural mainstream” but “a battlefield in an epochal struggle” between young and old. What’s more, “the squares” (as represented by poor old, pompously middlebrow Bosley Crowther, who panned the film) “were routed.” Perhaps more importantly to critics, the film’s success was deemed largely due to an essay by Kael extolling its virtues in the New Yorker. After weak box office returns, Bonnie and Clyde was re-released, and went on to become a hit (though not a blockbuster on the order, of say, The Graduate, which Kael hated). The obviously unhip Crowther retired from the Times and was replaced by Renata Adler, from the New Yorker – while Kael, who at the time was a freelancer, got half of Adler’s job (for a time, she shared the position with Penelope Gilliatt). And thus was a critical dynasty born.
You can see immediately the problem - both the critic and the criticized are here entwined; subject and object have been conflated; they are as one. And ever since, a brief against Bonnie and Clyde would be seen as a brief against Pauline Kael (who became further enmeshed in the later efforts of Bonnie's star and writers). A deeper problem, of course, was that Bonnie and Clyde wasn’t all that new or interesting – it was obviously indebted to earlier films, most clearly Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Indeed, its writers had actually shopped Bonnie to Godard and Truffaut as an American "Breathless-with-banjos" (Jean Seberg in Breathless at left; look-alike Faye Dunaway in Bonnie at right).
Thus few have wasted much breath, as it were, on Arthur Penn’s actual movie (which, don’t get me wrong, is still effective, if a bit dated). They have, instead, lavished praise on its phenomenon, in such careful phrases as Scott’s “a crucial episode in the entwined histories of Hollywood, American film criticism and postmodern popular culture” and Kael’s own “Bonnie and Clyde brings into the almost frighteningly public world of movies things that people have been feeling and saying and writing about.”
Note that Kael doesn’t claim the movie is original or insightful (it hardly rewards repeat viewings). Instead, Bonnie and Clyde represents the entrance into the commercial world of a certain arthouse stance – that of the genre films of Kael’s youth re-configured as, well, a newly-youthful playground. As Louis Menand once pointed out, Kael was most turned on by an odd blend of nostalgia and invigoration; she adored the pop tropes of her adolescence (the 30s), and likewise worshipped at the altar of the Actor’s Studio (the 50s). When these two rivers ran together, in Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Wild Bunch, The Godfather(s), The Long Goodbye – her praise, as Freud might say, was almost over-determined.
Michael J. Pollard, Faye Dunaway, and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde.
So Kael’s psychology isn’t hard to understand – the kids were all right, and she was one of them. What’s harder to justify is how these internal needs have continued to be construed as something of a theory (or rather as a naïve pastiche of Susan Sontag’s theories). Of course initially the “youthquake” of the sixties provided justification enough – but alas, the wheels quickly came off Kael’s “trash-is-art” critical cart. Her famous “preview” of Nashville asserted that America would embrace this latest Altman masterpiece (when it wasn’t even finished) – but unlike Bonnie and Clyde, the movie, though it made its money back, didn't catch fire at the box office. She wrote a famously fatuous rave of Last Tango in Paris (yes, I know, it’s a great movie), in which, seemingly discombobulated by the sight of idol Marlon Brando’s nude body, she equated its premiere with that of Le Sacre du Printemps. She continued to flail against Stanley Kubrick, who managed to combine highbrow ambition with pop success, even though her criticism insisted this was impossible (eventually she was reduced to calling Kubrick a pornographer and a racist); she was generally cold toward Hitchcock, yet trumpeted the Hitchcock pastiches of Brian De Palma; and her sneers at David Lean were widely credited with discouraging him from making a film for years after the failure of Ryan’s Daughter. And soon, the public would embrace a new, sexless kind of trash – the Star Wars movies – which Kael’s ideas seemed powerless to stop.
Surely her early nemesis, Bosley Crowther, never wreaked quite so much artistic havoc – even though Kael and Crowther were not as unlike as many supposed. Like Crowther, Kael had it in for movies she thought too pessimistic (Chinatown) or cold (A Clockwork Orange), and she didn’t like movie violence when it satisfied an audience in the “wrong” way (as in Dirty Harry, at left, or Death Wish). Orgiastic violence promulgated by glamorous young people (Bonnie and Clyde, Mean Streets) – in short, violence as sex - was good; but violence by older white guys (Dirty Harry, The French Connection) – i.e., plain old angry violence - was bad. Got it? Fewer and fewer people did, and in the 80s, many began to back away from Kael – perhaps because even as her aesthetic seemed triumphant, American cinema seemed to have suddenly hit a wall. So why did she remain so “influential” for so long?
Part of any answer, of course, lies in her prose, which even today is hilariously sharp. Kael had a genius for actor description (I’ll never forget that she described Debra Winger’s upper lip as “almost prehensile”), and her poison pills of encapsulated invective against moral uplift were always brilliantly funny. Her rhythms were likewise perfection (every insult seems inexorable); many of her pieces deserve to be classics, at least of rhetoric. More importantly, many people figured out that her gnomic, highly personal style was even better suited to rock albums than movies, and her signature self-centeredness was adopted by pop music critics – the ensuing "Rolling Kael" hybrid still dominates American press writing. (This, in fact, is probably her greatest legacy, God help us.)
Under the saucy style, however, you could often feel Kael twisting inconsistently from one contrarian position to the next, even within a single review; she was against this, and then against that, without realizing she’d contradicted herself (her simultaneous disparagement of Hitchcock and praise of De Palma was only one of many obvious examples). Some of this was due to her transparent obsession with either creating or bucking "trends," but that hardly counts as an excuse. One must admit that Renata Adler’s brutal putdown of her work – that it was "piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless” – is true, in its way, when it comes to any sustained salience: Kael’s oeuvre reveals no critical development, and makes no real sense (this is spun as her “unpredictability”); she herself admitted that her contribution to criticism lay in “style, not substance.”
Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs.
But in this gap lies the shadow that dogs her legend: in the end, she may have done the medium she loved more harm than good. And that’s a hard shadow to shake: she herself once mused that "When we championed trash culture, we didn’t know what it was going to become." Perhaps she didn’t – but shouldn’t she have? Isn’t that part of what a critic is supposed to do – anticipate the effect of praise? Kael may have tried to put the brakes on the white-vigilante violence of Dirty Harry, but what would she have made of, say, Reservoir Dogs (above), in which wild stylization barely conceals the childlike sadism of director Quentin Tarantino, or the even more baroque murders of his Natural Born Killers, an obvious update of Bonnie and Clyde? Would she warm to the torture porn of Eli Roth –would she applaud when Tarantino’s testicles melt off in Grindhouse? I have to say I think she would – while still insisting that A Clockwork Orange was “sucking up to the thugs in the audience”! (Her last directive, in fact, was against her old nemesis – word came from her that Eyes Wide Shut was “a piece of shit,” and the Paulettes fell into lockstep; Salon alone published not one but multiple pans. Needless to say, Kubrick's reputation survived.)
In the end, perhaps most damagingly, patronization was built into Kael’s mindset – she adored the sex and violence of the young from a kind of bohemian matriarchal perspective; she reveled in it the same way a mother coos at her baby. But one has to ask while watching people torn limb from limb in the latest incarnation of Saw: are the kids still all right? Even A.O. Scott – who, despite his expert knowledge of its legend, was only one year old when Bonnie and Clyde was released – now has second thoughts. “I can’t escape the feeling,” he worries, “that just as it has become easier since Bonnie and Clyde to accept violence in movies, and more acceptable to enjoy it, it has become harder to talk seriously about the ethics and politics of that violence . . . I still get a kick out of Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s accompanied by a twinge of unease, by the suspicion that, in some ways that matter and that have become too easy to dismiss, Bosley Crowther was right.” (Egad!) And Scott’s not the only apostate – top Paulette David Denby distanced himself from Kael (almost) as soon as he no longer needed her, and pseudo-Paulettes like Stephanie Zacharek and David Edelstein do amusing pirouettes around their relationship with her (she died in 2001).
But if the Paulettes have all repudiated their maker, where’s her baleful influence to be found, you may ask? Well, perhaps it lies in the fact that it’s too late for her apostles' re-appraisals to have any real power; their twinges of regret about pop-culture violence are utterly undermined by their very embrace of said culture. They can't imagine life outside it, in fact. Because what Kael accomplished, above all, was a shift in the terms of published intellectual debate from individual artworks to pop culture itself - thus unintentionally shutting out the sources of real cultural ferment. Sure, she bet on low, not high, and had a great early run, but eventually she came up a cropper (this is the part Scott leaves out); high, oddly enough, turned out to be more important than low over the long term, and her heirs simply can’t seem to figure that out. Today, critics like Scott and Ty Burr ponder directors like Tarantino, or Wes Anderson, or even Eli Roth, as if their derivative work was in some kind of line with that of Kieslowski or Haneke; it’s as if Bonnie and Clyde were, indeed, the original, the source, rather than Breathless. It’s not the artwork that counts anymore, but its position in “the entwined histories of Hollywood, American film criticism and postmodern popular culture.” And criticism simply can’t survive like that; indeed, Scott and Burr and the rest have long since succumbed to writing a kind of high-toned, self-aware publicity; they’re not really critics in the time-honored sense of the term - and funny, movies aren’t really movies anymore, either.