Happy Birthday, Pauline

Happy Birthday, Pauline

Pauline Kael was one of the great voices of American freedom. The road she opened for critics is simultaneously the most rewarding and the most difficult to follow.

Pauline Kael (Photo by Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

I almost never speak about Pauline Kael publicly anymore. The reason is simple: In the public dialogue about Pauline, whose hundredth birthday would have been today, rumor, score settling, and slander have joined to create a widely accepted image of a manipulative egotist who demanded total submission to her point of view. To maintain that dominance, she allegedly assembled a group of acolytes, the “Paulettes,” of which I have been identified as one, who were so incapable of thinking for themselves that they waited to react to a movie until Queen Pauline had handed down her edict. It didn’t matter how different these writers were from each other, or the times they disagreed among themselves, or with Pauline. Pan a Clint Eastwood movie, praise one by Brian De Palma, and, if you were deemed a Paulette, you were simply following her dictates. The myth of the Paulettes was so accepted as true it continued to be believed even after Pauline retired in 1989 and was seeing new movies, often on cable or cassette, after working critics had already seen them and filed their pieces. The myth even survived Pauline’s death in 2001 at the age of eighty-two. What an amazing accomplishment for an atheist Jew born in the farmlands of Petaluma, California in 1919. Hell, even Mary Baker Eddy didn’t manage to communicate with her flock from beyond the grave.

This fantasy of a controlling shrew has been given a considerable boost by writers, some of them at one time her friends, who, deciding association with her no longer served their careers, wrote articles and memoirs about their escape from the cult of Pauline. What’s funny is that for all the charges of uniformity lodged at the Paulettes, it’s these pieces that are so similar. They’re like the ones written in the 1950s by people renouncing communism, accounts of an emergence from a fog that sapped the ability to think independently.

Apparently no one thought to ask these authors the obvious question: Why, if they were so incapable of independent thought, had they wanted to become critics in the first place? Yes, I know. Exposure to an influential writer with a strong personality can be difficult for a young writer to withstand. But when the Pauline Anonymous crowd claims that it was impossible to disagree with her, all they’re really saying is that they couldn’t come up with an argument good enough to counter hers.

Was she a persistent arguer? Oh, sweet suffering Jesus, was she ever. And her arguments often cut right through the polite debate society style we’re told should rule discourse by speaking to the frightened notions and unspoken shibboleths in the arguments that opposed hers. In her 1978 essay “Fear of Movies” she answered the prissiness of those who automatically condemn all movie violence by saying, “I get the feeling I’m being told that my urging them to go see The Fury means that I’ll be responsible if there’s another Vietnam.” But I disagreed with her plenty of times, amiably, and didn’t find myself exiled to the outer darkness.

I remain convinced that the reason for this view of Pauline is misogyny. There’s never a problem when a group of men share a sensibility, no automatic assumption that they speak with one voice. I don’t think there’s any getting around that what bothers people is a strong, unapologetic voice coming from a woman. Just last week on RogerEbert.com, a young male critic named Vikram Murthi wrote that Pauline’s writing was hyperbole and emotion that was finally redeemed by analysis. That is, when she wasn’t “pigheadedly off-base.” Unpack that formulation: What’s suspect are traits traditionally associated with the feminine (emotion), traits that need to fall before the masculine (reason). And if a woman writer reaches a conclusion you don’t agree with, she’s just being willfully stubborn.

It seems not to have occurred to Murthi that what he is describing is the process of any honest critic: a gut reaction that is then analyzed (and placed in the context of the world the work was created in, the one in which we are seeing it, and the artist’s accumulated body of work) to understand and expand that reaction, or that there can be such a thing as emotional intelligence.

But it also needs saying that Pauline would not stand to be conscripted as a feminist heroine. Women thinkers who aren’t joiners may have a tougher time than male thinkers of a similar temperament, but the hostility to independent-minded women writers isn’t only to their gender. Pauline hated special pleading. More than anyone I know, she lived out what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

What continues to bother people about Pauline isn’t so much the conspiratorial notion that she attempted to forge a critical cult but the fact of her singularity. The people who accuse her of fostering groupthink still cannot stand that she didn’t fall prostrate before 2001 or Badlands or Shoah (whose supporters treated her pan of that repetitive slog as if she were panning the Holocaust itself, in much the same way fundamentalists treated the negative reviews of The Passion of the Christ as slurs on the gospels). “The idea,” says the critic Farran Smith Nehme, “that art has to serve some moral or social purpose is warmed-over mid-Victorian mush.” But it’s widely believed on the left as well as the right. It drove people nuts that Pauline didn’t fall for the well-meaning liberal banalities of Dances with Wolves because it was “fair to the Indians,” or that she failed to respond to the “wouldn’t the world be a better place if we followed his example” bromides of Gandhi. It was considered sacrilegious when she said the 1976 remake of King Kong was a much better, much more entertaining, and far more romantic picture than the revered original. She was right. More than once I heard her say “fuck ’em” about the people who thought it was her duty to respond to a certain movie in a manner deemed acceptable by the culture.

Pauline loved it when people’s craziness, which is to say their individuality, their willingness to go-for-broke, came through. Which does not mean, as those who have conveniently misread her great essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” insist, that she championed trash over art. What she insisted is that any response to art that doesn’t involve pleasure is, at best, academic admiration. And she believed that good work could come from anywhere. If you can’t recognize the craziness in Wuthering Heights or in those Turner paintings where the contours of landscape give way to the massing of fog and light, how deeply, how honestly, are you responding?

By now you might see why I resist talking about Pauline publicly. It’s a drag to have to begin a celebration on the defense. The truth is that except for my mother and father, I miss Pauline more than anyone I’ve ever lost. I miss that breathy, honeyed voice calling with a bit of gossip or to share her excitement or dismay over something she’d read or seen. And if you tried to talk about her, she would always quickly ask, “tell me what’s new with you, sweetie.”

That’s the friend I miss. What do I see in the critic I admire? I see one of our great native voices of American freedom. Someone who realized that our natural mode of speaking—slangy, familiar, casual, suspicious of fussiness, wised-up, and unsentimental—was, at its best, not something that had to be abandoned in favor of a perceived European refinement in order to make art or to achieve eloquence. And that is something she shared with H. L. Mencken and Gilbert Seldes, as well as with Elvis and Dylan. Pauline understood the importance of aesthetic standards but she refused to be held hostage by them. She recognized it when a movie’s energy and conviction mattered more than its formal achievement, and though she loathed message movies she also recognized when new attitudes were bring brought to the screen and felt it important to acknowledge why people connected with them. Here is the end of her review of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It: “For many young blacks, it must be like seeing themselves on the screen for the first time and liking what they see.”

The road Pauline opened for critics is simultaneously the most rewarding and the most goddamn difficult to follow. It’s the route of simultaneously trusting your response and making sure those responses are educated—by common sense, by experience, by knowledge of the world as well as the arts—and then relentlessly exploring that response, digging into it, unpacking it, recognizing its contradictions. It can be an insanely hard way to work. It’s not for those who confuse freedom with happiness, who are unwilling to both understand your time and feel completely out of joint with it, and it is not guaranteed to make you friends. Or maybe it’s a way to make the only friends worth having. Happy Birthday, Pauline. Fuck ’em.


Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You.


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