Criticism, The Desperate Art: Pauline Kael and the Partisan Review

Note: A revised version of this essay appears in Talking about Pauline Kael: Critics, Filmmakers, and Scholars Remember an Icon (edited by Wayne Stengel), 2015.

Before she was Pauline Kael, New Yorker movie critic, Pauline Kael was one of many young American writers in the sway of the great critics of the 1930s. In his recently published biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow singles out R.P. Blackmur as a particular favorite of Kael’s while she was a student at UC Berkeley: “Pauline always loved the passionate tone of Blackmur’s writing, and later she would always be flattered when her criticism was compared with his.” Kellow doesn’t give a source for this, but a little sleuthing uncovers this interview with Kael: “I read Blackmur with a great deal of pleasure. I probably identified with him [more] than with any other critic. I can’t explain that to you now, but Blackmur, when I first read him, just struck some chord with me.” Kael left Berkeley in her senior year, Kellow tells us, to make her way as a writer. One of her projects soon after was an essay on Blackmur along with two other critics, Kenneth Burke and Lionel Trilling, co-written with a friend, which she described in a letter as “rather complex.” One hopes.

In general the reviews of both Kellow’s solid if perfunctory biography (the kind of life where the subject is always going out to dinner but we never know what she ate) and the astutely edited collection by Sanford Schwartz, The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, have made Kael out to be both sui generis, which she was, and an iconoclast with no grounding or precedent in a critical tradition at all, which she was not. Kael was reading both literary and film critics long before she became one, and though her voice is entirely her own she should be treated as part of a genealogy of American criticism (see her comments in the interview about James Agee, e.g.). Kael did not spring pen in hand from the head of Zeus, nor was she innocently nursing a soda and scribbling about Citizen Kane at Shrafft’s when William Shawn came along and decided to make her a star. But she was reading (and later publishing in) The Partisan Review. The obsession with what came after Kael — the Paulettes and such — has eclipsed the notion that something or someone might have come before, that Kael herself might have had influences as well as influenced others.

Passion and pleasure, associated with Blackmur above, are obvious components of Kael’s criticism. She is hailed as excitable, visceral, gutsy, schmaltzy, a critic who was not afraid to admit when she was moved or repulsed or outraged. Yet there is more in Kael that can be attributed as Blackmur’s influence. In his 1933 essay, “A Critic’s Job of Work,” Blackmur states:

A good critic keeps his criticism from becoming either instructive or vicarious, and the labor of his understanding is always specific, like the art which he examines; and he knows that the sum of his best work comes only to the pedagogy of elucidation and appreciation. He observes facts and he delights in discriminations. The object remains, and should remain, itself, only made more available and seen in a clearer light.

Blackmur’s beef is mainly with dogmatic or ideological criticism. He is against critics who apply psychology or the class struggle or historicism to a work — usually a poem — without seeing its nuances. He advocates for a discourse where “one art informs another.” Kael’s 1956 essay, “Movies, The Desperate Art” (in Schwartz’s collection), in which she wails against the inflated scale and “massive staleness” of the current cinema, demonstrates Blackmur’s influence. In it, she comes to the movies without any preconceived notions and applies Blackmur’s rules for being a good critic, while developing her own irrepressible style.

In “Desperate” Kael outlines the sorry state of movies at the present time. She opens, “The film critic in the United States is in a curious position: the greater his interest in the film medium, the more enraged and negative he is likely to sound.” The critique that follows anatomizes exactly what critics should be angry about: first, the outrageous size and scale of movies designed to compete with the new medium of television. “The big film is the disenchanted film,” Kael writes, “the picture becomes less imaginative in inverse ratio to its cost.” Here, in Blackmur’s terms, she is examining the art of the movies, elucidating what is wrong with them but never giving her reader the sense that she does not appreciate their strengths. She runs through different genres, citing specific films which would have been made and made better on a smaller scale in another time, “observing facts and delighting in discriminations.”

She makes a similar argument about what she deems “pressures,” what we might think of as socially redeeming or message movies like the anti-anti-Semitism Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). These movies, which are earnest and well-meaning, do not make particularly good entertainment or art. “Art, perhaps unfortunately, is not the sphere of good intentions,” Kael writes, and it should be noted that Kael is not didactic here but rather weary. She argues for a cinema derived from actual human experience, on a human scale, with human actors (or maybe a few movie stars, as she has some choice words to say about wooden, lifeless performers too). Her object never wavers: she stays planted firmly in the present situation, making her case by explaining and illuminating what is wrong with cinema in 1956.

In the final section of the essay, “Who Cares About Movies?” Kael changes tacks and shines a spotlight down on the state of the small film, which she posits as a viable alternative. “Criticism must be concerned,” Blackmur writes,”first and last — whatever comes in between — with the poem as it is read and as what it represents is felt.” Substitute “movie” for poem and “seen” for read, and Kael’s conclusions are exactly in line with this statement: they are all about the urgent need for restoring some human feeling to the movies. Foreign films like Renoir’s and Cocteau’s have been better in invoking emotion than American ones, of which she says: “All too frequently, after an evening of avant-garde cinema, one wants to go see a movie (at least a little fresh air comes in through the holes in Hollywood plots).” This is prescient, for it is around a decade later when American independent films let in a little Hollywood air that the movies Kael loves explode on to the landscape: films like Bonnie & Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Taxi Driver (1976), et. al. Those are the movies which aroused such passion and pleasure in Kael, and she wrote about them that way — as a good critic should.

Sketch: Pauline Kael by Lisa Brown