Pauline Kael only ever saw a film once. I can imagine her entering a dimly-lit cinema in weary anticipation, her notepad and fraying pencil clutched by her side, scanning the cinema. She’s readying herself for battle. Perhaps she brings along a friend or confidant, a fellow New Yorker colleague, or she stubbornly leaves her lushly hedged brownstone alone. Honestly, she’s probably there with other critics at some advanced screening. In the cinema, she’s focused and stern, yet feels free to make disapproving noises and a customary tut of the tongue. These are embellishments; and I have become far too speculative of Ms Kael’s movie-going habits.
Kael was similarly generous with her embellishments. Although, I’m admittedly not familiar with American cinema during Pauline’s reign over the New Yorker film column. I’m afraid only Hitchcock offers some qualification. The rotund, balding expat who couldn’t get enough of eye-caressing his Hollywood sweethearts, plus causing a headache for studio executives. Kael didn’t like Hitchcock very much. Marnie and Vertigo sucked, yet her response to Notorious (which I haven’t seen) was typically Kaelian: “great trash, great fun”.
Kael is a fierce and visceral voice to read. When the credits are rolling, Pauline strides out of the cinema, her notepad damp from her sweaty palms, and charges across New York’s weathered pavement (sorry, sidewalk!), desperate to start laying down filmic law in her review. Her reviews are instinctual and primal in their desire to correctly convey her initial reaction. Her reaction to a spectacle with which she was obsessed. She was enchanted by Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris; she decried It’s a Wonderful Life with James Stewart, who she might have had something against (he’s in Vertigo).
Pauline knew how to love trash. Her essay “Trash, Art and Movies” is a sloppy attempt to determine how a Kaelian review is written. Rule number one: know good trash when you see it. Rule number two: don’t trust Hollywood. Meanwhile, Pauline offers slight insight when it comes to how we can identify, distinguish, and evaluate art and trash. The long essay is another tour through Pauline’s put-downs, direct praises, and trashables.
To her, Hollywood was a greedy, artless chimera you ought to despise, but you don’t. Pauline wants you to appreciate all trash. Forget guilt-ridden weekends binging on animal revenge-themed Piranha, Rogue, or Anaconda; perhaps some Cockneys vs. Zombies; or a drunken, phallocentric American comedy like This Is the End (faced with an apocalypse of course). Ms Kael wants you to unashamedly enjoy blood-spilling, cum-spraying, unapologetic trash; not some dull, obscurely philosophical art film at Luna on SX. Feel free to take some whorey, trashy, pulpy pleasure whenever you can! As long as it’s good trash.
Again, I embellish and over-simplify. Ms Kael’s position was slightly more nuanced. Yet she rarely offers a review remotely resembling something with an argument, or just a slim, logical trail to something within the realm of justification. She’s abruptly conclusive. Instead of being my critical companion through the woes of movies and Hollywood, she squeezes my hand tight, tugging and pulling me in all directions. She ends her seminal essay with, “trash has given us an appetite for art.” I don’t know how we got here.
I wonder what Pauline would make of movies now? Perhaps she’d take to Deadpool. The excruciatingly self-referential Marvel movie, with an antihero and enough violence and sex to satisfy anyone’s appetite for a Thursday evening. I think she’d get bored of seeing people get chopped in half. Whilst doodling on the first page of her notes, she’d most likely miss Deadpool’s seventh jerk-off reference.
Pauline Kael wasn’t without her own critics. Enter Renata Adler. In 1980, Adler penned “The Perils of Pauline”, securing its place among New York’s most heated critical feuds. There’s nothing like a bit of literary scandal. Apparently Susan Sontag was in stitches over the piercing finality with which Adler delivered each sentence. Adler accused Kael of bullying her readers into accepting her unsound judgements, which contained “nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility”. Ouch!
The take-down article is thorough and a very enjoyable read. Adler captures Kael’s fleeting and salacious comments, her unbridled capacity to coerce the reader using dirty tactics. I bet there were quite a few coffee and stale Danish meetings with the New Yorker’s editor at the time, William Shawn.
I indulge my imagination once more…
Pauline fumbles with her keys, feeling flustered and irritable. She drops her worn leather bag on the steps, along with her prized papers and review notes. She doesn’t care. Her copy of the New York Review of Books is fastened under her arm, creasing her starchy coat in an effort to keep it from falling. She gets more control over the key, pushes her hip into the front door, and stumbles into the hall. The echoes begin, and she kicks off her heels and throws the keys to the floor. R. better be home.
There’s light streaming into the hall from the living room. R. lies supine on the vanilla chaise lounge, twirling his fingers through his thick brown hair, and balances a tumbler of whiskey on his belly. Pauline storms in.
“Well you’re home early—’
“What a fucking bitch!” Pauline slams the copy of Review onto R.’s chest and collapses onto the adjacent armchair.
“W-What’s this?” R. stammers.
“That pretentious cow has had it in for me all this time. I knew it as soon I was given the film column at the New Yorker. I bet she was having talks with William to set my downfall in motion.” Pauline makes her way to the minibar, and sloppily begins her sojourn through the warm caress of quality whiskey.
“Who?” R. tentatively asks with dread as he spots the incriminating title on the Review’s cover: “The Perils of Pauline”.
“Renata-I’m-the-fucking-queen-at-the-New Yorker-Adler. You know, I remember her from the guild evening in ‘77, all puffed up after getting that Hemingway award. Pretty, blonde, skinny thing. Had a childish plait she slung across her shoulder. Acting all elegant and literary with her philosophical claptrap.”
R. begins reading the article after a doubtful look at Pauline. She has propped herself onto the armchair, feet shoved in under the arm. Resting the whiskey on her knee. She watches him disdainfully, as though he is participating in Adler’s cruel act by merely reading her blasphemy. Her critical life is coming under fierce and unprecedented examination by all of literary New York, and all she can do is watch her only confidant read, and await his verdict. Surely R. will comfort her.
Pauline sluggishly gets up and tip-toes across the room, leaving R. to his judgements, whatever they are. “Where are you going?” he calls.
“To my study,” she proclaims defiantly. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
He is silent.
Pauline is relieved to enter the calming and controlling surroundings of her study. The pristinely-bound books, stacks of paper hiding the crevices of the floor from view. She reaches for a brand new notepad, plucks her pencil from the left-hand draw of her desk, stows away her stockinged feet, and begins scratching onto the page: “The Rage of Renata: A Tale of Treachery and Trash…”
Words by Ryan Suckling
Art by Kate Prendergast