Jason Zinoman is a Brooklyn writer who has covered the arts for around a dozen years. He currently writes theatre reviews for The New York Times and is working on a book about the origin of the modern horror film for Penguin Press. Here Jason writes about Pauline Kael's For Keeps.
Jason Zinoman on For Keeps by Pauline Kael
From a very early age, I learned to hate critics. My mother ran a theatre whose success at the box office depended to a large degree on the whims of one hard-to-please man. The mornings that his review arrived on our front stoop were as glum and ritualistic as a funeral. First there was the anger and cursing. Then came the dark speculations about ulterior motives. And finally, the phone would ring to break the mood. 'I know, I know: it doesn't matter,' my mom would say. 'He just doesn't get it.'
That I grew up to be a theatre critic might be explained as some kind of belated rebellion. But in my mind, it was because of a book, and one of the worst kinds of books: a collection of old criticism. Reviews generally don't age well, and their meat and potato essentials (plot description, opinionated adjectives) make most collections something you reference rather than read. For Keeps, an almost 1,300 page door-stop that includes the greatest hits of Pauline Kael, was something altogether different. I had read her reviews for years but when I dipped into this tome during my freshman year at college, finishing every evening one week with another few hundred pages, a vivid, complex and sympathetic character emerged. I admired her stylish, slangy command of the English language and the supreme confidence of her critical voice. But what really made me return again and again still until this day was that hers was the first book to convince me of Oscar Wilde's famous claim that 'the highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography'.
In this portrait of an active mind packed full of fascinating prejudices and axes to grind, Kael did not abuse the first person voice. But in her early work, she employed bits and pieces of autobiography in the service of beefing up an argument or, just as important, grabbing your attention. Introducing a review of Shoeshine, a film from the 1940s, she described walking out of the theatre with tears streaming down her face, unclear if they were for the film or the 'incomprehensible despair' she felt over a fight with a boyfriend. Mounting an attack on the prudery of the critical establishment's consideration of the adultery of the title character of Hud, she talked unsentimentally of how her father serviced local widows - and how they were probably better for it.
From reading her reviews, you learned that Kael grew up in the American west and lived in San Francisco before getting a job at The New Yorker. 'San Francisco is like Ireland,' she once wrote. 'If you want to do something, you have to get out.' Kael enjoyed provocations and showed off her seeming contradictions: a liberal who couldn't stand liberal platitudes, a lover of trash with very high standards in art; an opponent of the auteur theory, but as many critics would later point out, she fought vigorously for her favourite directors even when their work was lacklustre (Brian De Palma was the classic example). She hated moralists who decried onscreen violence only a little more than filmmakers who celebrated it.
As she got older, Kael rarely wrote about her life, yet her work never seemed anything but entirely personal, almost embarrassingly so. When she liked something, she had no fear of gushing. I still remember reading her extraordinary love letter to Casualties of War, a Vietnam film by De Palma that I thought was overwrought and miscast. Her review began with an emotional declaration of war. 'If you meet people who are bored by movies you love... chances are you can brush it off and think it's their loss. But this new film is the kind that makes you feel protective.' By the end of her review, which concedes the heavy-handedness of the script by David Rabe, she had changed my mind.
That's not to say I didn't change it back. Kael's taste could be eccentric (she preferred the awful sequels to The Exorcist and Ghostbusters to the originals). But what stands out in For Keeps is how on the major films she usually got it right. She wrote the definitive rave about The Godfather, for instance, and had her big break after a fist-shaking review of Bonnie and Clyde that described with great specificity how the screenwriters Daniel Newman and Robert Benton updated the gangster movie in the tradition of the New Wave. It's a remarkably perceptive essay and I must admit that it saddened me somewhat to learn in Mark Harris's excellent Pictures at a Revolution, that some of her thinking on the movie may have been informed by a meeting with the writers before the piece was put together.
Still, I doubt that Kael wrung her hands too much over such a potential conflict of interest. She laughed at the old journalism school idea of objectivity. Movies were far too important for such limitations. Instead, they demanded a complete engagement that included political, moral, aesthetic, historical and especially personal considerations. She threw all of herself into her reviews, becoming the seductive hero of her own drama, one that when I read it seemed exciting, unpredictable and alluring. Other critics I trusted more. And some were perhaps deeper thinkers. But Kael, to this day, more than any other critic makes me feel, well, protective.