The Popist: Pauline Kael 2

Two things, in her view, made those thirties movies go: the writ¬ing and the acting. Her 1971 essay on Citizen Kane is usually re¬membered as an attack on Orson Welles and the cult of the director, a kind of sequel to her polemic against auteur theory, “Circles and Squares” (1963). But the point of the essay is that the reason it is wrong to talk about Citizen Kane as a bolt from cinema heaven is not that Welles was not really a genius; Kael thought he really was a genius. It is because Citizen Kane (released in 1941) was the crown¬ing achievement of thirties movie-making, the capstone of the tradi¬tion The Front Page had started. It was, she thought, simply “the biggest newspaper picture of them all.” What made it great was the script—by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had been involved, as a writer or producer, in many of the movies Kael loved, including Mil¬lion Dollar Legs and Duck Soup—and the acting. Charles Foster Kane was the one role in his career in which Welles was perfectly cast; for Welles was a sort of Kane himself, a theatrical monstre sacré, a boy wonder and a mountebank. Welles may have stolen half the writing credit from Mankiewicz, but Mankiewicz showed Welles naked to the world.
Then the parade ended. The commercial failure of Citizen Kane—the critics acclaimed it, but the industry, intimidated by the other real-life Kane, William Randolph Hearst, failed to stand be¬hind it—drove Welles into the movie wilderness. And it marked, Kael believed, the demise of the supremely smart but supremely accessible Hollywood entertainments of the 1930s. Except in odd corners of the business, such as the comedies of Preston Sturges, ir¬reverence disappeared from the screen. The movies fell into the hands of self-righteous, fellow-traveling hacks: earnestness was prized above wit, and politically correct mediocrity was promoted over talent. “Morality” was back in the saddle. It remained there for twenty-five years.
Kael had a second infatuation, though, and it was with a kind of movie that had nothing generic about it, a kind of movie in which the director was the star. This was the European realist tradition, above all the early movies of Jean Renoir—Bondu Saved from Drowning (1931), Grand Illusion (1937), and The Rules of the Game (1939)—but also the work of the Italian neorealists, like Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Miracle in Milan (1951), and of Max Ophuls, particularly The Earrings of Madame De . . . (1953), a movie Kael called “perfection.” The technical term for the quality many of these movies (though not Ophuls’s) share is “open form.” The camera directs its gaze with equal empathy at every facet of the world viewed. Ordinary things are not scanted or rushed over, since the gods, if there are any, are probably in the details; but grand things are not put into quotation marks, or set up to be knocked down, either, since great emotions are as much a part of life as anything else. The door is opened onto the world “as it is,” without scrims or stage directions; and the world is left, at the end, in the same condition, unarranged, and unboxed by moral resolution.
When Kael arrived at the New Yorker, these were her touch¬stones—Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, Rossellini and Renoir. It was a canon exceptional less for what it included than for what it left out. Kael’s taste for genre pictures, for instance, was not indis¬criminate. She had a distant respect for the early Westerns of John Ford, like Stagecoach (1939), because they handled popular iconog¬raphy in a classical spirit; but she hated High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) for their moralism and their mythic fakery, and she rarely passed up an occa¬sion to say so. She had no special enthusiasm, either, for film noir, a genre barely mentioned in her enormous final collection from all her writings, For Keeps (1995), or for other low-rent forms, such as horror and science fiction.
Her line about Frank Capra is famous: “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment the way Capra can,” she said of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), “and if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” She dismissed most of Hollywood’s post¬war efforts at serious moral drama, movies like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), as embarrassing imita¬tions of European art films. She regarded The Red Shoes (1948) as kitsch on stilts. She considered Fellini pretentious and overrated, and Bergman a “northern Fellini.” And for the high-end imports reverentially mulled over by cineastes in the early sixties— Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienhad (1961), Red Desert (1964)—she had pure contempt. She called them “come- dressed-as-the-sick-soul-of-Europe parties,” and she considered them prime specimens of the philistinism of antiphilistinism, in¬tellectual cliches to which repetition and obscurity had given the illusion of profundity.
There were two imports, however, which she did admire: Jean- Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959; released in the United States in 1960) and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). She was drawn to them because they were, in effect, the sum of the two types of movies that had won her heart in the thirties. They were genre pictures whose forms had been imaginatively opened up: pop plus poetry. So that when Bonnie and Clyde, directed by an Ameri¬can disciple of Godard and Truffaut, Arthur Penn, appeared in 1967, it was as though a dream Kael had been having for twenty-five years had come to life. Bonnie and Clyde announced, for her, a Hollywood new wave. It was a movement that lasted a decade, and produced a series of stylish entertainments people could care about without feeling trivial or pedantic. The first two Godfather movies (1972 and 1974) define the type: straight gangster pictures, but with the visual and moral depth of field of a Renoir.

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