The Popist: Pauline Kael 3

In the seventies Kael consequently became, despite her disparagement of auteur theory, a devotee of directors. Her favorites— Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme, Paul Mazur- sky, Steven Spielberg—were artists of the popular. They loved, without condescension, exactly what the audience loved and went to the movies to see: pursuit and capture, sex and violence, love and death. They loved the story. Spielberg won Kael over in his first fea¬ture, The Sugarland Express (1974), by his orchestration of one of the most mundane staples of seventies movie-making, a car chase, which she described in her review as though it had been a masked ball shot by Ophuls: “He patterns them; he makes them dance and crash and bounce back. He handles enormous configurations of ve¬hicles; sometimes they move so sweetly you think he must be woo¬ing them. These sequences are as unforced and effortless-looking as if the cars themselves—-mesmerized—had just waltzed into their id¬iot formations,” and so on. Even the most authorial of her auteurs, Bertolucci, showed his understanding of big-screen aesthetics in his casting: Trintignant, Sanda, Brando, De Niro, Lancaster, Depar¬dieu. People go for the faces.
The reverse side of Kael’s taste for cleverness was her distaste for cynicism. She disliked most of Stanley Kubrick’s movies because she thought they were unfeeling and aloof; she disliked most of John Cassavetes’ because she felt that they showed contempt for the audience’s desire to be entertained. She disliked The Graduate because it seemed to her patently manipulative while pretending to be original and sincere; and she disliked the Dirty Harry movies be¬cause they exploited the visceral appeal of blood. She despised any filmmaker who assumed that because a thing is popular it must also be cheap, or that an audience drawn to sex or violence deserves to have its nose rubbed in it. This standard is the nub of the problem in her critical judgment.
For the more compelling the movie, the trickier the distinction between cleverness and cynicism becomes. It’s not just that there is an element of cold-blooded calculation in all successful entertain¬ment; Kael was the last person to have disputed that. It’s that the cold-bloodedness in some of the movies she championed can some¬ times seem a little more genuine than the entertainment. Barbara Harris’s pathetic anthem in the final scene of Nashville, the pro¬tracted slow motion of the pig’s blood sequence in De Palma’s Car¬rie, Brando sticking his chewing gum under the railing at the end of Last Tango in Paris: these are scenes that seem to have been created not so much to rip away the last veil of our innocence as to gratify the director’s desire to have the last laugh on humanity. Kael didn’t defend moments like these in the movies she admired. She just read them differently. She knew perfectly well that De Palma enjoyed being manipulative, but she found his movies playful and witty, rather than smarmy and cynical, just as she found Nashville gener¬ous and funny, rather than patronizing and dyspeptic. She sensed pathos in places where less partisan or less enraptured viewers sensed satire and even disgust. Kael wasn’t interested in satire and disgust. She was a romantic.

Between 1967 and 1978, the American film industry turned out Bon¬nie and Clyde, written by David Newman and Robert Benton and produced by Warren Beatty; Shampoo, produced by Beatty and written by Robert Towne; Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, written by Towne; Coppola’s first two Godfather movies and The Conversation; George Lucas’s American Graffiti, produced by Coppola; Altman’s M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville; Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs; Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which he wrote, and Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader; Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which he wrote; Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which he wrote with Marshall Brickman; Mazursky’s An Un¬married Woman, written by him; Midnight Cowboy; The Graduate; Five Easy Pieces; The Outlaw ]osie Wales; Easy Rider; The Last Pic¬ture Show; and The Deer Hunter. Kael did not admire all these movies; she panned a few. But she responded intensely to most of them (she divided her New Yorker column during those years with Penelope Gilliatt), and she shared the sense many of her readers had that these were movies that somehow cut to the bone of the American experience. She was old enough to appreciate the seren¬dipity of the phenomenon, and she assumed the role of its grand in¬terpreter. She was the Hollywood Dr. Johnson.
Then, in 1978, she actually went there. She was invited by Beatty, who wanted her help with a movie he was producing. That project fell through, and she became a story consultant at Para¬mount instead. After six months she was back at the magazine. She denied it in interviews, but the view of Hollywood from the inside seems to have turned her stomach; and in 1980, she published a jer¬emiad called “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers,” which blamed everything on the money.
Well, it usually is the money. That happens to be the flag that commercial culture salutes. But whether it was because material conditions really had changed, as her essay claimed, or because Hollywood’s imaginative juices had somehow dried up, or simply because the major screen breakthroughs had all been accom¬plished, by the end of the 1970s the connection between enjoying a movie and feeling a shock of recognition, a connection that had come to seem almost automatic in the decade before, was severed. It might have been adolescent to have walked out of Shampoo or Five Easy Pieces or Mean Streets feeling that you must change your life, but not even adolescents walked out of Beverly Hills Cop or The Empire Strikes Back or Batman feeling that way. They were happy to feel they had gotten the price of the ticket.
Kael responded to this decline in the cultural authority of the movies in a peculiar way. She began to overpraise. Hyperbolic aban¬don had always been the virtual signature of her style. The stakes could never be too high. She equated Nashville and the second Godfather with Melville and Whitman; she equated the opening night of Last Tango in Paris with the opening night of Le Sacre du Printemps. “There are parts of Jaws,” she wrote in 1976, “that suggest what Eisenstein might have done if he hadn’t intellectualized him¬self out of reach.” And when she didn’t like a movie, she wasn’t just irritated or bored; she was the victim of an intellectual mugging. She condemned The French Connection as “total commercial op¬portunism passing itself off as an Existential view.” (Well, yes, but how was the picture?) She condemned the earnest Lenny as “the ul¬timate in modern show-biz sentimentality.” Words like “corrupt,” “dishonest,” “decadent,” and, for a while, “fascist” were part of her regular critical vocabulary. Dirty Harry she pronounced “a deeply immoral movie.”

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