The Popist: Pauline Kael 4

“Shallowly immoral” would probably have done it. But you cannot compare the movies you love with Moby Dick and then let the ones you hate off with a shrug. You have to keep writing as though souls are being saved and lost down at the cineplex every night. In the years when many of her readers found it exciting to treat movies as tests of character, Kael’s rhetoric was just excessive enough. You argued about the movie with your friends, and then you picked up the New Yorker and argued about it with Kael. But when the same people eventually found themselves content to de¬scribe the movies they enjoyed as “a lot of fun” and the movies they didn’t enjoy as “pretty stupid,” Kael’s rhetoric began to seem a little curious.
So did her judgment. It became possible to read one of her rap¬turous reviews—of, for instance, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) (“It may be the best movie of its kind ever made”) or Robert Zemeckis’s Used Cars (1980), which inspired comparisons with Bringing Up Baby, Shampoo, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Melville’s The Confidence Man—and then find the actual movie, when you went to see it, almost unrecognizable. What had made her pulse race so fast? The less portentous the buzz around a movie she wanted to like, the more hyperkinetic her exer¬tions seemed to become. Unpopular or unexceptional efforts by old favorites began to receive shameless raves—as in: “I think De Palma has sprung to the place Altman achieved with films such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville and that Coppola reached with the two Godfather movies—that is, to a place where genre is transcended and what we’re moved by is the artist’s vision.” She was reviewing Blow Out (1981). And when the whole movie couldn’t honorably be rhapsodized, a single scene or even a single line would be given a prominently placed homage, a sort of verbal trailer. This is the lead paragraph of Kael’s review of Tequila Sunrise (1988), a slightly un¬derpowered romance/thriller that happens to have been written and directed by Robert Towne:
Michelle Pfeiffer tells Mel Gibson how sorry she is that she hurt his feelings. He replies, “C’mon, it didn’t hurt that bad,” pauses, and adds, “Just lookin’ at you hurts more.” If a moviegoer didn’t al¬ready know that Tequila Sunrise was the work of a master romantic tantalizer, Gibson’s line should cinch it. That’s the kind of ritualized confession of love that gave a picture like To Have and Have Not its place in moviegoers’ affections. What makes the line go ping is that Mel Gibson’s blue eyes are wide with yearning as he says it, and Michelle Pfeiffer is so crystalline in her beauty that he seems to be speaking the simple truth. . . . It’s a line that Gary Cooper might have spoken to Marlene Dietrich….
Stop! I give up! I’ll see the movie!
What had evaporated was the consensus that it all mattered. The result was a dissociation between the experience and the com¬mentary. Kael’s disquisitions on the psychology of the American movie audience, which characterized her early criticism, gave way to page after page of word-painting. She would paraphrase almost the whole story line, and every clever bit in the movie seemed to end up in the review. After you had read her review of Zelig, the movie it¬self felt like something you had already seen, and not quite as ingen¬ious as you remembered it. She was a pioneer, in effect, of the condition movies suffer from today, when by the time a big-budget production hits the screen, it has been so overexposed in magazines and on television that there is almost no point in bothering to go see it. Which is fine, of course, with magazine publishers and television producers. The coverage competes with the product.
Kael’s manner of overpraising and overdamning has itself been so overpraised and overdamned that rereading her reviews is a little like rereading Hemingway after listening to too many parodies: why can’t she stop trying to sound so much like Pauline Kael? The trade¬mark Kaelisms now trip you up on every page: the second-person address; the slangy heighteners, “zizzy,” “zingy,” “goosey,” “plummy,” and so on, and put-downs, like “frowzy,” “whorey,” “logey” (her word for Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah) the high-low oxymorons, like “pop classic” (for the remake of King Kong) or “trash archetype” (for Car¬rie); and her most exasperating locution, the conditional universal superlative, which she used promiscuously and frequently batheti- cally: “The scene is perhaps the wittiest and most deeply romantic confirmation of a marriage ever filmed” (The Right Stuff); “He may be the most natural and least self-conscious film actor who ever lived” (Jeff Bridges).
Her writing is all in the same key, and strictly molto con brio. There is no modulation of tone or (which would be even more wel¬come) of thought. She just keeps slugging away. She is almost al¬ways extraordinarily sharp, but she is almost never funny. And (as she conceded in the introduction to For Keeps) she is clearly work¬ing her way through her feelings about the movie as she writes, and this produces garrulousness and compositional dishevelment. Writ¬ing in the New Yorker gave her a huge space advantage over other reviewers; she did not always profit by it. Her reviews are highly readable, but they are not especially rereadable. James Agee, in his brief service as movie critic of the Nation, reviewed many nonde¬script and now long-forgotten pictures; but as soon as you finish reading one of his pieces, you want to read it again, just to see how he did it. Kael does not provoke the same impulse.

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