The Popist: Pauline Kael 5

Still, fine writing is not the name of the game. W. H. Auden once praised Agee’s column by saying that he never went to the movies, but that he looked forward to reading what Mr. Agee had to say about them every week. Many people have said the same thing about Stanley Kauffmann, the longtime reviewer for the New Re¬public who is, in critical terms, pretty much the UnKael. Kael was not a reviewer for people who didn’t go to movies. She was the ideal person to read when you had just seen a movie and couldn’t make up your mind what you thought about it. At her best, she argued it through on the page for you. You know what you think about Bonnie and Clyde by now, though, and so her insights have lost their fresh¬ness. On the other hand, she is a large part of the reason you think what you do.
And her influence is everywhere. Kael was, by all accounts, a journalistic queen bee. If she did not orchestrate opinion (some¬thing she was accused of many times), she certainly took pleasure in orchestrating the orchestrators. She maintained, even before her New Yorker days, a circle of admirers whose careers she cultivated and whose degree of orthodoxy she monitored closely; and she be¬came an object of personal infatuation for many younger writers who never met her. She has a number of protegds and ex-protdges among active movie reviewers: Terrence Rafferty, who succeeded her at the New Yorker; David Denby, who succeeded Rafferty; Michael Sragow; Roger Ebert; John Powers; Peter Rainer. But her impact extended far beyond movie reviewing. The television critics James Wolcott (who now writes about more than television) and Tom Shales, the art critics Jed Perl and Sanford Schwartz, the mu¬sic critic Greil Marcus, and the sportswriter Allen Barra are all her fans, and there is a long list of other writers, in many genres, whose work would be almost unimaginable without her example. There are also two celebrity epigoni: Camille Paglia, whose style is a virtual pastiche of Kael’s but who (such is the anxiety of influence) has al¬most never mentioned her name in print; and the Hollywood wun- derkind Quentin Tarantino, who mentions her name at almost every opportunity. And properly so; for Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a dish for which Kael spent forty years writing the recipe.
Kael’s followers are sometimes referred to, a little dismissively, as “the Paulettes.” The standard complaints about them are that they imitate Kael’s enthusiasm for the cheap-thrill element of popular culture, and that they are prisoners of her journalistic mannerisms. This is unfair to their talents, but there is no question that Kael’s style proved highly infectious; and there is no question, either, that her appetite for sensationalism, for blood and sex, helped to shape educated movie taste. Cataloguing stylistic tics, though, is not the most accurate way to measure Kael’s influence. For her importance has, in the end, very little to do with her style of writing or even her taste in movies. It is much greater than that.

The problem Kael undertook to address when she began writing for the New Yorker was the problem of making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular en¬tertainment is not art. This is usually thought of as the high-low problem—the problem that arises when a critic equipped with a highbrow technique bends his or her attention to an object that is too low, when the professor writes about Superman comics. In fact, this rarely is a problem: if anything profits from (say) a semiotic analysis, it’s the comics. The professor may go on to compare Super¬man comics favorably with Tolstoy, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.
The real high-low problem doesn’t arise when the object is too low. It arises when the object isn’t low enough. Meet the Beatles doesn’t pose a high-low problem; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does. Tom Clancy and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” don’t; John Le Carre and Masterpiece Theater do. A product like Sgt. Pep¬per’s isn’t low enough to be discussed as a mere cultural artifact; but it’s not high enough to be discussed as though it were Four Quartets, either. It’s exactly what it pretends to be: it’s entertainment, but for educated people. And this is what makes it so hard for educated people to talk about without sounding pretentious—as though they had to justify their pleasure by some gesture toward the “deeper” significance of the product.
One of Hollywood’s best-kept industrial secrets is that the movies are entertainment for educated people, too. This was a find¬ing that surprised the studios when, in the 1940s, they first under¬took to analyze their audience: frequency of movie attendance increases with income and education. Even today, when people complain that they don’t make movies for grownups anymore, the percentage of people who say they are “frequent moviegoers” is more than half again as great among people who have gone to col¬lege (31 percent) as it is among people who have only finished high school (19 percent). The belief that education makes people snob¬bish about moviegoing is the opposite of the case: 20 percent of peo¬ple who have been to college say they “never” go to movies, but the figure is 39 percent among adults who have only finished high school and 57 percent among adults with even less education than that. Kael didn’t persuade New Yorlter readers to go to the movies; they were already going. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was teaching them how to think critically about it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*