The Popist: Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael began reviewing movies for the New Yorker in 1967. She was not a “discovery.” She was forty-eight years old, and she had already written for nearly every well- known magazine in America but the New Yorker, including the New Republic, Partisan Review, the Atlantic, Mademoiselle, Hol¬iday, Vogue, Life, and McCall’s. Before coming to New York, in the mid-sixties, she had made weekly radio broadcasts about movies on KPFA in San Francisco; she had been contributing regularly to jour¬nals like Film Quarterly and Sight and Sound since 1953; and a col¬lection of her pieces, I Lost It at the Movies, had come out in 1965 and sold 150,000 paperback copies. Mr. Shawn was not taking a gamble on a rookie.
In 1967, the New Yorker was the most successful magazine in America. It owed its prosperity to a formula that can no longer be duplicated: it was a general-interest commercial magazine for people who disliked commercialism and who rarely subscribed to general-interest magazines—a magazine, essentially, for people who didn’t read magazines. For in the fifties and sixties, a literate and un- stuffy anticommercialism was still a cherished ingredient of upper- middle-class taste, and by catering to it, the New Yorker was able to deliver to advertisers several hundred thousand well-educated and affluent people who could be reached through almost no other medium.
It did so with an editorial product rigorously manufactured to avoid any semblance of the sensational, the prurient, or the merely topical—any semblance, that is, of the things educated people could be assumed to associate with commercial media. It also avoided, less famously but with equal diligence, anything that hinted at cultural pretension. And this policy, too, was based on a genuine insight into the psychology of its audience. For New Yorker readers, though proud of their education and their taste, were intel¬lectually insecure. They did not need to be told who Proust and Freud and Stravinsky were, but they were glad, at the same time, not to be expected to know anything terribly specific about them. They were intelligent people who were nevertheless extremely wary of being out-browed. The New Yorker was enormously attentive to this insecurity. It pruned from its pieces anything that might come across as allusive or knowing, and it promoted, in its writing and cartoons, a sensibility which took urbanity to be perfectly compati¬ble with a certain kind of naivete. The New Yorker made it possible to feel that being an antisophisticate was the mark of true sophisti¬cation, and that any culture worth having could be had without spe¬cial aesthetic equipment or intellectual gymnastics.
Pauline Kael made it possible for people to feel this way about the movies, and although that sounds like a modest accomplish¬ment, it was not. It required disarming both phobias in the sensibil¬ity the New Yorker had so successfully identified: the fear of too low and the fear of too high. It meant overcoming the intelligent per¬son’s resistance to the pulpiness, the corniness, and the general moral and aesthetic schmaltz of Hollywood movies, but without re¬fining those things away by some type of critical alchemy. The New Yorker’s readers did not want an invitation to slum. But they didn’t want to be told that appreciating movies was something that called for a command of the “grammar of film,” either. They needed to believe that it was possible to enjoy the movies without becoming ei-ther of the two things New Yorker readers would sooner have died than be taken for: idiots or snobs.
This was precisely the approach to movies Kael had devoted her pre-New Yorker career to perfecting. She heaped scorn on the moguls, and she heaped scorn on the cineastes. She joined the mag¬azine at the moment the movies seemed to many people suddenly to have caught up with the rest of American culture: her first piece was a seven-thousand-word defense of Bonnie and Clyde. She kept the attention of the magazine’s readers during a time when movies seemed to mean a great deal to them. And she continued to keep it well after the movies ceased being important in most of those read¬ers’ lives. By the time she retired, in 1991, the New Yorker’s tradi¬tional readership had lost its cohesion as a distinctive taste group, and the type of movies Kael had made her name by championing had nearly vanished, too. After her retirement, she stopped review-ing; she died in 2001. But she had produced a generation of epigoni, and the manner of appreciation she invented has become the stan¬dard manner of popular-culture criticism in America.

Kael was born in Petaluma, California, in 1919. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland; they ran a chicken farm. Like many people who fall in love with the movies, Kael succumbed when she was a teenager. She became enamored of two completely different kinds of movies, and the simplest way to describe her career is to say that she awoke in middle age to find them miraculously reborn together on a single screen. Her first infatuation was with the Holly¬wood genre movies of the 1930s: newspaper pictures like The Front Page (1931), comedies like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and Duck Soup (1933), and, especially, the screwballs, which began appearing in 1934—“the year,” as she put it in her long and swoony essay on Cary Grant, “when The Thin Man and Twentieth Century and It Hap¬pened One Night changed American movies.” It was also the year Kael turned fifteen.
Kael thought that these were great movies, but it was not “as movies” that she admired them. She did not esteem them for their realization of the possibilities of cinematic form. She esteemed them for their indifference to the idea of “the possibilities of cine¬matic form,” and in particular for the death blow they delivered to the high-minded sentimentality—what she described as the “calendar-art guck”—of the silent tradition. The silents, she thought, had encouraged a kind of “dream aesthetic,” which associ¬ated film with the movements of the subconscious and led to the production of a lot of misty allegories about “purity” and “morality.” When characters started speaking, the mists went away, and so did the purity and morality. “The talkies,” as she once put it, “were a great step down.”

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