Those who follow film will inevitably come across Pauline Kael’s critical writing, since she has — for good or ill — been an influential ‘voice’ (I use this term loosely) in film crit, helping to not only shape abysmal, only-in-it-for-the-controversy poseurs such as Armond White (just check out his fey, insecure manner in this pointless interview), but film-goers, as well, who suddenly had intellectual back-up for their personal like or dislike of now-classic films. She’s trashed Stanley Kubrick, she’s trashed Ingmar Bergman, she’s trashed Federico Fellini, Terrence Malick, John Cassavetes, Michelangelo Antonioni — not out of any real, logical argument, but just ’cause she wanted to, and was able to get away with such. And, predictably, fans of these directors have, not been very happy, but communicated their anger merely by throwing up their hands, or cutting Pauline Kael down a well-placed insult. Sure, she deserves all this (and more!), but just as with the Internet rants directed towards Jonathan Rosenbaum, there’s been few systematic dissections of her work, wherein the reasons for her poorness as a critic are made clear, film by film, and line by line, which is really what her work calls for.
Anger is good, at times, but it needs a real, substantive foundation for it to matter, or else it’ll first be interpreted as having no justification, and then merely dissipate. In the arts, however, things absolutely need a nudge in the right direction, and it is argument (despite what’s commonly thought) that helps clarify and polish up the best art, all the while killing off the worst. For this reason, I wrote a lengthy take-down of Pauline Kael vis-a-vis the work of one film director, so that, in reading her reviews thematically, as well as side-by-side, one sees her flaws quite well, and can therefore extrapolate them to the rest of her work.
What’s In A Name? Six Major Critics Of Woody Allen
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Critic #3: Pauline Kael
…If the above three critics are Woody champions, the next three can be thought of as his chief detractors. The first and by far the most influential is Pauline Kael, who, at her peak, was the top film critic at The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, and a well-known writer even before this. She was quite feared for her reviews, much read by the literati, and her mode of attack (often ad hominem, and sometimes explicitly racial) only intensified with time. Yes, Pauline Kael was a celebrity, but unlike, say, Roger Ebert, who’d ultimately champion and supplant her in style and longevity, she was a celebrity for the intelligentsia, and while she has deeply influenced people as diverse as Armond White (in some ways, her successor) and Quentin Tarantino, you’d be hard-pressed to find many young filmgoers who look up to her today, a mere decade and a half after her death. This partly due to The New Yorker’s decision to keep her reviews holed away in a digital archive one must pay to access, while Ebert’s (and others’) are freely available, and partly due to her contrarian views — often without much explication — and dated writing style. No one today, for example, wishes to hear of Woody Allen being a self-loathing Jew, as she’s argued, or read reviews (such as that of De Sica’s Shoeshine) that do not even engage the film in question, but serve as proto-blog posts that merely discuss her own life and feelings. Indeed, for while many of the films she’s eviscerated — La Dolce Vita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Badlands, Dr. Strangelove, Wild Strawberries, Red Desert, Faces, Blow-Up, and others — have gone on to become undisputed classics, current articles about her are full of comments that, while riding the celebrity gravy-train while she was still ‘hip’, have now, quite predictably, taken on a much harsher tone. No doubt there will be many guesses as to why, but just one should suffice: that for all she’s written, and has been written of her, Pauline Kael was not much of a critic, combining the worst flaws of Roger Ebert (over-reliance on emotion) with none of his writing ability, and a pointless viciousness and personal vindictiveness that — had it been well-worded — could have at least been fun. It is not, and as the sudden implosion and inevitable decline of her progeny Armond White shows, it pays more to be right than righteous, a difference few people ever see, and fewer still can ever act on.
Of course, I am not the first to criticize Pauline Kael, for she’s generated quite a few ‘enemies’ throughout her career. In 2004, for instance, Alan Vanneman published a short retrospective of her work that covers her life, her creative troubles from the 50s onward, and her eventual breakthrough as a critic via a published collation of her reviews, which Vanneman quotes quite a bit from without having to offer much in way of explanation. “All her life”, he says, “Kael wrote as a brilliant schoolgirl, straining for ‘insights’ and exulting in ‘nuances’ that no one else noticed (because they weren’t there). She had to be deeper, more profound, and more shocking than anyone else, which led her to the same sort of pretentiousness she ridiculed in others.” Yet in the midst of such straining, she was bound to make mistakes — social transgressions, even — ranging from conflicts of interest, such as her reviewing of films that she’d secretly worked on, to downright severing some professional ties with words she’d plainly call “criticism”, but were mere invective, given how little they had to do with the films in question. Likewise, Renata Adler, a New Yorker colleague, slowly went from being a fan to a detractor upon reading a collection of her reviews. This is because, as Adler argues, what might at first seem ‘interesting’ or ‘quaint’ in Kael’s work soon turns into a system of ad hoc, ad hominem attacks that don’t really tackle the films, themselves, but rather what Kael sees (or thinks she does), as opposed to what’s really on the screen. In short, when she wasn’t busy sexualizing actors, writers, and directors (“Taxi Driver is a movie in heat”), coming up with odd, asymmetrical similes (“Coma is like a prophylactic; it’s so cleanly made, with such an impersonal, detached feeling that it looks untouched by human hands”), word-dumps (“The images are simplified, down to their dramatic components, like the diagrams of great artists’ compositions in painting texts, and this, plus the faintly psychedelic Romanesque color, creates a pungent viselike atmosphere”), and outright bullying, she constructed reviews that were, in effect, “paeans to the favored product, diatribes against all other brands”. Such is not, alas, a review, but a mere statement of preferences, which have little to do with art, and everything to do with one’s personality and leanings. It is unsurprising, then, that Adler’s most famous criticism was that Kael’s work, as a whole, is “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” More telling, however, is Adler’s prescient comment that, despite Kael’s fame, “criticism will get over it”, a fact that’s coming to light only now, as it does for most writers, in time. But while Adler is more praising of Kael’s earlier work, I must disagree with even that. In one of Kael’s more celebrated pre-New Yorker reviews, for instance, she bloats a mere two pages on Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine with critical and writerly cliches (“incomprehensible despair”; “lyric study”; “fear the pain of the film”; “painful beauty”; “[a] tragic study of the corruption of innocence [that] is intense, compassionate, and, above all, humane”), and simply says nothing of the film, itself, merely using her already quite-limited space for a kind of autobiography. After having read it, I know of Kael’s “lovers’ quarrel” in 1947, and that she “feels” the film’s feelings, and wishes others could, too, but as to why it is an excellent work of art, re: the acting, scripting, visuals, and music, she is remarkably silent. It seems, then, as early as 1961, Kael had confused the critic’s job description with something more to her own liking. But a critic’s job is not merely to ‘reveal’ oneself (although that can be done well, as Ebert or Dan Schneider often do), but, above all, to explain the thing’s inner workings, and why it works, as art. If such a basic thing is not done, it really can’t be criticism. And if it’s not criticism, what is it, exactly, and what is it doing?
Pauline Kael praises Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine, below, but there are two problems here. First, it’s a good to very good film, but not De Sica’s best. Second, and far more importantly, she gives ZERO information about the film in her ‘review,’ choosing, instead, to write a kind of proto-blog post about things not even tangentially related to the film. This was, of course, her modus operandi for most of her career.
Now, we’ll get to the bottom of these queries — trust you me — but we’ll do it via Woody Allen, who’s had an interesting relationship with Pauline Kael over the years. One could still see videos of them together, in the 1970s, and he seems quite tolerant of her, if not respectful. Sometime after this, however, her reviews took a turn for the nasty, not only calling Allen out for his supposed Jewish self-hatred (which seems to be applied to every Jew who’s doing something a little ‘different’) and loathing of his culture, family, and fans, but — as if needing to one-up all the other misinterpretations of the film — even asked re: Manhattan: “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?”, thus trying to extrapolate the man from the art, and falling into the same critical cliches that abounded then as now. It only got worse with Stardust Memories, which caused a complete break in their relationship for reasons that (as will be shown) went well beyond a mere ‘aesthetic’ disagreement. Yes, one could say she reveals too much of her various political and intellectual axes in her reviews of Allen’s later films, and therefore fails as critic for those biases, but there are issues that appear as early as 1973 with her take on Sleeper, a decidedly apolitical work that Kael — believe it or not — assessed more or less correctly. That, of course, is not the concern. It is how she reaches her assessment that is problematic, thus serving as a blueprint for so many of her other reviews.
The first issue (as Renata Adler pointed out) is Pauline Kael’s over-reliance on the words “we” and “us”, both as a means of ‘softening’ her own positions, as well as taking the attention away from her less cogent critiques. For example, just in her review of Sleeper: “we, too, are scared to show how smart we feel”; “we laughed as if he had let out what we couldn’t hold in any longer”; “we enjoy his show of defenselessness, and even the “I-don’t-mean-any-harm ploy, because we see the essential sanity in him”; “we respect that sanity; it’s the base from which he takes flight.” Yes, some of these overly broad musings could have been acceptable (however slightly) if Allen’s early comedies were anything more than films like Take the Money and Run, Sex, or Bananas, but Pauline Kael is trying to ascribe a deep intellectual base to things in a way that’s simply absurd. I mean, who listens to Boris’s monologue on Socrates and homosexuals in Love and Death and thinks of Allen’s “essential sanity”, or laughs at his persona’s failures in Sleeper, then makes Kael’s grand deductions? Beyond this pretentiousness, however, are the odder phrasings and ideas, all hedged by that “we”, that are either too general or quite simply inaccurate for the character in the film (“we, too, are scared…”), or merely reaching (“what we couldn’t hold in any longer”). Yet after this over-long introduction, ‘we’ really don’t know much more of Woody Allen, as artist, and nothing yet of Sleeper, the film purportedly under review. In the next paragraph, she finally tackles the film, correctly says it is the most narrative-driven of his work thus far, pointlessly calls it “surreal” (technically true, but the word as Kael uses it will apply to any dystopia, and any film with slapstick, so why even say it unless one wishes to appear ‘deep’?) and, again correctly, calls it a “small classic” that simply does not reach higher company. She mars her own insight, however, by repeating this same idea in nigh-consecutive lines (“it doesn’t have the loose, manic highs of those others films”; “you come out smiling and happy, but not driven crazy”; “I laughed all the way through, but it wasn’t exhilarating”; “you can be with it all the way, but it doesn’t impose itself on your imagination”; “and yet it’s mild, it doesn’t quite take off”), and by an odd final comment (“Comedy is impossibly mysterious”) that really has no place in a review such as this. In fact, Pauline Kael had already explained both her ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ of the film in fairly straightforward prose, so to ascribe her emotional conflict to comedy’s alleged “mystery” is throwaway, especially since one should then logically make the same deduction about any film one has conflicting views over. I love Total Recall, for instance, but don’t think it is a good movie. Yet to therefore call it “mysterious”? Indeed, something’s quite amiss when one strains to deepen what is already quite obvious to most.
After getting out a cheap shot at Play It Again, Sam, Kael starts making suggestions. “Sleeper could really use a cast”, she argues, but why? Because other comics have had a set cast, while Allen’s “conception of himself keeps him alone”. The smaller error, within, is a further conflation of Allen, the man, and Allen’s on-screen persona. The bigger issue Pauline Kael’s self-contradictions. Yes, she is correct to argue that the film never “quite takes off”, but it’s not due to any casting decisions, but because given the fact that it’s an almost purely slapstick comedy (as she herself points out), it automatically has a ceiling that more ‘serious’ comedies (such as Radio Days or Amarcord) simply lack. This is really in the film’s inner nature, and not a matter of a few tweaks or improvements that would suddenly make it “exhilarating”. Nor is the cast much of an issue, either, for despite Kael’s argument, the Woody Allen/Diane Keaton pairing is one of cinema’s best, of any genre, partly because of their chemistry, on the one hand, and seeming disconnect on the other — Allen as a bumbling ‘nebbish’, and Keaton as a beautiful ‘classy’ woman that has a clear attraction to him, both on and off screen, that is neither forced, nor played merely for comic effect. Keaton is not simply “there to be Woody’s girl”, as is claimed, but gives a very good foretaste of the upper crust he’d go on to skewer in later and deeper films, not only via Luna’s bad poetry, but also her dulled ethical sense (furthering the film’s setting), her refusals of Woody’s overtures (furthering Woody’s comic persona), and her breaking-in of Allen into the story (furthering — nay, allowing — the film’s narrative to actually unfold). To say that Diane Keaton has presence only insofar as Allen is concerned ignores, well, pretty much everything related to the tale, for if Luna were excised, there’d be no real drive, nor any deeper aspirations on Allen’s part.
Yet even more problematic is how Kael, early on, says she won’t reveal much of the film’s narrative in her review, as it’ll “squeeze the freshness out of the jokes”. But one can’t describe slapstick, in the first place, much less ruin it via description, as much of physical comedy eludes words. In fact, Kael’s refusal to even engage the film’s narrative (much less describe it) simply allows her to prattle off some generalities re: the ‘Woody’ persona, with even more overt attempts to psychoanalyze him, via sentences such as: “It’s likely that he sees his function as being all of us, and since he’s all of us, nobody else can be anything.” Yet it is clear, early on, that Allen’s character is pure caricature and comic relief, and while Kael (like Ray Carney after her) is correct in thinking that ‘most’ people are closer to the Woody nebbish than a Charles Bronson, it is a stretch to say that “we” resemble him in any meaningful way. In short, the corrective to one extreme is not yet another extreme, but some sort of middle ground. This is why more people will relate to Alvy Singer (Annie Hall) or an even less glamorous Gabe (Husbands and Wives), rather than to a nebbish or a badass. Yet it’s a stretch Kael hasto make given how she traps herself into filling a review with things extraneous to the film. There is, for instance, a “business-like, nine-to-five look” about Sleeper, “a loss of inspiration”, a missing “wild man’s indifference to everything but the joke” (once again contradicting even earlier points she’s made re: slapstick, and its need to “take off”), and “a metaphysical outrageousness”. Yet where, exactly, is any of this in the film? As with her review of Shoeshine, I still know next to nothing of Sleeper, except the names of the two main characters, and that it’s primarily gag driven — a fact that, in turn, is either a good or a bad thing, depending on what comments of hers I choose to latch on to. There are no scenes to speak of; there is no music to praise or deride (except, of course, the non-evaluative, and non-critical: “How could a man who really trusted the the free and messy take up the clarinet, an instrument that appeals to controlled, precise people?”), no dialogue that stands out as good or bad, no visuals, no poesy or lack thereof — merely a whole lot of Pauline Kael, and what she values. This might mean something, if she’d, in fact, even attempt to tackle the film, present some tangible evidence for her claims, and thus express her values there. Instead, the proverbial ‘we’ returns, and Kael makes yet another suggestion: that Woody Allen learn to think (or un-think) with his “unconscious”. Yet art is, in fact, the product of sheer control, not chaos, as she’s arguing, for even the veneer of ‘effortlessness’ (John Cassavetes; Martin Scorsese) takes much effort and planning. This is as true as of the aforementioned classics as it is of lesser gems like Sleeper, for it is not the “unconscious” that Allen needed, but deeper and more expansive themes for the waking mind to corral.
Just read Kael’s words on Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Tell me, do they AT ALL resemble the film, as shown in a classic scene, below?
Pauline Kael’s review of Interiors is full of the same holes, but goes a step further in the way it reverts to her classic brand of ad hominem, faulting Woody Allen for his supposed Jewish (or non-Jewish?) undertones in a way that simply has nothing to do with the film, itself. It begins with the typical word-dumps (“Interiors is a puzzle movie, constructed like a well-made play from the American past, and given the beautiful, solemn visual clarity of a Bergman film, without, however the eroticism of Bergman”), moves to strain for insight (“has such a super-banal metaphysical theme [of] death versus life”), and rounds things out by trying to make connections to Allen’s earlier films, re: the character of Alvy Singer (“a compulsive, judgmental spoilsport”), who is again conflated with Allen, himself. Kael complains of the lack of ‘eroticism’, but the film that Interiors has been compared most to is Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, a flamboyant little work wherein the sex is full of overt, clunky symbolism, and merely exists as a stylistic device amidst the narrative slack, thus damaging both. The complaint, then, seeks to turn the film into what it’s not, merely for the sake of personal preference, recalling Adler’s comment that Kael’s reviews are “paeans to the favored product, and diatribes against all other brands”. Then, there is the contention that “death versus life” is somehow “super-banal”, when in fact there is no such thing as a banal theme, merely one that is handled in a banal way. I mean, think: how many classic books, plays, and films develop this idea (among others) to great effect? And how many wannabe classics attempt the same, but fail? It is the failure, then, rather than the attempt that’s the issue, a fact that simply eluded Pauline Kael for much of her writing career. Then, the film’s Eve — a profoundly sick, cold, and lifeless woman that slowly destroys everyone around her — is compared to Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), whose worst sin is his utter immaturity. One wonders why such a connection is even made, unless, of course, Kael is merely ‘painting by numbers’ in her reviews, knows that connections between films must be made, for this is how reviews go, and therefore strains to do so, no matter how improbable in the specifics really are. She then ends her de facto introduction with a question that comes literally out of nowhere: “Are we expected to ask ourselves who in the movie is Jewish and who is Gentile?” Well, I don’t know, for almost everyone in the film is a well-sketched WASP, and it’d therefore make about as much sense if Allen were a former Hindu, and the film’s conflict propped up as a matter of Sikh vs. Mohammedan. Yet the fact that Interiors has as little to do with either as it does with the “Jewish” question would, apparently, be just as elusive, and immaterial.
Kael presses on, however, in exactly this direction. The characters are “sterilized of background germs” (Ok, but how? Can we have a scene, a snatch of dialogue for proof? And what import does this have re: cinematic appraisal?), the family’s issues are rooted in their “Jewish fear of poverty and persecution” (in fact, it revolves around an incredibly sick and nutty woman, and three selfish ones with metaphysical, not material, concerns), and that Woody Allen, himself, has no “joy” in cinema, for “as he made clear in Annie Hall, he can’t have that joy” — yet another trite conflation of the persona and the man. Eight paragraphs in, however, Pauline Kael finally starts to discuss the film proper, and she makes a good point re: the film’s symbolism: it can be heavy-handed, at times, to its detriment. Yet this is not seen in the example she herself proffers (that of a broken vase), but earlier on, at the film’s start, wherein the three women are putting their hands on the windows, as if to ‘break free’, sort of like the cage Jack Nicholson looks to be trapped in at the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger. In short, while Kael argues that it seems obvious Pearl will end up breaking a vase, this is not only not obvious, but irrelevant, too, since the arc — predictable or not — is well-done throughout. If anything, it is surprising, even, given that it occurs when Pearl is dancing and having fun, with most watching her with approving smiles — hardly a lead-in to something ‘bad’. Nor does Kael mention the great parallel between Joey’s explosion at Pearl, and Eve’s own explosion at Joey (“Stop breathing so hard!”) when Arthur first announces the separation, probably because there is no opportunity — alas! — to notice such ‘frills’ in Kael’s infamous refusal to watch any film twice. Nor is Eve a symbol of the Jewish mother’s “spiritual perfection”, as she claims, since spirituality implies openness and warmth, but of a contrived, static, and purely aesthetic (not ‘artistic’) one. No, Pauline Kael does not ‘like’ Allen’s symbols, but her solution is to therefore invent a few new ones, not only vis-a-vis the characters, themselves, but even through Allen’s off-screen choices. She notes, for example, that Allen would return the film’s print to be washed after every screening. But what does she make of that? Not much, apparently, for it “makes this the ultimate Jewish movie. Woody Allen does not show you any blood.” The last line, especially, is the kind of non sequitur she was routinely praised for writing, but one that — being a non sequitur, and an offensive one, at that — makes exactly zero sense. Indeed, it is the kind of “surface” Kael accuses Allen of, but one that she, herself, unwittingly flails upon.
Kael ultimately reveals her feelings (and her biases) about the film when she discusses the two mother-figures. She correctly points out that no one would want Eve for a mother, but errs when she throws Pearl into the same category as “an embarrassment of yielding flesh and middle-class worldliness”. But she is “embarrassing” how? That she is not smart enough to pick up on the symbolism of a play, or that she has a fun time dancing when almost everyone approves? (“Yielding flesh” is simply inaccurate, for there is no evidence of such in the film, merely a desire to further bolster Kael’s own argument.) Pearl is a better human being than most here, and is nurturing, supportive, and warm — the very meaning of the word ‘mother’, and a type that most people simply do not have. To suggest otherwise is Kael’s own new-found “worldliness”, as she’s merely butting heads with her past — if I’m allowed to psychoanalyze in the manner of Pauline Kael! — and does not like what she sees. More real-world conflation follows (“If the two [mothers] are warring for control of Woody Allen…”), alongside a howler that shows how much a second viewing would have helped. Although she starts with a good point re: each daughter representing a “side” of Eve’s neurosis, she derails a potentially rich examination by a tangent of her own making: that the “youngest” daughter, Joey, represents Woody Allen, since “in plays, the youngest is generally the one who represents the author”. (Ok, let’s try this: Cordelia is Shakespeare; the childlike Irina is Anton Chekhov; and the rapist Chaerea is…Terence?) Allen, therefore, is a “glumly serious postulant” and “dresses down” to piss people off in the midst of self-expression, just like Joey, herself. Yet what Pauline Kael doesn’t realize is that Joey is the middle sister, NOT the youngest one, which obviates her perceived need for the two whole paragraphs in which she argues exactly that, and shows how willing she is to detour and ‘nose around’ for meanings that aren’t really there, all the while missing what is.
The entire review, in fact, devolves to these sorts of attacks on Woody Allen, the man, even when the evidence is quite lacking. This is because — as with Sleeper and Shoeshine — she refuses to engage any real particulars, except the occasional prosaic line that fills in some plot details, but says nothing of the film qualitatively. Sam Waterston’s role, for example, is “unformed”, but Pauline Kael confuses her pejorative with the word “minor”. In fact, Sam Waterston is pure ‘sanity’, wherein the good-hearted guy is simply unable to deal with Joey’s deeply-rooted immaturity, which is, in turn, all the more fleshed out by his very presence, and Joey’s inability to appreciate it. If anything, he is the film’s least selfish character, and serves as a corrective (albeit an impotent one) to everything around him. Geraldine Page’s performance “seems abhorrent”, but while Kael criticizes the (infrequent) close-ups, did she watch Page’s tics during Arthur’s revelation? Or her sudden, hyper-realistic knocking-over of the candles in the church? Or — perhaps best of all — the nigh-ritualistic manner in which she prepares for a kind of ‘cosmic funeral’, replete with the black and white tape that mirrors her own dress, aesthetician, as she is, all the way to the grave? No? No, as such insights would have inevitably made it into Kael’s review. Her sarcastic attacks on Diane Keaton’s appearance (“She does something very courageous for a rising star…”) are irrelevant and petty, while Allen’s view of Jews — according to the words she puts into Allen’s mouth — is that they are “fundamentally undignified”, “conforming”, as he does, “to the [Gentiles’] idea of what a Jew should be”, even as Kael spends much of her own essay arguing the exact opposite: that Judaism is openness and laughter, and therefore ill-fitting a “Jew” like the one Allen unconsciously depicts. I mean, can one seriously read such horribly dated ‘insights’ today with a straight face? It seems that Kael, by being a Jew, herself, was as ‘free’ to be as tribal and narrow-minded as she damn well pleased, provided, of course, the object of her invective was a Jew, as well. A ‘bad’ Jew, she would argue in self-justification; a Jew that needed to break out his own self-stereotyping, yet when he does exactly that, she pouts, for it is not the way she’d do it, herself.
No, Woody Allen tends to not understand his own films, at times, but he gets Interiors FAR better than Kael ever did:
If Kael’s review of Interiors was poorly thought-out, and downright offensive, at times, what can be said of her take on Stardust Memories? It starts off rather trite: Sandy Bates is conflated with Woody Allen, yet again, and the film derided as a “dupe of a dupe” (that is, of 8½). Kael discusses the magisterial opening, but instead of focusing on some wonderful touches — the suitcase filled with sand, the way the train whistle blows, thus making Sandy’s words irrelevant, the enigmatic ‘pilgrimage’ the passengers must take — she simply makes the expected comparison to Fellini. As her essay goes on, the Allen/Bates conflation is only deepened, as Allen merely “degrades the people who respond to his work and presents himself as their victim.” Now, I’ve already gone over this in explicit detail, in three separate essays within this book, alone, and won’t spend too much time on it now. Suffice to say that Sandy is not Allen, and the closest characters to Allen are the over-voice represented by the extraterrestrials (similar, in many ways, to the conversation between Mickey Sachs and his parents inHannah), and Sandy Bates as he appears in the film’s last few shots, as the ‘inner’ film closes, and the characters and “grotesques” (to use Kael’s word) are given a very different sort of meaning. She then tackles the murals that appear on Sandy’s wall, wondering if they are “evidence of his morbidity”, or mere “proof” that “he’s politically and socially with it?” Well, the answer’s neither, as Kael’s own words indicate that the murals are like “mood music” that changes according not only to Sandy’s feelings, but the film’s narrative points, as well, such as when there are newspaper clippings of a child molestation after Dorrie accuses Bates of “flirting” with her kid cousin. Kael’s rhetorical question is thus irrelevant, as she already knew what’s what, but played dumb, anyway, as it didn’t quite fit her argument. But while Allen keeps on getting criticized for being ‘bad’ towards his fans, what is ultimately missed is how badly Bates, himself, gets skewered, not only in the extraterrestrial scene, but in the way he treats his own persona. “Woody Allen has often been cruel to himself in physical terms,” she quips. “Now he’s doing it to his fans.” Ok, but what of the way Sandy Bates is turned into a kind of Frankenstein, in one scene, building the ‘perfect woman’ who, in fact, merely recapitulates his own flaws? Or the way that Tony Roberts, a supposedly ‘vapid’ playboy Sandy makes fun of, nonetheless knows Sandy’s issues all too well, and therefore avoids them in his own life? Or the way that Sandy ignores what’s right for himself by following a few ridiculous passions? Not a peep on this, for Kael either does not see this — after all, she only needs to watch a film once to “get everything” — or refuses to, given how she already had a pre-cut argument, and only needed to find a way to stick to it. Indeed, for the film to work, Sandy “would have to be the butt of the comedy”, she writes. But he is precisely that — or rather, he is enough of such to help the film pour over into the realm of drama, as Stardust Memories is not, as Kael seems to think, merely a series of gags and making-fun, but multi-layered, and exploratory.
Kael’s review once again takes a turn for the offensive when Allen’s Judaism is brought back into the picture. After going on about Allen’s “hostility” towards his ‘tribe’, family, and fans, she claims that he is “trying to stake out his claim to be an artist like Fellini or Bergman” (100% true, by the way, as allartists of some talent should at least make the attempt), but goes on to write that, in his desire to be a “Gentile”, “he sees his public as Jews trying to shove him back back into the Jewish clowns’ club.” If one ever doubted Kael’s nastiness, not only as a writer, but a human being, as well, here is the evidence — replete with the intolerance and tribalism that made her see the world in black-and-white, thus resuscitating the stereotypes she only pretends to wish to combat. “Great artists’ admirers are supposed to keep their distance”, she presses on, putting words in Allen’s mouth without evidence. “His admirers feel they know him and can approach him; they feel he belongs to them…” But is the next sentence a poetic inversion? A logical corollary? A ‘key’ to everything that’s been writ and disemboweled? No: “And he sees them as his murderers.” This is yet another non sequitur, and although she has the chance to redeem herself, she does not take it, for one can’t merely ‘turn around’ — no matter how untenable the positions have become — after going so far in. In fact, she needs to go further, and quite often does. Scenes, for example, are “opaque”, such as when a former actress (after much cosmetic surgery) from Sandy’s films introduces herself as his mother. But while this is merely “cruel”, in Kael’s eyes, and nothing more, it obviously has a purpose. She enters the scene almost as an apparition (Kael’s word is “silhouette”), and given that we don’t know whether or not his mother is alive, but get comic glimpses of her before and after this scene, the effect — after Sandy’s near-breakdown — is that of yet another being clawing from his past. Yet it is more poetic than the “grotesques”, and has multiple layers of meaning and emotion that play upon the viewer, and thus engage him in a way that the simpler and more comic images do not.
But much of Kael’s argument devolves to precisely this: that the film is full of “grotesques”, and that this is both unfunny, and “trivializing”. Yet grotesques (as I mention elsewhere) make up a fairly small part of the film, given the number of extremely well-wrought and hyper-realistic characters, and while Kael complains of Allen’s “trivializing” their “ugliness”, what does this accusation even mean? Ugliness merely is, and while beauty is certainly better, in one sense, it is generally meaningless by itself — a fact that Kael ought to know quite well, given her petty attacks on Keaton’s hairstyle, skin tone, and overall appearance in Interiors. It is also irrelevant what Allen’s intentions were in Stardust, and whether or not he loathes these people, as is claimed, or is merely a fearful Jew (as is also claimed). The characters are what they are, regardless, and fulfill a function that eludes Kael, for while she complains that the images have no “power”, one must ask: power over what? To think that the film’s lighter parts must be privileged over its much deeper examinations is ridiculous, but Kael spends more than half of her essay unwittingly arguing exactly that. There is a reference to the “grotesques” and “Judaism” in nearly every paragraph, but little else is ever said, as if that’s all that matters. Nor do her attempts to ‘go beyond’ get very far. Writing of the film’s three women, for instance, she claims that “they don’t have enough independent existence for us to be sure what they’re supposed to represent”, but this is only true insofar as they are not mere symbols, and therefore cannot represent ‘one’ thing. In fact, their “independent existence” is brought out in their utterly human and believable behaviors: Dorrie’s jealousy, breakdown, and possible sex abuse as a child (never dwelled upon, by the way), Daisy’s downward spiral into drugs (also touched upon, rather than made predictable and trite), and Isobel’s far better nature, which is ignored in favor of the others’ abusiveness due to Sandy’s own immaturity. And the women have plenty of ‘tics’ and mannerisms that mark them as real, whether it is Dorrie’s fractionation at the mental ward, or Isobel’s silly ‘exercises’ in the midst of Sandy’s marriage proposal. In short, this is how people behave in real life, and why the film — despite being so fantasy-driven, in parts — is a simulacrum of the real, rather than weirdness for weirdness sake. Thus, Dorrie is not “merely used for her physiognomy”, as Kael argues, but because her various psychoses are what attract Sandy to her in the first place, and make him stay when they finally start to peak. It is also telling that, despite not being a “grotesque”, but beautiful, she is likely the film’s most cancerous being — even if she cannot quite help it. The same can be said for Daisy re: Sandy’s attraction, and is also the reason why he rejects Isobel. In fact, had Kael seen the movie more than once, she would have actually noticed the scene where Bates attempts to create the “perfect woman”, and fails because the beautiful one does not have the bitchy, self-destructive personality he so craves. This characterizes not only the women, but Sandy, as well, and belies the claim that the three don’t have a life of their own.
The REAL Stardust Memories, which is full of great writing, poetic visuals, characters that are NOT Woody, but an over-voice (and implicit narrative) that is. Again, would Kael ever get this, even if she’d condescended to watch a single film twice?
If that wasn’t enough for Kael, she writes of how Woody Allen displays his Jewish “self-hatred” in Stardust Memories, but that at least in other films, these “betrayals” were more subdued. Kael points out, for example, that his romantic rival in Annie Hall was the tiny Paul Simon, and the comical Wallace Shawn in Manhattan. This, to her, is evidence of the fact that he simply loathes his appearance (and therefore himself), and tries to force his rivals to be even lesser men that he could actually handle. Yet she never stops to ask the far more obvious question as to whether Allen is merely being realistic about himself, with no hang-ups whatsoever. Indeed, for while Allen has been called a “creep”, “narcissistic”, and “misogynistic” for casting himself alongside a Diane Keaton or Mariel Hemingway, he has in fact dated both ‘types’ (and Keaton, herself) in real life, as the bigger issues of one’s existence are not, as Kael would have it, merely skin-deep, or related to one’s height. Despite this, however, he is now to be derided for making fun of this asymmetry, as he is no longer a “creep” or a “narcissist”, but a self-loathing Jew too aware of his own shortcomings. Nor does it help that, despite Kael manipulatively positing Wallace Shawn as Isaac’s “rival”, this literally spans a few seconds in the film, and is never touched upon again. Far more ‘dangerous’ to Isaac is Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy), who is taller and far more handsome, and plays a major character whom Kael simply ignores. But why? Isn’t he the more obvious rival, who actually takes Isaac’s girl away from him? Shouldn’t he, therefore, have been Kael’s focus? Yet such evidence simply does not fit the argument, and is thus never considered. Then, just as quickly, Kael goes on to write that while Allen tended to shy away from the camera, at first, using his face as a “caricature” in his early works, this film looks at it quite closely, and without too many frills — hardly the behavior of someone who is self-loathing, or wishes to hide from the Gentile gaze. Yet Kael is strangely unaware of how deeply such words obviate her earlier comments. In fact, she goes from being absolutely sure of this, to not, and back to certainty at essay’s end (nay, the same paragraph, even) — the pendulum, no doubt, of a critic that cannot stick to her own positions. And yet, Allen still gets flak: “What’s apparent in all his movies is that for him Jewishness means his own schlumpiness, awkwardness, hesitancy. For Woody Allen, being Jewish is like being a fish on a hook.” But could it be that Allen is merely playing the ‘nebbish’, who just happens to be a Jew? Or does the tribe always come first in Kael’s self-limiting universe? “[In Annie Hall,] his own family quarrels and shouts hysterically,” since “as almost everywhere else in Woody Allen’s films, Jews have no dignity.” Could it be that he’s merely showing what so many families are like — my own included? Or do only flattering depictions of Jews (or anyone else, for that matter) imply reality? On Manhattan: “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” Could it be that those values were simply false, which Pauline Kael at once admits, then suddenly denies when her original point no longer fits a new ‘insight’? Or must a film — all evidence be damned! — be taken at face value? Perhaps it is the latter for Kael, for while she goes off on a number of hateful, downright racist detours, she returns full circle to her original conflations: “If Woody Allen finds success very upsetting and wishes the public would go away, this picture should help him stop worrying.” And yet, the public has not gone away, and Allen — paradoxically — worries even less. Why is that? Probably because he had few worries in the first place, and which had nothing to do with Kael’s own posits. I mean, Allen is a great artist. Allen knew this. Kael did not. Allen has only gained in stature. Kael, by contrast, has dwindled, and her progeny — i.e., Armond White — is on the same self-destructive binge. Again, why is that? I don’t know, but the deeper point is that fewer still even care.
I’ve now covered three film reviews (four if you count Shoeshine), and of these three, I still don’t see how my knowledge of film art has expanded. If anything, it’s been confused, because — as Renata Adler argues — Pauline Kael brings in a number of irrelevant issues, tangents, and arcs that do little but make trouble. Yet these three films were big, and covered big, complex themes. What of Allen’s smaller works, and Kael’s responses to those? First up is Broadway Danny Rose, and just as before, Kael begins with allusions to Woody Allen’s “sexual insecurities”, among other things, and notes how there’s been an influx of Allen-like entertainers who might overtake his popularity in the 1980s. Yet it’s interesting to see how utterly dated Pauline Kael’s predictions were a mere decade later, and even less relevant now. For instance, she names John Belushi, Richard Pryor, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Tom Cruise as possible contenders to Allen’s ‘throne’, but besides one or two of those names, who’s gone on to do anything of lasting note — especially of their own accord? Yes, Tom Cruise will be forever remembered as ‘the lead’ in Eyes Wide Shut, but that is mostly through Kubrick’s great writing and directing, and while the other names (especially Pryor) have been responsible for some laughs, it is odd to compare them to a director like Allen, who is interested in far more expansive work, and was already quite ubiquitous by the time Danny Rose hit theaters. No, the name-dropping isn’t as bad as with Jonathan Rosenbaum (upcoming), but it is yet another foible within Pauline Kael’s writing, especially since it takes her two paragraphs of such before she even attempts to tackle the film.
Kael’s first complaint is that Allen’s Danny Rose is busy “condemning what he views as the scurviness of our time”, all the while “spinning a tale without having any particular involvement with it”. Two issues are immediately obvious here. The first is that the film has little to do with “our time”, especially re: ‘moral’ questions, and everything to do with a lost milieu. This is why the film begins with a gathering of comedians who are forced into reminiscence about the good ol’ days, as things have clearly changed for them, and people, after twenty-plus years, are no longer laughing at their jokes. For this reason, to call this of “our time” is merely an attempt to sound relevant, which is doubly strange, as the way the film tackles loss is timeless, and therefore always relevant, without the need for the stretches and props that Kael so desperately seeks. The second issue is that Danny is very much part of the film precisely for the reasons Kael herself states: the whole tale is engendered by others’ reminiscence, Danny’s function is that of the milieu’s ‘heart’ (no matter how silly and idealistic), and the comedic side to things revolves around his own lacks. As Kael writes, “Danny Rose is nobody in show business” — a fact that helps him be the center of the tale as a ‘legend’ on the periphery, rather than hindering him in this regard. A better review than her last few, for it skimps on the Judaism, tribalism, and most of the personal attacks, Kael goes on to detail the characters, themselves, as well as their world, and even (correctly) dissents from the popular view that Tina is a great character. She is not, for a “ruthless tough dame who chews gum with a vengeance, talks with a nasal Brooklyn accent, and has a teased-stiff mop of curls” is not so much a character, but a mere stylization, no matter how well-sketched. Yet this is not exactly what Kael argues, as she believes that Tina doesn’t do much for the film. This is untrue, however, as the stylization in fact helps establish a milieu that never really was — from the archetypes, like Tina or Lou Canova, to the guys who open and close the film, bullshitting in a way that is both untrue, yet necessary to their sense of things, and of themselves. And this is really where the film’s ‘magic’ (however limited) comes in. It is not because the tale is “satirical” (as Kael argues), or that Danny Rose is a mere “larva” of a character (likewise), but in the disconnect between what is and what isn’t, that really drives the film. As Kael writes, while “Woody Allen knows how repulsive Lou Canova’s act is, Danny Rose doesn’t” — a reality that applies to everything from Manhattan to Stardust Memories, yet an insight that Kael not only misses in those other films, but ill applies here, faulting Danny Rose for not knowing better, while missing the fact that it is more important what the viewer knows about the character, rather than the other way around.
The last review is that of The Purple Rose of Cairo, which is interesting to look at because while I very much agree with Pauline Kael’s assessment of the film’s good qualities, the reasons she gives — as with Sleeper — are quite odd, at times. Yes, as with Danny Rose, it is a much better review than her other ones, for it jumps right into the film and stays there, but her line of argument derails early on and never gets quite on track again. For instance, she calls it Allen’s “fullest expression yet of his style of humor”, but while most (excluding Woody Allen, himself) would take issue with Kael’s calling it his best movie thus far, it clearly isn’t in the vein of his other films, but rather a bit of a detour. In short, Allen typically does gags, skewers the upper crust, skewers Brooklyn (not merely “Jewish”) families, and has fun at the expense of his own illusions. This, by contrast, is a “charming” (Kael’s word) tale that leaves most of these elements out, save for the only one that matters: the quality of the writing, visuals, music, and acting, rather than their specifics, which follows him in films as diverse as Sleeper, Interiors, Sweet and Lowdown, and Match Point. This may seem like a minor point, but it’s merely the tip of the iceberg, as Kael goes on to make a large number of other misreadings, and even interprets Woody’s ‘admission’ that he’d like to be Gigi (from the 1958 musical) “with two ribbons dangling quite mischievously past my bangs” quite seriously, as somehow integral to his art, rather than an attempt to be silly, as most of his gags are. Cecilia, to Kael, “isn’t very vivid”, yet her only evidence for such is that she is plain-dressing and looks, talks, and acts like a “mouse”. This may be true on a purely literal level, as far as how other characters might interpret her, but as with my comment re: Danny Rose, it’s far more important to consider how the viewer sees things, as he, by definition, not only knows much more, but is privy to the fact that art itself is a charade. Thus, the viewer watches Cecilia’s reveries get interrupted by the sound of a crashing object; sees her all-too-serious gossip; sees her various ‘tics’ as she reacts to Monk, especially her great confidence, near the end, despite our knowledge that the film’sde facto villain is absolutely right about her illusions; and sees her almost imperceptible turn to wisdom as she cries over her losses, and considers what to do next. Yes, Kael praises Cecilia’s lacks as important to the film, and while I agree in terms of others’ perceptions building much of the narrative, the character, itself, is in fact one of the more “vivid” female leads in all of cinema.
The excellent ending of The Purple Rose Of Cairo, wherein the two leads are implicitly shot across from each other, despite being in different locations, and a look on Mia Farrow’s face that suggests — if not outright shows — that her life will no longer be the abuse that she’s used to. Yet Mia Farrow’s Cecilia somehow isn’t ‘vivid’ enough for Kael? Again, where’s the evidence, and why is it so actively ignored?
Kael goes on to make a good point about it being unclear “how consciously manipulative Gil is”, as this lends complexity to what might otherwise be a one-note character, but hinders its further development by merely calling the effect “a sense of dislocation”. In short, she is correct in her impressions, but not her reasoning, as it is not “dislocation” (that is, our reaction) that matters, which may or may not affect a viewer, but a complexity of motives (especially obvious when Gil is on the flight back), which is immanent to the character, and quite independent of our personal reaction. She then goes on to write that Gordon Willis’s cinematography is “too rich and shadowed for comedy”, since “The Depression thirties was the era of Deco dishware in cheap and cheerful primary colors, of yellow oilcloth on kitchen tables, and red-and-white plaids and checkerboard patterns wherever you looked.” Perhaps, but so what? Kael is in fact contradicting herself again, for she (correctly) opens her review by stating that “Cecilia and her Depression town are not quite real”, which is at first praise, a la the film’s own subterfuge, but now turns into criticism. In fact, what is implicit in Kael’s earlier comment is that Purple Rose is not even supposed to depict ‘the’ Depression, as it truly was, but the Depression of the popular imagination, which thus turns into a symbol for Allen to play with. And although she critiques the film’s “browns”, it is undeniable that such drabness is precisely what’s come to be associated with the time period. This is sort of like criticizing The Odyssey for its incorrect depictions of maritime life (it’s been done!) while missing the tale, itself, and thus mixing up the truthand reality. In short, art is the province not of facts (truth), but of reality, wherein deeper things emerge of life, minutia be damned — especially if (as with Kael’s “primary colors”) they’ve already been quite forgotten, and replaced by a wholly new mythos for art to parallax. To demand that one must resuscitate them is nitpicky, and belongs more in a curiosity shop than an expansive work of art, as this film is.
Monk (Danny Aiello) is criticized, as well, as he is “too heavy and loutish”, and this is really where her essay finally comes off its wheels. Yes, Monk is quite dislikable, and Kael admits she “dreaded” his scenes, but again: so what? What Kael misses is the fact that Monk, despite being the film’s villain, is the one that sees reality most clearly, and is — unlike Cecilia — completely OK with it. Thus, despite Kael’s argument, this in fact makes him a much more interesting character than he first seems. When he shouts, “It ain’t like the movies!” at Cecilia, the irony is that he’s absolutely right, and the film’s do-gooder is wrong. This lends Monk if not outright credibility, then at least something for the film to play off of. She then writes that “the film’s resolution” makes Monk’s depiction “cruelly harsh”, yet all this proves is that Kael had not really seen the film’s ending, and the way it ultimately depicts Cecilia. Yes, Cecilia is disillusioned, and loses her ‘easy’ ticket out of a bad life, but we also see her go back to the movie theater at which she cries, and then — as if something had finally ‘clicked’ in her brain — smiles. It is, moreover, a smile that is sustained, and has little to do with what she sees, and everything to do with some new realization. Does she return to Monk? One can’t say, but it is clear that, whatever might happen between the two, her marriage can no longer be the same. As Dan Schneider writes, “even if it all was a dream you sense Cecilia — despite her heartbreak — has had 1 of those Rilkean ‘You must change your life.’ moments.” This is, in fact, much more in tune with the evidence, and a likelier outcome when one considers Kael’s own words: that there is a sense of strength and “independence” underneath Cecilia’s weak veneer. Indeed, for while she faults the film’s ending for being “tidy”, and that Allen needed to “pull something magical out of a hat”, the irony is that Allen has done precisely that. Yet, as with any good sleight-of-hand, it simply isn’t noticed — not even by the ‘professionals’ in the room, who should at least have come to expect it.
Readers have praised how “unpredictable” Pauline Kael’s reviews were, but how could that ever be a good thing? It simply means that she had no consistent way of looking at art, and was therefore perpetually lost, deriding a cliche in one film, then praising it in another, all the while constructing reviews that — if not merely full of invective — were either non-topical, or full of holes and contradictions. In short, it didn’t matter whether Kael wrote a non-topical, blog-like memoir (Shoeshine), a review-cum-biography (Sleeper), racial invective (Interiors), amateur psychoanalysis (Stardust Memories), or straight reviews (Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo), for they are filled with the same cliches, misreadings, vindictiveness, and abuses of evidence and logic that cohere her work under one umbrella, but do little to further one’s understanding of art. Nor does it truly matter whether she was right or wrong, but how she got there, for unlike, say, Roger Ebert on Stardust Memories, or James Berardinelli on Celebrity, she preferred to fill with reviews with mere personal attacks, not dialectic, as things like evidence are quite tame — boring, even! — compared to ‘insights’ about Allen’s sexuality, or his Jewish self-loathing. Yet if my overview of James Berardinelli vis-a-vis Pauline Kael shows anything, it is that tameness and sound argumentation are far preferable to screeching. It is not, after all, merely about being right, but being right-minded. One could be wrong with all the right evidence. And one can be right with NO idea as to why. But a person who has an expansive and unbiased way of engaging art — that is, unclouded by emotion or aesthetics — will at least know what the hell he’s looking at. That won’t make one a great critic, but at least the art can penetrate. At least one can be better. At least there is the art.