In all this excitement I nearly forgot that, for a feature for the Nomad "vertical" Wide Screen, I interviewed Brian Kellow, the author of the biography Pauline Kael: A Life In The Dark (Viking).
I fondly remember back in the mid-eighties at a Red Krayola show at Danceteria, my man Mayo Thompson wryly thanking a powerful NYC rock critic who had somewhat warily preview-picked the show for "providing us with two stools to fall between." I try to pitch Nomad Wide Screen between the two stools of general interest and informed cinephilia, and while I wanted to format my interview with Kellow as more a conversation of sorts, I also aimed for a particular form of detachment. Anyway, I reproduce a portion of the piece below; you can read the whole thing here and I do, really, encourage you to subscribe to the thingamajug; it's cheap, for one thing, and every week delivers good stuff from the likes of Vadim Rizov, Karl Rozemeyer, Simon Abrams, Tony Dayoub, and sometimes even the fabulous Self-Styled Siren. And yes, sometimes myself.
WIDE SCREEN: It’s interesting, from the account in your book, it seems that if Andrew Sarris hadn’t taken Kael’s writing about his writing so personally, their feud, such as it was, might have gone differently.
BRIAN KELLOW: Well, yeah. A few people have mentioned in print, she’s not the one that kept bringing it up. It wasn’t really a feud. It was kind of a one-shot out of the cannon. I interviewed him for the book, very nice man. And I felt that I’d been keeping him maybe a little too long. And I finally said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I just have a few more questions, do you mind if we just continue for 10 more minutes?” He said, “No, no, no; let’s get it done. I don’t want to have a conversation about her again!”
WIDE SCREEN: Clearly you’d have to say that Kael was powerful. And that she sensed herself as being powerful. She was angriest at Andrew Sarris, not because of his theories but because, for example, he would refuse to champion Last Tango in Paris. She felt she was going to be at the advance of championing these movies she thought were great and everybody had to follow. By the same token, I think today’s film critics look at certain of the more famous anecdotes: Sitting in the back of a limo with Otto Preminger and Andrew Sarris and telling them that Hurry Sundown is a piece of shit. Or Schickel’s account of how she destroyed the ego of David Lean so that he couldn’t work again. Clearly the reality of David Lean’s case has more to do with money than Pauline Kael destroying his ego. So in terms of actual power, does she represent a sort of high-water mark that’s never going to happen again? Or is there a certain amount of just perception involved in this thing? Or do you merely look at the situation and say, well, this was a different era?
BRIAN KELLOW: Sure. I think that’s the whole point. I think it was a very specific time in movie history and cultural history. It’s not going to come again. That,great dialogue between the audience and the screen that she talked about, it was really happening then, in a way that, to my mind, it has never happened since. Movies don’t have that hold on the culture that they did. I can remember as a college student going to everything. I wanted to see even the stuff that I had a hunch wasn’t going to be very good. I was sort of in an Andrew Sarris archival-interest mode. And there were a lot of us who felt that way back then. This would have been in the middle, late ’70s. I just think it was a once in a lifetime thing. I think it was painful for her to see — because she was right in the vortex. I think she was right about a lot of the reasons it faded away. America did become much more of a money culture. It still is. And different things were driving the movies.
WIDE SCREEN: Sure. A lot of it’s technological. Cinephilia has become kind of privatized. And the conversation as a result is different. It’s migrated to the Internet.
BRIAN KELLOW: Yep.
WIDE SCREEN: Robert Warshow wrote, at the end of the day, you have to admit that a man is in a theater and you are that man. And that was her approach to writing: “the immediate experience.” But some might say she adhered to that idea almost to a fault, citing her ostensible refusal to watch a movie more than once. What I see is not so much a disinclination to watch films more than once, but a passion, almost approaching a mania, to get her immediate response down on paper.
BRIAN KELLOW: Absolutely. Because she thought that was the truest response.
WIDE SCREEN: Let’s talk about that in terms of an actual critical ethos. How do you feel that worked for her in terms of the larger body of work, and what do you think the liabilities for that approach were? It has to be exhausting to write from that perspective so much of the time. Or do you feel like she had so much energy that this was just her default mode?
BRIAN KELLOW: I think it was. She had an amazing amount of vitality. This was what drove her. The fact that she didn’t have the foundation of theory that a lot of other critics have had is one thing. But I think the great gift of doing criticism the way she did it was to the reader. And of course she was terribly concerned about her reader. The way she wrote for the ear, the way she had to read it out loud because she wanted to make sure it had that certain immediacy, and that certain sexiness and drive and pulse — I think that’s very endearing. I wish that more critics thought about their readership, frankly. That was the great benefit of her doing it the way she did. We picked up on that first rush of excitement, on that initial response.
The other thing you have to say is, it wasn’t like she was 21 years old. She was established; her intellect, her taste level, her aesthetic, whatever you want to say, it had all coalesced very nicely by the time she sat down to write her first movie review. So it wasn’t like she was going to be learning, learning, learning, and grammatically changing her mind about a lot of big things. I first started reading her when I was very, very young. It was like a great performance in the theater, when you feel that the actor or the singer or whoever it happens to be is performing directly to you, speaking directly to you. I felt certain that she was talking right to me. And I’ve never come across that same thing in any other movie critic.
WIDE SCREEN: Going through her work over the years, it’s interesting to see how on and off she was in her pronouncements pertaining to what a film said about the zeitgeist. It’s interesting to see her try and balance her own immediate response to a larger social view. And sometimes it’s a little weird. She comes off as weirdly priggish when, in her review of Breathless, where she’s talking about how Michel and Patricia are the youth of the day and they don’t care about anything. And then she’ll seem to be excited about something almost not in spite of but because of an amorality going on there. And also her tendency to cite contemporary music. The whole urge to be current, to say, as James Wolcott related, “David Bowie” and not “John Wayne.” Do you attribute this to the vitality you talked about?
BRIAN KELLOW: I think she was obsessed with staying current. At the same time there was this other side of her. Her nephew, Bret Wallach, told me that when he was participating in campus demonstrations at Berkeley, she was very much against it. He was stunned because he had always thought of her, I guess, as rebellious Aunt Pauline, constantly giving the finger to the establishment. But she was not in favor of anything that was going to lead you to a point of alienation or isolation. She wanted to be in it. In the vortex, at the vortex. You can see it in a lot of her reviews of early ’70s films, like her comments on Joe and Five Easy Pieces. She doesn’t see the value in this point of view of dropping out and living a life of despair and nothing works and the government’s terrible and what are we going to do, except grow mushrooms and live in the woods. She was not in favor of that at all. She was much more interested in the established order.