"The Complete History of American Film Criticism" by Jerry Roberts
"Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark" by Brian Kellow
Reviewed by David Marshall James
Jerry Roberts's volume is the most comprehensive study of American film criticism that I've encountered.
Presented as a decade-by-decade history, from the silent-movie era to today's regrettable loss of film reviews in many daily newspapers and national periodicals, this altogether readable work weaves critics' biographies with samples of their writing, as well as commentary from other critics.
The reader will garner a sense of who has influenced whom, who has quibbled (or worse) with whom, and how changes in the movie industry and print journalism have affected the style, content, and analytical approaches of critics.
Roberts's book provides an excellent prelude to Brian Kellow's intensive study of Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991. Contrariwise, those who turn first to "Kellow on Kael" may well wish to broaden their focus with the Roberts volume.
Of Kael, Roberts writes:
"In the 1960s ... Pauline Kael was at the spiritual center of the new fascination for movies.... She was clearly at the top of the field, even if many practitioners standing on the lower slopes glared upward with a baleful eye.... In a way, her career was akin to the great undiminished mistresses of the screen, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis [both of whose oeuvre Kael admired], even if the memory of her tiny, meanly uncompromising specter might translate to those souls who crossed her path without a clean getaway to appear more like one of Mercedes McCambridge's hard-bitten harridans."
Picture McCambridge in "Johnny Guitar" (1954). That film's director, Nicholas Ray (a stalwart of the auteur critics, led by Andrew Sarris at The Village Voice, one of Kael's betes noires), was once attacked over lunch in a Chinese restaurant by Kael herself, relates biographer Brian Kellow.
And what did Kael about-face and do but laud directors Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, and Brian De Palma to the cinematic heavens, although she slammed the auteurists?
Incidentally, Kael was also dismissive of "Johnny Guitar" star Joan Crawford. Watch Crawford in "The Women" (1939) and "Mildred Pierce" (1945). It's as if the roles are played by two different actresses who don't even look much alike, with the accent on "act."
The Kael-ian likes and dislikes, feuds and friendships, and dogged determination to attain and maintain the pinnacle of notoriety in her profession are well documented in Kellow's biography.
In a sense, Kael was an uneasy combination of the two writers depicted in John Van Druten's "Old Acquaintance" (1943). Kael panned the remake, "Rich and Famous" (1981) in a controversial review, as noted by Kellow.
Yet, Kael bore the literary, "to be taken seriously" aspirations of both films' critical-darling novelist characters, while trafficking in the pop, finger-up-the-pulse-of-America metier of the potboiler-writer characters, portrayed first by Miriam Hopkins, then Candice Bergen.
Kael's use of hip argot and slang resulted in ongoing head-butting with longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn.
Kael disdained the stuffy, editorially filtered prose of such staid publications as the one for which she wrote. She was the antithesis of longtime New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, style-wise at least. Not coincidentally, the Crowther era came to a close as Kael was preparing for blastoff.
Kellow's readers will appreciate the care with which he details Kael's rise, from her West Coast origins, her years in San Francisco, to her first, abortive attempt at making a splash in New York, during the 1940s. Kael never mustered much affection for the city, choosing instead to reside in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Kellow writes how Kael was particularly responsive to those who contacted her about her reviews, or films in general. I had the pleasure of speaking with her twice, via telephone, during autumn 1987, for a research project.
She readily answered questions while admonishing me that her time was of the essence, as she was down-to-business in her office at The New Yorker. Indeed, on the second occasion that we spoke, she was going over her proofs for the next issue of the magazine.
I remain grateful to Kael for her cooperation. She gave me a boost at a personal low point, along with an even greater impetus to forge ahead with my research. She would want the last words, so here she is, in response to my question, "What is your approach to film criticism?"
"My approach is to pick up a pen and a piece of paper, and to start writing."
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