TURNING POINT / Still reeling after all these years: Upon reading Pauline Kael . . . John Lyttle on his first encounter with the New Yorker's legendary film critic
Thursday 26 May 1994
I remember: the heat of the sun on my neck (I burn better than Joan of Arc) and the noises rising up from the bottom of Primrose Hill. A couple half-heartedly arguing, a lawnmower's buzz, Elton John's 'Island Girl' on a distant radio. . . summer sounds.
And I remember how swiftly these everyday things blurred and faded (another corny movie effect) as I opened Pauline Kael's Reeling, a collection of film criticism culled from her New Yorker columns. The pages swallowed me up. Only now as I write do I realise how aptly the book was titled.
Here's how Kael's most famous review begins: 'Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was presented for the first time on the closing night of the New York Film Festival, October 14, 1972; that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 - the night Le Sacre du printemps was first performed - in music history.' Here's how it ends: 'For adults, it's like seeing pieces of our life, and so, of course, you can't resolve your feelings about it - our feelings about life are never resolved.'
Exhilarated, I flick ahead to The Abdication. I am not disappointed: 'We're sustained by the hope that Christina (Liv Ullmann), who makes off for the Vatican and then faces an examination by a cardinal (Peter Finch), is going to confess to a wildly licentious past and we'll get to see choice bits in flashbacks. When it turns out she has never 'given herself' to a man, we sit in a stupor.'
And she gets right to the bottom of Papillon, an action flick bucking for prestige status: 'Dustin Hoffman's counterfeiter goes through most of the picture subsidising Steve McQueen's escape attempts with a fortune he carries in a tube in his colon, and as the years pass and he keeps paying and paying, you can't help wondering how much money he can be carrying there. The picture is so sedate it never satisfies our curiosity; is that because when a star costs as much as Dustin Hoffman you don't make jokes about the bank roll he's sitting on?'
When I finally look up it's almost dark, the park is nearly deserted and I've completely unreeled Reeling. The evening air is chilly, but me, I feel warm.
Yes, yes, I know: get a grip. She's only a film critic. But to a Shankill Road boy on the loose in London, Pauline Kael's shiny, slangy, straightforward prose was a revelation. I wanted to write about movies, but I'd left school at 15 and Belfast at 17; not the best start. Besides, the way I wanted to write - the same way I talked - wasn't the done thing. Even with the advent of Time Out, British movie criticism was still a formal practice: polite, patronising, middlebrow. It wasn't bad; just safe and fitfully flat, the occasional passionate outpourings of C A Lejeune, Dilys Powell, Derek Malcolm and Alexander Walker notwithstanding. No room for me here; even if Walker, also from Northern Ireland's green and troubled six counties, found the Eng Lit manner a cosy fit once the seams had been let out a little. To me it was, well, a strait-jacket.
Kael's CV offered hope (she didn't land her New Yorker gig until she was pushing 50) and her writing offered freedom. It said: 'See, you can be simultaneously conversational and engaged, fevered and informed, permissive and opinionated, sensitive and cruel. You can mix high and low: don't be a goddamn tight-ass snob.' Kael could ride the French New Wave (Godard really revved her motor) and still sing the praises of old-fashioned Hollywood trash, if it was honest trash. Kael recognises that Lady Sings the Blues lies through its capped teeth about Billie Holiday's life, yet says, 'It has what makes movies work for the mass audience: easy pleasure, tawdry electricity, personality - great quantities of personality.' She understood art and commerce, the twin souls of cinema, and she made it all look so damn easy.
It wasn't, of course. Kael endured weekly sessions with William Shawn, the New Yorker's editor, in which he would attempt to strip her of her voice, an instrument honed on snappy programme notes and local radio. By the time she hit the Big Apple, print and radio had irrevocably fused. Read her words and you hear Kael, cool and clear. Which is precisely what Shawn objected to.
Kael recalls: 'I (literally) spent more time and effort restoring what I'd written than writing it. They tried to turn me into just what I'd been struggling not to be: a genteel, fuddy-duddy stylist who says 'One assumes that . . .' The result was tame and correct; it lost the sound of spoken language . . . the couple of hours I spent with Shawn were an exhausting series of pleas and negotiations . . . I had to fight for every other contraction, every bit of slang, every description of a scene in a movie he thought morally offensive - not my description but the scene itself. He didn't see why those things had to be mentioned, he said.'
How was Shawn to know that Kael was the coming thing, the invasion of pop into the New Yorker's hallowed halls? (Perhaps he did know - perhaps that's the point.) And how was I to know that I was not the only wannabe consuming and being consumed by Kael's canon, that her influence, at first underground and unacknowledged, would eventually number among its adherents individuals as diverse as Julie Burchill, Anthony Lane, Terrence Rafferty and just about every other film critic under the age of 30 currently working here and in the US?
Her style is hard to shake off. Eighteen years after my initial exposure, I still haven't quite abandoned the tics and mannerisms that first hooked me. Which is OK: I am never more myself as when I'm being Pauline Kael.
'Reeling' (Marion Boyars, pounds 16.95)
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