Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pauline Kael and David Denby

I've been mesmerized by Brian Kellow's revelations in his new book Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. Her very gradual rise to fame, her precocity, and her unheard-of level of influence seem freakish--Greek drama for those who admire writers. Kael would receive nice letters from Carol Burnett and Barbra Streisand after she panned their movies. Sam Peckinpah would send her flowers every time she visited Los Angeles. Robert Altman would take her out to dinner. Woody Allen would commiserate with her after Peter Bogdanovich dared to question her research of her Raising Kane book. The intrigues, the late night writing sessions with Wild Turkey whiskey and cigarettes, the betrayals! Meanwhile, today's film blogger, uh, checks his stats.

Here's Kellow's account of Kael's relationship with the youthful David Denby:

"Already the legend of Pauline's inner circle of film proteges was building. Inclusion in the group was pursued, often desperately, by outsiders. But there were no guarantees of safety at any point. David Denby was a writer in his late twenties who had a burning ambition to become a critic. Pauline met him in 1967, while he was a student at the Columbia University School of Journalism. She got along well with Denby, who assumed an enviable position in the Kael circle, spending many late nights into the morning at the Turin, listening in rapt fascination as she debated with her other guests and, as Denby recalled, mowed down `the reputations of virtually every writer in town.'

At this point Denby felt that he had been inducted into the literary boot camp of his dreams. Pauline might endlessly hector him and her other proteges about their thoughts and opinions, constantly pressing them to go further and deeper in their writing, to sort out and sharpen their ideas on the page. She could openly badger them about what she considered their middlebrow taste, but she was so witty and engaging that `those who didn't turn away in anger were convinced she was rough on them for their own good. At least, that was the promise.' She enjoyed playing the role of the tough fourth-grade teacher that so many writers crave: She held the young critics she took up to a dizzyingly high standard, going over their articles line by line--endlessly devoted, it seemed, to showing them how to improve their work. About one article of Denby's that was in progress, Pauline said `It's shit, honey . . . and if you don't make it better I'll stick pins in you.' Toward the end of Denby's time at Columbia, she suggested him for a film critic's post at The Atlantic Monthly, and he got the job.

The problem was that, by Denby's own admission, he was so drawn to, so dominated by Pauline's voice on the printed page that it crept into his own writing. She recognized her influence, too, and few things rankled her more than the awareness that her acolytes were blindly devoted to her. She loved being surrounded by like-minded people, but slavish imitators eventually invited her contempt. As far as Denby was concerned, Pauline's followers had to go along with the general outline of her thinking, but they couldn't be too obeisant; they had to demonstrate that they could think for themselves. When Pauline noticed the imitative streak in Denby's writing, she wasn't pleased. At some point during her New Yorker stint in 1972-3, Denby recalled, she telephoned him to tell him that she didn't think he had the right stuff. `You're too restless to be a writer,' she proclaimed. A few hours later, knowing that she had wounded him, she phoned again, telling him `I've thought about this seriously, honey. You should do something else with your energy.'

In Denby's case the student had for some time begun to be suspicious of the teacher and revolt against the rules of Pauline's private academy. He had come to doubt some of her opinions (her rave for Fiddler on the Roof particularly baffled him) and claimed to have been present at a lunch at a Chinese restaurant in New York at which she had laid the director Nicholas Ray out flat, pitilessly analyzing his films one by one and altogether dismissing a good many of them, to the point that `Ray, his face cast down into his shrimp and rice, hardly said a word.'

So, when greeted with Pauline's announcement that he was not fit for a career as a writer, Denby nervously disagreed with her and did the only thing he felt he could do: He withdrew from her life. They continued to see each other at professional gatherings in the years that followed--Denby would be film critic for New York and later The New Yorker--but Pauline never recanted her opinion. Denby would later recall the acute discomfort of being cast out not only by Pauline but by many of her acolytes, whom he had mistakenly considered friends. He would go on to an enviable career as a critic and commentator, but the hurt and humiliation that Pauline's rejection brought remained with him for years."

3 comments:

Craig said...

Denby recounts a lot of that in "My Life as a Paulette," his piece written a couple years after Kael's death. (It's a sensitive, thoughtful essay, though Greil Marcus, Paulette Emeritus, called it "disgusting and immoral." Because he's insane.) Paul Schrader had an ugly breakup with her too, but also, by his account, a better reconciliation. He arrived at her door, and she hugged him and said, "I liked your last movie. You've become a good director."

The Paulettes fascinate me, about which I'll say more after I've read the bio. It's in transit from Amazon as we speak.

Joel Bocko said...

I manage to avoid, mostly through genuine apathy, a lot of the stuff that sweeps pop culture, or contemporary movie culture, or even the blogosphere. But goddamnit, I'm going to have to read this book. My most prized autograph of all time comes from Andrew Sarris (though credit where due, the inscription was first suggested by a friend before I asked for it): "To Joel, I forgive you being a Paulette."

Like Denby & the people who actually knew & followed her (lucky bastards, even if they sometimes wondered), I can't really say I agree with her that much. Her taste definitely seems questionable and her sensibility coincides in some ways with my own but not in a lot of others (for her, it seems, the personal was always front and central - its one element that greatly appeals to me, the humanist spark in a performance or direction, but I feel I'm equally drawn to formal elements, subject matter, and other factors). Yet I find her writing style and authoritative voice irresistible and feel kind of sorry for those who don't "get" her.

Yeah, can't wait to read this...

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Joel, for your insights. Thanks for the tip about Denby's essay, Craig. Greil Marcus wrote Lipstick Traces, one of my favorite works of nonfiction, so I've enjoyed that book no matter how insane he may be. I hope that you both like the Kellow biography as much as I have (I'm not quite finished). It strikes me as surprisingly balanced and clear, and I never would have thought a critic's life would be so dramatic. That appears to be Kael's technique: to be compelling in part due to her style, and in part because she took risks and provoked controversy. Her impressionistic non-academic style strikes me now as a good influence. I've been trying to like Andrew Britton's criticism, especially after Robin Wood proclaims him "the greatest film critic in the English language," but his academic/Freudian style puts me off:

"The problems addressed in The Great Santini is quite different and potentially, given the patriarchal nature of the society, far more contentious. Sublimated homoeroticism has always been available in American culture as a means of dealing with a perceived threat from women, but it is a precondition of this function that homoeroticism should be rigorously dissociated . . . ."

Regardless of the quality of Britton's ideas, his style makes me not want to continue reading, while Kael, even with all of her tendencies to grandstand and hype and play to favorite directors, hardly ever has a dull sentence. Regardless of the problems with Paulettes imitating her too much, Kael had a enlivening salutary effect on film criticism (it makes sense that Camille Paglia would like her work and that Tarantino would study her essays "like class assignments"). Reading the biography continually reminds me of the weaknesses in my own style, the damaging effects of the internet on my concentration, how easy it is to do things nowadays other than writing (like tweeting), the timidity and facile snarkiness of much blogging criticism nowadays, and the lack of an audience who will read a review closely because thousands of other bloggers have already drowned it out (and often deservedly so).

Kellow has written a bracing book, and we can still learn much from Kael's example.