From The Atlantic Monthly, this is a review of Kael’s
anthology, For Keeps.
Nobody else has written about movies with such dash as Pauline Kael,
and nobody else has seen movies with such a depth of perspective
by Roy Blount Jr.
For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies
by Pauline Kael.
Dutton, 1,312 pages, $34.95.
After Pauline Kael was featured in People some years ago, a friend who had read the article called her and said, “Where’s ‘Ochi Chyorniye?’” That is the folk song the music boxes play in Ernst Lubitsch’s lilting romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner. What was missing from the article, the friend was suggesting, was Pauline’s tune—or Kael’s, I should say here, so as not to sound too familiar, although she has been one of my best friends for nearly twenty years. Maybe I can hum a few bars.
Nothing too lilting. She spent a recent massage session
(it’s therapeutic, for her Parkinson’s—she is determined not to tremble
like Katharine Hepburn) lying prone and listening to piped-in classical
composers and marveling, “How did they get away with some of that crap?” As
a moppet in northern California, she cut short her own violin-prodigy career by
getting up before a synagogue audience, whose expressions of fond expectancy
rubbed her the wrong way, and swinging into “Onward Christian Soldiers.” If
you are among those readers whose favorite movies Kael has ripped the
underbellies out of, you might see that performance as an early sign that the
key to her is perversity. No, I’d say it’s D-sharp, for Dionysian acuity.
No, not acute Dionysianism. True, she led off her review of one of her favorite
movies, Nashville, by calling it an orgy. But just try to slip something
really dirty past her, as she thought the director of A Clockwork Orange
When I pass a newsstand and see the saintly, bearded, intellectual Kubrick on the cover of Saturday Review, I wonder: Do people notice things like the way Kubrick cuts to the rival teen-age gang just so we can have the pleasure of watching that gang strip the struggling girl they mean to rape? . . . That girl is stripped for our benefit; it’s the purest exploitation. . . .
How can people go on talking about the
dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up
to the thugs in the audience?
Generally vigilance is defensive, but Kael has had no theory or system, aesthetic or political, to defend. She has been lustily vigilant. She no longer reviews movies, because, at seventy-five and in frail health, she doesn’t feel up to the physical effort. She stepped up to all comers (within reason) with her heart on her sleeve and her mind working overtime. No wonder she took it so personally when movies stank, or when they inspired “goofy rapture,” or when they were just not quite all that one might have wished: “And so the ironies in The Man Who Would Be King go by fast—when we want them to vibrate a little.” This helps to account for the enormous resentment she stirred in many readers, who may have felt that she wouldn’t let them pick up a movie’s vibes for themselves: it was as if she were telling them how they were turned on by a lover, or why they shouldn’t have been. But it also helps to account for why her reviews are still great reading, and not just as personal essays but as inspired and hearty attempts to evoke upon the page a movie’s “Ochi Chyorniye.”
Kael’s latest book, For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies, is professedly her last—her own selection from a three-million-word corpus of criticism and reporting. She retired from regular reviewing for The New Yorker three years ago, and for several years before that she was casting a cold eye on her own powers, like a great athlete who wanted to be the first to detect the slowing of her reflexes. “I don’t jump out of bed every morning eager to work anymore,” she told me when her writing was still full of vigor, “and I don’t remember every detail of the movies I see.”
“Pauline,” I said, “I’ve been that way since I was fourteen.” I told her I had finally caught up to one of her favorite entertainments, the 1940 Thief of Bagdad. “Oh, good,” she said, and asked me about a minuscule bit of business she wasn’t sure she remembered correctly from seeing the film when it came out. I had seen it the night before, and I didn’t even remember the scene.
In the late 1960s and the 1970s her schmoozy yet magisterial apercus inspired widespread emulation among the young. Now college kids tend not to have heard of her. Nearly all of Kael’s thirteen books are still in print in England, but in this country most of what is available is For Keeps.
It’s more than 1,300 pages long, and more than 600,000 words: “a brick,” as she puts it. Bullion, I would say, to use a word that not only means “gold in mass” but also derives from an old verb meaning “to bubble, to boil.” In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that back in the seventies Kael talked a couple of movie studios into giving me my only two screenwriting gigs, and the $50,000 or so I realized carried me through an otherwise hardscrabble period as a freelance writer. The purely financial benefit of knowing her has probably not been entirely offset by the looks of horror that influential Hollywood figures gave me in succeeding years when I told them she was one of my heroes, so perhaps I should recuse myself from writing about her book and her.
But knowing a person she is reviewing has never inhibited Kael. Some years ago I gave her and another woman, who was meeting her for the first time, a ride from New York City to western Massachusetts, where Kael and I are neighbors. Kael remarked regretfully that her review of Stardust Memories had caused Woody Allen to end their friendship.
“What a shame,” the woman said, “that he took it so personally.”
“Oh, no,” Kael said. “It was vicious.”
Merciless, anyway, in its assault on a widely cherished yet repellent film. Kael has always had a particular taste for (as in Brian De Palma) “the dirty fun of a bad boy.” Allen was the darling of New York taste-setters for having gone beyond such fun to a higher-toned mixture of introspection, sentiment, and satire. Kael picked up on not only what Stardust Memories was curdled by but what it was all about: Allen’s slide into self-hatred, sentimentality, and disdain for his audience. Now that accepted opinion deplores Allen as a self-absorbed, dysfunctional stepfather, Kael’s review of Stardust Memories, reprinted in For Keeps, resonates like a perfect-pitch blow of the whistle. The semi-autobiographical character Allen plays, she wrote in 1980, “is superior to all those who talk about his work; if they like his comedies, it’s for freakish reasons, and he shows them up as poseurs and phonies, and if they don’t like his serious work, it’s because they’re too stupid to understand it. He anticipates almost anything that you might say about Stardust Memories and ridicules you for it.”
To such a challenge Kael was bound to rise. While she was at it, she gave Allen’s earlier work its due: he “helped to make people feel more relaxed about how they looked and . . . about their sexual terrors and everything else that made them anxious.” But if there is anything that Kael can’t abide (besides trendy propaganda), it is contempt mixed with bogus romanticizing.
“Manhattan was also full of naughty, self-centered types: he contrasted their lack of faith with the trusting, understanding heart of a loyal child—played by Mariel Hemingway. (What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teen-agers as a quest for true values?)”
Neither this assessment nor Allen’s personal reaction to it meant that Kael had turned her back on his work. She praised several of his movies after Stardust Memories, and after she quit reviewing, she urged all her friends to see his post-scandal comedy Manhattan Murder Mystery. If she had never liked his work, she would never have been friendly with him. Tell Kael that you enjoyed a movie that she thought was, as she might put it, not . . . very . . . good, and she will say “Oh” in a certain tone and look at you—whoever you are, even if you are, say, me—as if you’d said you’d gotten a kick out of Goebbels’s speech the other night. Some people find this absolutism off-putting—well, everybody does. She can say things that make you feel that the room has been flushed with acid. But she’s an affable, cheery person to meet. She was quite cordial to one of my son’s friends whom I took to meet her one night at dinner. This young man, a big fan of hers, confided that The Man Who Came to Dinner was his favorite movie. “Oh,” she said. “See it again. It won’t be.”
Filmmakers sometimes arranged early screenings for Kael and called to ask her what she thought. She was the most eloquent appreciator in print of Richard Pryor’s best work, but when he called to ask her opinion of his dispiriting autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling before its release, she gave it to him straight: it was hopeless. In her heyday several tables in the downstairs rooms of her big turreted shingle house in Great Barrington, which she and her daughter, Gina, restored from a shambles in 1970 (she made the down payment on it with what The New Yorker paid her for running her Citizen Kane Book in installments), were always covered with neatly stacked book manuscripts, screenplay drafts, and unplaced articles sent to her by friends, acquaintances, and strangers asking for private opinions. She devoted an enormous amount of time to this reading, and to energetic encouragement and discouragement.
She is the least guilt-inducing woman I have ever known. Once when I was giving her a ride to the country, a big rain came up and flooded the Saw Mill River Parkway. I took an ill-considered detour through a great accumulation of water—don’t worry, I told her, I got this figured—and the car conked out. There I was, in a rickety Plymouth Horizon bumper-deep in the middle of rushing water that must have been 200 yards across, with a physically delicate, environmentally hypersensitive (bugbites swell her up disastrously), sixty-odd-year-old woman who was the most acerbic critic in America; to boot, I didn’t know exactly where we were, except probably in the state of New York. It was getting dark. The water was rising. I have had a loving mother and several eminently-capable-of-wading sweethearts who would have given me deserved grief at that point. Kael’s demeanor was perfectly sunny. I would have carried her to Massachusetts on my shoulders if necessary, but as it happened, I got the car cranked and we rooster-tailed out of there.
She slipped on ice and broke her nose trying to get to my one-man show off-Broadway, and because I knew she had trouble getting around in the city (also because I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing onstage), I hadn’t even asked her to come. When I heard about her injury, from someone else, she pooh-poohed my concern. “We’ve never let each other down,” she told me once. I don’t think anybody else has ever actually told me that.
She doesn’t talk about her past much, but I can tell you a few things you probably don’t know about her. For instance, in the finals of a California high school debate competition one year in the mid-thirties, Kael’s opponent was Carol Channing. Perhaps this is one of those supernal matchups you would prefer to speculate about endlessly (Who would win, Captain Marvel or King Kong? Mother Courage or Auntie Mame?), but I am constrained to report that according to Kael, Carol Channing was very bright and her team came in first, but Kael prevailed in the one-on-one.
Here’s a poser: Who would win, Kael or Dr. Johnson? She has bestridden film criticism as colossally as he in his day bestrode letters, and neither of them—in print or in person—left room for disagreement. Johnson was acknowledged as a giant. The Kirkus review of For Keeps fell in with many of Kael’s past critics by calling her intelligence “quirky” and averring that she “thought quite highly of herself and her judgment.” Kael would be the last person in the world to plead from gender, but I asked her recently, “Would your reception be different if you were a man?”
“Yes,” she said.
Maybe even if she were taller. Her physical tininess should have no more to do with her “Ochi Chyorniye” than Johnson’s hulkingness with his, but, she says in her introduction to For Keeps, “I think that the disjunction between my strong voice as a writer and my five-foot frame somehow got to people. . . . people who don’t like my writing find it both Olympian and smart-alecky. I guess at some level it is.”
She was the youngest of five kids, growing up on a farm in Petaluma. Her brothers used to throw her back and forth between them like a ball, to her delight. The animals chased her. As a child, she was regarded as such an inspired comedian that her parents thought she might be the next Fanny Brice. Before she got into movie reviewing she wrote plays that were produced for radio but never for the stage. “Back then, no one produced anything unless it had jugglers in it.” She once had a husband (she had a few, but this is about all I know of her marital history) who, believe it or not, made her feel that she couldn’t do anything right, the way Katharine Hepburn’s fiancé does in Pat and Mike. Once, in a hardware store in Great Barrington, a salesman who did not know her pointed to a sign saying Father’s Day Special and said, “That goes for you, too, Mom.” Kael’s response was, “Fuck you, too, Charlie.”
She is almost certainly the only New Yorker writer who ever said to William Shawn, that magazine’s late, sainted, editor, “Oh, come off it, Bill,” dragged him downstairs, and made him play the piano at an office party. She used to make Shawn turn bright red in the face (more from apoplexy than embarrassment) by insisting on keeping explicit sexual references in her copy. Shawn was himself a connoisseur of bawdy humor, but he was as obsessed with keeping smut out of his magazine as Joe McCarthy was with getting Communists out of the government. (Once, he turned down a piece of mine that entailed a man and a woman getting Super Glued together, quite nonsexually, in a dry-cleaning establishment, because he worried about how they would go to the bathroom.)
I have always felt that Renata Adler attacked Kael so hysterically in The New York Review of Books in 1980 because Adler, a paragon of New Yorker tone, resented Kael’s having managed to keep her own voice. Other women writers at The New Yorker, Kael claimed, would cry in order to get their way with Shawn. Kael had the nerve to ask Shawn to rewrite his introduction to her 5001 Nights at the Movies because she found the first version to be “overflorid.” And he did.
After all, she had occasionally consented to make alterations for Shawn. Once, she showed me proofs of her forthcoming review of Reds. Warren Beatty, she had written, played John Reed as “p____y-w_____d.” That’s the way it had been set in type, presumably because even the compositor was horrified. Shawn had adjured her to come up with some other term. She couldn’t understand why. It was the right word, she insisted.
“Jesus, Pauline,” I said. “You can’t say ‘pussy-whipped’ in The New Yorker!” (You couldn’t then.) “How about ‘uxorious’?” She rolled her eyes. Eventually she gave in to Shawn on that one, and recast the sentence, but I still feel proud of her for trying. Let me think how to put this: the two most startling and refreshing moments of my intellectual life as a semi-apostate male Georgia Methodist émigré were when I realized that Kael really didn’t see why she could not use in The New Yorker a down-home adjective that I would hesitate to use in conversation among close female friends, and when she observed during a very brief biblical discussion in my car one afternoon that the New Testament was “a bit sticky.”
In For Keeps she has not included her review of Reds. It was largely negative, partly because she found it trendily old-Hollywood leftist. I attended the special screening of Reds that was held for her. This was not long after she had returned to reviewing after being lured by Beatty out to Hollywood to become, at fifty-nine, a producer-consultant at Paramount.
During this period Kael felt, to my astonishment, that I could write a movie, and arranged a development deal for me. She didn’t intervene in the writing of the script, although she got it Xeroxed for me, because I couldn’t afford to at the time. She liked it. Paramount didn’t. Though she received no screen credits during her five months in the business, she says she helped get several movies into production, including The Elephant Man. Kael returned to Great Barrington and The New Yorker no more compromised by having worked for Paramount than Orwell was by fighting in the Spanish civil war.
I would like to be able to report that her discernible reactions at the Reds screening were somehow revealing. But it was usually hard to tell how Kael had responded to a movie until she started talking about it, some minutes after it was over. Sometimes I would feel impelled to state my reaction before she had a chance to. I remember that as soon as the credits for Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild had finished rolling, I turned to her and said, “Now, I liked that!” “You did, huh?” she said in a steely sort of way. For a minute I thought she hadn’t liked it, but I think it was just that she was still tasting it. She came away from Reds looking the same way she looked leaving other movies that disappointed her: let down.
I don’t know how to suggest that the general reader take For Keeps into his or her life. I know that 5001 Nights at the Movies richly accompanies my own watching of old movies on television. Many people with whom I have argued about Kael have said, “Okay, she’s a good writer. But her opinions about movies . . .” Are perverse. Or quirky. No, they aren’t. Try watching Love in the Afternoon, with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. The newspaper listings or your standard movie-on-TV guide will probably pronounce it a classic. But if you are like me, when you watch it you think, Jeez, this is a maundering old guy somehow assumed to be attractive to this beautiful gamine. So you pick up 5001 Nights and you read, “Gary Cooper, looking as if he knows how unappealing he is in the role . . .”
I also recommend taking 5001 Nights along with you to the video store. Wonder whether Voyage Surprise, by the Prevert brothers, is worth taking home? Could be, if only to satisfy your curiosity over Kael’s note: “With Martine Carol, and the dwarf Pierre Pieral, who’s like a miniature Bette Davis.” Tempted to check out Summer and Smoke? Maybe not after reading “There’s supposed to be something on fire inside Alma, Tennessee Williams’ lonely, inhibited preacher’s daughter, but from Geraldine Page’s performance and Peter Glenville’s direction ’tain’t smoke that rises—just wispy little old tired ideas goin’ to rejoin the Holy Ghost.”
For Keeps is not such a handy reference. It’s one of the thickest one-volume compendiums (two and eleven-sixteenths inches) of anybody’s work I’ve seen. It’s shaped like something you might want to pull off the shelf and read aloud from with the whole family gathered around, but you’d need to have a family that is receptive, all together, to sentiments like “a little nose-thumbing isn’t enough . . . we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery.” The publisher talked her out of calling it The Bedside Pauline Kael, but bed is a good place for it—I have myself more than once drifted off to dreamland savoring a passage like (on Vanessa Redgrave) “she can be majestic more fluidly than anyone else (and there’s more of her to uncoil).”
Reading For Keeps also provides an opportunity to argue with Kael without her being there. It’s no fun to disagree with Kael about a movie. It’s like arguing with an umpire. She has made her call. Trying to talk to her about what might be wrong with her opinion of a movie is no more rewarding than it would be to talk to the director about what might be wrong with the movie after it’s out; she doesn’t seem to have second thoughts. Of course, who does have much interest in going into what’s wrong with what he or she has already done? It’s not surprising that directors break off their dialogue with Kael after she has disparaged their work. Paul Schrader remained her friend after she wrote, about his Hardcore, “For Schrader to call himself a whore would be vanity: he doesn’t know how to turn a trick.” But then, their friendship dates back to well before he became a director.
When I told Kael, some years ago, that I didn’t like Robert Altman’s Nashville (which she called, among other things, “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen”), she was content to reply that southerners of her acquaintance tended to have such a reaction. Well, damn right. But it wasn’t just that Nashville seemed to me culpably ignorant of Nashville and country music. (Kael in fact has been good on several other movies involving southern culture.) I’m an Altman rooter, but—no doubt partly because Kael’s ecstatic review had so raised my expectations—Nashville struck me as slack, overblown, and full of stragglers (for instance, Jeff Goldblum driving up portentously on a motorcycle at odd moments). And the songs! Whoever got the idea that Hollywood actors could write their own, bad or good, country songs? Rereading her review, I still keep saying, “What?” It bothers me that I am so unmoved by a movie about which she wrote, “You don’t get drunk on images, you’re not overpowered—you get elated. I’ve never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way: I sat there smiling at the screen, in complete happiness.”
It is also hard for me to see why she loved Last Tango in Paris quite so much. This and Nashville were her two most over-the-top enthusiasms. She reviewed both of them well ahead of their general release, and she found both of them to be enormous advances in movie consciousness. Well, when your drinking buddy or your favorite teacher introduces you to the person he or she has fallen head over heels for and you can’t see the attraction, maybe you’re jealous. Maybe you had to be there, at the advance screening. I wasn’t present when Last Tango was shown for the first time, at the New York Film Festival on the night of October 14, 1972—a night Kael compared, in her review, to the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed. If I had been, maybe I, too, would have been “in a state of shock,” or I could have talked Kael out of it. (ha!) When I did hie myself to a theater, expecting to see something that “altered the face of an art form,” I was impressed by Maria Schneider’s nakedness, but as a figure of graphic lust she was no Georgina Spelvin. “She carries the whole history of movie passion in her long legs and baby face”? I didn’t find Marlon Brando’s grunting possession of her to be so drastically erotic. Call me old-fashioned, but I found him more pansexual when, as in A Streetcar Named Desire, he kept his pants on.
I think Kael reserves her highest admiration for movies that get the better of her, or at least push her to the limits of her acumen. She wants to lose it at the movies, for movies to be good enough for that to happen. It’s a seemly desire, rare in an exacting critic. In another review she wrote, “The Moment of Truth raises emotions that neither its moviemaking team nor we can fully comprehend, and so the material draws us in and stays with us.” Of Tango she wrote, “It’s like seeing pieces of your life, and so, of course, you can’t resolve your feelings about it—our feelings about life are never resolved. Besides, the biology that is the basis of the ‘tango’ remains.” She got that right.
People have often accused her of reacting against popular
views. In her earliest writings, to be sure, she devoted a good deal of energy
to disparaging the opinions of other critics. But once she got established
herself, she overlooked conventional wisdom. Check out her review of The
Color Purple. Other reviewers charged Steven Spielberg with taking a modern
African-American classic and turning it into a cartoon. Kael ignores the
assumption of classic and transcends the shorthand of cartoon. She doesn’t
debunk the notion that Alice Walker is a great writer; she just alludes in
passing to Walker’s “rampant female chauvinism,” takes note of the
novel’s “joyous emotional swing,” and, after accusing Spielberg of
approaching this “‘serious’” project with timidity, allows that “the
Walker material has about as much to do with character studies as Disney’s Song
of the South did. . . . The people on the screen are like characters
operated by Frank Oz. But they’re not much phonier than the people in the
book: Spielberg’s problem is that he can’t give the material the emotional
push of that earthy folk style of Walker’s. He just doesn’t have the
conviction that she has. . . .”
“He sees Georgia in 1909 the way a European director
might; visually the picture suggests Song of the South remade by Visconti.”
Nobody else could have written that—not because nobody else has written about movies with such dash but because nobody else has seen movies so disabusedly, with such a depth of perspective. No one is likely to read For Keeps straight through. I dipped around in it, thinking not so much “What great writing” as “What an interesting movie that was.”
Much has been averred about Kael’s prose style, but most
of it has been reductive. Here, from her review of Diva, is a quick
snatch of prose that might seem quintessential: “The unfazable Alba is the
post-Godardian tootsie—in her short-short skirts and transparent plastic coat,
she’s a lollipop wrapped in cellophane.” To those who think that her use of
words like “sleazo” and “klutzburger” is what typifies her style,
“post-Godardian tootsie” may seem emblematic. And hey—it’s sharp and it
fits, both the character and the film. But it’s just a snippet. What impresses
me, as a person who labors to say what he means in magazines, is the jam-packed
fluidity of such passages as these, which deal with, respectively, Marilyn
Monroe, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma:
“Her mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cuddly drugged
sexiness seemed to get to just about every male; she turned on even homosexual
men. And women couldn’t take her seriously enough to be indignant; she was
funny and impulsive in a way that made people feel protective. She was a little
knocked out; her face looked as if, when nobody was paying attention to her, it
would go utterly slack—as if she died between wolf calls.”
“Nobody cuts faster on shots full of activity than he
does, yet it’s never just for the sake of variety: it’s what the movie is
about that generates the images and the cutting pattern, and there’s a
constant pickup in excitement from shot to shot—a ziggety forward motion.”
“In the Metropolitan sequence (the interiors are actually
the Philadelphia Museum of Art), we catch glimpses of figures slipping in and
out at the edges of the frame, and there are other almost subliminal images;
we’re playing hide-and-seek along with Kate, and her pickup. Later, there’s
a visually layered police-station sequence: the principal characters—Mike; Dr.
Elliott; Kate’s whiz-kid son, Peter (Keith Gordon); a loud, brash
investigator, Detective Marino (Dennis Franz); and a pretty, investment-minded
hooker, Liz Blake (Nancy Allen)—are in different rooms or in the hallway, but
they can see each other through the glass partitions, and the interplay among
these people, most of whom have never met before, seems to be happening on about
eighteen different levels of deception, eavesdropping, and all-around peeping. .
“Dressed to Kill isn’t as imaginatively dark as The
Fury; the evil was luxuriant in that one—nightshade in bloom. There’s
nothing here to match the floating, poetic horror of the slowed-down sequence in
which Amy Irving and Carrie Snodgrass are running to freedom: it’s as if each
of them and each of the other people on the street were in a different time
frame, and Carrie Snodgrass’s face is full of happiness just as she’s flung
over the hood of a car.”
I can’t tell you how pleased I am by that writing. (That punctuation. When she was still living in the Bay Area, she says, a rumor got around that she had done away with herself, because someone found an anonymous suicide note on the Golden Gate Bridge “that displayed my use of the colon.”) It resists being focused upon as fine writing—the last sentence is an unselfconsciously seamless joining of, say, Elizabeth Bowen and James M. Cain. Nobody cuts faster on shots full of activity than Kael does, yet it’s never just for the sake of variety. It’s what the prose is about that generates the images and the cutting pattern, and there’s a constant pickup in excitement from sentence to sentence—a ziggety forward motion.
Now I want to talk about rape. If there is anyone who is
above (or below—whichever is superior) political correctness, it is Kael.
(“Women’s-lib sensitivity may be the worst blow to drama since fifties-TV
Freud.”) I have heard her express the opinion that the woman on whose story
the movie The Accused is based should have had more sense than to vamp
drunkenly in a poolroom full of buttheads. Here is what she wrote about Hud,
“I suppose we’re all supposed to react on cue to movie
rape (or as is usually the case, attempted rape): rape, like a cattle massacre,
is a box-office value. No doubt in Hud we’re really supposed to believe
that Alma is, as Stanley Kauffmann says, “driven off by [Hud’s] vicious
physical assault.” But in terms of the modernity of the settings and the
characters, as well as the age of the protagonists (they’re at least in their
middle thirties), it was more probable that Alma left the ranch because a
frustrated rape is just too sordid and embarrassing for all concerned—for the
drunken Hud who forced himself upon her, for her for defending herself so
titanically, for young Lon the innocent who “saved” her. Alma obviously
wants to go to bed with Hud, but she has been rejecting his propositions because
she doesn’t want to be just another casual dame to him; she wants to be
treated differently from the others. If Lon hadn’t rushed to protect his
idealized view of her, chances are that the next morning Hud would have felt
guilty and repentant, and Alma would have been grateful to him for having used
the violence necessary to break down her resistance, thus proving that she was
different. They might have been celebrating ritual rapes annually on their
“Rape is a strong word when a man knows that a woman
wants him but won’t accept him unless he commits himself emotionally. Alma’s
mixture of provocative camaraderie plus reservations invites ‘rape.’”
Okay, now read this from Kael’s review of De Palma’s Casualties
of War, in 1989. Her paean to this movie has often been cited as evidence
that her judgment had grown erratic: how could a director long fascinated by
violence against women do justice to such a serious matter as GI rapists in
Vietnam? But Casualties of War is the one genuinely hard-to-swallow
“The men climb high above the valleys and set up a
temporary command post in an abandoned hut in the mountains; it’s here that
the sobbing, sniffling girl is brutalized. (Thereafter, she’s referred to as
“the whore” or “the bitch.”) . . .”
“And, whatever the soldiers say or do, there’s the spectre of the dazed, battered girl ranting in an accusatory singsong. The movie is haunted by Oanh long before she’s dead. The rapists think they’ve killed her, but she rises; in our minds, she rises again and again.”
There is no stance in either of these passages. There is genuine feeling and receptivity. There is a roundness within which ambivalence pulses and so does violation. I admire Kael for how much she “hated” (a word not used lightly) Alan Parker’s despicable Mississippi Burning, and for how much she relished Jonathan Demme’s at-that-point-unrecognized Citizens Band. I tip my hat to her for hailing Jessica Lange (in King Kong, which as a whole I did not treasure as much as she did) and Morgan Freeman well in advance of other critics, and for calmly outflanking Lillian Hellman and Diana Trilling and Mary McCarthy and Jane Fonda and Dashiell Hammett and whoever “Julia” may have been in her review of Julia, and for taking ungushy but resounding pleasure in Rip Torn and Bette Midler and Cary Grant and Marguerite Duras and Sam Peckinpah (whose movies, after all, are far more lively than those of Howard Hawks and John Ford and other testosteronic directors whom the auteurists accuse her of slighting) and Barbra Streisand and Robert Mitchum (“this great bullfrog with the puffy eyes and the gut that becomes an honorary chest”) and The Stunt Man and (insufficient vibration aside) The Man Who Would Be King.
But I suggest that when contemporary dusts have
settled and people are reading what was written about movies in our time, what
will be most salient about what Kael has written will not be that she was slangy
or that she put many people off but that she watched movies so well that she was
able to help us to see rape, for instance, steady and see it whole.
Roy Blount Jr. is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His many books include First Hubby (1990), Camels Are Easy, Comedy’s Hard (1991), and Roy Blount’s Book of Southern Humor (1994).
The Atlantic Monthly, December 1994