Commentary Magazine

Pauline Kael

To the Editor:

I wish to respond to Daniel J. Silver’s article on Pauline Kael [“She Lost It at the Movies,” April]. While I am no uncritical admirer of Kael’s criticism, Mr. Silver’s turning her into a champion of the 1960’s counterculture is not convincing.

It would never occur to me, for instance, to associate Kael’s advocacy of what Mr. Silver calls “simple aesthetic delights” with the counterculture. Indeed, I would think this criterion particularly anathema to the avant-garde filmmakers of the era. But then, Kael’s impatience with the Left and the ethos of the counterculture is everywhere to be found in For Keeps. I will cite just one example. Her 1971 put-down of Alexandro Jodorowsky’s nihilistic El Topo is hardly the work of a critic who flirts “with nihilism,” to use Mr. Silver’s words, much less someone who esteems the counterculture. The review is peppered with stabs at the pot-heads who raced to the theaters to see El Topo in the early 1970’s and proceeded to declare the Chilean filmmaker (he is actually of Russian-Jewish descent) a prophet. The movie’s countless butcherings, mutilations, and castrations of cripples, dwarfs, and the legless and armless (real deformed people, as Kael reminds us, who display their stumps)—not to mention the footage of every imaginable act of fetishism and perversion—is as redolent of the counterculture as a movie can be, yet Kael condemns the film in no uncertain terms: “The counterculture is buying mystical violence,” she writes in her review, and “the violence [in El Topo] is what blows [the pot-heads’] minds.”

Kael’s review of El Topo also raises another question prompted by Mr. Silver’s review: if she extols violence as much as Mr. Silver claims, why does she despise El Topo, which—whatever else it may be—is the greatest “death romp” (Kael’s words) ever made. Violence is embraced by filmmakers of every political stripe, and would thus seem to be politically neutral.

Robert Richman
New Criterion
New York City



To the Editor:

. . . Daniel J. Silver arrives at the erroneous conclusion that Pauline Kael has helped to shape the sensibility of a generation for the worse. On the contrary, she is one of the best critics this country has ever produced. . . .

With so much wonderful material to evaluate, Mr. Silver has to resort to nitpicking to prove his dubious agenda. He begins by attacking Kael’s views on violence, citing her landmark essay on Bonnie and Clyde, but he totally misses the point. The movie is not a celebration of violence or an act of condescension, . . . it is a brilliant look at violence, celebrity, and the public’s ambivalence toward both. And it does, as Kael observes, “put the sting back into death.”

Mr. Silver seems surprised that Kael does not like a piece of hack work like Dirty Harry, but she does not approve of vigilantism. He assumes she does not understand the middle-class frustrations that lead to such actions, but she does understand; she believes, however, that a director should not pander to his audience. Kael thinks graphic violence should be used to reveal meaning, not just to provide cheap excitement. And she does not limit her criticism to conservative points of view but has also blasted such “liberal” movies as Clockwork Orange and Joe.

Despite Mr. Silver’s claims, Kael understands the tensions between Sam Peckinpah’s “fascistic” side and his “artistic” one; she just thinks he resolves them better in The Wild Bunch . . . than in Straw Dogs, a movie which is the equivalent of a glossy, trendy magazine article. . . .

Dan O’Neill
Los Angeles, California



Daniel J. Silver writes:

I am not surprised that Robert Richman finds the idea of Pauline Kael as “champion” of the counterculture unconvincing, but only surprised that he would ascribe this idea to me. No one as independent-minded and, frankly, just plain stubborn as Pauline Kael would ever be a cheerleader for a movement of any kind, let alone one as filled with treacly romanticism (among other, nastier things) as the 60’s counterculture. Mr. Richman has apparently misunderstood my argument.

What I wrote was that Kael “was hardly a flower child”—an allusion not just to her maturity at the time she started writing for the New Yorker but to elements of her temperament at odds with the spirit of antic hedonism that pervaded the counterculture. I nonetheless pointed out just how many countercultural themes, both lowbrow and highbrow, are reflected in her criticism. She would never have been accepted, much less embraced, by the New Yorker readership if she had served up unadulterated paeans to free love, radical agitprop, and eternal yourth. What she did instead was to make 60’s popcult sensibilities more palatable for middle-class readers, and ended up fostering moral and aesthetic confusions that have contributed to the impoverishment we find in the arts today.

I also agree with Mr. Richman that one can find a number of criticisms of the traditional Left in Kael’s writings, but one can also find, as I noted, many attacks on centrist concerns like fear of crime and rising social disorder, which she characterizes as indicating a “fascist” direction in popular attitudes.

Why Mr. Richman would imply that I argue for Kael’s love of violence is beyond me. It is precisely because she professes to hate mindless violence in movies that I called attention to her surprising fondness for the very violent filmmaker, Sam Peckinpah.

In my article I quoted a passage in which Kael rails against the middle-class conformism embodied in Doris Day movies, which she finds to be a baleful influence on our civilization. In the review of El Topo cited by Mr. Richman, Kael observes, correctly, that “for the head-movie audiences violence is dissociated from pain. . . . It’s the violence that turns them on.” But then she adds: “I would not presume to guess whether there are dangers in this; I just don’t know enough.” Here is a critic who pounces on Doris Day and singing nuns for sapping our spirit but tiptoes around the question of whether inciting youth to violence might harbor “dangers.” Perhaps Mr. Richman can reconcile the discrepancy between these two responses with his view of Kael as a tough critic of the counterculture. I cannot.

I am sorry to have offended Dan O’Neill, apparently in my failure to march in lockstep with accepted opinion about Pauline Kael. I do think she is an important critic, and one possessed of certain gifts, as I pointed out in my article. Mr. O’Neill does not leave me much to take issue with, however, since he prefers conclusory pronouncements to argument or demonstration. But perhaps I can at least set the record straight. What I said about Kael’s view of Bonnie and Clyde was that she attacked the more staid reviews for criticizing the movie’s obvious violence. This is not to say that she has an uncritical love of movie violence but that, in her view, the mainstream, middlebrow critics missed the ironies of the film—presumably the same ones Mr. O’Neill celebrates. Her failure to acknowledge the violence in Bonnie and Clyde is part and parcel of a self-consciously superior aesthetic attitude which betrays condescension toward ordinary people.

And I was not at all surprised that Kael did not like Dirty Harry, only that—notwithstanding Mr. O’Neill’s views to the contrary—she regarded it as favorably as she did. Also, I suggest that he see the movie again, or at least read a synopsis, because it has nothing to do with vigilantism. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is a detective on a police force. The point of the movie, of course, is that the judicial system has betrayed the people it is ostensibly defending. But there was absolutely no acknowledgment of this concern in Pauline Kael’s review.

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