Friday, December 19, 2014

Strength out of weakness

In her eulogy for Pauline Kael, her daughter, Gina, said, "Pauline's greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and a critic." It's an interesting idea, that one's strengths may be attributable to one's weaknesses, but I think it may sometimes be true. It may even be true in my own case.

Kael, who at one time was the most influential film critic in the country, certainly had her weaknesses. Among these was her treatment of her own daughter as a virtual slave, depending upon her to type her reviews, run her errands and provide her transportation, while denying her the freedom to live her own life. Kael's friendships so often depended upon those friends agreeing with her and, at least in the case of other movie critics, not becoming as prominent as she. She allowed herself to be courted by directors and others in the movie business, always insisting a favorable review from her could not be bought, even when so many of her reviews suggested otherwise.

Brian Kellow mentions many other Pauline Kael weaknesses in his 2011 biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, yet the book hardly qualifies as a hatchet job, for his emphasis lies with her significant strengths. She was, whether you agreed with her opinions or not, a terrific writer whose prose jumped off the pages of The New Yorker. Although she rarely wrote about anything other than movies, her reviews managed to be commentary on the times, as well. They were also surprisingly autobiographical. Once urged to write her memoirs, Kael replied, "I think I have."

Writing here a few months back I compared the movie criticism of Kael with that done by novelist Graham Greene back in the 1930s. I noted the similarity in their writing styles, while noting that Kael, at least from her reviews, seemed to be better read than Greene. From her biography I learned that in her youth Kael admired Greene's film criticism and was influenced by his work at the start of her career. As for her reading, I learned that when she heard a movie was going to be based on a novel, she made it a point to read that novel before seeing the film. How many other movie reviewers would go to that much trouble?

Kellow's book nicely summarizes Kael's most important and controversial reviews and articles over the years, yet I think he too often inserts his own opinions about these films, faulting Kael when her opinions don't match his own, which seems to be what he criticizes Kael for doing.

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