Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on June 28, 1968 @ Commonweal.

It is easy to recognize what guides most film critics in their approaches (e.g., Andrew Sarris' sense of the auteur, Dwight Macdonald's concern with culture, John Simon's dedication to art, Bosley Crowther's morality), but Pauline Kael's criticism does not come from any such commitment. In her new book, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as always, her source is herself. She is the star of her criticism; the picaresque film critic; Holly Goheavily of the film world. She is ambition with brains; an odd composite of sophistication, insight, vulgarity, envy, intelligence, and anti-intellectuality.

Miss Kael draws personal criticism because this is the natural end of her criticism. One never forgets her person; she does not allow him to. Kael offers herself as ideal. She is the force that dominates. Kael's criticism is filled with personal observations; she mends a black silk dress before a public appearance; she dated a prizefighter; she can't remember who took her to the senior prom. Tangents become theses. She proves her concepts by employing an acquaintance or an overheard conversation: an insensitive woman in the audience at Bonnie & Clyde; a silly woman she baits at a party (Blow-Up); a Negress speaking idiom on a subway platform (Falstaff) .

Personal revelations can be effective, but when they are given the status of crucial evidence they distort criticism. James Agee, who died in 1955, is often celebrated as our best film critic, and he was a very personal critic, allowing much of his person -- and spirit -- to filter through his criticism. But he had warmth, deference, and playfulness -- qualities Kael does not eloquently possess.

Kael's strength (and it is a valuable one) is her insight into popular culture -- mass media aspects of film. She is a brilliant exposer of cant and hypocrisy. On popular films (particularly American) she is among the best critics writing, because of her knowledge of both Hollywood and mass mentalities. For these subjects her attacks seem justified and complete. " . . . it occurred to me that this preposterous mixture of wanting to do good and yet evading the real problems -- not telling the simple truth if it might prejudice your case -- was the basic cheat of Hollywood message movies." She understands the promise, the struggles, and the deceit of mass movie entertainment. She has definitive discussions of Bonnie & Clyde, Marlon Brando, the myth of the cowboy star, and an account of the making of the film The Group (though this piece falls short of her usual style). The essay on The Group has not been published before; most of the other essays were originally published in magazines as The New Yorker and New Republic. She has also included film notes, many of them the notes she did for the Cinema Guild and studio theaters in Berkeley.

Miss Kael is also bright on the topic of youth. This is the closest she comes to a commitment (other than her serviceable "honesty"). She is committed to the spirit of youth: "The greatest achievement [of "Before the Revolution"] is that you come out of the theatre, not dull and depressed the way you feel after movies that insult your intelligence, but elated -- restored to that youthful ardor when all hopes are raised at once." She sees Jean-Luc Godard as the director of youth: "Godard in himself is where the action is." But her commitment to youth and its value is not entirely affirmative, and this is perhaps the most interesting part of her criticism. She sees in youth "brutalism" and the "banal." And she realizes the failure of Godard to achieve intellectual fullness. Kael's ambivalence toward youth and Godard is her most generous criticism; it is when she is close to Agee. With the often fatuous Godard she treats herself to critical kindness; she is not as demanding as usual. One welcomes the ambivalence but questions the vacillation.

There is no vacillation or ambivalence in Kael's reaction to many "art" films (e.g., Blow-Up). She has an obsessive scorn for these films (and for "meaning," educators, and other critics). It is her worst and most circuitous criticism. It swoops to ad hominem levels. Of Antonioni's Red Desert she writes: "What was intended? No one could be sure... " So she centers her critique on a woman: "I once . . . visited in Beverly Hills . . . " She also attacks the audience: " . . . which fantasy of themselves do they adore?" She flagrantly scuffs the film aside.

Her piece on Bergman's Persona is also a lesson in indirect but taloned criticism. She supposes that if there is an interpretation that can be validated " . . . it is so buried that it doesn't function in the work." Instead Kael criticizes educated audiences and advertising.

Her most flapping critique is on Blow-Up. It is a film that can be chastised validly but Kael does not do so. Instead, again, she makes mystification work for her (shades of Walter Kerr!); she writes, " . . . it may also be relevant that Antonioni pulls a Marceau-like expressionist finale in this picture, one of those fancy finishes that seems to say so much (but what?) . . ." Kael doesn't figure it out; instead she damns. She attacks the critics (as always) and renders a special assault upon a foolish woman she met at a party who liked the film but couldn't explain it, thereby revealing -- to all the world -- Kael's superiority to the film, the director, people who like Marceau, and women at parties. But this isn't criticism; it's flair.

Kael is almost paranoic in her continual attacks on other critics. It is fairly common knowledge that Kael has been aided in her ascendancy by some critics only to abuse them when they were no longer useful. Her acknowledgement of her first book, I Lost It at the Movies, to Dwight Macdonald received a wry reaction from him when he found that ". . . of the thirteen references to me [Macdonald] in the index, five are neutral while eight are hostile and, in most cases, unfair."

Are all critics other than Pauline Kael idiots, are all her acquaintances fools? Are all audiences vain and false? Are films of ennui [Blow-Up, Darling, La Guerre Est Finie] as mindless as what they portray? It seems Miss Kael would have us think so.

Her technique may work with simple films, with almost all Hollywood films, but when films are more complex Miss Kael's approach seems sly and self-aggrandizing. She is master of the simple film, but the more difficult the film the appropriate, the less essential, she is. Basically, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Miss Kael is self-indulgent.

© 2000-2017 Tony Macklin