Part 3: When Pauline Kael Overstepped Her Profession and Why Some of the Films She Thought Were Masterpieces Are Really Hard to Justify
I think Pauline Kael was a brilliant talent. I’ve read her work in many journals and books (sadly, most of her work is out of print and hard to find even on Amazon) and the prose is well-crafted and written. I am impressed that she managed to rise to the top of her profession which is difficult now, much less in the 1950s. And the fact that a generation of critics worship decades after she stopped writing says a lot in a field that doesn’t allow for much looking back.
That said, I’ve learned a lot about Pauline Kael the person recently, particularly in a recent TCM documentary on her. And it leads me to question whether she as a critics may have done harm to industry not merely by the movies she liked, but by her own actions which I truly believed crossed a line.
In 1971 David Lean, one of the greatest directors of all time was invited to a dinner where several New York Critics including Kael were present. Lean was not in great repute at the time: his most recent film Ryan’s Daughter had been critically reviled, well over budget and a box-office disaster. Lean might have been expected some hostility, but Kael and her ilk utterly tore him a new one. They basically told him that his films were overblown and monstrous and that the world could live without them. He joked that maybe he should stay out of color, and they said: ‘No you can have color.” Lean took this criticism very much to heart: he lived until 1990 but made just one more film the rest of his life: the exceptional A Passage to India in 1984. I have no doubt Kael went to her grave thinking: ‘Job well done’.
This strikes me as not just one of the worst things a critic has ever done, it seems a violation of the boundary between art and journalism. It’s one thing to say that a director or a writer is a hack — it’s what critics do — it’s another to publicly humiliate them in a group setting and tell them they have no business being in films after forty years of making some of the most successful movies of all time. I may loathe Shonda Rhimes and the effect she’s had on television, but I withhold my criticism to my column. I would never gather a group of similar minded friends together and publicly shame her into only working in limited series.
More to the point, I never understood why so many people thought Lean was an overblown hack. You can make the argument that his works like Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia have less of the personal and humanistic touch of earlier movies like Brief Encounter and Great Expectations — that’s a legitimate discussion and indeed there are critics like Roger Ebert who did feel that way about some of his later works. But even if you want to argue that a film like Lawrence was just spectacle — it was about something. It was a film with a plot and characters and a definite story. Even if you argue that you can only get an idea of its majesty on a big screen, even on a small television you can glimpses of what Lean and his craftsmen put into it. It dwarfs so many of the overblown epics that were to come — Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, an epic only in length; Braveheart and Gladiator,; Best Pictures appreciated only for the utter excruciating natures of the violence; Kingdom of Heaven and Troy which have no business existing. These are spectacles only in the sense that they are long and ponderous, not in the way that Lean’s films were.
And what guts me even more is that Lean stopped working for the entire 1970s, the age of the auteur. What great films from him did we miss when he would have been given the artistic freedom that the Coppolas and the Spielbergs and the Altmans were getting? Given the process it took Lean to make movies, it was unlikely we would have gotten more than two or three films, but what two or three films they would have been. Would they have had the majesty of The Godfather? The beautifully cinematography we would see from Terence Malick? Something along the lines of on an American Nashville? They might have been the kind of beautiful messes that we got in that era such as a Barry Lyndon or Heaven’s Gate, but both movies are much more appreciated now than they were then. It would have been an alternate cinematic history we never got a chance because of the work of people like Kael, and that’s a tragedy for cinema.
What makes me judge Kael all the more harshly were some of the films she regarded as masterpieces right around the time she was berating Lean as an overblown hack. Because two of the films she couldn’t stop raving about in her column are among the most problematic movies ever made in the 1970s and possibly of all time. The fact that both were made by talented filmmakers doesn’t make them any less of travesties, especially since at the time they were among the most controversial of a decade filled with controversial films.
A brief bit of history for those of you who may not know much about the rating systems for films. From 1969 until roughly the early 1980s, movies that were rated X didn’t have the same stigma that they do today. Many of them were considered pornography (though during the 1970s it wasn’t uncommon for many pornographic films to get a nationwide release) but many of them were simply considered too ‘adult’ for even seventeen years old to handle. Midnight Cowboy was the first (and almost certainly only) X-rated movie to win Best Picture because of its themes of male prostitution. It was still a significant critical and box office hit and many film-makers did try to push those boundaries.
Which brings us to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Kael went into rhapsodies about this film that even her fellow critics questioned at the time, and almost certainly justifiably. More than half a century after the film was made, it’s still one of those films that is more talked about then actually seen. Not merely because of the violence of the subject matter, its because its dialogue — Cockney with an accent so heavy that it practically seems to be its own language — is still nearly incomprehensible even with closed captioning.
Now at this point Clockwork Orange clearly has some of the most memorable images of all time — Malcolm McDowell in his bowler, stomping an old man to death to the tune of Singing in the Rain, images of him with eyes being held open watching a continuous stream of images until he shouts out for relief. And the messages Kubrick was trying to tell the world about clearly resonate and are significant to this. None of this, however, answers the question whether A Clockwork Orange is actually the masterpiece that people like Kael thought it was. And the thing is, at the time it’s still never been clear that Kael’s contemporaries believed it. Roger Ebert believed Kubrick one of the great directors of all time, and in his Great Movies collections regularly featured many of his films, including films that were considered deeply flawed at the time, like The Shining and yes, Barry Lyndon. A Clockwork Orange didn’t appear in any of the four books that he had written at the time of his death. And small wonder: in his original review, he felt nothing but ‘disgust for Alex’ and considered it an ‘ideological mess’ Ebert was willing to admit his flaws with the passage of time: he would repudiate The Graduate thirty years after raving about it, and consider A.I: Artificial Intelligence which he considered flawed, a minor masterpiece nearly a decade later. He never changed his opinion on Clockwork Orange.
I’ve watched a lot of Kubrick’s movies. Some I consider masterpieces like Dr. Strangelove and Spartacus. Some I respect, even though I can’t comprehend them (2001) I’ve never been able to watch the movie or read Clockwork Orange. Burgess’ novel is incomprehensible; most of Clockwork Orange is utterly repugnant, both violently and sexually. I realize that may be the point of the movie, but I don’t approve of the messaging. But say what you will about the film; I can at least get my head around why Kael lost her head over it. Kubrick was one of the greatest directors of all time. The same can not be said for the other film that was the cause of Kael’s most famous review and lines.
In her review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Kael wrote the line: “(Marlon) Brando and Bertolucci have given birth to an art form.” In my greatest rave I don’t think I could have written just a brilliant phrase. Thirty years, in discussing another Betrolucci film, Ebert excused the line: “Well, back then we talked about movies like that.” In the documentary I saw another colleague of hers was far less kind: “Why did she choose this hill to die on?” That is a very good question when you are considering the kind of film that not even the crudest porn director would consider a story.
Now I will confess to being a mild connoisseur of pornography disguised as art. I’ve seen bits of Last Tango and it doesn’t close to meeting the qualifications of either. And I’m relatively certain if anybody other than Marlon Brando had been playing the lead, the film would have regarded with revulsion by everybody. Because no matter how you try to justify the movie, it is a glorification of a much older man raping a younger woman. That’s the first sexual encounter between Jeanne and Paul and no matter what Kael or anyone else thinks, it’s never a relationship. Paul makes it very clear he doesn’t want them to know the other’s names and Jeanne is not so much a character as object of an older man’s desires. The butter scene…well, I’ve never watched it and I never will.
I have no doubt that Kael and critics like her justified their raves of both Last Tango and Orange by saying that they were both films about the ultimate of adult artistic expression. It’s much clearer now and it should have been clearer then that both films center on the utter violence of sexuality and rape as a part of art. I don’t believe in the idea of cancel culture as a general rule. For these films, especially Last Tango in Paris, I would gladly make an exception. These films should not be considered art; they are stories that center on the subjugation of women. That in the end protagonists in each film pay the ultimate prize for their crimes is irrelevant and does nothing to justify their existence. And that a female critic seemed to consider both films the ultimate in artistic achievement in a way she never appreciated The Godfather or MASH, well, that really doesn’t say much for Kael’s skill.
Kubrick, at least, went on to make very different films for the rest of his career and while The Shining and Full Metal Jacket were as violent, it’s hard to argue that the violence was used in the same context. Bertolucci never changed. Most of the movies he based for the rest of his careers were sexual exploitation films disguised as art: Stealing Beauty, Besieged and The Dreamers feature older man/young women porn, interracial porn, and incestuous love triangle porn, respectively. He did win an Oscar for The Last Emperor in 1987, a film that, for the record, is the kind of overblown epic film Kael and her ilk accused Lean of making fifteen years earlier, a film that is utterly dwarfed by Moonstruck and Broadcast News which were beaten by it for Best Picture. In his acceptance speech, Bertolucci referred to Hollywood as ‘The Big Nipple’. I only mention because in his hour of triumph, he was sounded less like the kind of succinct Brit Lean was (his entire acceptance speech for that ‘overblown epic’ Lawrence was basically: “This Brit is very grateful.”) and more like the dirty old man at the center of so many of his own films.