Pauline Kael’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

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345964996_cd40d30168The winner of the The Rumpus College Book Review Contest, a review of Pauline Kael’s seminal Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, by Matthew Weinstock.

In her 1970s heyday, film critic Pauline Kael was a figure of intellectual glamor (quotes from her reviews appeared on theater marquees, and college students talked about seeing a movie and then “finishing” the experience by reading Kael’s New Yorker review), though now she’s fallen largely out of print, relegated to crummy used paperbacks.  Kael’s 38-year body of criticism is barely even drawn on for the blurbs on DVD boxes—though perhaps there’s logic to that.  It’d be distracting to read, on the back of a copy of Long Day’s Journey Into Night:

It’s obvious, sprawling yet crabbed[…]the naked, trite, naggingly self-expressive art of a new, almost pathetically self-conscious country.  But if you respond at all, I think you go all the way to exaltation.

Readers would get caught on that great, hookish word “crabbed”, and might even gaze sentimentally at the ellipsis—wondering “What got extricated?”, longing for more.  Pauline Kael’s criticism, which began as tentative marginalia that criticized, heckled, and imaginatively “embroidered” movies, acquired in the mid-1960s the compulsive, novelistic tug of a standalone text.  One of Kael’s friends observed that while writing, Kael “had the habit of holding her breath as she began each sentence and gasping explosively for air only when she reached its end.”  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a collection of Kael’s reviews and essays from 1965 to 1967 (along with 280 capsule reviews of older movies) is like a memento of all that fabulous oxygen.9780714506586

For Kael’s prose is the opposite of “breathless”—it’s full of packed-up energy, of covert competition.  She sometimes seems to be racing her talent against the filmmakers’, at other times wrestling with her own contradictory urges (of Errol Flynn’s pleasurable swashbuckling in Robin Hood: “Who could ask for anything more?  Well, of course, we do, we must…yet action is good, our senses demand it”).  Kiss Kiss is a gently-smokescreened map of Kael’s inner life, and the last of her books (there were ten more to come) in which she’d offer herself up in all her emotional variety—here Kael is both dishy and restrained, spontaneous and deeply reflective, in a way she’d never quite be again.

These conflicts lend the book a dramatic tension missing from most criticism.  When Kael senses herself outstripping a drab, corny movie, she begins “rewriting” it; in her review of The Sound of Music, she wonders, “Wasn’t there perhaps one little Von Trapp[…]who screamed that he wouldn’t act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa’s party guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get on a stage?”  And in reviews of films she loves (memorably, her 21-page defense of Bonnie & Clyde), Kael doesn’t recede respectfully but engages, becomes a collaborator—providing descriptions so phenomenally apt they glom permanently onto your memory of the movies.  I can’t think of Cyd Charisse without picturing her “unhinging those legs”, and I can’t rewatch Grand Hotel without peering for the “ridiculous little bobby pin that keeps [Garbo’s] hair firmly in place during her big love scenes with Barrymore.”

So many people have written about the seductive qualities of Kael’s work—how tempting it is to mimic her slang-happy prose—but what’s more disconcerting to me is the ability of some of her reviews to supplant the original films in my memory.  Kael is so persuasive that, if you’re not vigilant, she can steal a movie out from under you.  Her strength of personality, of course, is part of what makes this book —which devotes itself to so many long-forgotten movies (The Quiller Memorandum; Razzia)—continually readable.¹  Kael famously referred to cinema as a “super-art” that mashed up the strengths of all other art forms, and Kael herself has a peculiar malleability that allows her to empathize with and examine a wild variety of film artists.  (This was true even of her physical person: her breathy voice was invariably likened to Marilyn Monroe’s, and in sixties snapshots she looks remarkably like Edward G. Robinson.)  In her writing here, Kael—having seized upon film criticism in middle age after a cavalcade of failed careers—prizes Katharine Hepburn’s endurance (“her career [is] an index of American changes”), and her response to Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders functions as endearingly vulnerable autobiography: both she and Godard, she suggests, have outgrown the “luxury and wastefulness” of Hollywood, “that when you are young seem as magical as peeping into the world of the Arabian Nights, [but] become ugly and suffocating when you’re older and see what a cheat they really were.”

It could, of course, be argued that this sort of madcap emotional projection actually reduces Kael’s subjects (Godard and Orson Welles are never unfathomable to her, because she seizes on the qualities they have in common, and disparages or ignores the rest)—and occasionally it’s startling to read such confident psychobiography of people Kael never seems to have met.  Further, despite the fact that Kael proudly resisted nostalgia, there is something fundamentally sentimental about the way she sees movies.  Kael found her experience chronicling the production of Sidney Lumet’s The Group disillusioning, in part because Lumet, she writes, “was no dangerous artist; he was out to do a job,” adding rhetorically: “Genius?  Yes, the genius necessary to convince people he’s a genius.”  These are moments of childish despair—only a thrill-seeking Sal Mineo type could demand that a director be a “dangerous artist” and do it with a straight face—and they’re at odds with moments in the book when Kael is cogent and reflective (she writes that Godard’s films—compendiums of “high points” and “little things”—are unjustly neglected because “we think in terms of masterpieces”). Her account of the making of The Group, lauded by John Updike at the time, is among the book’s highlights-a hilariously warped piece of journalism.  Kael is so dominant a force that you can practically see her smudges on the quotes, all of which have been angled as if in a pinball machine—craftily, to accumulate maximum pointage.  Still, while she rips Sidney Lumet to shreds, they’re fascinating shreds; she presents him as a compelling character, and seems to be marveling at his—what, his Yiddish Theater pluck?—while circling him, scribbling notes, and then reflecting on the man months later.

You rarely hear about the reflective side of Kael (though Roy Blount Jr. captured it in his essay “Lustily Vigilant”), so palpable in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, because it atrophied during her New Yorker years.  There, instead of writing on the relatively relaxed schedule of monthly magazines, she was forced to turn in weekly or biweekly copy—sometimes written in all-nighters immediately after seeing the movie.  In those years Kael gained a reputation for refusing to see a movie twice (detractors used it as proof that her “true gift” was for slapdash spontaneity), and yet the final essay in this book, “Movies on Television”, examines the protean nature of cinema: how movies crumble, change, or (as with The Maltese Falcon) retain their “brittle explosiveness” after “many years and many viewings.”  Her reconciliation with television, after a book’s worth of recriminations against the rookie medium, concludes another of the faint dramatic arcs running through Kiss Kiss.  The essay is uncharacteristic—prickly and moody and elegiac, it’s like the projections in The Glass Menagerie.  Kael writes, of movies that people say haven’t “held up:” “Perhaps it was a traditional drama that was new to them and that they thought was new to the world; everyone’s ‘golden age of movies’ is the period of his first moviegoing and just before—what he just missed or wasn’t allowed to see.”  She describes watching movies out of order on television: “Here is Orson Welles as a young man, playing a handsome old man, and here is Orson Welles as he has really aged.”  She admits that she “can always remember” the names of 1930s character actors, “though I cannot remember the names of my childhood companions or of the prizefighter I once dated.”  And it isn’t digression so much as Kael’s drawing on (like a trove) the entire history of movies, the history of her life.  (She seems to have been thinking these thoughts for years.)

At its best, Pauline Kael’s criticism has that panoramic intent—she’s able to articulate the rapturous experience of seeing Casablanca as well as the feeling of skepticism slowly dawning on her “in the cool night air afterward.”  In short, Kael acknowledges both the singularity of each movie and the place it holds in the Hollywood’s² ever-recycling history. Of 1960s troubled-kook movies like Georgy Girl, Kael writes: “Underneath all the nonconformity gear are the crooked little skeletons of old Shirley Temple pictures.”  Her capsule review of 1957’s Touch of Evil notes that Marlene Dietrich is “done up in her Gypsy makeup from Golden Earrings of 1947″—as if Orson Welles had such a skimpy budget he called Dietrich and told her to put on whatever was in her sock drawer, or—more fancifully—as if Dietrich had been swanning around ethereally for a decade wearing the same makeup, and Welles “caught” her on film, just as Golden Earrings‘ director had.

The fact that the Dietrich line serves as both a wry example of Hollywood’s cheapness and of how those cheap movies “turned out to have magical properties” is emblematic of the entire book.  Despite the fact that (as Craig Seligman wrote) “most of the movies she wrote about have turned to dust”, and that many of her books themselves are out of print, Pauline Kael’s early criticism retains similar magical properties.  Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is domineering, thrilling, touching, and full of “ridiculous little bobby pins”—tossed-off observations and phrases that are so apt and beautiful you memorize them instinctively .


¹Ideally, a “primer” volume of Kael’s writing would exist, featuring her reviews of major, enduring films. For now, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang‘ll have to suffice.

²I say “Hollywood” because Kael is ultimately preoccupied with America-in fact, the foreign film reviews in Kiss Kiss are the closest the book comes to being a slog.  Kael grasps Hollywood; American films rouse old memories and wisecracks in her, whereas her reviews of, say, Swedish films (even ones she loves) display little intimacy.  She takes a vaguely formal air with them, as if she’s christening ships..  (Godard is an exception, and she seems to relish his work at least partly for his Hollywood inflections.)

Matt Weinstock will be a senior at Brown University this fall. He won the Anne Shepherd Humanities Prize in 2005. More from this author →