22 November 2011

The Lost Empires of Brian Kellow

Kiss kiss etc. etc.

My friend Brian Kellow’s biography of the New Yorker’s infamous film critic, Pauline Kael, is now on sale at bookstores near you — relative and archaic though that expression may be, in this day and age, but you can buy it on Amazon, too. Released on the occasion of Kael’s centenary, A Life in the Dark has elicited sensational reviews (including what I think is the first article Frank Rich has written for The New York Times since his inexplicable jump to New York Magazine), and Brian hardly needs me to add to the stack. I’ve read the book greedily — but also wistfully.

For what strikes me about this book and its predecessors, Ethel Merman: A Life, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, and Can’t Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell, is the pains Brian has taken to document worlds that no longer exist. Namely, a Broadway and a Hollywood where a particular kind of art was practiced by truly distinctive talents, and in Farrell’s case, a musical environment where an opera singer could not only appear regularly on television but also have her own radio program, singing whatever she pleased, including pop, without apology to anybody.

Now Brian has done it again, focusing on one of the great chroniclers of the last era when Hollywood made movies for grown-ups (instead of 14-year-old boys) — which is also an era when magazines mattered, and criticism counted. Since Brian and I met at Opera News, another venerable institution of a magazine, where both of us have on occasion written criticism, the example of Pauline Kael is poignant, perhaps as much so to him as she is to me.

Brian, in a photo by Nick Granito

A vast chunk of A Life in the Dark is given over to quoting from Kael’s reviews — with all manner of contextual material that a reader in 1975 (for instance) might have had fresh in her mind, but a reader in 2011 surely does not. And Brian does a terrific job of capturing the excited anticipation that greeted the arrival of each New Yorker in the mailbox: what would Pauline say this week? To kids like us, in the hinterlands, those reviews were like road maps to another world.

You couldn’t believe how long she’d go on, her stamina, her passion. She was bossy, telling you what you thought and felt, even when you hadn’t seen the picture, especially when you didn’t agree with her. She indulged a taste for films that I found (and still find) trashy and unworthy of my time, but she also had a way of digging into a great film and making it even clearer, until you could hardly think about a movie without also thinking of a particular phrase Kael used to describe it. Madeline Kahn had ample reason to be dismayed when Kael called her “a water bed at just the right temperature.”

In an era when it became hip to say “The personal is political,” it was true of Kael that the professional was personal, and you’re not quite surprised to see how little of A Life in the Dark is given over to conventional biographical accounts. Kael wasn’t conventional, and while she wasn’t quite correct when she said that she’d already written her autobiography — in the course of her movie reviews — there’s plenty about her private life that I didn’t know before Brian exposed it — when you’re reading her criticism, you get the feeling that nothing else matters, to her or to you.

A certain kind of journalistic accuracy seldom stood in the way of Kael’s oh-so-subjective passions, and she wielded an uncanny gift for matching intensely physical descriptions to the images she’d seen on a movie screen. In that sense, she’s not far from today’s bloggers and the current climate, wherein actual knowledge of an art form is by no means a requirement, where democracy has taken over and blurred any distinction between audience and critic, because indeed “everybody’s a critic” now.

But Kael was a guide — even when she was wrong, even when her tastes didn’t accord with yours, you needed her to help you find your way — even when that was an entirely opposite direction from Kael’s own. You talked about her reviews — “Did you see what she said?” — and you and your friends argued as if she were in the room with you to debate your opinions.* Granted, there was nobody else like her, even at the time, but there’s surely nobody like her now, and with the decline of magazine journalism, the chances of there ever being another Pauline Kael are practically nil.

Movies are simpler now, and more simple-minded; maybe we don’t need guides anymore. I find this deeply, deeply sad. With magazines, as with Broadway musicals and so much else, I often feel as if I arrived just a little too late to a marvelous party: it was breaking up already by the time I got here — which is just about when Brian got here, too.

Reading Brian's books is not in itself a melancholy experience, not least because, in his own way, Brian is playing at Proust’s game. He doesn’t mourn the past but recaptures it by recording its details, and there’s something joyful at times in the process. It’s only after closing the book that I sigh for empires glimpsed and lost.

*Sometimes you even started to sound like her.

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