If the average person who cares about such things were asked to choose a greatest American film critic, but for some outliers stumping for Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, or (if particularly nettlesome) James Agee, they would generally go with Pauline Kael. She wielded criticism like a weapon and praise like a benediction. She flouted the received wisdoms of the day and demanded that while the great arthouse auteurs receive their due, so too should those skilled practitioners of the lower orders of cinema. Kael won the National Book Award and inspired a mini-legion of fellow movie-crazed critics who came of age during the great flowering of that American art form and tried to keep its flames burning, even when the culture as a whole moved on to other loves.
The Library of America’s sturdy, wondrous compilation The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael makes a solid argument for Kael being this great American critic. If nothing else, the volume contains an improbably rich trove of not just her loves and hates, but also those ill-advised championings, which any decent critic must take a flyer on from time to time (how did anyone ever think Brian De Palma was that good?). Spanning 1965 to 1990, the volume holds many sparkling radio essays she delivered over the East Bay airwaves and had reprinted in places like Film Quarterly before heading east, and a wealth of reviews from magazines, especially from her residency at The New Yorker, where she opined from 1967 to 1991. The full range of Kael’s smarts, vision, wit, prejudices, and downright cruelty are on full, wicked display.
Kael’s writing holds up so many years later — even if the films she’s writing about have not — in part because of her zest for the fight, for the engagement. In an age like our own, critics of note have in the main been exiled to media’s fringes, where they can safely carry on schismatic battles of choice about Wong Kar-Wai or Terrence Malick on specialist blogs. Those writers still holding the bully pulpit in the Arts section of major newspapers or magazines can get worn down by the need to not annoy their readers and just deliver a few zingers, a plot synopsis, and a star rating. Kael’s ability to bridge the high and the low, to write about the grungiest of genre flicks with the same acuity she brought to an art-house extravagance and being equally merciless to both, is one that’s in sadly short supply today.
There is her humor, an area in which only possibly The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane can be currently seen as a competitor. It’s hard to imagine a better put-down than her response to Raging Bull (and this coming from a critic who had cheered the greatness of Mean Streets):
I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb f—k,” and Joey says, “You dumb f—k,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb f—ks?
What also makes Kael’s writings still sting and sing today is something even more basic, nestled like a germ inside her barbs. She was, more often than not, just plain right, particularly when sparring with fellow reviewers who fell in awe before the latest manufactured classic. In his introduction to The Age of Movies, editor Sanford Schwartz notes that as memorable as her jokes were “Kael’s little torpedoes of common sense, perceptions that could lodge in a reader’s mind.” This was generally truer of her slash-and-burn pieces than her arias of praise.
Oh, the things she did to West Side Story. It is difficult to describe what a clean and refreshing breath of air it is (even for a fan of the film) to read a critic like Kael coming at that work in 1961 when it was just another movie on the marquee, before it had been encrusted in decades of accolades and revivals. But in her West Side Story broadside (like many of the better pieces here, collected in her 1965 whipcrack of a book, I Lost it at the Movies), she shoots hole after hole in its pretentions of realism and its jazzy insistence of modern relevance. From the basic story (“first you take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and remove all that cumbersome poetry”) to the dancing (“it’s trying so hard to be great it isn’t even good”) and the heroine (“[Metropolis’s robot] named the false Maria … had more spontaneity than Natalie Wood’s Maria”).
On the flip side of this is the joy that comes with reading Kael’s delighted take on Jules and Jim, also before it had been safely sanctioned as a classic. The idea of a moviegoer like her just coming across a sweet ray of cinematic sunshine at random in between all her other screenings is hard to comprehend. Here, like in many of her writings from the 1960s, Kael spends as much time jousting with other critics as she does with the film itself. Knocking The New Republic’s staid Stanley Kauffmann (a favorite target) for saying that François Roland Truffaut had no purpose for making the film, she fires back: “Truffaut, the most youthfully alive and abundant of all the major film directors, needs a reason for making movies about as much as Picasso needs a reason for picking up a brush or a lump of clay.”
Like most of those who end up embodying a particular establishment, Kael started out as an outsider. Born in 1919, she was a San Francisco area native who ran a Berkeley repertory house in the later 1950s while raising a daughter as a single mother. The voice that enabled her to collect her writings into I Lost It At the Movies and get her a sinecure at The New Yorker was fierce in its cinephilic distrust of what goodie-goodies thought people should see. She could be swept away but generally preferred light to meaningful. Nothing irritated her more than portentousness or lesson-giving. But she could be just as dismissive of brutally cynical downers like The French Connection as she was of airy and ponderous uplifting epics like Dances with Wolves.
When Schwartz writes about reading Kael “clearing the air of academic systems of grading movies,” he’s vividly depicting the insouciant air of rebelliousness that allowed her to write a classic long-form piece like “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” In this 1969 Harper’s essay, Kael lays down one of the greatest definitions of true movie-love:
The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.
This idea of movie-love being a community of talkers and arguers is lost in Kael’s later writing. Some would argue that the falling-off that comes in the latter chapters of The Age of Movies might have something to do with the decline in American film. It has to be said that concluding with reviews of 1989’s Casualties of War (while not nearly as bad as its detractors would have it, the film doesn’t deserve Kael’s hosannas of praise) and 1990’s The Grifters (a middling film, at best) is a letdown.
What is really missing in Kael’s leaner pieces from the 1980s is her connection with the society as a whole. So often in her writings of the 1960s and ’70s was the feeling that that weren’t just reviews but larger pulse-takings of society and culture. She lost that knack of the great statement, like her indelible line from “Trash…” which defines movies as “a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry, corrupt world.” Possibly that had to do with film losing its place at the center of American society. Films of today like The Tree of Life or Black Swan that would have once sent cinephiles into the aisles to duke it out with brass knuckles now barely rate a peep from the larger culture. When Kael stopped writing with that great sweep, her work was no less good, but it was certainly less necessary — perhaps the same could be said of film, especially American film, as a whole.
The Age of Movies isn’t the definitive Pauline Kael collection, that honor must still go to 1996’s For Keeps, the 1300-page doorstopper whose great length allows it to include a long selection from her magnificent book on Citizen Kane. At 864 pages, this new collection will serve just fine, but when it comes to Pauline Kael, the great American film critic, quantity just brings more quality.
Joanna Smith Rakoff hasn’t had a Lillet in at least a year. Or so she says, after I point out that the drink enjoys a small but noteworthy role in her debut novel, A Fortunate Age, about six young Oberlin College graduates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We’re at Cafe Figaro, a French restaurant with red booths and cloudy mirrors down the block from Skylight Books. In a couple of hours, Rakoff will read there as part of her west coast paperback tour. Until then, she has agreed to share the pâté with me; we’ve already discussed an English professor we’re both still close to.
Let me get this out of the way: I’m proud to be part of the Oberlin Mafia (class of ’02 in the house!) I’m always updating my list of famous alumni–Liz Phair, Ed Helms, and Gary Shteyngart, to name a few–and if I see a car with an Oberlin bumper sticker, I will do a French Connection-style chase to get the driver’s attention. I enjoy telling my husband that my alma mater is way better than his; at the University of Chicago they built the atomic bomb; at Oberlin they built an Environmental Studies Center that runs on human waste. My four years at Oberlin made me the thinker I am today. It was only a matter of time before I read A Fortunate Age.
And yet, I didn’t expect to love the book as much as I did, and its connection to Oberlin was only nominally what I loved about it. For starters, it feels simultaneously contemporary, with its references to Cat Power, and its spot-on descriptions of Brooklyn at the turn of the twenty-first century, and also deliciously old-fashioned, as sprawling as Middlemarch and as readable as The Age of Innocence. Rakoff told me she was highly influenced by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, “the ultimate skewering of the middle class,” and A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell, which takes place on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. It’s one of Rakoff’s favorite novels. “What I love about it is that it’s very much about the cultural mood at the time, but the political goings-on, the historical backdrop, is woven in,” she says. “You see the way the forces of society and culture affect and influence these characters in a way that’s so subtle and wonderful.” Rakoff could very well be talking about her own novel, for it captures perfectly a particular time and place: New York from the late nineties tech boom, to the post-9/11 world of the new century. The characters are shaped by the city and this era, and as readers we pay witness to their evolutions. There’s a keen sense that this isn’t merely a personal drama about marriage, work, and making art, but also a book about what it means to exist in the world today. For instance, one character, Sadie Peregrine, isn’t just a mother of two, she is a mother of two in an increasingly frightening world:
Each day, some fresh horror arose: The train bombings in Madrid. The endless car bombings and suicide bombings in Iraq and Pakistan and Israel and Afghanistan, with their roster of civilian victims (children; always the children). The Vietnam-style rapes and massacres of Iraqi families–and the accompanying photos of the sweet-faced Virginia boys who’d perpetrated them. The kidnappings, all over the Middle East and North Africa, of journalists and contractors and translators. The beheadings–videotaped, aired on television–in Iraq. Everywhere, everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Typing this passage, I’m struck by how much darker it is than the opening of the novel, which begins with Lil’s wedding, four years after college graduation, its tone comic, almost jaunty. By the end of the novel, these characters have, without a doubt, reached adulthood, and it isn’t always a smooth transition.
Rakoff’s novel poses a central question: what do you hold onto from your idealistic youth, and what do you shed? In my mind, A Fortunate Age is a Post-Campus Novel: the campus, and what it signifies, has stayed with these characters, long after they’ve left it. For them, college was a time when they could easily devote themselves to art, and remain socially conscious; their passions did not yet have to be negotiated with the sobering realities of the working world. And the characters are cognizant, even occasionally pained by, this shift. In writing A Fortunate Age, Joanna says, “I was thinking a lot about the ways that going to a liberal arts college—specifically Oberlin, but you could say the same for other colleges of its kind, shapes you.” She says:
These colleges are utopian environments, in a way that a lot of these larger universities are not. You are instilled with these wonderful values and a wonderful sense of yourself, particularly if you are in the arts. And then you go out into the world, and it can be crushing. Perhaps more so in New York than everywhere else, but to see how commerce is what drives everything.
Joanna is a fan of the campus novel, particularly David Lodge’s work. She says she wanted to write a contemporary comedy of manners, which is difficult to do nowadays, because, at least in the US, “social mores are all over the place.” She points out that campus novels are so appealing because they’re about a closed society with certain rules. And maybe that’s why, in the world of her book, there’s “a Whartonian element to keeping up socially.” Lil, Sadie, and the others, they’ve got to compromise, and make sacrifices, in order to stay afloat in their world. “It’s indicative of the time period I’m chronicling,” she says.
Because the novel shifts perspective between five of the six characters, we get to see these characters both from the outside, and the in. We also see them through each other’s eyes, which can be both illuminating and alienating–sometimes friends get you, and sometimes, they don’t even come close. As the reader, we get to know these characters quite deeply, but never all at once. After spending a chapter with one, the narrative alights its glance on another, and we don’t return to the original character’s point of view for some time, if at all. This technique requires us to supply the rest of their story. Is Beth happy with Will? Is Dave going to stay in the band? How do they really feel? One can imagine both a negative, and a positive outcome, usually a mingling of both. Joanna tells me this was part of her plan, based in on the structure of The Group by Mary McCarthy, which A Fortunate Age was inspired by:
What I’m trying to do is give you a glimpse of a character—it’s kind of a Modernist project: to give you a glimpse of a character and then allow you to bore into that character’s head. I wanted each character to start off in an almost superficial way—see that character dealing with almost trite, gossipy things…their friends, their dress. As the chapter went on, I wanted to go deeper and deeper into their heads and see what their lives are like.
She is quick to point out, too, that the characters in her novel are affected by Oberlin in a totally different way than McCarthy’s characters are by Vassar. I asked Rakoff about one particular character in the novel, Caitlin, who also graduated from Oberlin with the others, but isn’t a friend of theirs–in fact, you might even describe her as a villain. We are never given access to her point of view. Caitlin wields a holier-than-thou attitude, and is blind to her own hypocritical behavior. “My initial draft of the book was more harsh and satirical with regard to all the characters, not just Caitlin,” Rakoff says. “Later drafts softened them, but not with Caitlin—and it’s not satirical license…I know people just like her. There’s always going to be that person who drinks the Kool-Aid, and it stays in her system. Part of Caitlin’s problem is that she’s so insecure and over confident, and she is trying so hard to be counter-cultural that she’s become dictatorial.”
I smile because I’ve too met people similar to Caitlin, though fewer and fewer with each year away from college. I ask Joanna about the choice to write about people in their twenties. Joanna laughs, and tells me about a friend who tried to convince her not to write the book. Her friend said she didn’t want to read about young people in New York. “I am that person!” she said. For a time, Joanna heeded her advice, until she couldn’t any longer. She wanted to tell this story.
[As a reviewer] I was doing this really heavy volume of reading, and I would get these novels about young women, usually in NY. They were just ridiculous. They were all about buying…Prada shoes, Gucci bags. I don’t know anyone whose life is like that. I don’t know anyone who really lives like this. I kept waiting for that novel to come my way, that was going to be about people I knew, and it never came.
A Fortunate Age isn’t about people I know–not exactly–but the lives explored therein are nevertheless rich and complicated, sometimes absurd, sometimes appalling, sometimes beautiful. It felt true to me. I’m glad Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote this book into existence. I can now add her to my illustrious list of alumni.
For about a year, the books in our apartment threatened to swallow my husband and me. Adding another bookcase, like adding another lane to an already clogged freeway, didn’t help–it only encouraged us to read more, and the piles kept growing. During the holidays, it got so bad that those stored on top of a shelf in the living room covered most of the framed French Connection poster on the wall above it; they even threatened to push the lamp off the edge. The books on top of the small shelf in the bedroom nearly blocked the light switch; soon we would either have to paw through the dark, or sleep with the lights on. Something had to be done.
Although I agreed with Patrick that we needed more space, I was resistant to a book purge. For one, I like books-as-interior-decoration. Their uniformity of shape contrasts well with their variation in color (unless, you’re one of these rubes who stores their books spine-in), and bookends are so elegant (I cherish my brass dogs from Restoration Hardware.) Plus, every few weeks I can avoid writing by rearranging and dusting the piles of novels scattered in each room. Why write my own when I have all of these published ones to keep me company?
I also felt strongly that our books revealed to visitors our values and our identities; the fact that we were swimming in them emphasized their importance in our lives. The first thing I look at when I walk into someone’s home is their bookshelf. That is, if they’ve got any–lord help me. On his goodreads profile, my friend Brian writes, “If you go home with someone, and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck ’em!” This has always struck me as wise advice for the literary bachelor or bachelorette, and I’d like to extend it further, away from the romantic and sexual: if you don’t read, I don’t want to be your friend…I don’t even want you to serve me a drink at a bar. If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren’t books, or–oh no!–not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick? If my copy of Handmaid’s Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren’t on display, how would anyone understand us? Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb. I’ve got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov.
Right before Christmas, my father came over for dinner and with a sneer told us we should get rid of our library. “You’re not actually going to re-read these, are you?” he asked. It should come as no surprise that he isn’t a reader (I wish I could say, “If you don’t read, I don’t want to be your daughter”…but, alas, I have no choice in the matter.) Patrick thought my dad had a point; a lot of these books were just sitting on the shelves, untouched. We should try to get rid of half of our books, he said after my father left. “But I need them for teaching!” I cried. I teach classes from home, and I love to allude to a book during workshop, and then, in the next moment, hand it to the student. “You’re not a librarian,” Patrick replied, that witty asshole.
So, one Sunday, we began. My first idea was that we would do each other’s dirty work. I would purge the books that belonged to Patrick, and he would purge mine. Nothing would leave the apartment without the other’s consent, but it was a good way to be objective about the matter. Patrick had no idea how much I’d enjoyed A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, so it clearly couldn’t mean all that much to me. That stung–but he was right, and into the exit line it went.
It wasn’t long before we began purging our own books, voluntarily. We were even a little frenzied. It was liberating, for instance, to finally give away Fortress of Solitude, which I must now publicly admit, I didn’t like as much as everyone else did. It felt okay to pull my copy of Tom Jones from the shelf; if someone wanted to assume I hadn’t read it, let them. Only I held the history of my reading past, of the semesters of college courses I diligently attended, reading everything (everything!) on the syllabus, taking sometimes useful, but more often ineffectual, notes in the margins. I didn’t need the books themselves to remember my reader-selves of yesteryear.
The pile of books to be purged grew larger and larger, covering the kitchen table, and the four chairs as well. The shelves were thinning out. I began to get a little spiritual about things. I liked the idea of passing on all these stories to new readers. Let them live on! I was in the service of humanity now!
Of course, we didn’t get rid of everything (sorry, humanity). Our favorites remained. Not only were Margaret Atwood and Robert Caro safe, so were Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Sam Lipsyte, James Joyce, and Anne Carson… and these were just a few of the authors who survived. Patrick and I had fun rearranging our two “favorites” shelves, one for long-beloved books, and one for newer books that had recently captured our imagination and hearts. We created a shelf specifically for authors we knew personally, from Kiki Petrosino to John Haskell; next time someone takes a gander at the collection, I am totally going to brag. We also migrated most of our poetry from the front of the apartment to the bedroom. (Upon moving in, we thought we might want to pull out a collection during a dinner party, to enliven it with a verse or two, but that never happened. Now, it seems more romantic and delicious to sleep and dream next to poems, rather than eat and surf the web next to them.)
Our best change is “The Unread” (either a book section or the latest horror flick, coming to a theatre near you). I am happy to say, it’s only a short pile, and it’s in no danger of blocking that movie poster. This pile is easy to access, and usefully recriminating; it’s difficult to defend a new book purchase when we have all of these waiting for us. Since the purge, I have already read one of these books (Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk) , and I’m halfway through another (The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).
It’s been a little over a week since we’ve cleaned out and rearranged our bookshelves. To my surprise, I don’t grieve the change. Three people have commented on how clean the place looks, and not one has noticed the lack of books. It’s like a flattering new haircut that no one sees–they just think you look great.
So where, you ask, did we send all of our unwanted books? Someone else might have tried to sell them online, or at a used bookstore, or scheduled appointments with literary-minded friends (the only kind worth having, as I’ve previously established). But we weren’t so prepared: we loaded them into garbage bags and dropped them off at our local Goodwill on Hollywood Blvd. If you head over there soon, you will certainly find some gems.