There’s a lot of Pauline Kael around right now. She features prominently in James Wolcott’s autobiography Lucked Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, which contains a delicious description of her writing: “Every phrase quivered like the handle of a knife whose blade has just lodged in the tree bark.” There’s also a new selection of her writing, The Age of Movies, edited by Sanford Schwartz, as well as a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, by Brian Kellow.
Not having read the latter yet, I’ll return to it here at a later date. But this week, 20 years after chancing upon my first Pauline Kael reviews in the over-heated library at the University of Kent, I finally read the infamous 8,000-word demolition job that Renata Adler attempted to perform as part of an assessment of Kael’s When the Lights Go Down in the New York Review of Books back in 1980. I think Kael’s reputation easily survives the puritanical attack, which is so prohibitive that it seems to oppose the idea of a critic having any stylistic continuity, any blood in his or her veins. Adler is highly disapproving of the notorious sexual metaphors that pulse through Kael’s writing, and goes to great pains to provide a shopping-list of the examples she has found, neglecting to appreciate fully how vital Kael was (along with Manny Farber) in loosening the terms of discourse in film criticism. (There’s also the charge, of course, that Kael also calcified it in her own way, but that came slightly later.)
However, there was one passage in Adler’s essay which pinched, for this reader at least. It forms part of a paragraph disparaging Kael’s sense of humour, and isolates the following examples from some of her negative reviews: “you fight to keep your eyes open”; “people were fighting to stay awake”; “but after a while I was gripping the arms of my chair to stay awake”; “the audience was snoring”; “the only honest sound I heard…was the snoring in the row behind me.”
Lifting those phrases out of the context of reviews written years apart is unfair, but it does highlight a particular injustice in reviewing that persists to this day. The suggestion that the critic in question was fighting sleep during a film has no place in serious reviewing, and yet we hear it frequently in supposedly dedicated settings — middle-brow arts programmes on TV and radio, broadsheet newspapers. If the critic is having trouble staying awake, it’s not relevant to the movie under discussion: it’s a failing of the critic, and it means that he or she should have got more sleep the preceding night, or sunk an espresso before entering the cinema, or needs to seek medical advice at the earliest opportunity.
Is there any other species of criticism where it’s acceptable for the reviewer to use his or her own susceptibility to sleep — basically his or her own indiscipline or lack of professionalism — as a stick with which to beat the work in question? You don’t tend to read music critics maligning an album because they nodded off during the guitar solo on track seven. That said, I did once fall asleep standing up, for the first and only time in my life, while attending a Stone Roses gig, also for the first and only time in my life. But it had been a long day. It wasn’t the band’s fault. Well, not entirely.
Perhaps the tendency for sleep to loom large in film reviews is attributable to the viewing conditions. The cinema is dark and (unless it’s an Early Bird screening at my local Cineworld) warm. So, too, is a theatre or an opera house, but at least in a cinema the performers are not disposed to object to, or even notice, a little snoozing or snoring. (The situation can be embarrassingly different in the theatre, as AA Gill observed in a review in the NS earlier this year.)
Plainly put, if the critic succumbs to sleep, it is not the film’s fault, even if the film in question is Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, all 12 hours and 41 minutes of it. Observing that other audience members were dozing has as little to do with what’s on screen as comments about the décor in the cinema, or the amount of popcorn on the floor. The absolute minimum that we should bring to a movie is consciousness. Critics need to wake up to that.