Friday, May 05, 2017

Preserving Pauline

Pauline Kael, perhaps the best known film critic of the 20th century, is also famous (or infamous) for demonstrating liberal insularity by allegedly saying she was surprised when Nixon won because she didn't know anyone who voted for him.

The actual quote is more about recognizing that she lives in a special world. In fact, that's the first line: "I live in a rather special world.  I only know one person who voted for Nixon.  Where they are I don't know.  They're outside my ken.  But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them." (I know the feeling.  I recognize there were many who voted for Trump, but not where I live.)

She had her politics, and they were liberal, but they weren't that simple.  I've been rereading her criticism--especially the earlier stuff before she joined The New Yorker, when her style was fresh and not yet curdled--and you can see she often attacks the left for its deficiencies.

As much as she was part of the New York intellectual circuit in her glory days, she never forgot she was raised on a chicken farm in northern California, and sometimes defined herself in opposition to the Eastern elite.

Thus her 1964 essay on Paul Newman's Hud starts with some mockery of Europeans who come to America and make fun of our materialism, noting they're looking down on us because, in part, they can't afford the stuffier materialism they enjoyed back in the old country.

But she's just getting warmed up.  By the end, she asks why those to whom she recommended the film don't like it.

My friends, more or less socialist, detest a crude Hud who doesn't believe in government interference because they believe in more, and more drastic, government action [....] However, they are so anti-CIA that at Thanksgiving dinner a respected professor could drunkenly insist that he had positive proof the CIA had engineered the murder of Kennedy with no voice but mine raised in doubt.  They want centralized power when it works for their civil-libertarian aims, but they dread and fear its international policies.  They hate cops but call them at the first hint of a prowler[...]

She was attacked for criticizing the leftwing film Salt Of The Earth (1954).  Here's part of her response:

When "the oppressed" see themselves as a chosen people, and they certainly do in Salt, they become as morally and aesthetically offensive as any other righteous band. [...]  I cannot accept the implication that because Communists and fellow travelers have been subjected to some abuse in the United States, they are therefore exempt from analysis of their methods, purposes, and results. Is one not to call a spade a spade, because Senator McCarthy lumps together spades, shovels, and plain garden hoes?

And when some criticized I'm All Right, Jack (1959) for having fun at the expense of British labor unions (even though it also mocks the practices of big business), she wrote

[W]e may assume that the English workers know what their unions are, but the committed critics still regard them as both underdogs and sacred cows. [....] Isn't [one critic's disapproval] a preposterously prissy approach to satire--as if to say that if you really laugh at the social scene, there must be something the matter with you.

It would be a shame if in the future she's remembered as an example of a clueless liberal.  If nothing else, she had a clue.


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