l i f e o f t h e p e n god but his own. If Hitchens had accepted the entreaties of Catholic correspondents and announced his allegiance to Rome, his Protestant well-wishers would not have thanked him. On the other hand, if he had joined a Protestant evangelical group, ‘the followers of Rome would not think my soul was much safer than it is now, while a late-in-life decision to adhere to Judaism or Islam would inevitably lose me many prayers from both factions’.
A book on death that rejects not only false consolation but all consolation – ‘must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centred,’ he reminds himself – appears to have nothing to offer beyond the sombre pleasure of reading the last words of a great essayist who argued our age. But Hitchens wanted to live. Carol Blue, his wife,
says in an affecting afterword that ‘without ever deceiving himself about his medical condition, and without ever allowing me to entertain illusions about his prospects for survival, he responded to every bit of clinical and statistical good news with a radical, childlike hope’.
The best doctors in America offered their services. Hitchens volunteered to test experimental treatments. He died far too young and with too much left to write. But if he will forgive the martial image, he also died on the front line of science. As medicine continues to find new ways to prolong life without prolonging health, many of us will endure an old age of ‘care’ that may not kill us but most assuredly will not make us stronger. Hitchens’s final worries about the overlap between medical treatment and torture, about whether it is worth keeping patients lying for years on what a grim Sidney Hook called ‘mattress graves’, are likely to be our final worries too. When his readers face them, we will be grateful that Hitchens asked questions with elegant precision that we, in all likelihood, will lack the ability to phrase half as cogently.
Even though he gives us no answers, at least he ensures that we will begin our last journey prepared. The consolations of preparedness, of knowing what we are likely to meet, will not be great in the circumstances, but as Christopher Hitchens spent his life maintaining, the consequences of ignorance are worse. To order this book for £8.79, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 13
c h r i s t o p h e r b r ay
Moralist of the Silver Screen auline Kael: A Life in the Dark
By Brian Kellow (Viking 417pp £17.87)
he Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
Edited by Sanford Schwartz (Library of America 854pp £25.58)
Forget the salacious book titles (Taking It All In, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I Lost It at the Movies) and the salty vocabulary – ‘soft’, ‘whorey’, ‘pulpy’ – Pauline Kael was a devoted mother and grandmother who spent the bulk of her life doing nothing more exciting than watching, talking and writing about films. Which means Brian Kellow’s biography is largely given over not to synopses of movie plots but to synopses of synopses of movie plots. The pages blur as you read about Kael’s dismissal of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or her rapture over Barbra Streisand’s turn in Yentl, not because what Kael had to say was otiose or dull, but because nine of the ten books in which she collected pretty much all her pieces are still in print. If you don’t want to go to the expense of buying them all, incidentally, the Library of America has just published The Age of Movies, an 854-page selection of her work that – with one striking exception – contains everything the non-movie buff might need. Even if Kellow’s style matched that of his subject – and it doesn’t – this would be the place to start.
Hemingway once said that all American literature came out of Twain. Certainly Kael’s criticism did. Though her heroes growing up were R P Blackmur, Kenneth Burke and Lionel Trilling (about whom, one learns from Kellow, she wrote an early, unpublished essay), her slangy, off-the-cuff rhythms grew out of her loathing of what she thought of as hackademia. At Berkeley, where she majored in philosophy, she was chastised for writing ‘I’ rather than ‘one’ in her essays. Her loose, buttonholing style, in which she doesn’t so much try to get readers on side as assume they’re already there by addressing them in the second person plural (‘you’ think this about Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; ‘you’
Kael: off-the-cuff feel that about Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter), sounds like Huck Finn would have done had the movies rather than the medicine man come to town.
It was a voice that travelled. Kael got a lot of fan mail. During her twenty-fouryear tenure at the New Yorker, one editor after another asked her to recommend a critic for their own publication. Having befriended the writers of the more percipient letters, she often helped out. She pushed David Denby (himself now a New Yorker film critic) into his first job on the Atlantic Monthly, and she was instrumental in the careers of James Wolcott,
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Steve Vineberg and David Edelstein. Kellow doesn’t say so, but part of her disappointment at the dismissal of her protégé Michael Sragow from the New Yorker was surely that Tina Brown replaced him with Anthony Lane – a lovely writer, but just the kind of mocking, belletristic ironist Kael had taken it as her duty to see off.
Kael was the first film critic to feel in her bones that movies needn’t bow down at the altar of high culture. Earlier critics had either thought film inferior to the novel or the theatre, or sought to bolster its reputation by drawing parallels to music or poetry. Kael thought both approaches snobbish, the product of people who had come to the cinema late in life rather than grown up watching ‘trash’ (a key Kael word). She didn’t think movies stood alone, but she did think they were capable of standing on their own two feet. You judged a movie by the same essential criterion that you judged, say, an opera (her other favourite medium).
September 12 21/8/12 6:43 pm Page 1
And yet she always fought shy of calling the movies art. She was so disdainful of the Sixties idea that cinema might be up there with Shakespeare and Mozart that in a notorious essay she trashed Orson Welles for suggesting that Hollywood was no place for genius such as his. In ‘Raising Kane’ (the piece that’s missing from the Library of America selection) she not only took the critics’ chart-topper Citizen Kane down a peg or two but also suggested it was the work not of Welles but of his screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz. This was hooey, and not just because Mankiewicz never wrote anything else of note. Like it or not, Welles’s fingerprints – themes, motifs, compositions, characters – were all over the movie. It might not have been his alone, but it was emphatically his. Kael’s antipathy to the auteur theory – the theory that directors are to movies what writers are to novels and composers to symphonies – had blinded her to Welles’s astonishingly multifarious talents. Worse, it had blinded her to the truth. Peter Bogdanovich, who knew rather more than Kael about how movies were actually put together, published a lengthy rejoinder in which he dismantled her argument point by point. ‘How am I going to answer this?’, Kael asked Woody Allen when Bogdanovich’s piece appeared in Esquire. ‘Don’t,’ he said. Nor did she.
So why bother with her today? Because for all her numerous, knuckleheaded individual judgements – her devotion to the work of Brian de Palma, her dismissal of Meryl Streep – Kael had her finger on the cultural pulse. She saw how movies fitted into the bigger picture, saw how their plots and players embodied and expressed movements within society, and saw, crucially, that movies needn’t merely reflect social conditions. For all her double entendres and tough-guy posturing, she was a moralist. Kael was lucky enough to come of age as a critic during the second golden age of Hollywood, and her best criticism (broadly speaking, the work she did at the New Yorker during the 1970s) helped pin down a country in turmoil. Wilde said that all criticism is a form of autobiography. Kael’s criticism was biography, too. It told the life story of her country as it began its long decline into imperial fantasy. Though she was often wrong about the movies that fictionalised that journey, she was right about the journey itself. I’m not sure she merits a biography, but she sure as hell merits rereading. r
P R I Z E C R O S S W O R D ACROSS 1 Speedy acceptance of university’s role in work
by Goethe (5) 6 Trojan woman’s plant taken by Gilbertian princess (8) 7 Kick with enthusiasm (4) 9 Behold bishop’s seat (3) 10 Step on floor covering with new insert (4) 12 No team rejected by inventor (6) 13 Fibre tailor’s trimmed for sale (6) 15 Divine teacher’s computer icon (6) 17 Cause distress to school (6) 18 Welshman covers lake for surrealist (4) 20 Dorset flower reflected by tree (3) 21 Receptacle used by brewery (4) 22 Parisian’s last resort (3,5) 23 Second vehicle at end of motorway giving cause
for alarm (5)
This month, Chambers are sponsoring the prize crossword with five copies of the third edition of TheChambersThesaurus. Send your entries to 44 Lexington Street, London, W1F 0LW by 18 September.
August’s winners, who will each receive a copy of the BiographicalDictionary, are: Shirley Curran from Ingleton, C J Ellis from Rochester, Michael Gifford from London, George Gillespie from Larne, and Judy Stokes from Crawley. Solution totheAugustpuzzle– ACROSS: 1 Lethal, 4 Abhor, 9 Grendel, 10 Ngaio, 11 Nantucket, 12 Dawn, 13 Heart, 16 News, 19 Apartment, 21 Marsh, 22 Earshot, 23 Pesto, 24 Cyprus. DOWN: 1 Legend, 2 The law, 3 Auden, 5 Banquet, 6 Ozarks, 7 Plantagenet, 8 Booty, 13 Hatchet, 14 Balms, 15 Barrie, 17 Esther, 18 Smites, 20 Tarry.
1 US novelist suits, say, Durrell (10) 2 Obscene literature must be edited (4) 3 Celestial phenomenon is possibly remote display by queen (6,6) 4 Liveliness of some sprites (6) 5 Supreme god’s silence? (4) 6 A noisy oracle rewriting novel (6,6) 8 Supreme god, see, accepted by branch of Islam (5) 11 British novelist introducing girls to dignitary (10) 14 17 in a manner of speech as used in Bow? (5) 16 Ethnic test involving bishop (6) 19 Novelist travelling in Siam (4) 21 English illustration for long story (4)
s e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 11