2012 February 01 • Wednesday
Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, is breezy and entertaining but as a biography lacks the depth and insight of a definitive Life. Kellow probably did the best he could, considering that Gina James, Kael's daughter and the person who knew more about Kael than anyone else alive, declined to be interviewed or to contribute to the book.
Probably enough was enough for Gina James. Speaking at her mother's memorial tribute, she notes her mother's "inflexibility", "lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint or hesitation" and how James "watched what she left, unaware, in her wake: flickering glimpses of crushed illusions, mounting insecurities, desolation".
It's typical of Kellow's diplomatic and often anodyne approach that he limits his description of James's remarks to the words "remarkably brave and unsentimental".
Structurally the biography takes its cue from Kael herself, who suggested that her film writing was her autobiography. Kellow guides us through her reviews and makes interesting stops on the way, usually to pick out the movies and people who had special meaning to Kael. Many of those people corresponded with her and a collection of Kael's letters would be an excellent follow-up to this volume.
A Life in the Dark is most illuminating when it comes to Kael's early years and how her struggles might have contributed to her impatience with the angst of the well-fed as well as fuelling her fierce individualism. She had an aversion to group-think as well as to the pretentious, earnest, moralistic and pietistic. This aspect of her character probably accounts for what appears, in this book, to be an indifference or hostility to feminism.
Kellow seems not to have watched the video of Pauline Kael speaking with a writing class at the University of South Carolina in 1982. When one of the teachers makes a comment about Kael's "impressionistic" reviews, Kael is offended and declares that her reviews are analytic and not at all impressionistic and that her work is seen as impressionistic only because she's a woman and women are judged to "have impressions" but not to be capable of sharp, critical insights.
This would be interesting to explore but it's not in the book. But Kael and the professor are both half right. Kael's reviews were rigorously analytical but also daringly impressionistic. (Kellow is surely correct to locate Kael in the vicinity, perhaps the vanguard, of the New Journalism movement.) This combination of two opposed tendencies is part of what made her so compelling and influential and what will make her so long-lasting.
Kellow is perhaps too deferential with his subject. Kael's poaching of another writer's work for her Raising Kane piece seems outrageous as it is presented here, but this conflict is left unresolved and unexplored, as are many others.
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark is more of an extended biographical sketch than a personal history or literary biography but it contains numerous amusing anecdotes and allows readers to revisit much of Kael's own writing. But couldn't Brian Kellow have thought of a better title? "A Life in the Dark" is not very interesting and what's more serious is that "in the dark" can be read two ways, making this book an unintentional gift to those who want to take Kael down a peg.