By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill
Pauline Kael's writing has been riling people since she published her first movie review in the early 1950s. The way she made sexual awareness and boldness contribute to a kind of heightened intelligence upset people -- and may still. As a critic and a journalist, she combines a knack for what "works" in a theatrical sense with an analytical mind and a performer's spirit. Her first collection, "I Lost It At the Movies" (1965), was one of the landmarks of '60s nonfiction. Since then she's had an enormous influence on how popular culture is thought and written about (and she sometimes takes the rap for the sins of her imitators).
Kael's work is exciting in the way Norman Mailer's or Tom Wolfe's or Ryszard Kapuscinski's is. You come away buzzing; you take it personally -- in ways you're not used to taking nonfiction. ("Why doesn't she like Tarkovsky's or Sirk's films as much as I do?") Her reviews are so persuasive that when you don't agree with her you can go around for days arguing with her in your head.
Kael was born in 1919, the fifth and youngest child of immigrants from Warsaw who ran a farm in Petaluma, California, north of San Francisco. The family moved to the city when Pauline was eight. At the University of California at Berkeley she majored in philosophy. Before being able to earn a living as a writer she worked as a seamstress, a cook, and a ghostwriter of travel books, among other jobs, supporting herself and her daughter, Gina, while turning out film criticism and broadcasting reviews on Berkeley's Pacifica radio station. From 1955 to 1960 she managed the Berkeley Cinema Guild and Studio, the first twin cinema in the country. After "I Lost It at the Movies" she began publishing in mass-circulation magazines. Since 1968 she has written for The New Yorker, except for a break in 1979, when she spent five months working for Paramount in Hollywood. Her latest volume, "Hooked," has just been published and includes review of films by Jonathan Demme, Pedro Almodovar, John Waters, and Philip Kaufman.
Kael has given her house in the Berkshires a sensuality you don't expect from a writer. You walk into it and think visual artist or musician, not writer. It's a big, old, turreted place she bought years ago, when it was sagging and rotting. She and her daughter repaired it and opened it up, baring the woodwork. Art hangs on nearly all the walls -- much of it by her daughter, most of the rest by friends. Kael has an instinctive feel for the placement of things; every object in the house seems to be something she responded to immediately. She often has music playing -- a broad range, from Branford Marsalis to the countertenor Russell Oberlin. The day we stopped by, it was Aretha Franklin, her six-year-old grandson Will's current favorite. After a visit from her daughter and grandson we sat by the fireplace while snow piled up outside.
RAY SAWHILL: Which of the other arts has it been most important to you to follow?
PAULINE KAEL: When I began writing about films I was almost equally interested in jazz, which I followed through much of my life. I used to be able tell you who played what instrument on just about every jazz record that ever came out.
I was very lucky to grow up in San Francisco, because although I had no money things were cheap. You could go to the Broadway plays that came out there; you could see almost anything for fifty cents. And there were kids' rates for concerts. So I had a terrific introduction to theater and music.
I was terribly interested in fiction. And in theater. And opera. And in painting. (Laughs) I've had to narrow my interests, because you can't raise a child or be involved in taking care of a house and do everything you want to do in your life. Certain things have gone by the boards simply because of the time and energy it took to live and to write.
POLLY FROST: Did you play jazz at some point?
PK: Oh, I stopped doing that fairly early. I was a young teenager when I played in a girls' jazz band. I played classical music mostly. I used to go hear Papa Hertz -- Alfred Hertz -- conduct every week. But my tastes ran very heavily to jazz.
PF: I can see you coming to writing from a jazz background -- the use of words n a different way and the rhythms. Did jazz influence the way you write at all?
PK: If so, indirectly. I do tend to riff. I've got a lot of parentheses in there. (Laughs)
RS: The spontaneity too.
PK: Well, I want that. I want what I do to move along by hidden themes. I rarely try ot think anything out ahead of time. I want it, paragraph by paragraph through the whole structure, to surprise me. But I want the fun of writing. I don't want to take the juice out of that.
RS: Your writing has a conversational tone, and yet it has a freedom that people don't have in conversation. How consciously have you pursued that?
PK: Very consciously. People often think I'm saying things inadvertently, and it amuses the hell out of me. They think that I don't know what I'm saying. Mainly I've been trying for speed and clarity, trying to write the way I talk.
When I started writing for magazines in the '50s, I was dissatisfied with the studied, academic tone of my first pieces. I hated fancy writing, and I tried to write as simply as possible. I was conscious of the fact that I was writing about a popular art form. I don't think I would have written in the same way if I had been writing about classical music. How can you deal with movies truthfully, in terms of your responses, if you don't use contractions, if you don't use "you" instead of "one"? I mean, I'm not a goddamned Englishman. I don't say, "One likes this movie very much." (Laughs) I was trying for the freedom of an American talking about the movies, but it took me awhile. What broke me loose from academic writing was that I wrote a lot of advertising copy anonymously -- and unsigned notes for theaters I managed. Writing in an unsigned form frees you of the inhibitions of academic writing. I was just trying to reach the public as directly as possible. And I found I was doing it more naturally. It's mainly a kind of courage you need to in order to write the way you think instead of writing the way you've been taught.
RS: Were there critics who excited you?
PK: A lot of writers and artists excited me. There were movie critics that I liked a lot -- James Agee more than anyone else, I guess. But I never thought of Agee as a role model; I simply liked reading him. I disagreed with him a lot, but I loved the passion of his language. He got exercised about movies in the more personal writing he did for The Nation, where he expressed real rage if he didn't like something. It seemed to me the way we actually react to movies. We don't react in cultivated terms; we come out and say, "I hated that piece of ..."
RS: Did you read people like Shaw or Lionel Trilling or R.P. Blackmur with pleasure?
PK: Oh, sure, I read them all. I read Blackmur with a great deal of pleasure. I probably identified with him than with any other critic. I can't explain that to you now, but Blackmur, when I first read him, just struck some chord with me, and I read all the authors he talked about.
I was living with a young poet named Robert Horan at that time. And we were reading Blackmur together and being excited about him. For several years Horan and I discovered books of poetry and jazz musicians and other artists together. We read Dylan Thomas' first teenage book of poetry together, Horan reading the poems aloud to me. And it was sort of Eureka! This is the new work we've been waiting for! We experienced a lot of things together like that. We would spend our Saturdays going to art shows together. And we had a very, very close relationship in the arts. We would argue viciously when we disagreed about something. It was tremendous fun. We were both young and a little bit crazy, in the sense that practical things didn't matter the way matters of the mind did -- matters of mind and emotion.
You make discoveries in the arts with other people. Robert Duncan was a very good friend of mine, and we explored a lot of things together. We had our biggest talkfests in the late '30s. Later, when we were on different sides of the country, we would write letters to each other. We would read the same books and exchange impressions and ideas. And then we would get together somewhere and talk for forty-eight hours straight. (Laughs)
RS: You once told me that you'd read everything Henry James published.
PK: My James kick came a little bit later. When I went to the hospital to give birth to my daughter in the late '40s I was just reading "Notes of a Son and Brother," which was the last volume to complete whatever was available in James.
PF: Do you tend to binge on writers?
PK: I tend, when I get interested in a writer, to read everything, though there are writers that I like a lot, like Dickens, that I still haven't gotten through. But most writers -- you know, if I started Firbank I would read everything by Firbank. When I started Dorothy Richardson's "Pilgrimage" I read from beginning to end, volume after volume. I love getting immersed in a sensibility.
RS: Is that true of all the arts, or does it mainly hold for reading?
PK: It mainly holds for reading. You learn funny things about it. For instance, you're reading everything by Virginia Woolf, and you adore "The Waves" and "Mrs. Dalloway" and this one and that one, but that damn "The Years" ... Something is wrong; it's dreary. But usually you read a book by someone, and you get really involved, and you just keep going, book after book. And then you feel you've got that writer; you know him -- there he is.
But I wouldn't want you think that at the time I was reading, say, Melville or James I wasn't also being a foolish woman -- or a foolish girl, really. I mean, I was crazy about Jack Teagarden's singing. (Laughs) He's somebody you probably have never heard of -- a trombonist. Just a particular style of singing. Every once in a while I'll catch him on the radio when they're playing old music, and I'll think, Oh, that's how to do it. You don't need a voice; you just sing. And I was always wild about Harry Ritz's dancing; I thought it was in a class of its own.
PF: I've heard that during your freshman year at Berkeley you went out dancing every night.
PK: I love dancing.
PF: What was the dancing-and-music scene like then?
PK: Well, it was all in San Francisco and Oakland -- Turk Murphy, Bunk Johnson ... a lot of terrific jazz in the Bay Area. And somehow or other I went out every night.
PF: How'd you get your studying in philosophy done?
PK: I'm a fast take. (Laughs) The professors in the Berkeley Philosophy Department wanted me to go on and teach phenomenology, but I got a little tired of it around that point. The idea was for me to take a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree at the same time, but I decided I'd had it and kicked up my heels some more instead.
PF: What kind of dancing did you do?
PK: Oh, to Dixieland and Chicago-style jazz in the '40s, and before that to a lot of Glenn Miller and Guy Lombardo at the San Francisco hotels, because that was the big-band era -- this was '36 to '40, my college years. All the big pop bands were playing at hotels then. And every night you could go dancing at some shebang. Sometimes it would be to Woody Herman, and that would be great.
RS: How many hours of sleep could you get by on at that point?
PK: Four or five. If you wanted pleasure enough, you'd cut down on sleep, because that's the only thing you can cut down on. (Laughs)
RS: Was this partly being off on your own?
PK: No. I was also a serious student, and I was working as a teaching assistant and reader at Berkeley. I was correcting papers for seven courses a semester and going half blind. But I was spending an awful lot of time in conversation and dancing, too. And going to a lot of movies.
PF: At what age did you feel the urge to write?
PK: Well, writing criticism came relatively late, much later than for most of my friends. It was the orgy of all the talk with Robert Horan at college that somehow finally got me out of the notion I had of going to law school. I suddenly couldn't face law school and all that dry material when I was getting so excited by everything else. I wrote some pieces with Horan -- essays. They were quite funny, but nobody published them. Maybe they were over-witty, because the two of us would build on each other's jokes, and they just got wilder and wilder.
I got interested in playwriting after college and wrote plays fairly intensively for a number of years but was very discouraged at the difficulty of getting them on. Stanford was going to put one on; they had it in rehearsal. But the students decided they wanted to do something of Giraudoux's instead -- they wanted clown and jugglers. So I didn't get anywhere. But I actually think I was not too bad. (Laughs)
RS: What sorts of plays were they -- comedies?
PK: No, the weren't comedies, I'm afraid. Damn, they should have been. There was probably too much soul-wrestling. Maybe that's one of the reasons I'm not more impressed by Ingmar Bergman. I did my own share of soul-wrestling, and it's not too tough to do.
When I started doing movie pieces, all this interest in the arts clicked together, as if I'd found my medium. And maybe because I didn't take it too seriously it was easier for me to find my voice and my tone; I wasn't inhibited the way I was in other art forms. Writing about movies, you could be playful, you could be colloquial, you could be American.Whereas writing plays, you were struggling to express yourself, and it was altogether more painful and less entertaining for other people.
PF: What about your radio work?
PK: Well, that was in the '50s, after I'd published a few movie pieces. Weldon Kees, who was a well-known poet and man around the arts at the time -- and a good friend -- had a struggling radio show on a commercial station in the Bay Area, and he asked me on as a guest. Later the Pacifica radio people asked if I'd like to record some pieces I'd written. And the they asked me if I'd like to review regularly. It was hell in some ways because I didn't have any money and they didn't pay at all. They didn't even pay my way into the movies.
So I was doing a weekly show for no money. I had a small child, and it was very rough. I had a loyal following in the Bay Area, with people buying my tapes and talking about them, but I didn't get any work on the East Coast out of it.
PF: Was it a shock to move from San Francisco, with all of its sensual pleasures, to New York?
PK: Well, I was in New York briefly durin ght early '40s. A lot of people that I met in that period took me to amazing things. Gian-Carlo Menotti took me to the Met for the first time, and it was Ezio Pinza in "Don Giovanni." I saw Marlon Brando in "Truckline Cafe." I had some great experiences. And I had some absurd experiences.: Samuel Barber took me to Radio City Music Hall for the first time, and we saw "Mrs. Miniver"! (Laughs) It was ghastly, and we sat there staring at each other in horror.
PF: You lived in New York for a couple of years?
PK: I lived in New York for about three years, and then I went back to the West Coast until 1965, when I published "I Lost It At the Movies" and came East to write for Life and other magazines. And in '65 it took a lot of writing to pay the rent. That year I was on a plane, going to give a lecture, and a husband and wife were sitting across the aisle from me. She was reading me in Mademoiselle and he was reading me in Holiday, and then they swapped magazines. It was very cheering, but it was also sort of scary, because I was writing in half a dozen magazines in the same month.
RS: How have your work habits changed over the years?
PK: Well, I don't work all night anymore. During my early years at The New Yorker, when I was writing long pieces every week, I would often stay up all night to finish something for the deadline day. And I would see very beautiful dawns. But also you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you stagger toward your bed. (Laughs) Then the phone starts ringing three hours later. And people who phone you in the morning just laugh when you say, "I just got to bed." They think you're some lazy bum.
Mainly I get to work earlier in the day now. It used to be that, writing weekly, I was rushing to movies. And sometimes I didn't find the movie I wanted to write about till the night before the copy was due, so I just splattered it out. In many ways that's the truest reaction you'll ever get. But even so, I can't do that anymore. I can't use the words that come to me most readily, because those phrases have become stale. So now if friends use a good term in describing a movie, I say, "Can I use that?" Because I think, Gee, it's different from what I would say -- that's great.
RS: Do you have any regrets about your career or about your writing over the years? Do you wish you had started earlier or had gone about things differently?
PK: Oh, well, I did start fairly early; I just didn't have a livelihood to sustain it. I published my first pieces before I managed theaters. But I had to manage theaters to make a living, and do programming for colleges and a lot of other jobs. By the time I got hired at The New Yorker I was almost 50. And so, yes, I regret all the years and energy that went into crummy jobs and trying to sustain life. On the other hand I probably gained a certain amount of experience and breadth from them. But there's no question in my own mind that I could have done more as a writer had I gotten an earlier start, when I had all that crazy energy.
RS: Do movies stand in a different relation to the culture as a whole now?
PK: Yes, I think they do. In the '60s and '70s movies played an adversarial role in the culture. And a lot of middle-aged and elderly people were very offended when they went to the movies. The language was freer than they liked. There was an easygoing, comic attitude toward American patriotism, a more easygoing attitude toward sex relations. The older people stayed away from a lot of movies, and when they did go they often claimed they didn't understand them, because movies moved faster and were more elliptical. So movies became sort of the enemy. Now they are definitely not the enemy. I wish they were.
PF: When I was in college my friends and I would go to movie marathons -- we'd go to see five Kurosawa films. Kids don't seem to do that now.
PK: Now they see things on VCRs, but they're probably not having orgies of Kurosawa. (Laughs) There are people who use VCRs well. But it isn't the same thing as sharing that excitement with an audience. There's no way of discussing a film when it's not affecting the whole culture at the same time. That was always part of the excitement of movies. You went to a restaurant and you'd hear everybody in the next booth talking about the same movie you'd seen two days before, which you'd been arguing about. And with VCRs movies don't stay in your mind the same way. You need the big screen.
PF: How has your reviewing changed over the years?
PK: I felt an excitement about writing about movies, particularly in the late '60s and the first half of the '70s -- the period when Altman made one terrific movie after another, when Coppola and Scorsese and De Palma were doing sensational work, when Bertolucci was coming through. The movies fed my senses then. I had the feeling that all I was trying to do was keep up with what was going on in movies.
The director I left out just now was, of course, Godard. It was Godard who got me hired at The New Yorker, indirectly. William Shawn, who had seen some of the Godard films and realized that something new was going on in them, read me in The New Republic, where I expressed my excitement about them, and wanted me in The New Yorker.
RS: Imagine that William Shawn was interested in Godard films!
PK: It's wonderful, isn't it? Shawn had a vast interest in what was going on in the arts. And when he saw something going on he reacted with great intensity.
Godard represented the big turning point in '60s movies. While college students were talking about Bergman the new voice was Godard. I felt tremendous excitement at almost every Godard film right up through "Weekend."
There are still movies that come along where you feel something's going on with the individual artist. Blier's "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs" was exciting to write about. So was "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." But when Coppola and Altman and Scorsese were breaking through, they spoke to what was going on in the country. And so the act of writing criticism wasn't just talking about whether the movie was any good. You were talking about what the movie meant, how you felt about it, what it stood for.
In general I'm looking for something that shows some talent, some freshness. You can see what I mean by analogy to literature. Suppose you were one of the first people who read "Middlemarch" -- you'd want to tell people about it. That's how I felt about "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville" and "Godfather II." I wanted to say, "Look what's going on here!" That doesn't happen much right now in movies. There's something rather paralyzing in the culture.
PF: You've spoken in the past about a particular kind of excitement that you can get from a good American film.
PK: Well, I respond to American films when they're good in a way that's much more direct than the way I respond to foreign films. It makes sense that we want films that represent American culture, especially since it has a kind of crazy energy. There's a particular kind of humor and a speed that we get in a good American film. You get it in, say, "The Lady Eve," the Preston Sturges comedy. I've never seen a European comedy that gave me the kind of buzz that "The Lady Eve" did when I first saw it.
American movies are pop for us in a way that foreign films rarely are. That's the fun of Almodovar; he has that pop element in his work, because he's so influenced by American movies.
PF: I know you enjoy Almodovar's films. Did you enjoy the work of Charles Ludlam?
PK: I loved Charles Ludlam. I once took Claude Jutra, the French Canadian director, down to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. And Claude said, "This is theater." And he had tears streaming out of his eyes, he laughed so hard. I loved Charles Ludlam's shows, and I thought there was a real craft and polish and crazy elegance in what he was doing. And, of course, it's like Almodovar. Almodovar has the resources of movies, but he basically has that feeling for a company, too. It's a wonderful kind of theater because you can do mad, excessive things and the audience digs it because they've grown up on the same cultural references you have.
RS: You always seem to be able to enjoy the campier side of show business and art.
PK: It's a basic element in any theatrical art. It's so vital to theater, that campiness. Maybe being able to make fun of what you're doing is so much a part of the sophisticatio of theater and movies. It's what's fun i something like "Tequila Sunrise." There's just enough ...
PK: Overripeness, sure. People want to regard that as decadence. As if any mention of Charles Ludlam were a tribute to trivia. A lot of people don't really get it. Or they think you're making some bow to the gay readership. And it's not that. It's subversive -- in the sense of making fun of dull, proper values. And it's much wider than the gay readership.
Part of the fun for many of us -- you see it now if you look at old movies of the '30s -- is that extravagance of gesture, doing things to excess. Every emotion is made bright. And it helps us satirize ourselves, helps put our own emotions in perspective, because they are so overdramatized. I think that growing up at the movies you get a sense of perspective on yourself through the campiness of what you enjoy.
I don't think I could have a close friend who didn't respond to the craziness of certain kinds of theatrical art., who didn't enjoy that kind of ripeness. I've generally become friends with people because we laughed at the same things. And we're laughing at ourselves, at our responsiveness to this phenomenon.
It's a way, also, of not taking the arts to seriously. It's one of the things that I've tried to write about and that readers get most indignant about, because they feel you're not being a cultivated, serious person if you talk about your pleasure at silliness, at lushness. But if I see a "Jean de Florette," I die with boredom. I can't sit there and watch Gerard Depardieu playing a hunchback and not have people realize how ridiculous it is to have a tall hunchback. That's the kind of thing Charles Ludlam played to supreme extravagance. When I was a child I loved John Barrymore because of his buffoonery. He was always making fun of himself.
PF: So it's safe to say that you don't go to the movies for self-improvement?
PK: Self-improvement and art don't really belong together. If art opens your eyes and opens your senses that's something else. I do think that a great movie makes you experience things more intensely. But that intense thing often comes to you via extravagance.
RS: Since the Bertolucci-Blier years, the "Last Tango," "Get Out Your Handkerchief" years --
PK: I wouldn't put those in the same class. I think "Last Tango" really is extraordinary and stands by itself, even in terms of Bertolucci's work. In the same way that Godard and Altman each burned up the screen for a period, with a whole series of movies, I think Bertolucci did it faster. "Before the Revolution," "The Conformist," "Last Tango" -- nothing he's done since has had that kind of lush excitement, or the total involvement, or the freedom. "The Last Emperor" has a kind of simple flow to it, but the passion seems to be missing.
PF: It must be hard to sustain the kind of energy that went into those early films.
PK: Well, filmmaking is peculiarly a burning-out medium. I think it takes so much out of you because you can express so much of yourself. There are very few directors who haven't burned out.
Peckinpah kept going longer than most. Of course, he didn't live very long, really, but there was a crazy excitement burning in that man. He was the least theoretical of them all, and I think that accounts for it. He often thought that he was saying things in movies that weren't what he was expressing at all. What came through were his feelings, not the meanings he intended to put there. He became rather spiteful in many ways, but he was an amazingly gifted man. It was a great pity that because of the violence in some of his movies he became a figure that the American press loved to jeer at. And he played along with that, in a way. But, you know, you can become perverse if you're treated stupidly enough for a long time and hampered in doing what you want to do. It doesn't take much to get hold of a pencil. But people who really want to work in movies, and who are as passionately addicted to it as Peckinpah, are in a terrible position. They're at the mercy of a lot of people who basically hate them.
PF: You knew Peckinpah. How good was he at making enemies?
PK: He would spot the weakness in people and really twist the knife. On the other hand he was generous, wonderful. He was a very civilized man in many ways and an utter monster in other ways. And those things are not unusual in a movie director.
RS: A moviegoer interested in movies for their erotic possibilities can find himself lookinng in odd directions these days, like Diane Keaton's performance in "The Good Mother."
PK: Well, Diane Keaton is one of the rare actresses who've had one role after another that was sexual. Debra Winger has brought sexual elements into her performances in some movies, too. And Jessica Lange. I think those three are the best young actresses on the American screen. They're the ones whose work I go to see with the most excitement. Keaton astonishes me, because in movie after movie she does daring sexual, revealing things. And then she'll do something that's unbelievably inventive, like her performance in "Crimes of the Heart." And in "The Good Mother" she goes totally out on a limb. She's probably the finest young American actress we've got. But then Debra Winger or Jessica Lange will come along and do something, and I'll say she's the finest. (Laughs)
But Michelle Pfeiffer really is extraordinary, too. She's so crystalline in her beauty, she's such a vision, that people may not recognize what a talented actress she is. I loved her in "Natica Jackson," that little film she did on television from a John O'Hara story.
PF: What did you learn during your stay in Hollywood in 1979?
PK: I learned how many good scripts there were that weren't going to be made or were going to be made in such a distorted form that no one would ever know how good they'd been. For myself I learned how much fun it was not to have deadlines and to spend time with young writers. And I learned how scared people were of me. People treated me as if I were a high priestess!
But I began to miss writing. I got the sense that my mind was going to sleep. Because you would talk to a writer about his script, or a director about his plans, and you would have to say the same thing the next day because they get so obsessed and nervous and tense that nothing fully sinks in. And you just keep repeating yourself.
Of course, when I talk about the good scripts going begging it has to be understood that my idea of a wonderful script doesn't necessarily mean a script that would please the public. I can't pretend that the pictures I like are hits. A great many of them are not. Some of the pictures I've loved the most in the last decade have been only marginal successes or box-office disasters -- "Shoot the Moon," "Melvin and Howard," "Citizens Band," "Pennies From Heaven" ... These picturs failed. Yet there's some glory for the executives in having done them.
PF: You once wrote that lousy movies left you with an appetite for facs and information and rel people and real events.
PK: Yes. Every once in a while there's a film like "Thy Kingdom Come," and there's a purity in the excitement you feel, because you're seeing the complexities of people's emotions -- the people who get caught up in the fundamentalist movements. What you rarely get from a documentary is the aesthetic kick or the pop kick that yu also go to movies for. Unless it's a very great documentary, like, say, Kon Ichikawa's "Tokyo Olympiad," it may not have much in the way of aesthetic dimensions. Or, if it doesn't, as in "The Thin Blue Line, possibly you resent them -- at least I did. It's a beautifully made film, but the beautifully made element in it works against the subject. You feel the director is aestheticizing a factual situation instead of approaching it more simply. There's something morally offensive in that approach, I think.
PF: Are you a news watcher?
PK: Yes, I'm a news freak. I catch the 6:30 news on one network and the 7 o'clock on another. I watch CNN hearings. I love watching news. Or else I'm obsessed with it -- I don't know which.
RS: I have trouble getting through the way the news is presented. Do you fight that?
PK: Oh, sure, it's a parody, the way they all say the most obvious things, when what you see in a few seconds of footage contradicts what they're telling you. It's quite incredible to hear the vacuous lines that come out of the news readers' mouths.
PF: Is that part of the fascination for you?
PK: Yeah, because you're watching these people crippling and strangling the news, and when they do have a great event and can't miss with it -- when it's an earthquake or something of that sort -- each network will concentrate on the same pathetic figures. They manage to pull your emotional strings so blatantly that you want to smack them one. Except for "Wiseguy," which I really enjoy, and "L.A. Law" sometimes, I can't watch series television. But I can watch the news endlessly, because there's always enough new happening to keep me fixated, ad there's always this rage at the way it's presented.
RS: Can movies be made now with the kind of honesty of De Palma's "Blow Out"?
PK: Well, the box-office failure of "Blow Out" was, I think, a tragedy for De Palma and for John Travolta -- it's just about the best work each of them has ever done. But it probably served as a warning to some of the people who might have wanted to do something politically sophisticated. It's as if people get penalized for sophistication. I think that's true of Altman -- he got ornery. Like Peckinpah, Altman became difficult to deal with, but at the same time the man is a genius, and he came through with a string of the greatest films ever made in this country, so you'd think people would put up with his orneriness. The studio executives don't mind somebody ornery if he's a mediocrity, because they understand the terms in which he's functioning.
PF: I find "The Untouchables" depressing, because it's as if De Palma acceded to the Reagan era's nostalgia for heroes, whereas "Blow Out" was a personally felt expression of what's going on in this country.
PK: I think De Palma's script for "Blow Out" is infinitely superior to the David Mamet script for "The Untouchables." The script for "The Untouchables" is square. but, on the other hand, that squareness did make it possible for De Palma to reach a big audience, and he did direct it marvelously. De Palma's a ranking American director who had never been given his due. Just in human terms you have to be glad when somebody good comes to the fore. People don't sell out or give in to the system or anything like that quite as simply as we thought when we were kids.
PF: Are there movies you really can't justify enjoying or writing about?
PK: Damn it, if I enjoy it, it seems to me I'd better be able to write about it. It would be dishonest to enjoy something and not admit it. If you laugh all the way through a comedy and then write a pan, something is wrong with you. You have to be able to believe in yourself enough to be truthful about how you react.
PF: Should everyone trust their instincts?
PK: I can't speak for everybody on that; I think a lot of people have lousy instincts. (Laughs) But to be a critic it sure helps to be able to trust your instincts. What else have you got? If you don't trust your instincts maybe you're in the wrong profession.
RS: Couldn't somebody argue that the other thing you have is your tastes?
PK: But tastes become instinctive. Your instincts aren't something apart from your knowledge and your education and your tastes. Your instincts are everything you know acting together immediately, viscerally.
PF: Is it possible that a critic could not have great taste and still show us something about the medium?
PK: Yes, there are critics whose judgments are way off but whose perceptions of a movie are quite stunning. I'll read a review and think the person is blind to what the narrative is doing, but he'll describe certain details and I'll think, Gee, I took that in and yet I didn't fully register what it meant. In many ways the perceptions and the observations are more important than the judgments. We read critics for the perceptions, for what they tell us that we didn't fully grasp when we saw the work. The judgments we can usually make for ourselves.
©1989 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.