Prose and Cons
Marcus, Greil, Indiana, Gary, Michelson, Annette, O'Brien, Geoffrey, Schrader, Paul, Seligman, Craig, Artforum International
Pauline Kael, the New Yorker's film critic from 1968 until 1991 (save for a brief hiatus in 1978, when she took a short-lived job at a Hollywood studio), died on September 3, 2001. With all of the predictable eulogizing behind us, we asked five critics-Gary Indiana, Annette Michelson, Geoffrey O'Brien, Paul Schrader, and Craig Seligman-to step back and take the long view on Kael's celebrated if contentious career. Contributing editor Greil Marcus leads off by introducing Kael's first published essay-inexplicably excluded from her eleven collections of reviews-which we reprint here in its entirety.
The story goes that Pauline Kael's first review was called "Slimelight": That was what the late poet Robert Duncan, with whom Kael had gone to see Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, called the picture when they walked out of the theater. The word is used nowhere in or on Kael's piece, which-appearing in 1953 in City Lights, a journal that, like the San Francisco bookstore that published it, was named for another Chaplin movie-is still harsh enough to bring the reader up short.
At the end of City Lights (1931), Chaplin's tramp leaves prison so filthy and destroyed you don't want to look at him. He walks the streets, picking butts out of the gutter, and then, as James Agee wrote in 1949, 'the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. . . . She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet closeups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
That Chaplin was nowhere in sight in 1953; Kael tracked him to his hiding place in his own movie, in his own ego. Re-creating the context in which the movie was made and in which a certain movie lover paid her money and sat down to wait for the picture to begin-with the sense of time and place, here, not there, now, not then, that over the next decades would draw so many readers into real or imaginary conversations with her-she began in the audience, listening to the talk of the people around her, imagining herself talking to them. She began not with special knowledge, but with a sense of herself as any movie's ideal watcher: no better or worse than anyone else, as she sat in her seat, but maybe better out of it, because while everyone else got up and went about their lives, Kael stayed in the audience, even when she went home. The premise wasn't that her ideas about a movie would be deeper than those of other people, but that other people were busy-so she would draw on their reactions as well as her own and, as she wrote, put people back in the theater.
She looked at Calvero, the aging comedic saint Chaplin was playing in Limelight, and as the conceit of the character turned into its own bad joke, she came to life as a critic. The cruel wit, the natural reach from one medium to another, the sense of betrayal-the freeswinging, freewheeling yawp of the artistic citizen-it was all there from the start: "Calvero's gala benefit in which he shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest performer of them all, his death in the wings as the applause fades-this is surely the richest hunk of gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral."
What nails it? What is it that signals the arrival of a new voice, impatient, in love with her subject and as keen to its betrayals as its promises, speaking American? "Hunk."
RELATED ARTICLE: SOME NOTES ON CHAPLIN'S LIMELIGHT
A REMARK OVERHEARD: I don't care if he is a genius. I don't like that man."
If the audiences which attend Limelight in San Francisco are an adequate sampling of Chaplin's American public, he now attracts a somewhat segmented art-film audience. This is not the same audience he used to play to--but the reasons are considerably more complex than the "complicated" ones Calvero indicates to explain why the headless monster turned against him.
The majority audience (if some cleavage is necessary, let us say roughly the people who voted for Eisenhower) resents him partly for political reasons, partly for moral ones, and, more basically, because he appears in the guise of genius. When the mass audience became convinced that the clown who had made them laugh was really an artist, they felt betrayed. This is the same audience which turned Garbo into an object of ridicule when her beauty and distinction raised her to an eminence they could not tolerate. Then she, too, became the adored beauty of the minority.
The minority audience was always fascinated by the stills which revealed the beauty of Chaplin--the depth and expressiveness beneath the tramp makeup; the majority was perfectly satisfied with the mask of comedy. In a chance glimpse we thought we perceived a tragic countenance under the mask. Now Chaplin has given us too long a look--the face has been held in camera range for prolonged admiration--and the egotism of his self-revelation has infected the tragic beauty. The illusion, the mystery are gone--and with them possibly a good section of the minority audience as well. It is difficult not to be interested in what Chaplin will do next, but the bated breath has acquired a faint wheeze.
ODDLY ENOUGH, for all the mind and sophistication attributed to Chaplin, the hero of Limelight is surprisingly like the conceptions of the artist held by the vast American film audience (although this audience suspects, and quite rightly, that there are other elements...). Limelight is just as sentimental and high-minded about life and theatre as show people might wish. Possibly theatre people will see it as true and beautiful, just as so many Jews saw The Great Dictator as an awesome achievement. (Just as an analyst friend thought Mourning Becomes Electra the greatest film ever made.)
It is dubious, however, that Chaplin can regain the mass audience with this film: the suspicion that he is not a regular fellow is fairly widespread, and the simplicity of the film is pompous enough to mislead neighborhood audiences into thinking it is that abhorrence--art.
Chaplin's range as an actor is quite probably as wide as he thinks it is, but his range as a creative intelligence is certainly considerably less. He is almost the only man who is in the position to use the film medium for personal statement. (It is questionable if other creative film-makers would wish to do so; his aim may be as unique as his opportunity). His ideas and personality have pervaded his last three films. Verdoux remains fascinating, impudent enough to make one toss overboard some minor reservations. Mercifully in Verdoux the ideas are not nearly so explicit as in The Great Dictator and Limelight where the failures of taste and creative insight are alternately embarrassing and infuriating.
As Robert Duncan remarked, "It would have taken W.C. Fields spitting into Calvero's passed hat to restore the comic genius."
The Chaplin of Limelight is no irreverent little clown; his reverence for his own ideas would be astonishing even if the ideas were worth consideration. They are not-and the context of the film exposes them at every turn. The exhortations in the directions of life, courage, consciousness, and "truth" are set in a story line of the most self-pitying and self-glorifying daydream variety. Calvero's gala benefit in which he shows the unbelievers who think him finished that he is still the greatest performer of them all, his death in the wings as the applause fades--this is surely the richest hunk of gratification since Huck and Tom attended their own funeral. It was humor in Twain's day; Chaplin serves it at face value a hundred years later.
Calvero is not a little tramp who happily wins his waif or pitiably loses her. …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Prose and Cons. Contributors: Marcus, Greil - Author, Indiana, Gary - Author, Michelson, Annette - Author, O'Brien, Geoffrey - Author, Schrader, Paul - Author, Seligman, Craig - Author. Magazine title: Artforum International. Volume: 40. Issue: 7 Publication date: March 2002. Page number: 122+. © 1999 Artforum International Magazine, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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