AT Detroit’s famed used bookstore, John King Books, I picked up a copy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Pauline Kael, a collection of the film critic’s reviews and essays from the 1960’s. The collection shows Kael’s few likes (John Huston; Katherine Hepburn) and many hates (David Lean; Ann-Margret; Natalie Wood; Christianity; et.al). Her essays are revealing not for what they say about movies, but what they reveal about her and her particular resentments and hang-ups. They’re also interesting for what they say about the neurotic attitude of the intellectual establishment, then and now. Pauline Kael has been a key influence on intellectual critical thought now.
Her most notorious essay, originally written for McCall’s (contrary to myth, she was not fired for writing it) is a takedown of the 1965 musical “The Sound of Music.” It’s more than a takedown. It’s a hysterical rant out of proportion to the substance of the movie itself. Something about it, its very existence, struck a nerve.
Kael dismisses the film, as she does well-made epics (see David Lean) as “an expensive product of modern technology.” But what are all movies the product of?
She goes on: “Whom could it offend? Only those of us who . . . loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how self-indulgent and cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel. And we may become even more aware of the way we have been used and turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming those sickly, goody-goody songs.”
Pauline Kael’s gripe seems to be that “The Sound of Music” is a “wholesome” movie. What bothers her is that the characters in the movie are happy, and the audience, when viewing it, is happy.
Kael then trashes the character played by Julie Andrews for being “perfect”: “the sparkling maid, a mind as clean and well-brushed as her teeth.” Yet the point about the character is that she’s not perfect. In Kael’s own words, “gawky,” “sexless.” That she’s not perfect—if not homely, she’s no beauty, and lacks sex appeal—is why the audience identifies with her and roots for her. (In another essay, Kael rants against Ann-Margret for being too sexy.) There’s some psychological drama going on with Kael that goes beyond a simple movie review.
“Up there, they’re all in their places with bright, shining faces.” “No, nothing mars this celebration of togetherness.”
At the horror of a depiction of a happy family, Kael wants to send the director, Robert Wise, a wire saying, “You win, I give up,” and “We both lose, we all lose.”
Is this not ridiculously over-the-top?
“—people who accept this kind of movie tend to resent work which says that this is not the best of all possible worlds,” Pauline Kael concludes. Note the word accept. Accepting this movie for what it is, is dangerous, in the Pauline Kael playbook.
Is what she said true? Even then, in 1965, one could find plenty of movies showing that this was “not the best of all possible worlds.” Don Siegel’s “The Killers”; or “The Manchurian Candidate”; or “Fail Safe”; to name three strong candidates for what she sought. I’m sure that, even then, a happy movie like “Sound of Music” was the exception. I also think that’s why audiences flocked to it.
These were people, many of whom had lived through the most terrible of possible wars, a war filled with genocides, the obliteration of cities and peoples, uncountable millions of casualties and the use of nightmarish weapons, including the atomic bomb. A little over a year before the movie came out, the nation was traumatized by the assassination of its young President. Musicals have always been an escape from reality. One can’t blame the 1965 audience, in this instance, for seeking an escape; for thinking that the world should sometimes, or at least once, be a wonderful place.
“The Sound of Music” was always an exception. Today its like, sugarcoated flaws and all, is nowhere to be found, among the barrage of nightmarish action adventures filled with flying body parts, or gross-out comedies, or death-filled mob movies, or flesh-eating zombies, hundreds of examples of such “entertainment,” a nonstop in-your-face assault of the worst of all possible worlds. Pauline Kael’s irrational fear of too much happiness was for naught.