Wednesday, December 19 2001, 3:02 PM
In the mid-1970s, while I was in the midst of a ten-year spell as a steelworker, I read Greil Marcus's influential book Mystery Train for the first time. This book, with gargantuan aplomb, examined the history of American culture as it was reflected in the rock and roll music of, among others, Sly Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis Presley. In the author's bio, I was informed that Marcus had taught something called "American Studies" at Berkeley. It is no exaggeration to state that this was the moment where I knew what I wanted to do with my life, although it was more than a decade before I finally got that American Studies degree. In the introduction, Marcus cited several people as influences, including a Berkeley professor I had never heard of named Michael Rogin, and the film critic Pauline Kael, with whom I was very familiar, having loved her work for many years.
A few months ago, Kael died at the age of 82. And now we've lost another one: Michael Rogin, described with exact accuracy by Marcus in the San Francisco Chronicle as "intense and inspiring without being self-important," passed away in Paris. He was only 64. These two deaths together amount to an immense loss for anyone who was touched by their work, including many in the Bad Subjects community.
In the introduction to her first book of film criticism (I Lost It at the Movies), Pauline Kael asked, "Are movies going to pieces?" It's a sign of Kael's dedication to the art of movies that she was asking this question in 1964, she was still asking it in 1980, in her important essay "Why Are Movies So Bad?," and I wouldn't be surprised if she was still asking it the day she died. She asked because she cared; she was indeed "deeply into movies." And, no matter what answer she might have to her questions, she continued to find work that wasn't going to pieces, movies that weren't so bad. (Michael Sragow noted in Salon that an hour before her death, Kael was still enthusiastically promoting the underappreciated director Lamont Johnson, who despite more than 40 years in the movie business lacks even the briefest biography in the Internet Movie Database.) Kael's insistence on the relevance of her subjectivity was one of many aspects of her writing that inspired her readers and followers. In an early review of the post-war neo-realist classic Shoeshine, she famously described that she had seen it after a lovers' quarrel, and that afterwards, overhearing someone who didn't think much of the movie, "I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?" When you read one of Kael's pieces, you understood that a real person had seen the work in question, that she brought a particular sensibility that would not be hidden behind artificial objectivity. While it might be true that some of Kael's successors take this personal touch beyond any critical usefulness, the ability to construct informed commentary out of the personal reaction to art is surely reflected in many of the finest essays that have appeared in publications such as Bad Subjects over the years, and Pauline Kael was, directly or indirectly, the inspiration for some of that freedom critics feel today when they write.
Importantly, though, Kael was more than just what she could feel. She brought a vast appreciation for the humanities to her film criticism. She saw the movies, but she also knew the books upon which the movies were based, the paintings and music and television programs and all the cultural artifacts around which great works of art are created. Some of us might aspire to write like Pauline Kael, but not many of us will ever match the breadth of her knowledge. In the excellence of her writing, the intelligent integration of the world of culture into that writing, and her by-definition idiosyncratic subjective approach, Pauline Kael was the greatest popular critic of our times, a woman who achieved what many, perhaps most, Bad Critics desire: a large audience for intelligent critique. I, for one, would never have written what I have written, if I hadn't first read Pauline, and it's clear I'm not alone: one of the most comprehensive collections of online articles about Kael can be found at Rockcritics.com, a website that makes concrete the influence of Kael on rock criticism.
I didn't know Pauline Kael; her influence came through the pages of her writing. However, I was lucky enough to know Michael Rogin, a brilliant professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley. Of course, to call him a "professor of Political Science" is about as accurate as calling Pauline Kael a "film critic." Rogin was an exemplary interdisciplinary scholar, highly respected in a number of disciplines outside his own field. He knew about Ronald Reagan; he knew about Mickey Spillane. He knew about Abe Lincoln; he knew about Herman Melville. And every subject to which he applied his excitable intelligence was illuminated by the scope of that intelligence and the fervent hard work he required of himself. The personal approach in his writing was more submerged than in Kael's, although it was always there, beneath the surface, but he shared with Kael the crucial desire to use everything he knew on everything he examined. Again, this kind of broad approach shows its influence in works such as Bad Subjects, and once more (in this case, given Bad Subjects' Berkeley origins, more directly than indirectly) his was the kind of work that serves as an inspiration to so many of us today.
Michael Rogin was also a teacher, a wonderful instructor, a lecturer who burst with energy in front of a classroom, but just as importantly, a mentor who worked well and closely with students at all levels. When I entered Cal as a community-college transfer student in 1986, I went straight to the office of Professor Rogin. I knew nothing about him but his name, and that he had inspired Greil Marcus. I didn't know how highly regarded he was in his field; I didn't know about the appearances on 60 Minutes; his face had yet to appear on the cover of any magazines I'd seen. I was a clueless non-entity. Michael Rogin treated me with respect; he took me seriously; he agreed to be one of the readers for my honors thesis. You will hear many stories about the countless graduate students who were guided by Rogin over the years, but know also that he helped all students. He was, simply, inspirational.
Cultural critics like Pauline Kael and Michael Rogin are rare, but their influence is long lasting. We miss them when they are gone, but one can state with assurance (and without resorting to New Age mysticism) that in important ways, they aren't really gone at all. Their work lives on, and by "their work," I don't mean only the words they published. I mean that one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own. I mean that one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take, and down the road, he was writing and teaching himself. I can think of no greater tribute to our late mentors, Kael and Rogin, than that I might just once provide inspiration for the next generation. In the meantime, I have the words you're reading now. My friend and Bad Colleague, Mike Mosher, told me awhile back, when I was thinking about what I might say when I finally wrote an obituary for the then-still-living Pauline Kael, that perhaps I ought to write it before, rather than after, she died, because she might see it, and obituaries are always sad because the subject of the writing isn't around to hear you. It's too late now for Kael, too late for Rogin, but in their names, to all those whose work inspires us to do our best, I want to say, thank you.
Steven Rubio still has a copy of Rock and Roll Will Stand from 1969.