Actually, Pauline Kael Did Occasionally Watch Movies More Than Once

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by Matt Singer
November 20, 2012 2:29 PM
1 Comment
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Pauline Kael.
Legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael was famous for a few things: writing some of the most brilliant essays in the history of criticism, fighting with fellow critic Andrew Sarris, and a particular film-watching quirk -- she never, as the story goes (and as she herself confirmed in interviews), saw a film more than once. Not even her favorite films. Not even "Ghostbusters!" As someone who loves revisiting movies (and has a fairly terrible memory for details), I don't know how you can live like that.

Apparently, neither did Kael -- sort of. During our recent Criticwire panel discussion on the state of film criticism in the digital age, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, who knew Kael, revealed an interesting tidbit: her notorious one-time-only viewing habits, while "substantially true" were also kind of exaggerated. In fact, Kael did watch some movies that she loved multiple times (no, not "Ghostbusters"). 

The topic came up as the panelists began discussing how online publishing has affected journalists' deadlines. Gleiberman and I had both attended the "Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2" press screening the night before -- and we both had to file our reviews within hours of watching the film. That led into a conversation about how quickly articles now need to be developed, written, and edited -- and whether that is substantially different from the way things used to be in the industry. As an aside, I mentioned how some critics willingly choose never to see a movie more than once -- like Kael -- which prompted this response from Gleiberman (around the seven minute, ten second mark of the original audio) about whether that apocryphal story about her was actually, uh, unprocryphal:

"I knew her, and I can tell you that story is substantially true, but it is something of an exaggeration. There were certain movies that she loved that she saw a number of times. Like 'Nashville,' she saw three nights in a row."

So there you have it: mostly fact with some embellishment, but as the old saying from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" goes: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." By the way, I've seen that movie at least three times.

Listen to the entire "The Art of Film Criticism in the Digital Age" panel discussion.

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1 Comment

  • NeilFC | November 21, 2012 7:34 PMReply

    In her 1978 review of Comes a Horseman, she writes that Gordon Willis' dark-toned cinematography looks the way that the Godfather movies looked when they were broadcast on television. It doesn't necessarily mean that she watched the movies on television all the way through - but could she have made that observation from just watching snippets of those television screenings? And she loved the Godfather movies, so i wouldn't be surprised if she did watch them in their entirety on television.
    Also, in her 1980 essay "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers" she laments at how 20th Century Fox sold Breaking Away for an immediate television showing after it garnered a Best Picture Oscar nomination instead of giving it a big screen re-release. She also noted how it turned up "trashed, in the usual manner, on television." Does that mean she watched it a second time when it was on tv?

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