Pauline Kael, Book Reviews, The Age of Movies, A Life in the Dark

by Anne Thompson
October 18, 2011 8:27 AM
7 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

Two new books about famed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael are out: Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark and and the Library of America's anthology The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael. A sampling of recent pieces inspired by these Kael books and a selection of her most notorious reviews are below.

Kael and archrival Andrew Sarris helped to define film criticism during the 70s, when movies were still an emerging art form that was gaining credibility as something even worth seriously writing about. While Sarris was a better historian and pushed the auteur theory that helped to index and define directors, Kael was a hugely influential popularizer. She wrote so stylishly and with such passion that any cinephile had to engage in debate on her latest often controversial raves of such directors as Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Sam Peckinpah and Bernardo Bertolucci. She helped to save Bonnie and Clyde from the dust heap. She famously championed writer Herman Mankiewicz over director Orson Welles in The Citizen Kane Book, and wrote the defining essay on Cary Grant, The Man from Dream City, a must-read. She briefly left The New Yorker in 1979, lured by Warren Beatty to try her hand at working inside the system, at Paramount, and swiftly returned to her chosen metier. Kael "was more than a great critic," EW critic Owen Gleiberman said. "She re-invented the form, and pioneered an entire aesthetic of writing. She was like the Elvis or the Beatles of film criticism."

Kael also championed her favorite young critics, many of whom emulated her style and advocated her chosen directors. Her acolytes--from Michael Sragow and Peter Rainer to Elvis Mitchell--were known as Paulettes, while Sarris and his affiliates--wife Molly Haskell, Tom Allen, Richard Corliss and Dave Kehr--were considered auteurists. And they were more likely to praise director Clint Eastwood, for example, whom Kael dismissed.

As Gerald Peary's depressing documentary on the history of film criticism, For the Love of Movies, attests, the glory days of criticism are long over. But that had a lot to do with the institutionalization of criticism as a job, as well as the dumbing down of the movies these often gifted writers had to write about. In many ways, the New York Times' Dave Kehr has more to write about in his DVD column that the daily critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, who address Kael below.

The New Yorker posts five Kael reviews as well as a book review:

"A couple of theories have arisen to explain Kael’s critical ascendancy during this period. One holds that movies in those years were just exceptionally good. It was the time of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Nashville (1975), and Taxi Driver (1976), and Kael praised those pictures’ innovations at length. Another theory suggests that Kael changed the rules of criticism, setting up a new way of evaluating popular art, without concern for prestige or self-conscious sophistication: in her view, a freshly entertaining or arresting movie was successful, and a movie that seemed tired or required unpacking was a flop,..

Brian Kellow’s illuminating new biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking; $27.95), dutifully attends to both theories. The book traces a plot in which Kael rises up against an élite critical establishment; champions mainstream pleasures in the movie house; makes a name as a critical iconoclast; and, at The New Yorker, ushers in a great age of American filmmaking. A more surprising story, though, is hidden in the shadows of his narrative. The Kael who comes into focus in the long shot is a different sort of critic, haunted by the old classics and obsessed with the place of movies in the canon of lasting art. Her key insight, it becomes clear, was seeing American creativity in the context of a culture whose premises were being overturned."


The Hollywood Reporter's book review:

"While it's possible to regard the subtitle of Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark as subtly snide, author Brian Kellow strongly suggests that Pauline, as she was called by everyone and is invariably referred to in these pages, lived most intensely in a darkened theater. As a film critic for The New Yorker from 1967 to 1991, she responded to movies with an unmediated emotion that was perhaps absent from her personal life (she is never described as having been in love with anyone after college), and her reactions could even be physical; one friend swears Pauline levitated at one screening, and her companion at Last Tango in Paris, about which she wrote her most famous review, said she was 'drenched' afterward, unable to talk,..Pauline is very fortunate in her biographer,..[Kellow] writes beautifully and dexterously interweaves the story of a career long-thwarted with a sensitive reading of his subject's youthful enthusiasm and intellectual growth. To an impressive degree, he gets inside the head of a precocious, fearsomely smart young woman from small-town California and is able to describe what drove her, which authors turned her on (James, Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Woolf, Proust), her love of jazz and her distaste for aesthetic, religious and political dogma. So thoroughly does he portray the development of Pauline's character and passionate engagement with matters aesthetic that it comes as no surprise she was able to burst onto the scene, at the relatively advanced age of 48, as one of the most dynamic cultural arbiters of the past century."

Manohla Dargis & A.O. Scott discuss Kael, who "didn’t just write about movies — she made it seem as if they were worth fighting about," in The New York Times:

Dargis:

"Given how badly she comes across in the biography — palling around with filmmakers she reviewed is merely the beginning — she doesn’t set a good example. Her passion for film burned bright and long, but what’s missing, at least in this telling, is an equal passion for, and pleasure in, life beyond the screen. The book is queasily readable, but it reconfirms that Kael’s work no longer speaks to me. I rarely if ever, find myself thinking, gee, I really want to reread her hyperventilated rave of Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” What’s more interesting now is how she continues to function as a player and signifier in certain discussions about ’60s and ’70s American cinema, at least for an earlier generation."

Scott:

"I think it’s still fun, still hot — though maybe not feminine hygiene hot — and that mourning of lost golden ages is a recipe for reactionary myopia. Still, it certainly helped that Kael was around at a time when movies were newly and contentiously acknowledged as a serious art form while still thriving as a medium of mass entertainment. Perhaps more than any other film critic, she dramatized in her writing a tension between the seductions of pop and the demands of art."

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7 Comments

  • The Reverend Tom Burdett | March 20, 2012 10:25 AMReply

    I grew up with Puline Kael's reviews. They were, in my youth, the only part of the New Yorker I deigned to peruse (shame on me!). When she was good, etc., etc. And I did SO want her to pprove of the movies I loved. Her attack on "2001: A Sace Odyssey," Stanley, why have you brought us here." - or something to that effect, sent me into the shoals of a depression. I could never, never understand her passionate affection for Brian DePalma's early work, nor her complete dismissal of Sydney Lumet. But that was not the point -- and still isn't the point. The point was her passion; and when I shared that passion, I was very much "in heaven." She was corect in her praise for "Nashville"; and if you think not, then go watch the movie again - and again. I could not get "It don't bother me" out of my consciousness for decades. Roger Ebert relates that he had, at one time, lamented to Ms. Kael that he did not possess her encyclopedic points of reference. She responded to the efefct that, if Only he would stick around for a while, he would. (And he did; and he has). Methinks her training in philosophy helped her in some obscure manner (as my Masters in Continental Phenomenolgy did me). Perhaps that is one of the reasons she was so bored with "Shoah", a work directed by a Sartrean acolyte "high" on "Anti-Semite and the Jew" Kael's courage in describing a self-congatulating, and in the final analysis "mean" filmaker (see the scene of the barber being almost tortued into remembering) is just that: corageous. And again she was correct in dismissing "The Sound of Music" (not to mention "West Side Story"). Her arguments resonated with me back then and continue to do soto this to day. It seems to me -- and of course this is subjective, for taste is always so -- that no one measures up to her abilities, or her wilingness, nay readiness, to puncture the pomposity of the likes of Andrew Sarris. God bless Pauline Kael; how I wish she were with us still!

  • The Reverend Tom Burdett | March 20, 2012 10:25 AMReply

    I grew up with Puline Kael's reviews. They were, in my youth, the only part of the New Yorker I deigned to peruse (shame on me!). When she was good, etc., etc. And I did SO want her to pprove of the movies I loved. Her attack on "2001: A Sace Odyssey," Stanley, why have you brought us here." - or something to that effect, sent me into the shoals of a depression. I could never, never understand her passionate affection for Brian DePalma's early work, nor her complete dismissal of Sydney Lumet. But that was not the point -- and still isn't the point. The point was her passion; and when I shared that passion, I was very much "in heaven." She was corect in her praise for "Nashville"; and if you think not, then go watch the movie again - and again. I could not get "It don't bother me" out of my consciousness for decades. Roger Ebert relates that he had, at one time, lamented to Ms. Kael that he did not possess her encyclopedic points of reference. She responded to the efefct that, if Only he would stick around for a while, he would. (And he did; and he has). Methinks her training in philosophy helped her in some obscure manner (as my Masters in Continental Phenomenolgy did me). Perhaps that is one of the reasons she was so bored with "Shoah", a work directed by a Sartrean acolyte "high" on "Anti-Semite and the Jew" Kael's courage in describing a self-congatulating, and in the final analysis "mean" filmaker (see the scene of the barber being almost tortued into remembering) is just that: corageous. And again she was correct in dismissing "The Sound of Music" (not to mention "West Side Story"). Her arguments resonated with me back then and continue to do soto this to day. It seems to me -- and of course this is subjective, for taste is always so -- that no one measures up to her abilities, or her wilingness, nay readiness, to puncture the pomposity of the likes of Andrew Sarris. God bless Pauline Kael; how I wish she were with us still!

  • Brian Camp | October 20, 2011 3:34 AMReply

    As a film buff/film student in the '70s, I would probably have identified myself as a disciple of Sarris and the Auteur Theory, but I valued Kael because she wrote passionately--and well--about films that tended to be dismissed by other critics. I distinctly remember her reviews of Robert Aldrich's HUSTLE and Sam Peckinpah's KILLER ELITE. They weren't raves--and neither film was among their director's best works--but she took these directors and their films seriously, which meant a lot to me at the time because my favorite directors then were guys like Aldrich, Peckinpah, Don Siegel, et al, who'd worked in the more marginal corners of the Hollywood system for years and were finally getting some recognition for their achievements.

  • DavidC | October 19, 2011 7:04 AMReply

    Many young critics misunderstood Kael's example and slavishly tried to write like her. A colossal misunderstanding of what she stood for. The real lesson to be drawn was the excitement of writing like yourself, for better or worse, without looking over your shoulder. I've found that some of her opinions hold up and others don't, but for goading to "say what we feel, not what we ought to say," for that alone, she desrves a niche in the pantheon.

  • Anne Thompson | October 19, 2011 5:15 AMReply

    I admire Penelope Gilliatt tremendously, and agree that she was far less biased than Kael, who socialized with and became invested in her director faves--who she would praise, or chastise for not making the movies she wanted them to make.

    I initially cited Antonioni instead of Bertolucci; corrected.

    And Matt, film reviews have gotten shorter over the years, along with our collective attention spans. We all miss those longer thoughtful pieces.

  • Terry | October 18, 2011 10:31 AMReply

    Kael hated all of Antonioni's films after L'avvventura, which she reviewed ineptly. Penelope Gilliatt is the critic who reviewed The Passenger for the New Yorker, and it was a review of dazzling cogency and piercing observations. When, oh when, will people begin to read Gilliatt's reviews on the New Yorker archive, considering that so much of her writing is so very much better and less biased than Kael's. Personally, I found, at the time and still today, Gilliatt's original review in the New Yorker of Bonnie and Clyde, to speak more clearly about the film's achievements and its very real shortcomings, in thousands fewer words than Kael.

  • Matt Brennan | October 18, 2011 9:16 AMReply

    As someone not far into the film writing game — and certainly not making a full-fledged career out of it yet — I came to Kael, interestingly enough, not as a radical/polarizing figure but as part of the "canon" of great critics (along with Agee, the Cahiers set, and Sarris).

    Anne, I think you have a point that daily critics are hurt by the sheer volume of what they have to see, without much of a choice, and a sizable portion of it pretty bad. (Even just listening on Oscar Talk days to how much you and Tapley see each week makes me jealous but exhausted.) But I also think the audacity and vivid writing Kael became known for owed something to the ability, in a magazine like the New Yorker, to stretch her legs, riff, detail pros and cons, choose more selectively, and stake a claim on a movie's greatness (or not). In the Internet age we've gained much in terms of the variety of voices, the accessibility of critics, and the benefits of a more punchy, direct style. But I think that means we've lost a bit of Kael's verve, and nerve, too.

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