This reminiscence about Pauline Kael appeared on November 7, 2011 on a now-defuct blogging platform and I am saving it here on WordPress. It still holds up, though.
When I was in college, and in the years after that too, my friends and I would never go to a movie without asking, “What’s the Biblical interpretation?” This was our little joke of asking what Pauline Kael thought of it.
As the then-film critic of The New Yorker, Kael was the most powerful voice in film criticism, maybe the most important critic of all time, and we followed her religiously. To us she was the Bible and if she told us to go to a movie we certainly did.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when movies mattered a lot. No person with cultural pretentions could afford not to have an opinion on the latest offerings from Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. We would go to 40-50 movies a year, and some might be terrible, some might be great, but regardless, they made us feel more alive and more in tune with our inner selves.
This period of youthful cinematic exuberance has been vividly brought to mind by the recent revival of Pauline Kael, through the publication of her biography “Pauline Kael: A Life at the Movies” by Brian Kellow, and the Library of America’s decision to issue a volume of her film writings, “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael.” All of a sudden, after years of barely hearing her name, here she is again, all over the place – in every newspaper, magazine or NPR program, with critics and reviewers using the biography as a jumping off point to testify about what she meant to them.
And she meant a lot to a lot of people. She attracted fervent admirers, who became known as “Paulettes.” These acolytes were almost all men and aspiring critics themselves who orbited and basked in her reflected glow. James Wolcott, David Denby, and others in this gang doted on her every word and loudly amplified her opinions.
She was one of those writers who made you feel smart just by reading her. I didn’t always understand what she was trying to say and I didn’t always like some of the movies she championed, but I always felt she was making me more thoughtful and intellectually curious. She could be exasperating, abstruse, hectoring and sometimes clearly off her rocker, but always passionate, intense and intelligent. And I was entranced by her. I didn’t know at the time there were Paulettes, but if I had been, I would have signed up.
Kael was lucky that she reached the height of her critical powers when she did. If she had been a major critic in the 1950’s, she would have gone crazy trying to analyze mainstream movies. But by the time she joined The New Yorker, movies had become a cutting edge art form and the American cinema had begun to produce a flood of innovative and challenging films.
In 1967 she published one of the most important essays in film history – a 6,000 word consideration of the movie Bonnie and Clyde. This was her first major piece for The New Yorker and it essentially saved the movie, which had opened to dismal reviews from more staid critics. The essay caused such a sensation that Warner Bros. reissued the movie and this time around it became a major hit.
The essay created a new way of looking at movies – a more visceral, personal and intellectual way. And it became the intellectual foundation for an American “New Wave” of cinema. It’s important to remember that when “Bonnie and Clyde” came out, American film was still dominated by family musicals like “The Sound of Music,” Hollywood spectacles like “Ben Hur,” old fashioned westerns, silly comedies, and high-minded (but boring) dramas like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The counterculture that had begun to change the country was not yet apparent on the big screen.
Kael saw that “Bonnie and Clyde” was the beginning of new American film sensibility. It was violent, cynical and amoral. As it happens just two months ago I strong-armed my son into watching it with me, and I can report that it’s still a disturbing but invigorating movie. The protagonists are both pitiless killers and existential heroes at a time when society itself was pitiless towards the common man (the action, of course, takes place during the depth of the Depression.) The film-making itself is vaguely experimental with clear references to the French New Wave that had hit European cinema a decade earlier.
Kael not only championed a new type of movie, she was a new type of critic. At a time when most critics spoke with a “voice of God” authority, her reviews were relentlessly personal, peppered with opinions in the second person voice (i.e., “you feel that …”) and the third personal plural (“we respond to this by…”). They are also filled with sweeping statements, idiosyncratic opinions and long undiagramable sentences that would make Henry James proud. Consider the first paragraph of her essay on “Bonnie and Clyde”:
“Bonnie and Clyde” is the most excitingly American American movie since “The Manchurian Candidate.” The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours. When an American movie is contemporary in feeling, like this one, it makes a different kind of contact with an American audience from the kind that is made by European films, however contemporary. Yet any movie that is contemporary in feeling is likely to go further than other movies—go too far for some tastes—and “Bonnie and Clyde” divides audiences, as “The Manchurian Candidate” did, and it is being jumped on almost as hard. Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.
Even now, I don’t understand exactly what’s she saying, but I can feel it, like you feel modern art or experimental jazz. I don’t really know what an “excitingly American American movie” is but I do have sense of what she’s trying to convey.
After “Bonnie and Clyde” came other great movies and other great reviews. She couldn’t stand ponderous message films or pretension of any kind (think “Dances with Wolves”, “Gandhi” or the kind of movies that were always up for Oscars.) What she did love were genre films that were true to themselves, movies that others might have considered trashy. Hardcore westerns, crime thrillers and sharp comedies.
She was dismissive of the “auteur theory” propounded by Andrew Sarris, which argued that the director was the author of a film and that the greatest auteurs were the ones who had the most distinctive visual and thematic styles (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, etc.) She argued that a great director was someone who made great movies, even if his films didn’t look alike and were not outwardly the product of the same filmmaker.
Yet if she rejected the auteur theory, she loved her auteurs. She played favorites like no other critic. She seemed to love everything from Brian DePalma, Robert Altman, and Sam Peckinpah – even work that was obviously garbage. But for some reason, she didn’t like Stanley Kubrick – not even “2001,” which she thought was ponderous. And she couldn’t stand Clint Eastwood, claiming that “Dirty Harry” was fascist.
But for all her faults, Pauline Kael truly loved the movies. “Loved” almost in the way you love another human being. The critic David Thomson described sitting next to her once at a screening (see http://bit.ly/vvq20h) and finding her own performance more compelling than what was on the screen. It was a film by Brian De Palma and she was twitching around, making noises and responding almost physically to the celluloid. As Thomson describes it, “the noises she was making — the tiny hedgehog squeaks and raptures — were part of a nearly writhing rapport with the film up there on the screen. She was in love with it. She was, nearly, making love to it.” No wonder she had such sexually suggestive titles for her books: “I Lost it at the Movies,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Reeling,” “When the Lights Go Down,” etc.
The Kellow biography makes it clear why she was in love with the movies – because her personal life stunk and film was an escape. With the publication of this biography it is probable that Pauline Kael will become a case study for motivational speakers. She had a daughter by a cad who refused to support her or the daughter. The daughter needed an operation that she couldn’t afford, so she married another man long enough to get the operation paid for. (Sounds a little bit like “Mildred Pierce.”)
Meanwhile success came hard and it took a long time. She estimated that she wrote a million words, unpaid, for revival theatre newsletters, radio stations and other small publications before she ever earned a dime for her work. She slowly gained a reputation as intelligent critic and then finally got the New Yorker job at age 48. Years and years of writing movie reviews, just for the love of it and then she was the most powerful critic in the country – that’s an inspirational story.
She retired from the New Yorker in 1991, just in the nick of time. The period of cinematic excellence that she presided over had begun to fade as early as the late seventies, with the first blockbusters from Stephen Spielberg and George Lukas (e.g., “Jaws” and “Star Wars.”) Movies started to matter less, as the audience grew younger and studios could make more money on “franchises,” remakes, and gross-out comedies.
The hunger for intelligent movies still exists – indeed, just last weekend I went to see “Margin Call” at a packed theatre in Norwalk CT – but the big money is elsewhere. If Kael were alive today (she died in 2001) it’s hard to imagine her finding a contemporary film worthy of a 6,000 word essay.
Movies are no longer our culture’s dominant art form — that would be television, in an era of “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” TV is not as highly regarded as it should be because it doesn’t have an advocate as passionate and intelligent as Pauline Kael. She would probably reject the premise that TV could ever rival film as an art form, because movie-going involves a dark theatre, a huge screen, and a communal experience. Or maybe not. But what I miss is having the chance to hear her make the argument either way.