“A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.”- Pauline Kael, Trash, Art, & The Movies (1969)
Even if we set aside Pauline Kael’s critical judgment, her writing is the best ever about film. She’s engaging, lucid, free of cliches. Her long sentences have decisive momentum and ring well in the mind’s ear. As a regular weekly reviewer she wrote about many bad or run-of-the-mill films and while few will care to revisit a film like - to pick one out of a hat - Sweet November, her reviews have literary value that long outlives their subject.
But no matter how fine a writer she was, it is her critical judgment and the fearless way she wielded it that make her the most important film reviewer yet. She brought her whole mind and soul to bear on her work. She saw movies as the most complete and important art form of her time and film criticism as a wasteland, dominated by junketing blurb-whores (yes, even then) on one side and quasi-scientific “film theorists” on the other. There were exceptions, like Manny Farber and, earlier, James Agee, but mostly what passed for reviewing was just PR and what passed for criticism was just BS.
She was purely human and she had a poet’s sense of justice. And she never graded on a curve, a common, lazy habit of the weekly reviewer. As the reviewer for McCall’s she sealed her fate, and lost her job, with such reviews as her Sound of Music pan, in which she says:
“The success of a movie like THE SOUND OF MUSIC makes it even more difficult for anyone to try to do anything worth doing, anything relevant to the modern world, anything relevant or expressive. The banks, the studios, the producers will want to give the public what it seems to crave. The more money these “wholesome” movies make, the less wholesome will the state of American movies be.”
“It’s the big lie. The sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat. They even seem to think they should feed it to their kids, that it’s healthful, wonderful “family entertainment.”
That was from McCalls. McCalls! Can you imagine?
Of course, her positive reviews had their effect too, often much more so than her negative ones. When Bonnie & Clyde was released, it was not a hit. In fact, it came and went but Kael’s tremendously laudatory review of it in Mademoisselle resulted in a re-release of the film. She created a context for the reception of it. She shamed audiences into appreciating it.
A bit later she assumed the role she would occupy throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, critic and weekly reviewer (with a six month sabbatical from reviewing each year), of the New Yorker. It was here that she championed Altman, Scorsese, Coppola and Ashby. She was the most influential critic of her or any day, and her critical voice helped to shape the evolution of film during Hollywood’s greatest years. She was controversial and irascible but she sounded the keynote of the seventies. Commercial movies were achieving their potential and she could take a lot of the credit.
Of course the popularity of blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars brought the “sugarcoated lie” back with even greater strength. Ever prescient, Kael may have predicted as much in her (positive) review of Steven Spielberg’s 1974 (pre-Jaws) Sugarland Express:
“If there is such a thing as movie sense - and I think there is (I know fruit vendors and cabdrivers who have it and some movie critics who don’t) - Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn’t have much else.”
By 1991, she was done. She couldn’t drag herself to movies anymore. While she found good films to write about, she thought they had mostly become too bad, too depressing, so she retired from writing, leaving the baton for someone else to pick up once it cools off.
Most of Pauline Kael’s books are out of print. You can find many of them used on Amazon or ebay. Her collection “For Keeps” is a great place to start.
Here are a few links to her work online.
- Replying to Listeners, a transcript of a 1963 KPFA broadcast in which she wearily responds to the many letters she receives.
- Trash, Art, and the Movies, one of her greatest pieces.
- Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers, still valuable for its insight into Hollywood values.
- Tom Sutpen on Kael, with an amazing MP3 of a college lecture savaging the Auteurists.