Pauline Kael, whose film criticism anchored The New Yorker between 1968 and 1991, would have turned 100 on June 19. (She died in 2001.) Farran Smith Nehme has a nice appreciation of “The Pleasures of Pauline Kael” at the website of the British Film Institute. Check it out.
Anyone interested in film or in writing should have on their shelves copies of, at the least, For Keeps and 5001 Nights at the Movies. Kael was not only a great American film critic. She was also a great American writer. You can learn a lot from studying her prose.
“She convinced by the cleverness of her polemics and the passion spent upon her enthusiasms,” John Podhoretz wrote of Kael in The American Scholar in 1989. “She was also, when writing in top form, very readable.” That was often.
Reviewing her collection Going Steady for the April 7, 1970, issue of National Review, Richard Corliss said Kael had “become the best film critic in — oh, what the hell — ever.” Her influence was felt by younger writers, including Owen Gleiberman and James Wolcott, and by filmmakers, from Brian De Palma to Robert Altman to Quentin Tarantino. “She achieves what a great teacher does,” Corliss went on, “pouring knowledge and understanding into her readers, and drawing a tough-minded but expansive film attitude out of them.”
Several years later, in a National Review essay pegged to Kael’s collection Deeper Into Movies, John Simon took a different tack. “Miss Kael’s zest, wit, sharpness, knowledgeableness, and juicy idiosyncrasies shine on unabated,” Simon wrote in the March 30, 1973, issue. Indeed, “Miss Kael has become so much of a mythic phenomenon and household commodity, a still voice lurking at the back of many an unconscious and thundering critical avalanche gathering adherents as it rampages on, that it is time to assess the manifestation itself.”
Simon argued that Kael tended “to equate, more or less, vulgarity with vitality.” He said she used movies “as a surrogate for life.” Her critical judgment suffered when she went to films “for purposes of wish fulfillment, escape, rebellion against parental authority, and nostalgia.” Kael’s attitude toward audiences displayed a “yearning to become part of the community.” She was “a person endowed with superior intelligence but gladly willing to sacrifice some (though not all) of it for the sake of warming herself on the bosom of the crowd.” Kael was a movie democrat, Simon a cinematic republican.
What strikes the reader of Kael today is how seriously she took her responses to the movies, and how she tried to understand the reasons behind her responses. She was a true intellectual. Like a true intellectual, she was loved irony and opposed cant, euphemism, and cliché. The title of her first collection was I Lost It At the Movies. But Pauline Kael’s loss was our gain.