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Astonish Us

By (May 1, 2011) 59 Comments

A worthy appreciation of Pauline Kael has to dive right into things: for nearly forty years she was the best film critic in America.

Even an opening such as this seems sluggish and indirect if you’ve been immersed in Kael’s own writing. She bursts into her first sentences as though she’s just walked out of the theater and begun ventilating two-hours of pent-up responses. Each review seems to have been inaugurated by that parking-lot icebreaker, “So, what’d you think?” The delight is fresh, irradiant – I don’t know of another critic who better conveys the afterglow of excitement in a great performance or production, the exultation of having experienced something transcendent. Of course, her outrage is every bit as vivid. When something offended her, she relished delivering the killing blow. Both responses seem born from the ecstasy of the moment, yet her writing is never muddied or breathless, her judgments never reactionary or superficial.

Kael wrote admiringly of film critic James Agee’s “full panoply of loving terms,” and when a movie overjoyed her, she was also profuse and immediate in her praise. Here’s how she begins her review of Robert Altman’s groundbreaking debut:

M*A*S*H is a marvelously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It’s a sick joke, but it’s also generous and romantic – an erratic, episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected.

When a movie angered her, her disgust is every bit as unconditional:

Literal-minded in its sex and brutality, Teutonic in its humor, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange might be the work of a strict and exacting German professor who set out to make a porno-violent sci-fi comedy. Is there anything sadder – and ultimately more repellant – than a clean-minded pornographer?

(Sometimes these opening salvos are so devastating that there’s almost no point in reading on. A brief guillotining of something called The Magic Christian begins, “Unfunny camp is contemptible.”)

There were two stages to Kael’s career, and in the first, between 1953 and 1967, she was an outsider. She lived during most of these years in her hometown of San Francisco, which was close enough to Hollywood but far from the critical establishment in New York. She was raising a daughter alone (the father was the beatnik bisexual film director James Broughton), and had spent much of her thirties working odd jobs as a seamstress, cook, and bookstore clerk, and eventually as the manager of a movie house. Writing criticism began accidently, when the editor of the quarterly City Lights overheard her in a restaurant denouncing Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight.

The fruit of her work as a freelancer is gathered in her first collection I Lost it at the Movies. These are occasional pieces, reviews, retrospectives, transcripts of radio broadcasts, and huge tentacled essays in which Kael tries to touch on everything her lack of a weekly column has prevented her from covering.

You see in these pieces her happy origins as a film lover first and casual critic second. She effortlessly establishes a truth nearly lost in professional reviewing, that for most people movie going is a social experience, very often tied to dating. In her review of West Side Story (“a great musical for people who don’t like musicals”) she discusses the perils of talking about movies with a would-be suitor:

Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider. I have premonitions of the beginning of the end when a man who seems charming or at least remotely possible starts talking about movies…. Boobs on the make always try to impress with their high level of seriousness (wise guys, with their contempt for all seriousness).

Her famous appraisal of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine is the most extravagant example of a critical judgment springing from an intensely personal and private response (if anything, the following mise-en-scene was varnished to emphasize the singular, subjective nature of the reaction):

When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, “Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.” I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?

Kael forged her insights from the moment of viewing, and this naturally set her in opposition to academic and theory-based criticism. The problem with theory, she felt, is that it single-mindedly dictates the right and wrong ways to watch and respond to movies. One school of thought might esteem film for its unique montage quality, another for its trend toward realism – but in either case, adherents of each school are guaranteed to promote mediocre films that fit their theory while dismissing great work that doesn’t. For Kael, for whom the supreme artistic virtues were surprise and eclecticism, “There is only one rule: Astonish us! In all art we look and listen for what we have not experienced quite that way before. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way. Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?”

But there was a larger animosity at work in her polemics. Her reviews from this period focus an attention on other reviewers that becomes borderline obsessive. Another piece begins this way (if I seem to be cherry-picking openings, it’s because, like Emily Dickinson, Kael is most quotable in her first lines):

I wouldn’t have thought A View from the Bridge was worth much discussion, but it has gotten such very-important-picture treatment from the press … that I think maybe I should say a few unkind words.

The reviews frequently spend as much time quoting and demolishing the opinions from Time and The New York Times (names such as Saul Bass and Bosley Crowthers may be doomed to live on in these broadsides) as actually commenting on the film. Her combativeness went in all directions – without a secure writing position, her defenses were also up against her own editors, who were naturally inclined to shape her views to their own tastes. To preserve what was most important to her about movies – the intimate and visceral response that they provoked – she was prone to turn against any group that wanted her as a member, even and especially the art-house crowd. “Vulgarity is not as destructive to an artist as snobbery,” she once warned; she made much of her love for musicals and her dislike of movies with an obvious social consciousness. (This would be a lifelong impulse. In one of the last interviews she ever gave, she took a moment to bash Sam Mendes’s Academy Award darling American Beauty: “Can’t educated liberals see that a movie like [that] sucks up to them at every plot turn?”)

Finally, in 1968, after a brief run as the house reviewer at McCall’s (she was fired for panning to many big commercial releases), Kael was hired by The New Yorker. She was not quite fifty, and embarking on what was arguably the most widely-read and influential run of any critic in any artistic medium in the 20th century.

It was also the period of her finest writing. Now Kael had a berth in the establishment. She was a successor to one of her erstwhile foils, Brendan Gill, and she alternated reviewing with another former target, Penelope Gilliatt. As an insider, she couldn’t spend so much time surveying the writing of her peers and caviling about their philistinism. She was responsible for delivering the first word on the movies, and it galvanized her.

The knottiest problem for mainstream film critics regards the preponderance of trash that they have to treat seriously, or at least entertainingly – what can you say about Michael Bay adventures and Adam Sandler comedies week after week? Today’s most quick-witted reviewer, The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, has never really resolved the dilemma. He seems to write in two completely different registers, depending on whether the film is a noisy Angelina Jolie shoot-‘em-up (in which a fundamental disregard is implied by the vamping plot summaries and Catskill lounge humor) or a small-budget French pastoral drama (in which a fundamental respect is conveyed by subdued backgrounding and delicate scene analysis).

But Kael wrote with the same spontaneity and intelligence about popular entertainment as about the films of Renoir and Antonioni. The key was that her criticism continued to flow from the experience of viewing the film – if it made her feel good, then it was good. In an essay from Going Steady, her first collection of New Yorker pieces, she wrote, “We generally become interested in movies because we enjoy them and what we enjoy them for has little to do with art.” There was, to her, no reason to apologize for being delighted by great car chases or an actor’s style and beauty. She goes on:

Because of the photographic nature of the medium and the cheap admission prices, movies took their impetus not from the desiccated imitation European high culture, but from the peep show, the Wild West show, the music hall, the comic strip – from what was coarse and common.

When we do find art in movies, it’s as an adaptation of those basic elements of entertainment. So Kael was able to genuinely enthuse about trashy movies, without condescension but also without any illusions that such pictures were deep or significant. She adored the 007 franchise (at least, until Roger Moore came on the scene: “his idea of Bond’s imperturbable cool is the same as playing dead”), and here you can see how she negotiates between lauding the action-flick pleasures of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and owning up to its essential silliness:

The latest episode in the super-serial of the sixties … is marvelous fun. It introduces a new Bond, George Lazenby, who’s quite a dull fellow, and the script isn’t much either, but the movie is exciting anyway. The director, Peter Hunt, is a wizard at action sequences, particularly an ethereal ski chase that you know is a classic while you’re goggling at it, and a mean, fast bobsled chase that is shot and edited like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I know that on one level it’s not worth doing, but it sure has been done brilliantly.

She held rigorous standards for these movies, too, of course. If they were boring or formulaic they were worthless. But even worse were those that succeeded in exciting the senses, but in barbarous ways. Dirty Harry – a paean to vigilante police justice – she felt brought out the “fascist potential” in the action genre. The Exorcist attempted an equally loathsome manipulation: it’s “shallowness that asks to be taken seriously.”

Having developed a lexicon and critical apparatus for popular movies, Kael achieved a camaraderie with her readers that few reviewers enjoy. She was closely observant of audience reactions during screenings, often reporting in her pieces if the crowd was thrilled, or agitated, or nonplussed (and therefore tacitly acknowledging that her own experience had been colored by that of the audience). While her early writing had an edgy underdog bravado that could turn quickly to mockery, these reviews contain a strong sense of moviegoer fellowship, in which the enemies are no longer obfuscatory critics but bad, cynical movie makers.

Kael’s most memorable writing came during the Nixon years (I think that Deeper into Movies, which collects the New Yorker pieces between 1969 and 1972, is her best book). These were some of the worst years in America’s history, and Kael wrote with a passionate fervor against the national disillusionment that was saturating the culture. She treats her readers like allies in her fight: others who love and care about good movies. When something was released that seemed to capitalize on despair or disaffection (she hated the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter as well as, for almost the same reasons, the “glorified vacuum” of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) she is remorselessly vituperative. When she finds a great picture, like Altman’s Nashville (“a pure emotional high”) or The Godfather (her ultimate example of art flowering from trash), there is a sense of collective triumph, a buoyancy very like the feeling inspired by the great film itself.

As was right and proper, when Kael became established she was attacked in her turn, although these takedowns make for mostly disappointing reading. Many come from academics guarding their weedy intellectual patches. The most notable is Renata Adler’s 1980 hatchet job in The New York Review of Books, which dedicates a tremendous amount of verbiage to criticizing Kael’s demotic prose. Some of Kael’s favorite adjectives for movies were “whorey” and “dopey,” for instance, which to Adler made the writing both crude and ad hominem: “a breakthrough in vulgarity and unfairness.” The complaints seem dour and parti pris, especially when set beside some of Kael’s ecstatic fusillades.

There is a chance, however, that Kael held her post for too long. She left The New Yorker in 1991, and the reviews from her final decade of work are noticeably weaker. The pieces read quite well on their own, but Kael had lost touch with her audience. She’s more likely, during these yuppie-Reagan days, to be irritated with the people in the theater for crying during such “wet kitsch” as Rain Man (“Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes”).

Still, all these reviews contributed to a catalogue that ran into the thousands by the time Kael retired. Her books are virtually all out of print, and even apart from the injustice of that fact, it seems like a missed opportunity – whatever the future of books, it’s still the case that everyone watches movies: a Kael compendium is a perfect accompaniment to a Netflix subscription.

Her work will hold, in any case – that’s what’s so remarkable about it. Whenever you get around to reading her – though sooner is better than not – you’ll find those afterglows of anger and excitement as bright as when they first appeared.

Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and is an editor of Open Letters Monthly.


  • Alejandro says:

    Nice piece, Sam. Thanks for digging up these gems!

  • David Marsten says:

    I have admired her critical writing…but as so many critics she was ocasionally totally off-base.
    I recall her dismissal of “Jaws” where she called the monster shark ‘plastic’……maybe so, but for those who love opera, it was the music (John Williams) that made this all come alive. So she dissed one of the most popular and acclaimed films of all time.


  • Brian says:

    Renata Adler’s piece on Kael was not a “hatchet job.” Adler wrote a brilliant analysis of a critic who had coasted on her reputation for far too long. If one has not read Adler’s piece, House Critic, I recommend doing so.

  • Sam Becket says:

    The Library of America will be publishing a selection of Kael’s writings soon.

  • Dan Erdman says:

    If that’s what Kael wrote in response to Altman’s debut, then she was a prescient critic indeed – M*A*S*H* came out nearly 15 years after Altman’s first film, 1957’s THE DELINQUENTS.

  • Greg says:

    No need to worry about the future of her books; the Library of American will be publishing a compendium of her reviews later this year!

  • hank says:

    david, was kael really dismissive of Jaws? perhaps you are right but i still recall an observation she made in that review that made a lasting impression on me. spielberg framed early watery shots in the film simply, half water, half sky, a placid horizontal seascape where we are invited to focus on the distance. and then suddenly the shark is thrust up from the bottom of the frame in alarming close up. you are jolted back in your seat. kael said, and i hope i am remembering this reasonably accurately, that this could only have been the invention of a younger filmmaker, one who read comics instead of books, one whose training was not in the stage where things entered the frame properly from stage right or left. (she was referring at that time to penn, frankenheimer, lumet etc.) the way the shark lunged up from the bottom of the frame, she said, was pure film.

  • mike d says:

    You have a fine, fine piece here, Mr. Sacks. Kael was certainly a cut above, both as a prose stylist and a film critic. I keep two of her collections (“I Lost It…” and “Deeper…”) by my bedside and frquently dip in. Her effusions in the 1970s over Robert Altman, however, were a bit excessive and cloying, even to those of us who admire Altman. No matter. She was great.Thanks for paying tribute.

    Mike D

  • Ron says:

    DMarsten — She may have criticized the shark (who didn’t?), but she loved Jaws. Look up her review. She gave the movie one of her most memorable raves.

  • Kristy says:

    David Marsten, I agree with others that Kael liked Jaws, but also, it never troubled her to pan “the most popular and acclaimed films of all time.” Such categories meant nothing to her– in fact some of her critics thought she panned them out of deliberate contrarianism. I don’t agree — I think she just saw through cant. That was one of the most exhilarating things about reading her — she had no false piety, no conventional respect for public taste. Her taste was her own.

  • Craig says:

    Ditto what Ron wrote: Kael loved “Jaws.” (Condensed version of her review here: http://emdashes.com/2006/08/a-goldmine-of-pauline-kael-rev.php) I dunno if she actually wrote that the shark looked plastic — though, in fact, it did, which is why Spielberg shies away from revealing it for so long. But that ties into a fascinating phenomenon about Kael’s writing, which is how readers tend to fixate on one or two negative comments in overall positive reviews. I just saw this with “Taxi Driver” again recently.

    So, no, Kael did not, in this instance, diss “one of the most popular and acclaimed films of all time.” But even if she had — as she did with plenty of other movies — it would beg the question: So what?

  • Kevin says:

    “For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?”

    Well, Pauline, maybe they simply feel things that you yourself cannot feel, such as the grandeur of the outer cosmos, or the stifling nature of the “human aquarium”, both depicted so brilliantly in a film you neither liked nor understood: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  • roy turner says:

    Nice piece. When I knew Pauline she lived in Berkeley, where the two tiny side-by-side theatres she managed provided an education in cinema. She wrote the notes, naturally.

    I sat beside her by chance at a San Francisco Festival showing, early sixties(Bunuel, I think), which began with an interminable short. Pauline, in a loud voice, as it dragged on: “I’ve had love affairs shorter than this”.

    Roy T.

  • Belinda Gomez says:

    Sadly, Kael’s work hasn’t aged well. Far too often, she’s a fan girl, not an actual critic. Her knowledge of film was wide but shallow. In her later years, she was very easily swayed by the Hollywood elite that paid attention to her her (Warren Beatty, for one.) Her own short-lived career as a producer proved she had no real ideas about how movies were made or what, indeed, made a good movie.

  • IA says:

    On Brian’s defense of Adler’s hackjob: Kael had hardly been coasting on her reputation in 1980. She reached that point toward the end of her tenure, when her reviews became lengthy, if entertaining plot summaries. (Her rival Andrew Sarris, still writing today, has become similarly enfeebled by age.) What I remember of Adler’s piece is its prudishness and snobbery. She had one good point in that Kael was prone to hyperbole, but that’s also part of what made her an interesting critic–the sense that so much was at stake.

  • Anne G. says:

    One of my favorite Kael lines from a review of An Officer and a Gentleman: “It’s crap, but it’s crap on a motorcycle. Now that’s a great line and right on the mark.

  • Peter says:

    I live in Canada and have no familiarity with Kael’s writing.

    Reading baout her inclusuon of audience reaction in her criticism made me want to share was one movie experience that I will never forget.

    I watched “Natural Born Killers” in a full theatre. The film seemed to me to be a criticism of how Hollywood glamorizes killing and killers.

    At one point in the movie a reporter interviewing the killers in prison snaps during a riot, seizes a gun and begins killing at random.

    When this happended the audience cheered. It was one of the most chilling experiences I’ve ever had.

  • Sevorin says:

    I love Kael’s contentious writing style and her passion for movies. Every so often she’ll come up with something like “The movie (One, Two, Three) draws laughs the way a catheter draws urine” or “She (Sandy Dennis) makes an acting style out of post nasal drip” — expressions that make you laugh, if not think terribly hard.

    But as wonderfully enjoyable as she is to read, she’s not, at the end of the day, a truly great critic, as, for example, James Agee is.

    No: Kael is always the schoolmarm handing out marks. She has her pets and her Jonahs and can be expected to treat them that way.

  • Fred says:

    The rare discussions of literature, interspersed throughout her movie reviews, demonstrate she would have made as well a very fine literary critic. She probably was better suited to movies, but this is sad, in a way, because movie critics fade away even faster than book reviewers, and Kael is already largely forgotten. In 20 years nobody will know her name.

  • Kerry Riley says:

    Thanks Sam, for this enjoyable review of an enjoyable reviewer. Two comments:

    1. As a high school English teacher I am always looking for ways to help my students begin to respond to writing as a creative art. Although Kael was speaking about film, her advice to film makers:

    “There is only one rule: Astonish us! In all art we look and listen for what we have not experienced quite that way before. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond in a new way.”

    applies as well to writing, and just what it is that a critic/reader should be attempting to analyze in a piece of writing.

    2. To be fair, I haven’t read the Adler review, but based on the comments about it, I have to say it may be symptomatic of a bad turn taken by literary academia — and part of the reason (here in Canada, anyway) we have such a divide between an interested and enthusiastic reading public anxious to debate our literature, and a jargon-bound academic elite incapable of communication beyond their highly specialized niche. (It’s not clear to me that there’s that much useful communication going on within some of those niches either) Perhaps it’s the Irish in me, but I say, it’s a fine thing to have an intelligent, perceptive analysis, but an intelligent, perceptive analysis, delivered entertainingly and intelligibly, is a far finer thing! On this basis, Kael, who mined the language available(including the demotic)with relish, to share, debate, and entertain, wins!

  • sfmike says:

    Wow, Pauline is still stirring them up from the grave, and good for her. She was the ONLY great film critic as far as I’m concerned, even though I didn’t always agree with her individual judgments. Her style was closer to George Bernard Shaw writing about music than anybody else writing about movies, and I miss her voice terribly. As for Renata Adler, she was just about the definition of a pretentious hack.

  • IA says:

    Belinda Gomez’s remark that Kael was “a fan girl, not an actual critic” is bizarre, since Kael is usually critcizied for being too critical and negative, not the opposite. Calling her “knowledge of film was wide but shallow” without giving any examples is itself shallow. And her treatment of Warren Beatty was far from uncritical.
    Deciding that Kael’s short tenure as a consultant reveals that “she had no real ideas about how movies were made” is frankly BS. It’s well known that Beatty did his best to make her tenure miserable. Few critics would last long in that sort of atmosphere. But the pictures that Kael helped in her tenure–such as The Elephant Man–show that she had a pretty good idea of what “made a good movie.”

    Sevorin is free to prefer James Agee, though others might prefer Kael’s frankness to Agee’s maddening “on the other hand” qualifications, not to mention the preciosity of his style. Kael did indeed have her pets–as does every critic. But I cannot think of another critic who sounded less like a schoolmarm.

  • Cubbies1967 says:

    I appreciate Kael’s contribution to film criticism and her gutsy bluntness. My main disagreements with her are primarily a difference of taste as she clearly detested Kubrick, while I greatly admire him (and how could she NOT find Clockwork astonishing?)

  • Ford says:

    If a younger Kael was writing today, she would be just another internet troll spewing her opinion as though it was gospel. Sure, she had strong opinions and a peppy style, but there’s practically no thinking going on.

  • David Edelstein says:

    Kael loved Jaws. The movie was panned in the New Yorker by Penelope Gilliat. Kael enthused about the film in a later essay.

  • Pat says:

    This so-called tribute to Kael’s so-called talents reminded me of exactly why I never liked her stuff.

  • David says:

    Ford: Read Kael’s essay on Bertolucci’s “1900” & then tell me where I can find an “Internet troll spewing her opinion” who can write so impressively & thoughtfully.

  • Paul G says:

    Kael was a fine critic because you always got a sense that all her remarks were in defence of one principle or another. Sometimes, as with many good critics, holding to a particular principle blinded her to other merits in a movie. I often reread her reviews of films and find that, although I might disagree with her remarks, I am never bewildered by them – she leaves you in no doubt why she thinks the way she does. (Thus, I don’t think there’s much thinking going on behind Ford’s comment above.) She was a terrific describer of the texture of a film (as the excerpt of the MASH review shows)and a lover of particular qualities that actors bring to the screen.

    She was an energetic stylist and her reviews race along, building their arguments on the run. And she also could turn a damning or eulogistic phrase in a way that was clever AND, more importantly, true. (That line about Kubrick being a ‘clean-minded pornographer’is a nice example and is precient when you consider how he shot that twee orgy in Eyes Wide Shut.) Beyond an ability to write well, what you want from any critic is to be clear, forthright, honest and knowlegable. Kael was all these.

  • Jim says:

    I’ve never read a well-articulated take-down of Kael.

    The idea, for example, that a film critic can’t at one and the same time be a fan-girl is shown to be false by Kael herself. The overriding necessity was to maintain contact with what she immediately felt, even if it meant spilling the fantasies and crushes that make up movie love.

    That doesn’t mean, pace Ford, that she doesn’t think. The thinking is directed at understanding the direct response. To bastardize J. L. Austin, the direct response isn’t the last word, but it is the first.

  • Thanks for such a well-considered appreciation of Kael. Other critics can only pray that they might develop a voice as unique and clear as hers. We can challenge her reviews only because we understand exactly where she stood.

    You solved for me a dilemma. Is it me, or is it the generally-fine Anthony Lane? Ah, it’s him: “Anthony Lane, has never really resolved the dilemma. He seems to write in two completely different registers…” And I’d thought it was just my tin ear.

  • Chris says:

    Brian is right: Renata Adler’s piece is not a hatchet job, but a brilliant dissection of Kael’s limitations and failures of perception. It’s astounding the flagrant double standards Kael’s hysterical, shrill, vindictive, solipsistic worshippers continue to apply to her as compared with any other arts critic who ever lived. One law for Queen Pauline, and another law for the rest of the world, in their minds. Despite the naysayers, Adler’s critique remains a dead-on, bull’s eye piece of writing, a necessary puncturing of the balloon of Kael’s inflated rep.

    This is not to say that Kael’s writing was without merit – she could SOMETIMES be extremely shrewd and perceptive – but while a cut above the middlebrow likes of Bosley Crowther, she certainly was not any better overall than dozens of other writers on film: including Adler herself, or Andrew Sarris, John Simon, Stanley Kauffmann, Penelope Gilliat, Dwight MacDonald, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ray Carney…. on and on it goes. Yet the cult of Kael continues with the delusion that she was somehow uniquely gifted. She certainly seems so when you compare her writing with that of the typical junket whore – but not when you set her thinking against that of scores of her peers who are ALSO capable of making up their minds about things, and don’s simply accept studio hype. Kael possessed talent, but she was not unique and she had tons of blind spots.

  • Chris says:

    Brian is right: Renata Adler’s piece on Kael is not a hatchet job, but an incisive examination of Kael’s shortcomings and limitations.

    Adler’s statement,

    “She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials. Whether or not one shares these predilections—and whether they are in fact more than four, or only one—they do not really lend themselves to critical discussion. It turns out, however, that Ms. Kael does think of them as critical positions, and regards it as an act of courage, of moral courage, to subscribe to them.”

    remains the most devastating encapsulation of Kael’s principal flaw yet written. This is clearly a true statement about Kael’s taste, and is precisely why she was not a great critic – a cut above the likes of Bosley Crowther, yes, a sometimes shrewd and penetrating writer, but finally too flawed by her unpleasant, capricious, and perverse biases to be a reliable guide to film.

    “I’ve never read a well-articulated take-down of Kael.”

    Then try reading Adler’s piece, then go on to Gary Indiana’s takedown, and Alan Vanneman’s, and Michael Atkinson’s, and Lindsay Anderson’s, and Leo Charney’s, and Ray Carney’s. Far from being rare, well-articulated and well-argued takedowns of Kael are ubiquitious. Taking Kael down a peg has proven to be as easy as pie for many a writer over the years.

  • Jim says:

    I’ve read Adler’s piece, of course, and also Indiana’s. I’m suggesting that neither one is any good. Adler’s seethes with resentment. The oh so incisive statement you quote is just incomprehensible as applied to Kael. I can’t imagine how anyone who has read a good deal of her writings could think that those are her principled, albeit unconscious, predilections. Her taste was vastly more capacious.

    Kael did take something like a moral tone on movies, but I love her for that. The moral tone wouldn’t work if her critical sensibility wasn’t so good.

    (I’ll have to look up the others.)

  • castelauro says:

    I remember reading Kael and finding out that I enjoyed her criticism more than many movies. What made her different from other critics was her talent as a writer. This allowed her to address film at the same level, as a popular art, and not from a scholarly pulpit. She was definitely the most widely read serious critic around and an easy target of other critics and non critics. And unlike most critics she was influential.
    I´m with Kerry Riley and sfmike and The Library of America!

  • Chris says:

    “I’ve read Adler’s piece, of course, and also Indiana’s. I’m suggesting that neither one is any good.”

    You can suggest it all you like – but your suggestion remains without merit. Adler’s description of Kael is accurate: she clearly had a thing for gratuitous violence and a pronounced sadomasochistic streak (with the emphasis on the sadistic side of the equation) – as well as a love of mindless trash and pulp (something American culture hardly needs any more of) – runs through just about everything she wrote. Of course, there were violent movies she hated, but the problem is there’s no rhyme or reason for her trashing Dirty Harry and Death Wish while getting all titillated and excited for Billy Jack. There’s no essential difference between the three films. Or her insistence that Hitchcock was not an artist but a “prestidigitator” – but then she adamantly insists that DePalma – at his most derivative of Hitchcock – IS a great artist and DOES need to be taken seriously.

    “I can’t imagine how anyone who has read a good deal of her writings could think that those are her principled, albeit unconscious, predilections. Her taste was vastly more capacious.”

    No it was not. And I don’t give a shit if she loved Pather Panchali or Rules of the Game, it’s still a fact that a disproportionately large number of her raves were for movies that played into her personal sexual fantasies – and what these reveal about her psychosexual inclinations is none too pleasant.

    But I do take back one thing. Adler’s description, though it remains entirely accurate and valid, isn’t the most incisive thing written about Kael. A more devastating point is Alan Vanneman’s:

    “All her life Kael wrote as a brilliant schoolgirl, straining for “insights” and exulting over “nuances” that no one else noticed (because they weren’t there). She had to be deeper, more profound, and more shocking than anyone else, which led her into the same sort of pretentiousness she ridiculed in others.”

    The real reason for her enduring popularity has nothing to do with the merits, such as they are, of her writing. As I already pointed out, while Kael was quite obviously a cut above most of the anonymous scribes writing about movies, there’s nothing that sets her above any of the other “big names” in film criticism, from the earliest days of film to the present. Yet only she has a cult built up around her, and this has everything to do with the way she flatters her readership, inflating their egos much the same way George Orwell did (a far better writer than Kael, but still massively overrated). (Both knew how to make themselves sound like the only virtuous, sane practitioners of their craft, surrounded by dupes and lemmings and fools.) Orwell and Kael alike knew exactly what poses to strike in their essays to win over the widest possible readership – both knew all the tricks of the trade for earning oneself an inflated reputation in perpetuity. Overrated writers don’t become overrated by accident, but because they know exactly how to play their readers like a violin. But they remain overrated and nonetheless.

  • Hugh says:

    Pauline Kael may be most famous for her essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” which celebrated what was best about Hollywood movies. Until the 1960s, however, she generally reserved her highest praise for the work of European directorsRenoir, Truffaut, Godard, Cocteau, Vigo, Bergman, Bunuel, Antonioni, Reed, Dreyer, and the like. It wasn’t until the 60s that U.S. filmmakers found themselves with the creative control that the Europeans had always had and went on to create the series of groundbreaking films that Kael championedBonnie and Clyde, Cabaret, The Godfather, Shampoo, Nashville, Taxi Driver . . . .

    Did a critic who appreciated above all the works of Renoir, Truffaut and the other Europeans demonstrate a liking for “frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials”?

  • Chris says:

    The answer to your question, Hugh, is yes: Adler’s point stands.

    In fact, one of Kael’s main complaints about Bunuel’s late films is the lack of sufficient cruelty and mean-spiritedness. There’s also the reality of Kael’s declining taste and declining ability, which is another of Adler’s points: Adler, you’ll recall, started off as a fan, but like so many Kael fans, ended up losing her admiration the more she read, and the longer Kael stayed at the game.

    And I’m sorry the Paulettes seem unable to grasp this point, but you’d be hard pressed to name ANY competent critic EVER – as opposed to merely a newspaper reviewer or a blogger – who didn’t appreciate their share of great film. Richard Roeper, for example, is a favorite punching bag for just about every film buff – his name is constantly bandied about when people want to name a shitty critic – yet even he likes lots of classic films and filmmakers – just as many as Kael ever did. Simply naming a bunch of names like Renoir or Truffaut proves absolutely nothing, since there’s scarcely any critic, barring the absolute bottom of the barrel, who doesn’t have such a list. Siskel and Ebert admired virtually all those same names – and many more besides – so what? Indeed, virtually every critic with any kind of reputation at all has a similar list – as I repeatedly pointed out, however, the dozens of other film critics of Kael’s eminence don’t have the same kind of cult built up around them – only she ever enjoyed this sort of cult.

    Nobody is denying Kael was far more talented and perceptive than some two-bit hack linked on Rotten Tomatoes. What I’m denying is that she was a truly great critic – one Paulette once actually compared her to Samuel Johnson! which is ridiculous – or that she was any better than scores of other writers on film. And saying nice things about The Rules of the Game doesn’t excuse her lack of taste and judgment when it came to NEW RELEASES during her lifetime. Incidentally, Kael had an irritating habit of invariably quoting her peers with derision – Penelope Gilliat, Dwight MacDonald (who helped her get her big breaks in the first place – and that’s how she thanked him! what a lovely person, huh?), Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kaufmann – to make it sound like she was the only working critic with a functional brain. Which is all well and good until you actually go back to the source, and half the time the quote was ripped out of context and doesn’t sound stupid or imperceptive at all once you read it in its proper context (something which the vast majority of Kael’s fans have never done, which is why they take her at her word when she sneers and derides some other reviewer’s statement). But that was Kael’s lifelong mendacious game: misquote, misrepresent, selectively quote, build up a series of straw man arguments, and her favorite of all rhetorical strategies, the one she used and abused more than any other: the False Dichotomy.

  • Jack says:

    Adler’s piece on Kael is the ultimate analysis of why Kael remains one of the most overrated writers of all time — and more than likely the most overrated film critic.

  • Ralph Benner says:

    Surprised that no one here has mentioned that the first biography on Pauline has been written by Opera News’ Brian Kellow entitled “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark.” Will be published in October, by Viking. (See Amazon.)

    It is the sustaining power of Kael that we’re still talking and arguing about her. Part of her success is that she was the right critic at the right time writing for the right publication. She was the original “internet” for movie lovers.

  • IA says:

    Brian’s derision of Kael’s “hysterical, shrill, vindictive, solipsistic worshippers” demonstrates the level of shrill and vindictive attention she still can attract. Why he believes that
    Adler’s ridiculous taxonomy of the four things Kael liked more than other (easily disproved by simply trawling through any collection of her reviews) or the patronizing generalizations cited in Vanneman’s petty piece constitute genuine criticism is mysterious. What isn’t is the simplistic lowness of suggesting that anyone who likes Kael’s work is a dupe flattered into doing so.

    A bewildered statement like “there’s no rhyme or reason for her trashing Dirty Harry and Death Wish while getting all titillated and excited for Billy Jack. There’s no essential difference between the three films” demonstrates fundamental cluelessness. It doesn’t take more than actually reading Kael’s reviews to see that she thought the vigilante ethos of the first two films to be sleekly fascistic, whereas Billy Jack, though “mixed-up,” had a “sweet, naive feeling” and “fairy-tale quality” even when it was “violent and melodramatic and atrocious.” And for Kael it might have been “the first movie in which a rape victim talks about what happened to her in terms of a specific feminine anger at her violation”–hardly the sort of prurience Adler claims to detect (and which reveals more about her than Kael).

    So a put-down such as “saying nice things about The Rules of the Game doesn’t excuse her lack of taste and judgment when it came to NEW RELEASES during her lifetime” holds little water if one can’t understand Kael’s reasons for her judgments (and if one ignores that Renoir was one of Kael’s critical touchstones, and probably the filmmaker she held above all others). For a genuinely critical characterization of Kael’s tastes and place, one free of either hagiography or rage, I’d recommend Louis Menand’s piece “Finding It At the Movies,” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1995/mar/23/finding-it-at-the-movies/?page=1), which points out several of Kael’s defects without falling into the usual pit her detractors pitch themselves into with regularity.

  • Chris says:

    “It doesn’t take more than actually reading Kael’s reviews to see that she thought the vigilante ethos of the first two films to be sleekly fascistic, whereas Billy Jack, though “mixed-up,” had a “sweet, naive feeling” and “fairy-tale quality” even when it was “violent and melodramatic and atrocious.” And for Kael it might have been “the first movie in which a rape victim talks about what happened to her in terms of a specific feminine anger at her violation”–hardly the sort of prurience Adler claims to detect (and which reveals more about her than Kael).”

    Just because Kael CLAIMED that a “sweet, naive feeling” and “Fairy tale quality” is present doesn’t mean it’s actually present. That she could constantly rationalize her wholly irrational caprices doesn’t make them something other than caprices. That Kael actually read “feminism” where none exists is a strike against HER, not Adler. You do realize that the pulp bestsellers and penny dreadfuls of previous eras and centuries allowed the victimized, ravished heroines to express outrage at their plight, don’t you? It’s a standard melodramatic trope: maybe you think D.W. Griffith a feminist when he has Lillian Gish express her horror and revulsion at the assaults of her Negro attempted rapist in Birth of a Nation?

    Kael continued to dogmatically “read” deeply humanistic impulses, and heartfelt tenderness and compasssion, into DePalma’s films, even the ones that were purely technical exercises in Hitchcock-derivative suspense. Someone like Kubrick could be constantly berated (with some justification) for soullessness, but DePalma at his most soulless would be given a lifetime free pass by the Almighty Queen of Arbitrariness.

    By Kael’s logic, she should have been wholly behind a movie like The Accused, for example, if “a specific feminine anger at her violation” is what moved her. But, in fact, she panned The Accused – and even had some valid reasons for doing so (it was a movie of its moment, but probably not a great film). However, if she thought The Accused was exploitative and not a serious examination of the issue of rape, then she DEFINITELY – if she had even the slightest capacity for consistency and fairness – should have found Billy Jack to be likewise exploitative and NOT “feminist” in any meaningful sense. But she didn’t. And the reason she didn’t is because she made of career out of glorifying and sanctifying her whims of the moment.

    Kael’s emotional responses, of course, could turn on a dime, and she could be quite belittling of feminist concerns when she felt like it. This is because she had no standards and no capacity for consistency, which is why one piece of violent pulp could be extolled as “feminist” and another could be berated for alleged misogyny and other times Kael quite obviously had a thing for bad boys who were anything but feminist. Back and forth Kael went like a see-saw – ridiculing “macho” attitudes in THIS movie, then doing an about-face and hailing the politically incorrect “macho” sexiness of THAT movie. She drones on about how awful The Exorcist is, then a few years later she’s lambasting people for NOT embracing DePalma’s The Fury, even though it’s more of the same kind of dreck she just finished ridiculing audiences for lapping up a few years earlier. But of course, The Fury was a DePalma film, so that makes it a masterpiece in Kael’s delusional mind.

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