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.
“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:
“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.”
“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.”