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Pauline Kael: A conversation

Pauline Kael: A conversation

As two new Kael books arrive, two Salon critics debate the legacy of the influential New Yorker movie writer.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael retired from print 20 years ago and died 10 years after. But if you read film criticism online, it’s as if she’s still with us. She is the subject of a new biography by Brian Kellow, “A Life in the Dark.” Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir and TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz got together this week to talk about Kael’s impact on film, criticism and their own sensibilities. Laurels are tossed, darts thrown. Excerpts follow.

By Matt Zoller Seitz and Andrew O’Hehir
Salon staff writers

Matt: Is there any other critic, dead or alive, who’s as ubiquitous as Pauline Kael?

Andrew: Absolutely not. As we’ll see, I have very mixed feelings about Kael and her legacy, but no other film critic has ever been remotely as popular or as influential. (One could argue that less famous writers like James Agee or Manny Farber are more “important,” in some sense, but that’s a different matter.) Kael’s influence is so pervasive it’s almost unconscious. When I was a younger critic and someone accused me of writing like Kael, I was enraged and responded that I’d never read her, which was almost literally true. When I did read her, I had to admit the guy had a point: I had absorbed some elements of her style and outlook without realizing it, as if through osmosis, because they were so ubiquitous in film criticism.

Matt: I’ve actually struggled with this myself. That prose style is so engaging — so powerful and seductive in some ways because it’s like a heightened version of everyday conversation with a really smart person — that it does sink into your mind, whether you’re a regular filmgoer of somebody who writes criticism for a living. Anybody who’s so inclined can actually track my own shifting feelings about Kael’s influence by looking at my past writing about her. I reviewed her 1994 compilation “For Keeps” for the Dallas Observer, my first employer, and it was pretty much a mash note. Seven years later, I wrote an obituary for her that was a lot tougher — respectful, ultimately, but skeptical of some of the very qualities I praised a few years earlier. This was probably because by that point I’d been living in New York for six years, a much richer moviegoing town with a lot more varied types of film criticism available in print, and I started to figure out that even though Kael was the most prominent and maybe influential voice in criticism, there was more than one way to write about movies. And television. And everything!

You can read the rest of Matt’s piece here at Salon.

Matt Zoller Seitz and Andrew O’Hehir are TV critic and film critic for Salon, respectively.

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