A gift for effrontery

Brash, jazzy and passionately idiosyncratic, Pauline Kael set the standard for American movie criticism.

Published February 9, 1999 8:21PM (EST)

Pauline Kael sounded like Pauline Kael right off the bat. When she was just starting out as a movie critic in the '50s, doing radio reviews of movies for the Berkeley, Calif., public radio station KPFA and writing program notes for the city's revival houses, she was already tossing off unpopular barbs ("I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses 'art' films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood 'product,' finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism") and she was already combative ("My dear anonymous letter writers," she said during one broadcast, "if you think it so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, and so many poets"). She was already looking at the big screen for the big picture ("If you hold the San Francisco Chronicle's review of 'Breathless' up to the light, you may see H-E-L-P shining through it.")

Kael has been providing revelation, scorn, ecstasy and H-E-L-P for the movies for so long, it's hard to believe that she was in her 40s when she loosed these early salvos. Unlike any movie critic of the present era, Kael did not pursue her career while still a cinema-soaked whelp. Born in Petaluma, Calif., on June 19, 1919, she is the daughter of Polish immigrants who moved to San Francisco during the Depression; Kael attended UC-Berkeley as a philosophy major. Married and divorced three times, the mother of a daughter, Gina (born in 1948), Kael spent her early adulthood working at jobs ranging from cook to ad copywriter, seamstress to bookstore clerk.

She ran the Berkeley Cinema Guild and Studio from 1955 to 1960, and began writing meticulously detailed and opinionated programs for the films she was choosing. According to an invaluable profile by Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe Magazine in 1989, Kael published her first review in a small journal in 1953, and thereafter wrote freelance pieces for periodicals as various as the Massachusetts Review, Kulcher and Sight and Sound. Her brief stint at McCall's is part of movie-critic lore, since she was supposedly fired for panning the immensely popular "The Sound of Music." ("We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs"; Celine Dion should get down on her knees every night and thank Jim Cameron that Kael isn't still reviewing regularly.)

Kael was hired at the New Yorker by editor William Shawn in 1967. There, given the space to turn her conversational cadences into big, sculpted, kinetic essays (Calder mobiles of prose, without the gewgaw sentimentality), Kael came into her own. Her credo: "The reader is in on my thought processes." The enemy? "Saphead objectivity." She delighted and infuriated New Yorker readers with long, reasoned (or sometimes intentionally delirious, unreasoned) rhapsodies over movies her readership would never deign to go see ("Used Cars," "Dreamscape," "Songwriter"), issued pronouncements no other movie critic would agree with (her famous claim that the 1972 premiere of "Last Tango in Paris" is a "date that should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May, 29, 1913, the night 'Le Sacre du Printemps' was first performed, in music history") and denounced highly praised films like the Oscar-winning "Coming Home" ("extremely naive, and possibly disingenuous") with the serene authority of a genius autodidact. While covering movies, she also managed to work in her knowledge and passion for everything from Henry James to ballet to TV sitcoms, and without any self-consciousness or warning would drop in bits of autobiography or various insights regarding her own hard-earned wisdom about the battle between the sexes.

Fans have their favorite Kael pieces -- her 1963 gutting of the auteur theory, "Circles and Squares"; her acutely nuanced 1975 profile of Cary Grant; her devastating 1980 polemic "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers." (My own choice would be "Fear of Movies," her 1978 polemic castigating both timid movies and timid moviegoers: "There's something repressive in the atmosphere. [People] are rejecting the rare films that could stir them, frighten them, elate them." "Audiences hiss at the sight of blood now," she wrote, "as if they didn't have it in their own bodies.")

Foes, too, had their own favorite Kael pieces. She was mocked as being ignorant of moviemaking when she suggested that "Citizen Kane" was as much the creation of its scenarist, Herman J. Mankiewicz, as it was of its director-star, Orson Welles. In 1980, Renata Adler, in the New York Review of Books, characterized her collection "When the Lights Go Down" as being "piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless." Read now, Adler's diatribe -- referring to Kael's work as "nearly out of control," a series of "denouncings, exhortations, code words, excommunications, programs, threats" -- is a list of what any passionate moviegoer should, in 1999, actually want more of in criticism.

So there were stop signs, roadblocks and big bad wolves along the way. In 1979, she succumbed to the beguilement of Warren Beatty and accepted a position as an "executive consultant" for Paramount, which lasted only five months. As the years went by, Kael's health has grown weaker -- as "Rushmore" director Wes Anderson recently revealed in a putatively affectionate but peculiarly heartless piece in the New York Times, Kael suffers from Parkinson's disease -- and she has written little over the last decade.

Nevertheless, Kael's influence is everywhere and lasting, and not just in the prose styles of enough movie-critic thieves to fill a small apartment building (call it the Paulette Arms). When New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd writes, as she did this past January, of President Clinton's "entertaining display of schiziness," she is deploying a Kael neologism, whether she realizes it or not. Her finest adepts are critics who have borrowed not her self-created slang and rhetoric -- the so-called "Paulettes" -- but who have developed a stubborn independence of opinion and an original manner of expressing it. Here I am thinking not even of movie critics, but of writers as disparate as Dave Hickey, Mim Udovich and Tom Carson. (Carson has been writing tough, funny TV reviews for the Village Voice for years, but suddenly people are talking about his deft eviscerations of, say, news anchors because he's now also writing for Esquire. Like the New Yorker for Kael, establishment publications confer weight on critics' judgments -- it ain't fair, but it's true.)

My paperback copy of Kael's first collection, "I Lost It at the Movies," carries a line of breathless ad copy: "A savagely written book by America's most controversial movie critic!" Can you imagine a contemporary movie critic who could inspire such overripeness? "A slashingly written book by America's most dull-blade film critic, Lawrence Van Gelder!" "A brutal thumb's-up by America's most thumb-uppable movie critic, Roger Ebert!" Film criticism in the present day is dominated by careerists whose primary frames of reference are other examples of their chosen art plus the desired opinions, real or imagined, of their editors.

Certainly pride in -- or simply the privilege of -- the sort of critical independence Kael maintains is increasingly rare. The film critic for a New York tabloid was asked last year to remove the foreign films from her 10 best list; when she balked, the titles were pushed to the bottom, so as, one supposes the editor imagined, to avoid making readers uncomfortable about encountering the unfamiliar -- a crucial duty of a good critic.

And when they're not being sold out by their bosses, critics can just as often sell themselves out. In a recent interview, Stephen Schiff -- former Boston Phoenix Paulette, New Yorker critic-at-large and recent "Lolita" screenwriter -- was quoted as saying of his new industry friends and his old movie criticism, "I just hope everyone is willing to forgive and forget, but mainly not even notice that I was around." Reading this, a friend suggested that someone should immediately issue a Schiff collection of movie reviews called "Kiss Kiss Ass Ass," but, in keeping with what Kael has called the "sexually tinged titles" of her own collections, I suggested a vanity-press chapbook titled "Turned Out."

Kael -- diminutive (a mere 5 feet tall!), adroit, cussing and cussed -- has maintained the right attitude for a generation. "Not many reviewers have a real gift for effrontery," she once told an interviewer. "I think that may be my best talent." Oh, how I and so many others wish we could read her thoughts on "Happiness" or "The Thin Red Line" or "Affliction" or "The Waterboy." (A guess: She likes Adam Sandler more than Todd Solandz -- wanna bet?)

Personal disclosure: I met her once, in 1980. She had just reviewed "Honeysuckle Rose" and quoted a description I had written of Willie Nelson's music. Upon being introduced, I told her how flattered I was. She squeezed my hand in both of hers and said, "I thought you would be, dear." Kael is the only writer about whom I can say that being condescended to by her felt like an honor.

By Ken Tucker

Ken Tucker is a cultural critic for a variety of publications.

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