Pauline Kael on the fun of writing disrespectfully

The movie critic's speech for the National Book Critics Circle awards.

Published March 16, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I had barely got started at the New Yorker when an eminent literary critic wrote a blast at me so thorough it was published in two parts. A friend of mine had invited this fellow and me to Thanksgiving dinner a few months before, and I said to my friend that though I had sat across the table from this eminence I had no idea he hated me so much. My friend said, "You didn't see his face when you said you loved writing. Don't you know it's torture for him?" I hadn't known. I'm temperamentally incapable of getting into the mind-set of those who agonize over sentences. And to be a book critic and agonize over those serious-minded literary novelists who have themselves agonized over every word must be hell. I don't mean to suggest that I haven't worked hard. I have, but it was almost always the most exhilarating part of the day.

Writing about movies, you don't have to treat them all respectfully. Your job is to sort out the rare great from the adequate and the frequent appalling. In the process you can pep up what you're doing by letting go with a little savagery. You can treat bum work as a hanging offense. You can even crack a joke about it now and then. Even mediocre pop art is a lot more fun than failed high art, and it's more fun to write about.

In the last few years a number of prominent journalists have suggested that movies are finished. They argue that people will stop going because the highly touted ones are often disappointing, or worse. They're wrong, I think. They are assuming that people are rational about going to movies, and we're not. It isn't just publicity that turns us into suckers; we turn ourselves into suckers -- we want to see a movie.

I've had a bewilderingly wonderful time writing about that urge; I hope I've shared some of the pleasure I've felt with readers. This award encourages me to believe I have. Thank you.

By Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael was film critic for the New Yorker and is the author of "For Keeps" and many other books about the movies.

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