The Pauline Kael Centennial

Pauline Kael

The best way to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Pauline Kael, one of the most influential film critics in the short history of cinema, is, of course, to read her work. And the best place to begin, naturally, is the New Yorker, where she was a staff critic, writing week in and week out for six months out of each year between 1968 and 1991. Editor David Remnick has selected half a dozen exemplary reviews, adding that her arrival at the magazine “heralded a revolution in cinematic taste—one that was often messy yet exhilarating. Kael articulated a provocative new vision of American cinema in which the most invigorating films blurred the boundaries of high and low culture.” If a mere six of these pieces won’t do, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich has put together a collection of fifteen, and it’s no surprise that both Remnick’s and Ehrlich’s selections include the essay that arguably made her reputation, the 1967 review of Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde.

The piece was originally written for the New Republic, which declined to run it. William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New Yorker at the time, was more than happy to pick it up. “For a movie critic to read it now,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “is to experience a mix of emotions: glee, euphoria, fascination, exhilaration, and shame that you are not doing anything as passionate and glorious in your own work . . . This is heroic criticism, warrior criticism, live-ammo criticism that boldly intervenes in culture and unapologetically takes on everything: the movie, the movies, the audience, the other critics, history, society, politics, love, and death.”

On that same page at the Guardian, you’ll find David Thomson’s appreciation—he calls Kael “kind of crazy,” and one assumes he means both “crazy” and, two paragraphs on, “unhinged” in a good way. Thomson references Kael’s early life in Berkeley, where she studied philosophy, literature, and art, programmed movies, and began writing about them in the early 1950s. “Her agitated voice and spurting rhythms were infectious,” writes Thomson. “She was better than some of the filmmakers she espoused—smarter, more giddily romantic, and more insistent that they do good work. She ushered in an age of film controversy at dinner parties. She was as competitive as an old lefty, reckless in taking on disciples—and then telling them what to think. But she wrote like a fallen angel, a slangy, cocksure Satan who guessed God was asleep.”

The Guardian has also asked four more critics to contribute a few notes on some of Kael’s most memorable reviews:


Kael was dismissive of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971) but admired Jane Fonda’s performance as the call girl Bree Daniels, notes Pamela Hutchinson. “It was typical of Kael that she could praise a major star’s performance as a sex worker in a gritty thriller without being snooty about her former babe persona,” writes Hutchinson. “Kael respected the ‘no-nonsense dramatic actress’ of Klute as much as the ‘naughty-innocent comedienne,’ and her taste in cinema was broad enough that she craved movies starring both of them.”

  • For Ryan Gilbey, Kael’s review of Alex Cox’s Repo Man (1984), “though short, shows her ability to capture a film’s texture in evocative prose and to carry its pleasures from screen to page without spilling a drop.”

Kael’s “takedown” of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is “spot-on,” argues Kate Muir. “Her language is spankingly crisp and her reactions that of a ticket-buying human, not someone sweating ink as they try to impress.”

  • Focusing on Kael’s piece on Robert Altman’s Images (1972), Tim Robey admires her unpredictability: “It meant something when she leapt to champion, say, Alan Parker’s sole great film (that would be 1982’s Shoot the Moon)—or came down like a ton of bricks on Altman’s lesser work, even though he was clearly her favourite filmmaker of the early 1970s.”

New York’s Quad Cinema has been running a series of films Kael championed (as well as a few she passionately disliked), and when Shoot the Moon screened last week, David Edelstein was there to introduce it. He has recently reposted an appreciation that ran in last year’s fiftieth anniversary issue of New York, something of a brief memoir of being a “Paulette,” as her acolytes were (and occasionally still are) called. “For many movie lovers in the late ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Kael was the most exciting critic ever,” he writes. “What I had found most challenging when I first read her (as a teenager) was that if she hated something I loved, she did such a brilliant job evoking and analyzing it that I couldn’t say, ‘Well, that’s not the movie I saw!’ It was the movie I saw plus.

Kael died in 2001, a little over a week before 9/11. In a remembrance that ran in Film Comment that year, Paul Schrader, who’d started out writing film criticism before turning to screenwriting and directing, recalled that, in the early 1970s, “newspapers and magazines around the country would solicit Pauline’s recommendations before hiring a film critic; she was the clearinghouse.” She’d planned to set Schrader up with a paper in Seattle, but he infuriated her with his decision to become a screenwriter instead. “Pauline was a complex mentor,” wrote Schrader. “On one hand, she infused your life like a whirlwind, dominating your thinking, affecting your personal relationships, demanding fealty; on the other, she could not respect anyone who would not stand up to her. Love her too little and she attacked you; love her too much and she disregarded you. It was a formula for heartbreak—a heartbreak I think the acolytes felt more deeply than their mentor.”

The day after Kael passed, another admirer, Stephanie Zacharek, then a critic for Salon (and now for Time), wrote: “She could take a movie apart in a paragraph the size of a shot glass. She could convince you of a picture’s brilliance in a sentence as long as a penknife . . . No one on this earth taught me more about beauty. Beauty in the structure of a picture or the book on which it was based, in the gentle curve of a starlet’s jawbone, in a comic’s rubbery pratfall. She zeroed in on the humanity of Jean Renoir and of Sam Peckinpah. Anyone who ever loved Pauline’s work knew that reading, watching, and listening were three intertwining pleasures.”

Finally, Sight & Sound is running a piece by Farran Smith Nehme, an outstanding appreciation that also serves as a primer on the debates that Kael is sparking to this day. Nehme recalls a conversation in which Zacharek “told me, ‘I never looked at Pauline and said, “Wow, a woman can do this sort of thing, maybe I can too.” It was more a subtext: her very existence meant I never needed to question what a woman “could” do, so I never did.’ But Kael remains a significant inspiration for many women film writers, including me, through her barreling prose, her enduring influence, and above all her fierceness.”

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