The quintessential movie lover retires
No one who's ever read a movie review by Pauline Kael could be neutral about her, and for her legions of fans and foes the announcement last week that she was giving up her movie column in The New Yorker was an epochal event, the stilling of the feistiest, most stimulating and sometimes most infuriating voice in American movie criticism. Kael will continue to write occasional pieces for the magazine where she's worked since 1968. But at 71, and suffering from chronic health problems, she deemed it time to retire from regular viewing.
As a seriously addicted reader for more than 30 years, and a fond if distant acquaintance, I'll miss her passionate opinions profoundly. Assenting or wrestling with her judgments (A bull's-eye dissection of "The Sheltering Sky"! No, how could you like "Everybody Wins"?) has been for me and a whole generation of movie lovers an essential aspect of the moviegoing experience. I first heard her on public radio when I was 15, and my initial reaction (a not untypical one) was rage. She was attacking my current sacred cow, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," and mercilessly skewering the pretensions of the art-house audience. ("The educated American is a social worker at heart," she wrote contemptuously.) But something in her wicked, slangy, confident prose compelled me to hear more: here was a critic who blasted away the fuddy-duddy pieties not just of movies, but of a country that had yet to wake up from the middle-class complacency of the Eisenhower era.
To understand Kael--and her rebellion against the genteel, the academic, the respectable--it helps to remember she's a product both of the Depression (when she worked her way through the University of California as a philosophy student) and of San Francisco bohemia. An outsider to the New York cultural axis, she has always been temperamentally incapable of following fashion. But almost singlehandedly she's created a new and widely imitated fashion in criticism--visceral, common-sensical, sensual, rude. For Kael, movies are an aphrodisiac: what she craves from art, first and foremost, is pleasure, and pleasure of a particularly carnal sort. "If you're afraid of movies that excite your senses," she wrote in 1978, "you're afraid of movies."
It's now commonplace to celebrate the kitschy pleasures of American movies, but when Kael first mounted her assault on the highbrows and the purists and discovered the art in Hollywood trash, it was the act of a cultural provocateur. In the fiercely polemical '60s, she made her name attacking the reigning critics of the day, with special contempt for The New York Times's Bosley Crowther. There's an irony now in her legendary attacks on Andrew Sarris and auteurism--the theory that elevated the director as the prime creative force in films--for in the '70s Kael became a super auteurist herself, albeit with a different canon, championing a new generation of directors--Altman, Coppola, Bertolucci, Scorsese, Bertrand Blier--who pushed personal cinema to ecstatic, and sometimes kinky, highs. In her Dionysian esthetic she had no patience for films that were "good for you." Her deep-seated aversion to cool, cerebral directors sometimes blinded her to less full-blooded forms of beauty. She basically ignored Fassbinder: all that alienation gave her the American creeps. She championed the loose, the jazzy, the spontaneous, and had a special affection for "bad boys' like Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma, with their sensual appreciation of violence. The performers she loved, like Brando, Barbra Streisand, Debra Winger and Robin Williams are the juicy ones,whose talent brims over the top.
Kael's prose can bully you, as Renata Adler pointed out in her controversial 1980 attack, and the vehemence with which she turns on her fallen idols has the sting of a spurned lover. But as a prose stylist no one evokes more eloquently the feel of a movie, no one engages its emotional complexities with such open nerve endings. And Kael's unashamed subjectivity is always informed by cultural and social frames of reference broader, subtler and more incisive than her critics would like to admit--she's an intellectual's anti-intellectual.
Her tastes in the '80s were more often than not out of synch with the public; the overkill in her scorn for "Dances With Wolves" seems in direct proportion to its popularity. But if her power as a consumer guide has declined, her influence over a new generation of critics keeps rising. Across the country a breed of acolytes--dubbed the "Paulettes"--can be heard, their critical styles clearly modeled on the master's voice. Smart and gifted as they are, there is something creepy in the way they have appropriated her singular style; I've heard her express her own ambivalence about such a parasitical form of flattery.
For a brief, golden time in the '70s Kael was in hog heaven: raving about films such as "Nashville," "Last Tango in Paris," "Mean Streets," "The Godfather Part II" and "Lacombe, Lucien," it must have seemed as if the movies themselves had caught up with her vision of what they ought to be: subversive and supple, erotic and multilayered and alive. But the passionate cinematic "energy" she sought became increasingly supplanted by a crass, bludgeoning energy that was like a cruel parody of the kinds of movies she fought for. Kael may have changed the face of criticism, but she's always been playing a bigger, more impossible game--to change the movies themselves, and us with them. Maybe that's why she so often uses the pronoun "we" in her reviews: she knows how great it feels to be transported by a film that's cooking on all burners and wants everyone to share the high. Her ecstacies, and her furies, will always be necessary. Good health, Pauline, and hurry back into print.
A sampling of the tart, rapturous Kael tongue as she has surveyed the movie scene over the years:
[In Shampoo] Julie Christie's locked-in, libidinous face has never been harder, more petulant, or more magical than in her role as Lester's kept woman...[she] is one of those screen actresses whose every half-buried thought smashes through: she's so delicate an actress that when she plays a coarse girl like Jackie there's friction in each nuance. On the stage last year in Uncle Vanya she was a vacuum; in Shampoo she's not only an actress, she is--in the high-class-hooker terms of her role--the sexiest woman in movies right now. She has the knack of turning off her spirituality totally; in this role she's a gorgeous, whory-lipped little beast, a dirty sprite.
[Feb. 17, 1975]
[Dec. 17, 1990]
[Jan. 1, 1972]
[Aug. 13, 1965]