Pauline Kael is having a moment. The legendary New Yorker movie critic is the focus of three new books — an anthology of her work, a biography, and a memoir by one of her disciples — and the topic of debate among fellow movie critics and pundits at film festival panels. Not bad for a woman who passed away 10 years ago and penned her last review a decade before that. That she still inspires argument and attention after all this time is a testament to her legacy. Kael was not only the most important and influential movie critic of her era but also the one who continues to have the greatest impact on the way we talk about movies today.
At a time when film criticism has been thoroughly devalued, when moviegoers would rather glance at a movie’s score on Rotten Tomatoes than read a professionally written review, when film critic jobs at newspapers nationwide have either been eliminated or filled by teenagers and writers with no film background, when the non-controversial Roger Ebert is the only movie critic who’s famous nationwide, and when the movies themselves hardly seem worth talking about — it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when film critics were taken seriously, when several of them were household names, when their philosophies were the subject of avid debate, and when one cantankerous, ebullient woman dropping rhetorical bombshells from her perch at a highbrow magazine could influence not just which movies people saw but how movies were made.
Where did Kael’s power come from? Mostly from the forcefulness of her own opinion, as expressed in dazzling prose. Before she wrote her first New Yorker article in 1967, she was already the author of a best-selling collection of reviews written for various outlets, the provocatively titled ‘I Lost It at the Movies.’ She had already picked a fight with the then-reigning American film critic, Andrew Sarris, over the auteur theory. (Sarris had popularized in America the French theory that a director is a movie’s chief author, one who invests each film with signature themes and stylistic touches. Kael dismissed this notion, though she would later give it credence whenever it suited her argument. Believe it or not, film geeks used to line up behind Sarris or Kael and bicker over auteurism.) Her reviews of movies, both vintage and new, were fun to read, with opinions expressed with breeziness but also absolute certainty.
Kael has been painted as a populist, a warrior thumbing her nose at the snobbery of establishment critics and their arty pretensions while championing movies generally considered trashy or disposable. But her taste was a lot more complicated than that. She did enjoy art movies as long as they delved deeply into emotional experience, and she rejected lowest-common-denominator movies if they were crassly tossed off, without creativity or verve. She was capable of appreciating mainstream Hollywood movies and exploitation fare that had some life to it while also recognizing the dangers of a movie industry increasingly focused on profit at the expense of originality and creative risk-taking. She wasn’t the first American movie critic to diminish the importance of the line between highbrow and lowbrow (Manny Farber got there sooner), but she popularized the new aesthetic like nobody else had, both in her reviews and in essays like 1969’s ‘Trash, Art, and the Movies.’
For a filmmaker, the way to Kael’s heart was through her gut. Movies to her were a visceral experience; she preferred ones that took her on an emotional ride and made her feel more alive. Her writing was similarly visceral, with each review less an essay meant to persuade than a performance, full of sound and fury, meant to overwhelm. It’s no wonder that Kael’s absolutism attracted ardent admirers and equally fervent detractors. (Nowadays, we expect reviews to be performances, in part because Kael’s followers still write that way, and in part because of the TV review format perfected by Ebert and Gene Siskel at the end of the critic-as-household-name era in the mid 1970s.)
Kael rose to the top of the critical heap with her epic-length 1967 defense of ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ It was published in the New Yorker, which, along with many other top outlets, had already panned the recent Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway true-crime saga. Unlike other critics who had dismissed the film as too jokey and too violent, Kael recognized the film for what it was, an attempt to import the techniques of French New Wave cinema to the U.S. in order to create a new American art cinema, one that rushed headlong according to its own rhythms and refused to be limited by old taboos of sex and violence. Her opinion turned the tide for the movie, which soon became a box office success and a multiple Oscar-nominee. And it led to a staff perch at the New Yorker for Kael, who reviewed movies there for the next 24 years.
It’s been theorized that one reason Kael became so influential was that she had such revolutionary movies to write about. Indeed, ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ kicked off a filmmaking renaissance in America, and Kael was an early champion of many of its leading figures, including Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Brian de Palma. And some of them, in turn, solicited her opinion, sought her approval, and reacted with fury or despair when they didn’t get it. Veteran filmmaker David Lean reportedly said he didn’t make a movie for 14 years after ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ because of his dejection over her pan of the 1970 film. (It’s hard to imagine a critic today whose opinion is so respected or feared within the industry; not even a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from Ebert has such impact. But then, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary wave of filmmaking so radical and game-changing that it would benefit from an advocate as passionate as the New Yorker critics was.) Kael and the movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed made for each other.
It wasn’t just filmmakers who sought Kael’s approval. Kael surrounded herself with an avid entourage of young acolytes, sometimes dismissed as “Paulettes” for their lockstep adherence to her opinions and her writing style. By the time Kael retired in 1991, the nation’s film critic jobs were filled with Paulettes. Many of them eventually outgrew their emulation of Kael’s taste and prose style and developed their own (David Denby, one of her successors at the New Yorker, famously outlined how he outgrew Kael’s early influence on him in a New Yorker essay entitled ‘My Life as a Paulette’), but many of her tics and tendencies are visible in various critics’ movie reviews to this day: an emphasis on a movie’s plot and acting over its visual and technical elements, a fondness for the second person (writing “you,” as if to assume that “you” will experience a movie the same way the critic did), opinions rendered as extravagant praise or snarky dismissal, and insistence that favored directors (especially Brian de Palma) can do no wrong.
One of the chief Paulettes was James Wolcott, whose new memoir, ‘Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York,’ covers the period when he was fresh out of college and a member of Kael’s inner circle. He writes fondly of those years now, though he was also one of the first to take down the Paulettes as a group (in a 1997 Vanity Fair article, ‘Waiting for Godard’). Of course, Wolcott remains a master of the incisively witty kneecapping. Whatever his feelings are about his fellow former Paulettes, he maintains not only his affection for Kael but also his emulation of her technique.
Also new on bookshelves is Brian Kellow’s biography ‘Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark’ and the Library of America’s ‘The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,’ which collects some of the most re-readable reviews and essays from such Kael anthologies as ‘I Lost It at the Movies,’ ‘Reeling,’ and ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (whose title Shane Black borrowed for his 2005 thriller spoof). In conjunction with the publications of these three books, the New Yorker has posted online a new essay about Kael, a couple of blog posts, and a handful of Kael’s most famous and notorious reviews. There’s also an impassioned tribute to her by former Paulette Armond White at CityArts and a debate over her legacy by New York Times critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott.
Why the sudden vogue for Kael? In part it’s because we just marked the 10th anniversary of her death in September, 2001. But it’s also because her absence is so keenly felt. There’s a longing for a critic like Kael, for whom movies matter so much, because there’s a longing for (as the Library of America book calls it) an “age of movies” that matter.
Follow Moviefone on Twitter
Like Moviefone on Facebook
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman