Pauline Kael.

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Pauline Kael.

Post by bryce »

Well, this seems as good a place as any to put it, so:

I wasn't alive during Pauline Kael's critical run, so my views are somewhat bias (although I feel they are right), and I'd like to get some opinions from this varied group on her writing, her criticism, and yes, Pauline Kael herself.

I appreciate any and all thoughts. Thanks!

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Post by Dewey1960 »

Hello Bryce --
Despite the fact that her reputation suffered somewhat from the scandalous and unfortunately accurate assertion that she allowed the personal relationships she shared with certain filmmakers (Robert Altman and James Toback to name just two) to influence the way she treated their films, I still believe that Pauline Kael was among the finest writers of film criticism of the past fifty years. She had an electrifying writing style and was able to reference other forms of art (music, dance, architecture, photography, etc) routinely and in ways that served to illuminate the process of evaluating a film. Her championing of certain directors in the 70s (Scorsese, DePalma, Spielberg, et al) helped those artists achieve a level of critical respectability. Reading (and re-reading) her review of Scorsese's MEAN STREETS in the New Yorker is almost like seeing the film itself, that's how expressive she could be. In fact, her collection of reviews titled "Reeling" (which includes her MEAN STREETS review) should be required reading for any serious student of film literature. I love her, warts and all.

Post by jdb1 »

We had two excellent and controversial female film critics who were writing in the 60s and 70s - Kael, and Judith Christ. I read both of them with great interest, but I don't think I really thought about film criticism as an art form at that time, since I was just starting to appreciate "cinema" at that age. I hadn't read any of the film critics that came before. I accepted the work of Kael and Christ not as revolutionary, which it was, but as simply the norm, because that's who I started with.

Both women were considered trenchant and acerbic. I think Otto Preminger referred to Christ (pronounced "cryst") as "Judas Christ." But I recall that Kael, especially, liked to take the contrarian high road, and often doggedly championed movies that she surely must have know would not capture the public's fancy. She seemed to have a preference for talking up films that general audiences would find offensive. By doing this she, consciously or not, encouraged moviegoers to look at such films in a new way, and to perhaps appreciate things they might have otherwise dismissed out of hand.

Kael was also notorious in her day for her numerous, usually tempestuous liaisons with gentlemen of the film world. I think she had a thing for directors. Of course, in yesterday's world, this only added to her "bad girl of film criticism" reputation.

What I remember most about both critics is their excellent writing, which in and of itself was a pleasure to read. You felt as though you were actually seeing the film play out when you read one of their reviews.

Bryce, have you read any of the collected reviews? Kael's best known collection is called "I Lost It At The Movies."
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Post by ChiO »

Allow me to echo ("An Echo, not a Voice") Dewey & Judith. Kael was probably the first "serious" film critic that I read and I loved her writing and, usually, the films and directors she championed. Her influence over how I started looking at film is undoubtedly so entrenched that I don't really think about it anymore. Now I prefer reading Jonathan Rosenbaum, Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber, but she is next in line. Except for one little thing (and I can't imagine that this wasn't underlying, at least in part, your inquiry)...

Raising KANE. When I read it in the mid-'70s, I was taken aback, disappointed and saddened to learn that Welles was but one small piece of an inflated kitschy melodrama. I suppose that it having such a profound impact is a testament to her writing skill. Luckily I stuck with CITIZEN KANE and her "research" has been subsequently discredited in large part.

Should you read Raising KANE if you haven't already? Absolutely. Followed three-times-daily with reading one of Jonathan Rosenbaum's earliest published essays, I Missed It At the Movies: Objections to "Raising KANE" (1971)(reprinted, with new introductory remarks, in his Discovering Orson Welles (2007)). Or, read an essay by that master of subtlety and good taste, Ken Russell, at (Russell writes like a Russell movie looks).
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Post by Mr. Arkadin »

Kael is one of the important names you must deal with when you begin to study film criticism. You could liken her to an American Andre Bazin although not as deep. Personally, she has always been rather hit or miss with me. Her review of Mean Streets is as good as Dewey says, and thoughts on Taxi Driver are also exceptional. Her Shoeshine review is legendary and often quoted by other writers. In some other films I felt she had the wrong take (Simon of the Desert for one), but her writing was definitely first class and you could tell she put thought and care into what she said--not just tossing off reviews.

I think the best critics are those who invest time in the films they review, know the film's subject, and can personally connect it to the world around them. Kael certainly did this and on those occasions where (I feel) she falls short, I think it was because she could find no personal connection to the film.
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Post by Lzcutter »


Some of her best writings were made into compilations every few years. That's how I got introduced to her living in the West and not having any idea what the New Yorker was back in the early 1970s.

Reeling, I Lost It at the Movies, 5001 Nights and Deeper Into Movies are all great reads and must reads if you like her style of writing.

I didn't always agree with her but she sure knew how to write.
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Post by traceyk »

I have 5001 Nights and refer to it quite often, because Kael was (at least for me) pretty well on the mark for most films. The fact that she hated The Lion in Winter (one of my faves) almost made me toss the book aside, though. :) And even if you don't agree with her, you;re right--she is an interesting read. I liek the way she phrases things and puts words together.
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Post by Mr. Arkadin »

traceyk wrote:The fact that she hated The Lion in Winter (one of my faves) almost made me toss the book aside, though. :)
I had similar feelings. LIW is one of my all-time favorites. 8)
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Post by srowley75 »

I've only read portions of 5001 Nights at the Movies and I eventually set it aside before finishing, particularly because I was left with the impression that she was an elitist old biddy. Since then I've rarely consulted her reviews or read compilations of her work.

In these post-Tarantino days, as Grindhouse cinema becomes more and more a target for serious appreciation and criticism, I don't think she'd be as popular with the literati as she was in the past, but I imagine she's still highly regarded as a pioneer in her field - if for no other reason than she wrote just as powerfully, emphatically, and intelligently as the male critics (many, no doubt, would argue moreso). As someone else commented, her reviews certainly provide food for thought, even if you find her opinions appalling.

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Post by bryce »

I'm in the midst of a large fit of non-fiction reading - something I rarely do - that ranges topics from Orson Welles to film critics on film critics and I have to say that my all ready negative opinion of Pauline Kael - in fact, the entire New Yorker establishment - has been replaced by a seething bile. I don't care if she's responsible (which she's not) for a lot of the ways in which we view Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, the woman is one of the worst things to ever happen to cinema, and it's all because her scope of cinema and its influence and importance extended no further than the tip of her own shadow. Short-sighted, uneducated, uncultured, pretentious agendist comes to mind, but that's only because I'm not nearly well learned enough in the ways of wit and derision to properly cut her legacy down to size.

Just because she was a female (supposed) academic - one that wasn't exactly proposing any new ideas, either, but hey, it's a woman that reads, writes, and watches movies! - during the height of the sexual revolution doesn't mean she was worth reading. Don't bother letting any accusations of sexism fly, I hold the same sentiments (if not ones worse) about Lester Bangs. That man destroyed an entire form of criticism before it was even born, and he poisoned the last three decades of pop culture review with his crap writing and idiotic approach to art.
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