As the Lights Go Down

Pauline Kael, 1919–2001

It was, at least, a time when film critics would routinely repackage their reviews as books, and people would read them. The '70s have faded, but Kael's popular status persists, as if no one can remember her writing as well as they remember their adolescent impression of it. If Kael was to remain the most lavishly praised film critic in the country, then the actual substance of her reviews and style could be and have been comfortably overlooked. Often hailed as a great stylist, Kael was in fact the sorriest influence on critical prose in this country. (It was shocking to read, in the hagiographic New Yorker profile a few years ago, that she carefully wrote and rewrote in longhand, and dithered over punctuation.) Beginning as deliberately anti-academe, Kael's approach consisted largely of run-on sentences, endless repetitions, the bulldozing abuse of the cosmic "you" (you sit there, you feel this or that, you notice something, ad nauseam), and the frustrating emphasis on actors' looks and voices. No other critic has ever been so proudly subordinate to her own perverse attractions; for her, Sutherland and Christie's matching curlie-dos made Don't Look Now particularly notable.

She has often been flattered for her classical allusions, but it wasn't anything Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Parker Tyler, and Manny Farber didn't do before her. Her frequent diatribes about how unarguably crummy movies have gotten (at least nine such essays in 20 years) read today like fits of constipated crankiness. What's more troublesome is Kael's frivolity: If she took movies seriously, often her reviews did not. (Indeed The New Yorker still reserves derisive glibness for the film pages.) She seemed allergic to politics, and often ignored a film's political context. Assessing the 1973 Jeff Bridges movie The Last American Hero, Kael admitted that the film is more cynical and despairing than the Tom Wolfe articles it was based on thanks to Vietnam—but that, for her, was its ruination. In review after review, a film is merely something either well done or botched, whose highest purpose is distraction and amusement. Nowhere in Kael do you find the idea that cinema connects with the real world on any level; nowhere do movies mean anything outside of themselves. (Read her capsules on old noir films: It's as if the genre was all about being cool.) In this, Kael seemed smugly hyperaware that movies are made by men and machines and chemicals, and are therefore silly, dismissable follies. Even her praise of Godard—calling Breathless "a frightening little chase comedy"—smells of the populist's condescension. Bad movies are simply entertainments that don't "work" (a lazy phrase Kael resorted to more than any other critic); good or great movies are entertainments that do.

A critic who found her moment
photo: Robin Holland
A critic who found her moment

Which is the core of American film criticism, before and after Kael. So why is she so singularly lionized? Prolix reviewing alone doesn't make a legend. Indeed, Kael's relentless eminence seemed contingent upon her attitude and gender. Face it, a miniature tigress with gray hair and barbed tongue dressing down a male-dominated culture was and still is a richer source for personality cultism than the entire frumpy lot of American film reviewers combined. What if she'd been a man? She might not have been as newsworthy, but if Kael remains important, it's because her books keep the golden age of filmgoing alive, and because the debate about whether her influence and power-brandishing has hindered or helped cinema still rages. Film criticism is such a mundane project, plopped down upon an endlessly complex entity: movies. Love Kael or hate her, she was the first and last true celebrity moviehead, and that may not be such a bad thing.

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