As the Lights Go Down


The hot-pants Queen Victoria of American film criticism, Pauline Kael has now paid the debt of nature, providing the obituarians with the opportunity to finally top off their 35-year outpouring of ardor and awe. Never before has a film critic’s living reputation sent so many scrambling for encomiums, and never has a film critic’s passing left so many media mouths so verklempt. Don’t expect it to ever happen again: Kael reigned supreme as film culture’s fiery, maenadic Mrs. Grundy—what will she say?—during that culture’s most fecund and dynamic day, which has long gone the way of film clubs, the Monthly Film Bulletin, Luis Buñuel, and the Bleecker Street Cinema.

Kael occupied an utterly unique throne in the nation’s cultural consciousness: a film reviewer as high priestess, a self-invented demagogue who often garnered more attention than the movies she reviewed and seemed, by virtue of her combative style of argument, to elide any subsequent opinion. She was never the nation’s eyes and voice, as much as she had wanted to democratize the filmgoing community; rather, she was the cognoscenti’s peppery permission slip to love their love of trash. Her public profile was a stunning balance between notoriety and highbrow respect, and so she reached readers many other critics could not. Her 12 volumes of collected pieces were routinely lauded in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, and other pivotal venues that rarely, if ever, reviewed film books of any other stripe.

Perhaps most tellingly, she was the focus of gossip (a film critic!) that speculated on her liaisons with colleagues and with certain testosterone-dizzy filmmakers. She was the obvious model for Clare, the tempestuous, pint-sized San Francisco-to-New York über-critic in Theodore Roszak’s Pynchonian movie-conspiracy novel Flicker. Stories still circulate about Kael the wolverine bitch and her coterie of male critic cubs, nicknamed the “Paulettes” by the excluded, disrupting screenings of films she didn’t like and rallying New York Film Critics Circle votes by intimidation or threat. Her fragging of Andrew Sarris’s auteurism, however preposterous (she misread auteurism, and at the same time saw every movie through the scrim of its maker’s intentions), became an anthologizable wrestling match. Though far from the most influential critic in terms of box office—Vincent Canby wielded a mightier sword in that respect—Kael so terrified Hollywood executives that they attempted, once, to bring her into their fold and experimented with a doomed development deal. Smarting from Kael’s one-paragraph dismissal of Star Wars as “plodding” and “exhausting, too, like taking a pack of kids to the circus,” George Lucas even named Willow‘s arch-villain Kael.

What other American film reviewer—without the benefit of ever actually writing a full-length book—became so famous for his or her opinions? Kael was known for her withering assbites, but her extraordinary handstand over Last Tango in Paris (“Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?”) dates horribly, and she was too quickly forgiven for singing hosannas about a director’s cut of Altman’s Nashville no one else got to see. Every reviewer digs cesspool ditches that he or she cannot help but fall into decades later, but few go as far toward the earth’s core as Kael did in making claims for, say, De Palma’s The Fury or Reed’s Oliver! Still, looking back over her oeuvre, Kael was often right when it was important: She witnessed the peaking moments of Godard, Buñuel, Antonioni, Bergman, Altman, Bertolucci, Coppola, Wiseman, and Scorsese, and yawped approval.

It’s also stunning to ponder the amount of films she didn’t review. From 1961 to 1980, this most hallowed of cineastical judgment-makers never critiqued a single new film by Samuel Fuller, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jacques Rivette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Andrzej Wajda, Miklós Jancsó, Jean-Pierre Melville, Monte Hellman, Ermanno Olmi, Dusan Makavejev, Jean-Marie Straub, or Sergei Paradjanov. As an avid Kael consumer from high school—I’d read her long, ropey, luridly subjective reviews at the newsstand and then put The New Yorker back on the rack—I loved her for her chutzpah. She launched at a movie like a feckless boxer, taking as long as she needed to rationally explain her wholly irrational reactions, and caring little if the process was bloody, aimless, and cruel. (Kael’s castigation of directors for making obvious thematic statements could just as easily be aimed at Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Renoir.) More than anything, Kael’s ham-and-egger energy opened a conversational loop in your head, and in the ’60s and ’70s, conversation was what movies were for. (She was particularly awake to the gritty American New Wave, believing as we all did that Hollywood had finally, irrevocably grown up.) Virtually Whitman-like in her rangy meanderings and obsession with the visceral and sensual, she was a critic who’d found her moment—imagine Kael trying to make her special sort of sense of this year’s movies. Her breathless blathering about a movie she adored—and no one’s world ever shook, rattled, and rolled after a good movie like Kael’s did—was emblematic of its present: a lovely lost age when a love for movies was a Romantic passion, a lantern-lit children’s crusade that went with first love, sex, dope, and freedom like cigarettes go with coffee.

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.

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.