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The Slow Fade-Out of Pauline Kael
Categories: Getting Personal

This posting is part of the Pauline Kael blog-a-thon at The Cooler blogsite.

From 1967 through 1979, movie reviews didn’t suck because of Pauline Kael. I’m not saying that none of Kael’s reviews sucked; actually a whole helluvalot of ’em did. But as a writer, she screwed brilliantly with the literary genre of film criticism and raised the bar for journo-crits everywhere.

You gotta understand what it was like back then…

As a teenager in the late 1960s who was searching desperately for knowledge about how movies were made, there were no resources. The bookstores had a lot of movie-trivia books which listed the films of certain stars, and some rancid as-told-to autobiographies of celebrities glutted the shelves, but there was very little else. One day I found a paperback of Kael’s KISS KISS BANG BANG, an anthology of her film writings nested in a psychedelic, kinda/sorta Peter Max paperback cover. The book was virtually epoxied to my hands for the rest of high school.

I hadn’t read many movie reviews because at that time they were lame…you can’t believe how lame: I mean, not a mention of the cinematography nor the editing or any awareness that a movie was actually put together by a batch of people. It was all about the movie’s stars and how they looked, and whether the script was humorous/thrilling/thoughtful or not.

As Pauline liked to point out, most critics and reviewers just didn’t get the movies that were being released in the 1960s.

Additionally, movie critics back then were so intellectually lazy, they wouldn’t challenge their minds or attempt to think about why movies were rapidly morphing into a new sphere of language.

A prime example and the review that made cineastes listen to her was her piece on Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE, a film so transgressive and rebellious that it was critically slammed, dooming it to obscurity. That is, until people noticed and talked about Kael’s review of the film.

Kael became a buzzword: in the opening shot of THE MALTESE FALCON, Humphrey Bogart sits at his desk with a large window behind him. Through the window in the distance is a neon sign for a radio station whose call-letters were KLVW. When I saw the movie in 1972, my buddy pointed too the call letters and said, “K-L-V-W?? Is that Pauline’s Volkswagen???”

My first year in college, I heard her speak and was embarrassingly overawed when I met her afterward. Later, I got to hang out with her at an academic’s soirée where she guzzled beer and swore like a sailor, and talked of why Godard had suddenly gone silent (a motorcycle accident), how her cat didn’t like Sam Pekinpah, and of her appreciation of The Godfather.

A year or two later I met documentary director Albert Maysles of GREY GARDENS fame, who (as a friend said that night) blew the lid on Pauline Kael. The conversation topic had moved to his Rolling Stones documentary GIMME SHELTER, and Maysles told of how Kael wrote a negative review having only seen a rough-cut of the film and not the final product. He called her editor at The New Yorker, who said Pauline was there in his office and invited her to talk it over with Maysles.

Kael refused to come to the phone.

Her credibility and morality came deeper into question in the mid-1970s when she would be hired as a script doctor on Hollywood movies, and then give the movies glowing reviews when released despite the huge conflict of interests.

For me the break came when I got to film school and really started to study and make films. The wisdom of filmmaking I had tried to extract from her writings over the years became a house of cards by the 9th week of the semester. I realized her strength wasn’t in her film knowledge but in her seamless writing. She didn’t so much go after the truth as she built air-tight arguments (her bachelors was in Philosophy from U. C. Berkeley). Her writing was frequently brilliant, and that was her strength: “It was the ride, not the destination, that counted,” as Alan Vanneman wrote about her in his brilliant tell-all essay, The Pearls of Pauline.

Like Bill O’Reilly’s rhetoric, she was legendary for reviews laden with character attacks on other critics and industry people, reinforced with both truthful and fabricated accounts. Just as Fox News inserts its agenda into the news by using the journalistically-reprehensible phrase “some people say” followed by their own prejudices, Kael allegedly invented remarks overheard in theatres and fabricated audience reactions to films as a means of driving home her points.

However, it wasn’t her unethical reporting practices that led to career derailment. It has been alleged that her hatchet jobs on the character of Industry bigshots that led to a vendetta consisting of a bait-and-switch job offer by Hollywood execs which prompted her to leave New York and The New Yorker. [Again, see the Vanneman article.]

After that humiliating experience Kael returned to criticism but times had changed and so had she. In 1979 the national syndication of the Gene Siskel / Roger Ebert TV show At the Movies inaugurated the second dumbing-down of movie reviews, where thought and argument were replaced by thumbs up and thumbs down. Then a serious film magazine in the 1980s published an article retelling the experience of going to a press screening when Pauline Kael was in the audience: her emitting of groans and tsk-ing, drawing the attention away from the screen and towards herself. And how after the lights came up, she told the filmmakers that the movie was too “droopy” in the middle, how that was the only adjective she could use, and how inarticulate Kael was when talking of film craft.

Around that time I was having a drink with a friend who was an M-G-M publicist. I was constantly on the road working on a TV series at that time, so I didn’t keep up with my past interests. I asked him if he had read any of Pauline’s works lately. He said she was in a bizarre place with her writing, extolling the violence of men to the point that in reading her essays you think she had a fantasy of being beaten up by a guy. (Interesting, since in the 1960s and 1970s one of her main instruments of character attack was insinuating a rival critic was Gay, and her writing would veer into swaggering homophobia by using plentiful phrases such as “mincing faggot.”) I put her out of my mind after that.

In 1990, the venerated experimental filmmaker James Broughton was my house guest. In the late 1940s Broughton had been roommates with Kael (and father of her daughter). However, in all the days we spent together, Pauline’s name was never brought up. A dead topic.

So what did Kael, despite her flaws, achieve?

She elevated American movie reviews to film criticism by bringing ideas about the medium and the society that produces them into the discourse. Due to her ability to see quality in (what she called) ‘trash’ movies, she realigned the approach and respect for low-budget / independent / B-movies. For example, traditionally big-city newspapers had a daily-columnist reviewer and a rookie stringer reviewer. Before Kael, the daily reviewer would tackle pieces on the mammoth epics and message pictures while the stringer would write about the movies playing at the drive-ins. By 1975 the stringer would be assigned the no-brainer epic and the daily columnist would attempt to find the merits in the latest slasher movie.

If it hadn’t been for Kael, there would be no cultural space nor interest for a blog such as this one.

Undoubtedly her finest work can be found in the back pages of KISS KISS BANG BANG: Pauline had managed an art-house cinema in the Bay Area and wrote audience handouts crafted to enhance the viewers’ appreciation of the movie. Here she showed her love of movies, and a good wit. She wasn’t out to castrate her competitors nor to dictate the direction of films. She was simply an enchanted, enlightened fan of the movies.

My early ardor for Kael has ghoulishly given me some pleasure later in life. Her word was such dogma for me as an early adult that most films she despised I never made the effort to see. However, in the last decade I’ve seen some of these films (e.g., West Side Story, John Schlesinger’s Darling with Julie Christie, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down, etc.) and found them to be great experiences.

However, a part of me feels like a purposefully disobedient child when I view them: after all, Mama Kael told me to keep out.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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11 Comments to “The Slow Fade-Out of Pauline Kael”

  1. Nice entry! Indeed, Kael had some questionable ethics. But, boy, could she write. Often times I disagree with her, but her writing is so powerful and insistant that she convinces me that she’s right, too.

  2. Steve Bailey says:

    Film reviewing is a mere shadow of what it used to be. When I grew up in the 1970’s, movies seemed to be in the very air we breathed. We could watch the classic at a local cinema or on local TV stations, and Kael, among others, upped the ante on how good movies could be just by writing passionately about them. Nowadays, everyone just looks to the local blog or Fri.-morning TV show to get a snapshot of the latest release. Nobody cares like they used to.

  3. Doug says:

    Amen, Steve! The Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down mentality (or as Kael described Rex Reed’s style of criticism, “This is the best masterpiece I’ve seen all day”) of current film reviewing is appalling. Thanks for your intelligent feedback on this frustrating topic.

  4. Joe Gattis says:

    Is it that nobody cares about the medium, or is it that in these days when anyone can make a movie at home with off the shelf equipment and inexpensive software we have all developed a greater innate appreciation of the technical and artistic aspects of film? Or is it simply because we have done this that we no longer trust the critics and only need a synopsis of the film before we enter the darkened temple of the (digital) celluloid goddess?

    • Doug says:

      Great questions, Joe. I had never tried to bridge the current landscape of cinema, and the fact that most moviegoers have in some way experimented with the elementary craft of filmmaking. That could explain how audiences are now more fixated on SFX and all the other Bells and Whistles, while content in most commercially released films is pretty anemic.

  5. Beanz67 says:

    The ‘How to write a blockbuster’ mentality is where its all gone wrong for contemporary cinema. Formulae have been applied to something once a creative thing of beauty.
    Many filmmakers of yesteryear committed themselves to a project for the love of the frame. Sadly, those flickering frames-per-second better be initiating multiple ka-chings per second today or else …or else filmmaker prepare thyself for an executive spanking!
    Having recently viewed one of the so called ‘Poverty Row’ films of the mid-40’s, “Detour”, its clear to see that interesting ideas can compensate for budgetary constraints. Presentday
    expensive (& often unnecessary) homages, spin-offs, sequels, re-imaginings, spoofs, parodies, might well have Lumiere tutting from the other side…

    • Doug says:

      Hear, hear! The industry is no longer concerned with making a good film, but instead in creating a marketing buzz that will cause a tremendous turnout on the first weekend of release. It’s not about staying power or word-of-mouth personal recommendations after a film opens, but upon ancillary merchandise and that first weekend’s grosses.

  6. Greg says:

    Kael’s best and most important work was the “Deeper Into Movies” and “Reeling” eras. She argued that something transcendent was happening in films, that directors were working off a level of subliminal inspiration that was allowing them to achieve great things. She had dropped the usual disclaimers about how liberals were corrupt too, and seemed completely under the spell of the medium. I had forgotten until I read her biography a few years ago, She was attacked by fellow critics for liking some of these films too much.
    As to her corruption by Warren Beatty, I don’t know or much care. That little golden era was brief and She did strain in overpraising some of her old favorites like Brian DePalma and Altman too.
    I agree with your point about the strength of her writing, which you had to appreciate even if you disagreed on a given film. It bothers me that what She actually argued about that era of the early seventies is often forgotten about by those who seemed bent on knocking off the Queen of the hill. It hardly matters that film reviewers are seldom worth a damn anymore, because the movies aren’t either.

    • Doug says:

      Wonderfully persuasive and articulate comments. Thanks! I may have to check out the writings from those 2 books. (By the time they were published, I was working in the Industry and had no time for critics.) Feel free to leave more comments any time.

    • Andrew says:

      I’ve been to her house, walked by it, that is, once. It’s well-painted, newly-roofed; it has a big, new, forward addition to the garage area near the rear of the house. There’s new surely the very or near-very best glass treatment available, and everywhere. The big portico of her deck is uniformly immaculately presented and, I guess, no less always well-maintained. The well-wrought yet decidedly unsafely untall very grey, if that, dull steel fence that surrounds most, yet, not all of the property can be seen as a sort of why there and not wholly there mystery. You should see the house, her once house. And there’s even a second installed drive-in, to that very same garage complex, and, shame or sham convenience, it was left both gates wide-open the day I studied it, and all. But this is the trick: I highly; I absolutely doubt all that great work was forwarded by Kael: it’s too new and, essentially, too slick and in a cold-sterile sort of first fully through lasting impression. I don’t think she had any money at all. And the house, itself, is situated not on a hill; rather but on the mere, and I mean slight, bottom of a larger parcel of land that is essentially a very big, set-back hill. There is even a bigger, bolder, yet, I cannot help but feel, colder-sterile big house behind hers, what once was hers: the two share the first few yards of a common, now, well-blacktopped driveway. I wanted to go in, to approach the house through the car park area, but that was just perhaps surely the remotest of ideas I did entertain, did feel, as I more certainly felt, no matter where I stood on the adjutting main road, the unnerving speeding of vehicles–especially fast-moving dark yet still somewhat glimmering blackish BMWs and what not and the like, all careening–hard and hard again–near me, at me, towards me, about me. I got out. I took a few snaps, looking back, from a respectful and, I hoped, legally-innocuous distance, then headed back into Barrington, proper, my enough-cold March walk-trek foray to the great lady over. I remember in Brian’s book the photo of her, lying in bed, with her clothes on upon decidedly rumpy sheets. And where did she write? Where, in the house, that house, in particular, did she–actually–write. Where did she study; where was her least-mentioned (by her; by everyone) yet must-critically-renown study? I took my time and looked. I covered, carefully, no less thoughtfully, no less respectufully, those two entire sides of the house I could see and more than once, trying to match another photo, I also believe in Brian’s book, of her desk facing a relatively-extensive garden-like area/field of sorts: What was it like when she looked out there? I think, by now, the new garage port area may have, structurally, obfuscated that particular area of the house, the rear of the house, proper. Those cars whizzing by near and through that triangle-like area of I realize absolute acceleration-alarming area made me think, perhaps even more so than Kale, even, in my possible danger of the moment, if anything is worth it if you don’t have your own life, literally, and accompanying good health, especially to be able to dodge all heavy metal comers on what’s otherwise a relatively isolated, still distinctly-hilly section of town, far from Main Street, up somewhat in the hills, where it’s quieter, in a why. I did lift, though–I couldn’t help it, a trashed, wet, spongy, mostly dirt-draggled and maybe-mean half-halved poster card with Kael’s unique house number address on it, as left nearly exactly between, on that wet late winter wet blacktop area, her driveway and the house side-abutting road itself. It was a promo, it may have even had a coupon on it, the front, the rear, I wasn’t sure, I couldn’t tell: I just didn’t want to damage, further, at all, my prize: to: the new welcoming doors of the latest Dollar General founded, to the south, along connector 7. I think about her a lot, yes, lately: I had always wanted to see where she actually-actually lived and, foremost, where she wrote, where she wrote, where she composed, her work; I have. And I cannot help but think, also, about her and Streep, their conflict, if that, especially in lieu of the fact that the two lived (Streep’s still where she is) probably only, maybe, I don’t know, five, six miles from each other, at most. A lot of people don’t know that: that’s odd in itself. You can even just take one main road, Undermountain Rd., through the latter’s part of Connecticut and reach, with a few easy, gentle slights and turns, Kael’s what was surely then very modest abode home lodging. I would have liked to have met her: I would have asked her: Do you take the train, down at the station down on the hill, into Manhattan, to do your work, when you are called to do so; and, do you, can you, did you ever make the return walk back, in return? When I finally found the house, and it was, indeed, an arduous process of sorts, finding the right streets, here turn there go, where, check Google maps, find the stuff (that’s where I saw my first inclination of the fact that her house was on the cusp of that hill, not of all atop the hill, itself); get there, drive there, from where, like Streep, for the most part, I was at, park, get out, stretch, hope to not be hit by car, admiring the some small, really nice well-done houses in the area, one, in particular incredibly close to its street but, alas, not a very busy one as it was tucked away off one of the lesser travelled areas; when I finally reached the house, though, I didn’t get a sense of her presence at all; I tried, I didn’t find it. All I left with was my memory of the fastdriving dangerous road warriors whose faces I really couldn’t see, either, and that was important and the still held-onto someone other’s sordid but, I don’t think mine, purposefully full pulperized, by man and nature, prize of prize of sorts, mine, that some one of the new couple, they’re in their late thirties–I accounted for that fact, too, it’s easy enough, www-side–surely just tossed and littered it to the side, for me, there, to pick up, take home, place somewhere, still, sure, surely, with some of its original, originating dirt and wintercold naturefluids gunked crap on about and all about it (I think the latter is the unifying trick)as I can only imagine, as I did on that day’s trek, what must have been Pauline Kael’s thoughts, as she walked alone, maybe on a not-so-bad winter day same as mine, about, not movies, but soup, or birds, white noise of telephone and power wires nearly everywhere, maybe kids she saw, jokes she recalled, reheard, what she saw and felt about her near-neighborhood and, moreover, what just inside herself, warm, and warming, I hope, as she determined her way ever slightly yet maybe still hard upward, towards home, to her maybe modest to needed new paint, and roof, and windows, and new driveway sealant, and maybe more and or less, who knows. I doubt she took this walk, to that train, into the city, and, all reversed, all back again. If I had been her, I think I would have; I am sure I know that specific course would have been best for me, at least, in between all the other, perhaps somehow truly unequaled, anywhere at anytime, image business consideration lying out and about anywhere, and anywhere specifically, else.

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