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Pauline Kael, shining light of critics

Sep 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Pauline Kael was the best critic of anything, ever. Her reviews were often more satisfying, and richer with ideas, than the movies she was writing about.
Her death last week at the age of 82, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, was a cruel and terrible blow, even though she had been in virtual retirement for nearly a decade. The thought of that voice being stilled is devastating.
Nobody ever loved good movies more, nor had a higher time trashing bad ones. And no critic was ever, or maybe ever will be, as much fun to read. If you happened to be in the same racket, that of writing criticism for a living (or maybe writing anything for a living), and you found yourself losing interest and moping around inert and unmotivated, you only had to pick up a book of Pauline Kael’s collected reviews and essays and start reading, anywhere. Zing went the strings in your head.
The liveliness and youthfulness of that prose could perk you up and recharge your batteries, turn you on to the idea of writing all over again, make you aspire to be half as good, a quarter as good, an eighth as good, or just, if you were lucky, vaguely in the same league.
It wasn’t at all necessary to agree with her to admire her. I liked, and still like, “The Sound of Music,” which Kael was fired (by McCall’s magazine) for panning, and I kinda doubt that Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” will really reign eternal in the annals of classic cinema, as Kael felt it would. Irrelevant. She made her case so colorfully and persuasively that she was always a joy to read. If you’d seen a movie she hated and you loved, she could make you doubt the legitimacy of your own opinion.
She made you think. That’s what matters. She made thinking sexy.
Every critic who takes the job seriously owes something to Pauline Kael. We all stole from her and continue to; it’s as simple as that. Among other things, she liberated a whole lexicon of slang adjectives-“goofy,” “loopy” and the indispensable “lousy”-that we all then felt free to deploy. But she never used a word frivolously, whatever the word was.
Of course many so-called movie critics do not take the job seriously. Television, which unfortunately has a knee-jerk debasing reflex, has debased the idea of what a critic is and does. On local stations, the resident “critic” is a hokey jokester who’s there to add cheap laughs, lighten up the newscast and make himself famous.
These critics aren’t sharp-eyed observers of the movie business-they’re de facto members of it, PR people who supply blurbs for ads. They’ll go to considerable trouble to make sure the paid PR people at the studios see their reviews-even before the public sees them, so as to make ad-copy deadlines. Every action movie is a “thrill ride,” every thriller is “taut” and six or seven films annually might easily be dubbed “the year’s funniest comedy.”
They don’t steal from Pauline Kael, these folks, because they’d have to read to do that. Considering the overall quality of movies today, maybe the movie business and these kookie klowns deserve one another. Machine-made movies reviewed by automated court jesters.
Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel might be blamed for popularizing the critic-as-entertainer type, but in their prime, they took movies much more seriously than their imitators did. They made funny remarks, not jokes. Siskel’s replacement, though, has dropped the ball. Mainly he cowers in Ebert’s shadow. When Siskel died, the show lost its raison d’etre, and most of its zip.
Pauline Kael’s many contributions included making delicious beef stew of many a sacred cow. I loved it when she called “That’s Entertainment II,” allegedly a celebration of MGM musicals, “the Gene Kelly memorial service for Gene Kelly.” She irked intellectuals by popping art house balloons. What she couldn’t tolerate was pretentiousness, and she was incapable of exhibiting any herself.
The New York Times obituary was, for the most part, properly respectful. Lawrence Van Gelder wrote that “Ms. Kael was probably the most influential film critic of her time,” but the “probably” was entirely unnecessary. Some dull Times editor probably stuck that in. The Times was forced to admit implictly that none of its own film critics during Kael’s era were able to achieve her prominence-nor indeed even to approach it-and for part of her tenure at The New Yorker, she only wrote for half the year.
At The Times, senility seemed to be a central requirement for the film critic’s job. Today, The Times critics are younger; one of them, Elvis Mitchell, was a protegee and friend of Kael’s (and is, less auspiciously, a friend of mine). She didn’t stop going to movies when she left The New Yorker in 1991 and every now and then, word would come down from her home in Great Barrington, Mass.-a Kael pronouncement about some hot new movie. It became known, for example, that she thought Stanley Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut,” was a piece of crap. I think that’s even the word she used. Pithiness was one of her many virtues.
In 1968, she wrote, “I still like in movies what I always liked, but now, for example, I really want documentaries. After all the years of stale stupid acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them, I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of nonactors and for knowledge of how people live … not for the little bits of show business detail worked up for us by show business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of.”
This sounds a little like what is happening to the television audience now and maybe has something to do with the rise of the so-called reality series and the large number of magazine shows in prime time. Unfortunately, though the faces may be new, the stories are usually made to conform to the calcified formulas that sitcom and drama producers have worn out.
And anyway, Kael wrote those words on the eve of the ’70s, a decade she later thought of as a renaissance for American movies.
I never met Pauline Kael, I am sorry to say. Mutual friends once arranged for us to chat on the phone, but I was nervous and pretty much screwed that up. She spoke with a voice as lilting as the voice in all those reviews.
In addition, I sat two rows ahead of her when Robin Williams taped an HBO special at Lincoln Center. As I took my seat, I saw her on the aisle and of course recognized her. She gave me the warmest smile. I thought, “Maybe she knows who I am,” and took the smile as a gesture of camaraderie. When I heard of her death, I was crushed, and I thought of all the people who knew her better than I and, presumably, felt even worse.
And then again, maybe I knew her as well as anyone did, having been an adamantly faithful reader for roughly 25 years. I felt like a friend, too, as if I had spent hours in her company listening to witty remarks. Anyway, that warming smile is in my heart, and mine to keep, forever.