Remembering Pauline Kael
Greil Marcus, Roger Ebert, Allen Barra, Michael Sragow and Charles Taylor remember the influential critic’s caustic wit, sharp opinions and boundless enthusiasm for film and writing.
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Sept. 3, 2001 | Pauline Kael, the influential film critic of the New Yorker from the 1960s until the early ’90s, died Monday. She was 82 and suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Salon asked those who knew her or admired her work to share their thoughts.
Having spent my entire career on the West Coast and having started only a few years before the end of Kael’s career, I’m one of the few critics of my generation not to have known her personally. When a mutual friend once relayed some reaction she had to a piece I had written, I nearly went into shock. She was so clearly the dominant role model in American film criticism that the very notion that I would have registered on her radar had never entered my mind. At first, I was going to say that Kael was the most stylistically influential critic since James Agee; then it occurred to me that Agee, while a wonderful stylist, hadn’t had anywhere near the impact that Kael did. Which would make her simply the most stylistically influential film critic ever.
While unquestionably a tribute to her talent, this was not always a purely good thing: rather than taking the lesson that one could (and should) have one’s own strong personal voice, there was a tendency for younger writers to be so overwhelmed by the power of her voice as to echo it.
But her general approach lifted the level of American film criticism permanently. Better than anyone else, she bridged the gap between “reviewing” (consumer guide for the moment) and “criticism” (deeper analysis in which the direction of the thumb was not the prime concern). She was not alone in this: her “feud” with Andrew Sarris—which sometimes seemed like a Fred Allen/Jack Benny put-on (but wasn’t)—helped define the direction of criticism in the ’60s, even if, in retrospect, their similarities seem greater than their differences. Critics may still have little effect on American film practice, but what effect they have is thanks at least as much to Kael as to any one other writer.
(Andy Klein is a critic for the New Times newspaper chain.)
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There were American critics who wrote well about film before Pauline Kael—James Agee for one—but by and large it was a dim, desultory field, rather like a Brahmin gentleman’s saloon where the lights are low, the bartender knows every man’s drink, no one raises his voice and the discourse is kept polite and dull. Kael didn’t seem to notice. She entered as if she were knocking back the swinging doors in a Western saloon in a favorite Howard Hawks movie and commenced brawling. She broke chairs over other critics’ heads and sent the critics sailing over the bar. And she did it with wit and style, in this way pushing movie criticism into brave new terrain.
What exactly was this new terrain? Before Kael, it was the literary critic who ruled the roost, and in the first half of the twentieth century Edmund Wilson was the big gun. But we Americans had some catching up to do; we hadn’t yet caught on, as Lenin had pointed out early in the century, that film is “the most important art.” Kael recognized that, and it’s fair to say that by the end of the American 20th century she was the most important critic. There was no longer a single corresponding voice in the literary world that had her impact and stature: She was the new Edmund Wilson.
What I admired most about Kael, besides her wonderful prose, was her tough, independent stance. When I was in college I was completely befuddled by my friends’ deep, almost reverential admiration for Antonioni, who I couldn’t stand. Then I read something Kael wrote on The Red Desert: “Despite this relationship to the world around us, I found the movie deadly: a hazy poetic illustration of emotional chaos—which was made peculiarly attractive. If I’ve got to be driven up a wall, I’d rather do it at my own pace—which is considerably faster than Antonioni’s.”
It was criticism that made me feel a little less lonely.
(Michael Covino has written about film in the East Bay Express for 25 years.)
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I’m still in shock. I spoke to her over the phone at noon; she died an hour or so later. She seemed to go in and out of the conversation, but at the close of it I mentioned that a veteran director we both admired, Lamont Johnson (The Last American Hero), had called me recently and sounded as vigorous as ever. With a burst of enthusiasm, she said, “Isn’t he amazing?” It may have been her last critical judgment. To the end, she drew energy from the art she loved, just as her own work replenished it.
(Michael Sragow worked with Kael at the New Yorker. He is now film critic at the Baltimore Sun.)
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Many people today live far more fully than they would have if Pauline Kael had never written. As a Petaluma-born, at first Berkeley-based movie critic whose first piece, “Some Notes on Chaplin’s Limelight,” appeared in the occasional journal of the San Francisco bookstore City Lights in 1953, she was kin in her ’50s way to both idol-smashing literary critic Leslie Fiedler (born in Newark, working out of Missoula, Montana) and then shockingly frank and funny lovelorn columnist Dear Abby (born in Iowa, first publishing in the San Francisco Chronicle). From places that on the media map did not exist, people were speaking without care for what people would think of them—or, maybe, trying as hard as they could to piss people off, to rattle their cages, to wake them up.
Still, Fiedler cultivated a certain archness and Dear Abby had responsibilities—to all the abused, desperate, suicidal people writing her in hopes that she might save their lives. Kael was neither arch nor responsible: she responded, then dove down deep into her own responses—I hate this, I love this—and came back with stories, analyses, wisecracks overheard in the theater, with a picture of the U.S.A., or Europe, or anywhere else, in which she was the citizen and the movie in question the charter for the world to come or the world that was already lost. Her credo—“Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply,” she wrote in 1963, “just because you must use everything you are and everything you know”—brought countless readers, and countless people her readers talked to, argued with, scorned, laughed at, dragged into theaters to see movies they would never forget or never forgive, into the action. Embarrassment in the face of a movie—of anything you care about—is a sin, her pieces said, one by one, year after year; pretending to like a movie or anything else you’re supposed to like is worse. Making that case is a battle that’s never won, but Kael turned up the volume. I don’t know if the world is a better place because for more than 40 years she wrote, but I know it’s more of a place.
Happy birthday, Pauline, for as long as I’m around to say it.
(Greil Marcus is the author of many books, including Mystery Train. He is a columnist for Salon.)
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A couple of years ago when Roger Ebert included a piece by Pauline Kael in a collection of film writing he compiled, he prefaced it by telling the story of a young writer he knew who had sent clips to Pauline and was thrilled when she called him with words of encouragement. I’m sure the story came as news to people who loved Pauline or loathed her, people who thought that someone who wrote such sharp and cutting criticism must be sharp and cutting herself. But it was no news to any of the young writers to whom she was so generous. I know.
Our friendship began in 1987 when I was a young critic in Boston and Pauline called me out of the blue one Saturday afternoon to tell me she liked my stuff. To say I was elated would be understating it. She had made me want to be a movie critic ever since I was 12 and had bought a paperback of Deeper into Movies. Our friendship continued over the next 14 years via phone calls and visits, either when I’d drive out to see her in the Berkshires or, in the last few years, when she came to Boston to see her doctors.
You could sum up her loves and hates by saying that she hated to be bored and she loved to laugh. When something really struck her funny, her usual breathy lilt would delve down into a deep, raucous chuckle that was devilish and girlish at the same time. “You’re very naughty,” she’d say with sheer delight in her voice when some joke or remark particularly tickled her. But it was impossible to top her. A few years ago my wife and I were eating with her in a café and when we were done I told her to wait while I pulled my car up to the front door. Taking her arm to help her into my Toyota, I tried a Driving Miss Daisy crack and said, “I feel like Morgan Freeman.” Without looking at me she deadpanned, “His car was nicer.”
As eager as she was to talk about all kinds of things, it was often impossible to get her to talk about herself, especially as Parkinson’s and various other health problems took their toll on her. It frustrated her that her body could no longer keep up with that racing mind of hers, that the Parkinson’s sometimes made holding a pencil a near impossibility. (She never learned to type; she said the very idea made her feel physically dissociated from the act of writing, and asked me how I could write on a computer.)
I’d call up to see how she was feeling (though the tenor of her voice always gave away the answer) and she’d immediately say, “Tell me what you’re up to, sweetie.” On the subject of your work, she could be the toughest friend a writer could have, enthusiastic when she dug what you were doing, blunt when she thought your work wasn’t up to par. Some people mistook that bluntness for a withdrawal of friendship (as if liking someone means having to like everything they do).
Her greatest gift was to teach people to trust their own instincts. Whether or not Pauline liked a piece of criticism often had nothing to do with whether she agreed with it. What she responded to was a writer’s avidity for words, and writers’ passion for their subject. She loved it when people’s craziness came out (in movies or in writing) as long as it wasn’t self-important craziness. What made her a great critic, and the greatest movie critic ever, was that she put pleasure at the center of her responses.
That was a revelation to people who felt that art shouldn’t be separate from the rest of life, from what turned us on, what set our hearts and heads and maybe our loins racing. “If art isn’t pleasure,” she once asked, “what is it—work?” It was an approach that was, at first, anathema to the proper readers of the New Yorker and never ceased to be anathema to academics. Predictably, one of them has already gotten it wrong, telling the Associated Press, “What she loved … is an appeal of motion pictures that is ultimately a primitive one … that goes back to the role of motion pictures as sheer entertainment.”
Horseshit. For Pauline, “sheer entertainment” was the least of what movies should be, something to keep you entertained for all those times when a movie couldn’t aspire to be more. Greil Marcus got it right when he said her writing provoked the wonder of “what would it feel like to write like that—to feel so alive?” That was her gift to her readers and her friends. She’d look so pained when you’d try to pick up a check in a restaurant, you’d simply have to laugh. She disliked sentimentality and fawning so much that there was no good way to tell her that she had already given us much more than we could ever repay.
(Charles Taylor is a film critic for Salon.)
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Writing and speaking, Pauline Kael commanded the American idiom. Her paragraphs announced their author. Like George Bernard Shaw, she wrote reviews that will be read for their style, humor and energy long after some of their subjects have been forgotten. Her work pointed up the disconnect between the immediate sensual experience of moviegoing and the abstract theory-mongering of many film critics. She was there, she sat in the theater, it was happening to her, and here was what she felt about it. Critics aren’t supposed to talk during screenings, but I can still hear her Oh! Oh! Oh! during scenes she thought were dreadful. She loved the movies so much that bad ones were a personal affront. And when she loved one, her ecstasy came racing through her prose.
(Roger Ebert is the film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and host of “Ebert & Roeper at the Movies.”)
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I first met Pauline Kael at a Manhattan restaurant, Une, Deux, Trois, in the early ’60s through a friend, an English critic named Paul Coates. I wasn’t very impressed. I was sitting at the end of a table where a lot of people where having a boring conversation about (I think) Peter Greenaway, and my mind drifted off. Jazz was playing in the background; I sat there humming to myself and tapping the notes to a Django Reinhardt guitar solo. I inadvertently made eye contact with her a table away; she was smiling and tapping out the notes with me. I would later learn that Pauline played violin in an all-girl jazz band. We were friends from that moment on.
We once saw a man murdered. We were sitting in a Thai restaurant on (I think) 52nd and 9th, and we saw a drug deal go bad in the middle of the street, or anyway that’s what it looked like. One man pulled a knife and stabbed another; the man fell in the middle of the street and lay still. I ran out to stand next to him, trying to shoo cabs away in the disappearing afternoon light. Four or five narrowly missed me. After about five minutes that seemed like an hour, the police got there.
We went to see a movie I can’t recall the name of, a real piece of shit with James Woods and Glenn Close trying to adopt Mary Stuart Masterson’s daughter.* All through the movie she kept patting me on the arm.
There was usually a great bunch of people near her. Elvis Mitchell, Ray Sawhill and Polly Frost, Veronica Geng, James Toback, the novelist Charles Simmons—I met them all through her. Phillip Lopate was once working on a story about her and asked me, “What does she get from being around all of you?” His tone pissed me off. He seemed to be saying “What could she possibly get from spending time with you people?” I answered him, “A pretty damn good time.”
She loved Chet Baker’s singing, Stendhal’s The Charterhouse Of Parma, Christopher Plummer, Al Green, Chris Isaak singing “Yellow Bird,” Walter Huston singing Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” Bette Midler, Mel Gibson when he was acting goofy, her daughter’s paintings of volcanoes, Leonard Cohen and a thousand other odd things. I once made her a tape called “Birds on The Wire,” which consisted of nothing but different versions of Cohen’s “Bird on The Wire.” Joe Cocker, Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson, about seven or eight others. She told me she’d bring it to her physical therapists and listen to it as they treated her.
One of the best afternoons of my life was spent with her in a used book store near great Barrington, looking at old Modern Library editions and trading stories about how teenagers without much money found ways to scrounge books. She loved Roy Blount, Jr. She was never feeling so bad that Roy didn’t make her feel better. One Sunday morning I was eating a muffin and reading the New York Times when I heard someone approaching her house singing, “An ordinary man would have given it up by now,” a song from a silly little movie she and I loved called Tapeheads and which starred John Cusack and Tim Robbins. I said to myself “I bet that’s Roy Blount, Jr.” It was, and I’ve liked Roy ever since.
Going to the movies with Pauline was great fun, but watching TV was even better. The worse the TV, the more fun her responses. Usually, her grandson, William, whom she adored beyond reason, was allowed to choose the programs. One Saturday night when he was about 10 he chose The Great Escape. He was enthralled, and she didn’t want anything to dampen his enthusiasm. After the big escape sequence she looked at me and said softly, “Thank god, the stars made it out.”
I’d always try to schedule a trip around a big, pay-per-view boxing match, events she loved. I remember going up a couple of years ago with Gene Seymour from Newsday to watch the Evander Holyfield-Lennox Lewis fight. Roy Blount was there and so was her former son-in-law, the painter Warner Friedman. Holyfield was her favorite boxer and she said she was sad all the next day because he lost. I suspected the worst a few weeks ago when she was too week to stay up and watch an Oscar de la Hoya fight she had waited all week for.
I can’t believe I’ll never hear her kvetching voice on my phone, chastising me for missing Stanley Crouch or whoever on Charlie Rose. I can’t believe I’ll never again hear the words “Tell me what you’re working on, sweetie.”
*Immediate Family —Paul