“What’s so Great About Pauline Kael?”

Don’t ask me why, but the library around the corner had a mint condition soft-cover copy of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon on their remainder rack for $1 (I know, I know, how utterly poetic of them), so of course I bought it, but then I got to wondering, “Didn’t Pauline Kael once have something to say about Harold Bloom?,” which led me to Google (“harold bloom pauline kael”), which led me to this potentially interesting Kael thread (at MUBI.com), the interest of which I note is “potential” because all I’ve done is scan a few bits from it (and I still don’t know the answer to my original question).

Bad Friday Reading #1

There is [Renata Adler’s] famous Pauline Kael review. It is hard to remember what a cultural despot Kael, then the New Yorker‘s film critic, was when Adler took her down in 1980. Kael was bully, drama queen, suck-up, disciplinarian, hysteric, and — taking jobs and inducements from the people she promoted — a bit corrupt, too. Still, opprobrium yet attaches to Adler for her sweeping emperor’s-new-clothes leveling of Kael; and it certainly earned her no points with the New Yorker, their mutual employer.

But the rightness of Adler’s view of Kael as nasty, self-promoting gasbag only become more obvious as Kael’s reputation disappeared after she lost her New Yorker post and power. She was unreadable, said Adler; and indeed, Kael isunread now.

Michael Wolff, in an obvious hit job on Kael, masquerading as an appraisal of Renata Adler. “Suck-up” is ridiculous, though I suppose you could call it a matter of opinion. Suggesting that Kael was fired from the New Yorker and that she is now “unread” — well, those are just blatant lies. As usual, I blame the writer here less than I blame whoever it was that edited this garbage. All I can come up with here is that:
a) said editor doesn’t know who Pauline Kael is, so would not think to challenge such ridiculous assertions;
b) said editor is so thrilled to be editing a writer of Wolff’s stature that they dare not challenge such ridiculous assertions;
c) for purely economic reasons, said editor (the kind, I mean, who isn’t employed merely to check for grammar and spelling mistakes but to actually critique the writing itself, work to make it better) doesn’t actually exist. Said editor, in this case, might actually be an unpaid, straight-out-of-college intern.

Three chords and a Pauline Kael t-shirt


But I especially like this shirt as a symbol. Just the idea of people wearing t-shirts of a film critic makes me happy. I know a few of you wear a shirt of my logo, which is obviously the best thing you could do ever. But this one is amazing because it looks like a rock t-shirt. It treats analysis of film art as rock ‘n roll. It says “Fuck you. I’m wearing a shirt of Pauline Kael.”

Come on, one of you guys must be in a band or something. I want to see you up there playing bass and you got fuckin chromed out PAULINE KAEL glimmering on your chest. And the kids gotta look it up to find out what it is. And then they’re gonna scratch their heads. You need to do this for me, and for the world.
Vern, Outlaw Critic

Spreading the love, and the logo, where and when I can. (I wonder if he takes special orders; wouldn’t mind a “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” hoodie.)

Kael Essays Wanted

Talking About Pauline Kael (Scarecrow Press essay collection; deadline for abstracts is June 1, 2013; accepted essays due October 15, 2013).

Calling for essays for a collection, Talking About Pauline Kael, which will examine how New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael’s unique vision, writing style, or critical authority has, in any way, influenced the study of film, the role of film criticism, or even the teaching of film in the classroom.

Critical Parenting 101


From Brian Kellow‘s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. The argument here seems to be “Let them grow up” (Kael) vs. “Use what you know to help shape their tastes” (Barra). I’m with Kael on this one, but it’s murky ground, especially when you consider the impulse to proselytize, which is part and parcel (well, to some degree, and not to the same degree for everyone obviously) of being a critic.

Richard Kramer on Kael

A Broad’s Laugh: On Pauline Kael by Richard Kramer (Los Angeles Review of Books)

And there was one more moment between us. She called me. She was in the hospital, although she didn’t say that. Her voice was weak, this writer whose voice was always so strong, all brass section, all parade. ‘What will become of all of you?’ she asked. ‘What will you do with no good movies?’ How do you answer that? I tried to keep it cheery. ‘Have you heard about this movie In the Bedroom?’ I had seen that, a few weeks earlier. It was the first movie that came to mind. ‘Oh, someone sent it to me,’ she said. For a moment she sounded like herself, confident, more than a little bossy, sexy in her very personal way.’It’s just a piece of shit, honey. That’s all it is. That’s all anything is, mostly.’ Then I could hear her starting to fade. ‘Except for Sissy Spacek, of course. Who has ever been like her? Or Diane Keaton! Or Streisand, in Yentl. God, I adored that strange girl in Carrie —’

Kellow & Kael VIII (Phil Dellio interviews Brian Kellow)

Phil Dellio:

Something I’ve said more than once over the years is that the three biggest influences on me among writers are Pauline Kael, Bill James, and Greil Marcus. I consider myself lucky to have had some contact with two of them. I interviewed Marcus back when I first started writing, and he later contributed a few comments to my old fanzine; the past couple of years I’ve submitted the occasional question to the “Hey Bill” section of James’s website, and he’s responded to most of them. Something I often regret, though, is that I never sent any of my writing to Pauline Kael. I’ve primarily written about music the past 25 years, but I wish I’d sent her a piece I wrote about the best uses of pop music in Scorsese’s films—an idea that I bet has been done to death now, but which I think was fairly novel when I wrote it up for Scott’s Popped website in the late ‘90s—or a couple of pieces I did for Cinemascope around the same time, which would have been a couple of years before Kael’s death. I have no idea whether I would have had any success in getting anything to her, whether she would have liked any of it if I had, or even whether she would have bothered reading it in the first place. I’m guessing she was bombarded with stuff on a constant basis and from all directions—from the now infamous Wes Anderson solicitation to see Rushmore, to fan letters and invitations and everything in between.

Letter from Kael arrives in the mail: “Thank you for the Scorsese article, Phil. I don’t know what you’ve got here, young man…”

Wasn’t meant to be. Some consolation arrived this past year by way of A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael. If you check in regularly with rockcritics.com, you’ll know that Scott recently posted a number of links to reviews of Kellow’s book (sometimes reviewed in tandem with The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, the third career overview of Kael’s reviews). I’m tempted to say that it’s amazing the amount of interest—often rawly contentious—that Kellow’s book has generated, but I suspect that anyone who has ever strongly felt the pull of Kael’s writing would not be surprised. People have been arguing about Kael since the mid-‘60s; the arguments didn’t stop with her retirement in 1991, and they didn’t stop with her death in 2001. There are a couple of ILX threads devoted to Kael where I’ve been posting the last couple of years, and while (to the best of my knowledge) no one on there ever personally knew Kael, some of the back and forth can get very barbed on occasion. That’s Kael. That readers can still feel so strongly about her in 2011—and I can’t think of another writer I’ve ever argued about so much; a couple of music writers are close—is, to me, the truest barometer you’ll find of just how strong that pull was. (Or, if you aren’t a fan, of how strong your aversion is. Kael’s detractors have always been fierce. But as I say in the accompanying interview, “the circle of people I travel in”—Jesus, where do I come up with this stuff?—is almost exclusively made up of fans.)

Between the message board, Kellow’s book, reviews of the book, and James Wolcott’s Lucking Out (in which Kael figures prominently) on top of all that, I’m a little Kaeled out at the moment, but before I hand it over to Brian, let me say that I think A Life in the Dark is excellent. Its portrayal of Kael did not in any way conflict with my sense of her as a reader (I feel like I have to stress that; some reviews written by friends of Kael’s—some, not by any means all—disagree), and my recognition of her influence on me has deepened. A lot of Kael’s own words make their way into A Life in the Dark via review excerpts, and I liked that: as I wrote on the message board, these excerpts—and the almost month-by-month timeline of the films that caught Kael’s attention—construct a parallel story, the story of American film from the late ‘60s through to the late ‘80s (but American films in the ‘70s especially, which has always been my own frame of reference), that is inseparable from Kael’s. Does Kellow always agree with Kael’s verdict on specific films? No—he’ll sometimes say so. Did I? No. Do I always agree with Kellow’s occasional disagreements with Kael? No. Does any of that detract from the book for me? No. The main thing was that it always felt like I was reading someone who’d been as permanently shaped by the likes of Reeling and Deeper Into Movies as I’ve been, ever since first discovering Kael at some point near the end of high school. There’s an oft-quoted line of Kael’s (a friend has it on the masthead of his blog) from her introduction to For Keeps, one of those earlier career overviews: “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” True—I wouldn’t try to argue that Kael’s body of work did not leave behind a complete world. But I’m still very glad that A Life in the Dark exists.

“One of the most powerful truths to be gleaned from examining Pauline’s life is that it was, throughout its span, a triumph of instinct over an astonishing intellect. Her highly emotional responses to art were what enabled her to make so indelible a mark as a critic. On the surface, it might seem that any critic does the same thing, but it’s doubtful that any critic ever had so little barrier between herself and her subject. She connected with film the way a great actor is supposed to connect with his text, and she took her readers to places they never could have imagined a mere movie review could transport them.”

A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow

Listen to Phil’s interview with Brian Kellow:

or… Download [mp3]

Kellow & Kael (+ Schwartz), VII [updated]

  • Phillip Lopate reviews the bio in Film Comment: “Anyone who has hung around film critic circles will know that narrowing human thinness and provincialism that can set in when there is no other focus but movie talk.”
  • Nick Pinkerton pans the book at Sundance Now blog: “I doubt I would’ve read Kellow’s Kael bio were it not for the fact that I was paid to do so…”
  • Interview with Kellow by Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running: “Her nephew, Bret Wallach, told me that when he was participating in campus demonstrations at Berkeley, she was very much against it. He was stunned because he had always thought of her, I guess, as rebellious Aunt Pauline, constantly giving the finger to the establishment. But she was not in favor of anything that was going to lead you to a point of alienation or isolation. She wanted to be in it. In the vortex, at the vortex.”
  • Jill Krementz covers a celebration of Pauline Kael (Krementz photographed Kael often during the seventies, and many of her photos are featured in Kellow’s book.)
  • Bronx Banter interview with Sanford Schwartz, editor of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael: “Kael made reading movie reviews a more intimate and personal experience than it had ever been before. Little criticism of any kind conveyed a comparable sense of there being such a powerful, funny, opinionated, scarily shrewd, and common sensical voice there, talking to you. You wanted to know what she thought about everything. You don’t feel this with most journalists, whether they are reviewing an art of doing a political column.” (Link also includes a number of PK quotes from various interviews and some cool scans.)
  • Reflections on Pauline Kael, by Steve Vineberg (Critics at Large): “Kellow’s misreading gets in the way when he tries to psychoanalyze Kael through her reviews — a temptation that probably no biographer of a writer could resist, but perhaps particularly misguided in this case, since Kael was so nakedly autobiographical in her writing. (It’s unlikely that anyone who confesses that she saw Vittorio De Sica’s devastating Shoeshine after a terrible, unresolvable quarrel with her boyfriend needs to have her judgments examined for hidden motives.)”