Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pauline Kael: An Appreciation

More than anyone else, and that includes a lot of awfully good directors, screenwriters and actors, we may have legendary film critic Pauline Kael to thank for making American cinema as good as it is.

Kael, who reviewed over 5,000 movies, took no prisoners, abided no fools and left no movie that she thought was bad unscathed in her distinctly colloquial and opinionated writing style. She especially disliked movies that she thought tried to manipulate her. But when she liked a movie – and on balance she found a lot to like in some of them and something to like in most of them – she slathered on praise with abandon.

This natural-born contrarian was combative with her editors and readers alike and crossed swords with the industry's high and mighty. But when the long arc of Kael's four-decade career is considered, her relentless advocacy of quality cinema -- and to her that could mean everything from screwball comedies to deep film noir treatments -- had a hugely positive effect on American cinema.

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Kael was born 89 years ago Tuesday on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, to immigrant Polish Jews. There was nothing in her childhood to suggest that she would end up marrying the cinema after three conventional marriages and divorces, and she seemed destined for a career in law until she fell in with a bohemian crowd and took to playwriting and working on experimental films.

In 1953, the editor of City Lights magazine overheard Kael—who was having a coffee shop argument about movies with a friend—and asked her to review Charlie Chaplin's Limelight. Kael memorably dubbed the movie "slimelight." She was off to the races and began penning reviews for a number of small magazines.

Even Kael's early reviews were notable for their lack of pretension, as well as what she called "saphead objectivity." As she later explained:

"I worked to loosen my style—to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice."

In a review of Vittorio De Sica's 1946 neorealist classic Shoeshine (Sciuscià) that she has ranked among her most memorable, Kael described seeing the film:

" . . . after one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, 'Well I don't see what was so special about that movie.' I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel? . . . Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings."

Kael's next break came in 1965 when she published I Lost It at the Movies, which was a surprise bestseller for the still unknown critic and led to a short-lived job being a reviewer for McCall’s magazine. She panned nearly every commercial movie she saw, referring to the phenomenally popular The Sound of Music as "The Sound of Money," and editor Robert Stein showed her the door. (See the article below for Bob's hilarious first-person account.)

Kael landed on her spike heels at The New Republic, but that gig lasted less than two years because the editors constantly altered her prose without permission. Enter legendary The New Yorker editor William Shawn, who invited her to join Penelope Gilliatt as an alternating film critic, a role that they shared until 1979 when she become the sole reviewer.

Although her down-to-earth style was an odd fit with The New Yorker's genteel prose, Kael was able to review at length, including writing an occasional essay on her deeper cinematic thoughts. While there were no gross editing changes, she reliably fought with Shawn and her other editors during a 23-year stint that ended in 1991.

Among her essays were "Raising Kane," an extensive look at Citizen Kane, widely considered to be the greatest American movie, in which she argued that assistant screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz deserved as much credit as Orson Welles, a thesis that provoked controversy and hurt the egomaniacal Welles to the point that he considered suing Kael for libel.

Other books of reviews also followed, including Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, When The Lights Go Down and Taking It All In. Deeper Into Movies (1973) was the first non-fiction book about movies to win a National Book Award.

In the early 1980s, Kael was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. As her illness worsened, she became increasingly depressed about the state of American movies, along with feeling, she explained, that "I had nothing new to say."

She retired from full-time writing for The New Yorker in 1991 and died at her Massachusetts home in 2001 at age 82.

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Woody Allen spoke for many actors and directors stung by Kael in saying she was "everything you'd ever want in a film critic except judgment," and I found myself mind blown a goodly number of times when she panned a movie that I and other reviewers loved, or vise versa. Nevertheless, she was so influential that Cinerama theater chain distributors initiated a policy of individual screenings for each critic because her remarks during group screenings were affecting her fellow critics.

Typical of her inconsistencies was Last Tango In Paris, which she adored but most critics disparaged. (I agreed with Kael on this one.)

Her review helped her win the 1973 Harvard Lampoon Bosley Award, named after longtime New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, and was described by the award's judges as "Pauline Kael, whose hysterical encomium loosed Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris on an all-too-trusting world."

Caricature by David Levine

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This is the 18th in a series of appreciations of the people who have moved and inspired me over the years. It is based in part on the Wikipedia entry on Kael.

Previous appreciations have included Duane Allman, Hoagie Carmichael, John Coltrane, Aaron Copland, Miles Davis, Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, Stéphane Grappelli, David Hackworth, Learned Hand, Jack Kerouac, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Eleanor Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams.