Pauline Kael: Making Movies Better

Author portrait of Kael from the dust jacket of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968)

Her reviews are still incredibly fun to read. She was insightful, and could offer critique that was howlingly on-point, sharp, and funny

I first came across a profile of Pauline Kael in Michelle Dee’s book, Sharp: the Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion. (Ten women are profiled in the book: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm). 

I didn’t read all of the profiles, but I did read about Pauline Kael because at the time, I had just seen Citizen Kane for the first time and learned that Kael had made waves writing an introduction to the script in 1971. Thirty years earlier, the writers Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles were co-listed as the screenwriters of the film and together won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and deservedly. But Kael went digging into the process and conducted research which led her to believe that Mankiewicz was the primary screenwriter for the film. In addition to noting his characteristic writerly style, she substantiated her claim with evidence of his close relationship to William Randolph Hearst, upon whom large parts of the film were based.

Although afterwards, she protested plenty that she loved Orson Welles as a director as an actor, she felt that honesty dictated that she parse out the percentages of the writing contribution 30 years after its release. Amazingly, she spent 50,000 words doing just that. (The Great Gatsby is a mere 47,094 and in that space, Fitzgerald created an entire world). 

The film world responded dramatically, and the episode is a good introduction to Pauline Kael: fierce critic, independent journalist, and completely immune to the consequences of her own actions.

Recently, I watched a documentary about her, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. Directed by Rob Garver, and released in 2018, the film follows the major arc of Kael’s life.

Several of her reviews are almost canonical. In addition to reviving the brouhaha over Citizen Kane, she famously panned Star Wars (“for young audiences ‘Star Wars’ is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes”) and praised Bonnie and Clyde, rescuing it from a fate of failure, which is where it seemed destined to go a few months after its release, audiences appalled by the romanticization of violence. Her review resurrected interest and launched it to its still-vaunted place in the canon of American movies. (“Instead of the movie spoof, which tells the audience that it doesn’t need to feel or care, that it’s all just in fun, that “we were only kidding,” “Bonnie and Clyde” disrupts us with “And you thought we were only kidding.”). You can read more of her most famous reviews in a 2019 New Yorker article on what would have been her 100th  birthday.

What She Says is, in many ways, a celebration of American film as much as it is a biography of Kael; as the film narrates her life and story, clips of some of the most celebrated American movies play in the background. It’s a delight for the senses, a romp of familiarity through a world of cinema and cinematography. I’m not quick enough to catch most of the references, and they’re rarely tied to the discussion of Kael, but it made the movie feel snappy and fun.

Which is good because Pauline Kael was, for the most part, snappy but not very fun. In fact, if the filmmaker had liked her a little less, it probably would have been easy to portray her as quite a distasteful person. If there’s one word I might pick for her, it might be uncompromising. Throughout the film, she had plenty of sharp words directed towards film critics who saw their roles as promoters, or who were swayed by the desires of directors, magazine editors, or advertisers, and she is undoubtedly right to hold that skepticism. Or, as she puts it, “Without critics you have nothing but advertisers.”

But she paid a personal price for that conviction; among other things, she had trouble holding onto a job. And while the film didn’t focus on her personal life, the facts of her biography do include several failed relationships and marriages. The only hint of this in the film is when she says, “I think its very difficult for a woman particularly to go out with a man that she disagrees with sharply in matters of taste; because it really does offend all his macho sense.” I really hope she wasn’t right about that; even if we took away her pointed comment about gender, it seems a matter of despair that one should have to marry a person with similar aesthetics. 

Not that she would have taken away the comment about gender. She wrote, 

In the arts, women are accepted. They’ve always been accepted in the theater. But criticism, since it involves analytic intelligence and rationale use of one’s intellect, that hits exactly where men have always wanted to believe that women were less gifted. Its one thing to show sensitivity and talent; I mean, men like that in women. But, it is very, very difficult for men to accept the idea that women can argue reasonably.

But really, I wanted to wonder: did she argue reasonably? 

Although she took seriously her charge to share her impressions about the art she saw on the screen, she also wrote to entertain, to enter a conversation with movie-goers. More than once, reading her prose felt like maybe she wasn’t being so reasonable. And later in her career, she almost imagined that she was steering the course of movie production and of movie reviewing, mentoring her favored acolytes and discouraging those she didn’t feel worthy. Is that reasonable?

When people disagreed with her, she had a great talent for not taking things personally. She could stand by her convictions like few others, and could write her own opinion without regard to others. She practically exemplified that old adage, “All the darkness in the world does not extinguish the light of a single candle.” She was going to burn her little light bright, and sometimes it seemed ike all the darkness only served to reinforce her convictions. 

On the other hand, what she didn’t take personally, she did take genderly. If that were actually a word, it would mean that a decent amount of the criticism that was, perhaps truly, directed at Kael, she instead took to be an attack on her gender. It is as though when a critic wrote that she was gratuitously mean, she would rise to the defense of womankind, insisting that this attack came only because of her biology, and that men are allowed to be perfectly mean. 

She was a true believer in criticism, in the possibility that artistic impressions meant something, and could help movies become better. Her great success was to turn film criticism into an art form in its own right. People who had previously read reviews to help them decide whether to see a movie, now found entertainment and pleasure in the refraction of a movie in the eyes of a smart critic. 

But then, David Lean said that her criticism of his work “kept him from making a movie for 14 years” even after his successes in movies such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. Of course, nobody can parse out whether that statement is precisely “true” or not, but even if has only a hint of truth about it, I don’t think that’s a win for movie-making, movie-goers, or film criticism. 

But audiences loved her, and it’s easy to see why. Her reviews are still incredibly fun to read. She was just so good and insightful, and could offer critique that was howlingly on-point, sharp, and funny.

As her friend Craig Seligman said in her eulogy, 

She was funny and lethal right up to the end. One day, when she was near death, and I was at her bedside trying to divert her with chatter, I said, “it never ceases to amaze me how many people who call themselves writers actually can’t write.” And she said, very weakly, “yes, they say things like, ‘it never ceases to amaze me.’ “

If there’s a cruel or unreasonable edge to this statement (I think there is), it’s redeemed by the sense that it was deserved and asked-for, and by the fact that it’s incredibly funny. And that, I think, is the genius of Pauline Kael.

And maybe this is the tender place I want to end, in thinking about how, when a person finds their place in the world, even their faults become a space where they can be loved. At her memorial service of her daughter, Gina James said:

Pauline’s greatest weakness became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and critic. She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects. This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation, gave Pauline a supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph. 

What a blessing. 

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