Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
By Brian Kellow
The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
Sanford Schwartz, Ed.
Library of America, 10/27/2011
From her expansive, personal review of Hud (1963), which ran in Film Quarterly in 1964, to the crowning achievement of her career, the review of Casualties of War (1989) that ran in the August 21, 1989 New Yorker, Pauline Kael approached film reviewing with the ardor, the violence and sometimes the shyness of a lover. She was the most subjective of writers, but she often used “you” instead of “I” because she so much wanted us to share her enthusiasms. It’s impossible to pigeonhole her on just about any issue because she was always restlessly, even furiously making her points and then moving forward; her positions were forever in flux and alive, shifting even as she wrote. She became obsessed with sensations, sex and the impudent laughter of sheer survival and was deeply suspicious of anything that smacked of over-solemnity, so that Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni usually didn’t make her cut, but Jean Renoir did, and Max Ophuls.
She approached film mainly from a scriptwriting point of view, always circling back to “the material,” and she outright says in her essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” that she isn’t too interested in analyzing visual technique (although she could, if it struck her hard enough). She died in 2001, and she left behind her a whole school of critics, the Paulettes, to carry on her voice and sensibility. I won’t name names, but there are many film writers of a certain age who knew Kael and got their first jobs through her, and I can always hear her voice in their writing. It’s in technical issues, like her use of “you,” the rhythms of her declarative sentences which call the film in question “it” for a couple of descriptive jabs, and even the use of outdated 1930s slang that can’t possibly be their own. But no one has carried on the way that Kael brought her knowledge of literature, theater and music into her writing on film, and nobody can write now with her hyperbolic surety that a movie was “the greatest” ever made on a given topic, as if she’d seen every film ever shot. It’s not quite right to say that she kept the personal out of her reviews, but she did fight to make her personal responses a kind of whack-a-mole design for living for all of us. She was in her mid-forties when her first collection of film reviews, I Lost It at the Movies, became a bestseller, and she was always vague about how she had spent her twenties and thirties. The first one hundred pages of Brian Kellow’s new biography of Kael fill in the gaps in her early history, and they have value if we want to try to understand what made her who she was.
Kael was the fifth child of Polish Jewish immigrants who settled in California and raised chickens on a farm in Petaluma. As a kid, she was frustrated that the inter-titles in silent movies were held too long after she had finished reading them, and she never lost that kind of peppy, childlike impatience. Kael told several stories about why she never graduated from Berkeley, where she studied philosophy, but the plain truth seems to be that she was bored by formal education, and this boredom informs so much of her best work, especially her splendidly angry review of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary High School (1968). Kael’s two older sisters were teachers all their lives, and she reacted against them; she always resisted anything even remotely pedagogical.