Movie Criticism: The Case of Pauline Kael

Conversations With Pauline Kael
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Earmarks of an obsession? And of course, she likes it.

What David O. Russell Learned from Pauline Kael

Kael was unusually relentless in her disdain for Eastwood. There does appear to be something besides simple faulty judgment at play here. Even if Kael was insincere in her disdain for Eastwood she seemed to view baiting him as a kind of sport—or maybe schoolyard flirting? And in , Eastwood was a fully established film legend with all the critical endorsements and Oscars anyone could ever wish for or dream of to feel secure in their legendariness.

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A more pertinent question for him to have asked might have been: why did he still care so much? While I was searching the Internet for clues, I found the following passage:. The middle-aged, large-nosed, dark-haired, and diminutive film critic Molly Fisher is writing at her desk in a nightgown when she hears a sound. She gets up and closes the sliding doors. A masked killer grabs her from behind and holds a knife at her throat.

The masked killer in The Dead Pool is pretending to be or deluded into believing he is a film director whose violent fantasies Fisher has panned in her reviews. Fisher pleads with him by mentioning her heart. The killer calls her a liar and thrusts the knife towards her. The oriental makes a joke about the murder by giving it points out of ten, as if rating a movie. Dream worlds within dream worlds. It was as if he was sending her a personalized message wrapped inside the envelope of his tawdry little movie.

Ironically, and if nothing else, it would be a way of all-but compelling her to watch it! Now I think about it, what was the famously prosaic, anti-analytic Eastwood doing in therapy anyway? In a showdown between Dirty Harry and Dr. It has to be a consolation prize.

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The shrewdest thing to say about Pauline Kael – beyond Film critics today labour in a gloom and irrelevance Kael could not tolerate. Originally published as The Legacy of Pauline Kael in our July issue Film criticism is a frustratingly ephemeral calling, and few of its of art; in this case, Jane Fonda's performance: “She has somehow got to a plane of.

Why did she imply the reverse? Was it because it only rubbed salt in the wound? Mom, meet Dad. These sorts of unconscious psychodramas even when as impersonal and long distance as this are invariably symmetrically arranged. In his movie roles, Eastwood is pretty much indifferent to female charms there are a few exceptions, but he mostly regrets it.

In his public life, he was as contemptuous of Kael as she was of him—though who started the playground bickering remains unclear, even after all these years. Actually, Eastwood was buddying up to Nixon at that time, and eventually he did go into politics, though strictly local. There are all kinds of nuance to this. Paging Dr. My father went to a western just about every night of his life that I remember. But the old stars, battling through stories that have lost their ritual meaning, are part of a new ritual that does have meaning. The fact that they can draw audiences to a genre as empty as the contemporary Western is proof of their power.

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The heroes nobody believes in—except as movies stars—are the result of a corrupted art form. This was written in August of The three Leone-Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns were released in the US between in January, May, and December of that year, so at that precise time , Eastwood was in the middle of becoming internationally famous.

Kael was writing not about Eastwood but about John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Kirk Douglas—the old Western stars who drew her father into the empty fantasy space of the movie theater. At six or seven, I was very proud of my father for being the protector of widows.

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Behind the dream was something not at all dreamy: the crass opportunism not just of philandering husbands but of movie stars exploiting the corrupted art form which created them. No wonder Kael was so dedicated to saving the art form from corruption. And no wonder she felt such hostility towards a star like Eastwood—except there were no others like Eastwood; not for Kael, at any rate. He was her bete noir. So why Eastwood, then, and not Wayne or the old time stars? The obvious answer is that Eastwood was on the ascent where Wayne was on the downward curve. Kael was after the biggest game in town.

Eastwood would go on to direct his own Western fantasies and to seize the Western crown from Wayne.

By Jennifer Robison

She has bestridden film criticism as colossally as he in his day bestrode letters, and neither of them--in print or in person--left room for disagreement. As she grew older, she opposed the tawdriness of the movies themselves by approaching them critically, as a writer , hoping to somehow redeem them through her passion, her attention. I said, ''Well, it's got a pretty quick pace. To read our full stories, please turn off your ad blocker. I hate costume dramas, I never watch them and I would rather watch my nails grow than to write about them.

Kael—with a characteristic mix of heartiness and heartlessness—blasted it to smithereens. In a very curious side note, Wayne died of cancer a few years later, cancer which allegedly he contracted as a result of witnessing an atomic detonation while playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror , in In her writing at least, Kael clearly disliked Westerns, not just the bad ones but the classics too. Miller really an anti-western; apparently she loved Red River. In Going Steady , she dismissed The Good the Bad and the Ugly in a couple of paragraphs, as if not worth her trouble to write about.

Spaghetti Westerns, she wrote:. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience? Generally vigilance is defensive, but Kael has had no theory or system, aesthetic or political, to defend. She has been lustily vigilant. She no longer reviews movies, because, at seventy-five and in frail health, she doesn't feel up to the physical effort.

She stepped up to all comers within reason with her heart on her sleeve and her mind working overtime. No wonder she took it so personally when movies stank, or when they inspired "goofy rapture," or when they were just not quite all that one might have wished: "And so the ironies in The Man Who Would Be King go by fast--when we want them to vibrate a little.

But it also helps to account for why her reviews are still great reading, and not just as personal essays but as inspired and hearty attempts to evoke upon the page a movie's "Ochi Chyorniye. She retired from regular reviewing for The New Yorker three years ago, and for several years before that she was casting a cold eye on her own powers, like a great athlete who wanted to be the first to detect the slowing of her reflexes.

I had seen it the night before, and I didn't even remember the scene. In the late s and the s her schmoozy yet magisterial apercus inspired widespread emulation among the young. Now college kids tend not to have heard of her. Nearly all of Kael's thirteen books are still in print in England, but in this country most of what is available is For Keeps.

It's more than 1, pages long, and more than , words: "a brick," as she puts it. Bullion, I would say, to use a word that not only means "gold in mass" but also derives from an old verb meaning "to bubble, to boil. The purely financial benefit of knowing her has probably not been entirely offset by the looks of horror that influential Hollywood figures gave me in succeeding years when I told them she was one of my heroes, so perhaps I should recuse myself from writing about her book and her. But knowing a person she is reviewing has never inhibited Kael.

Some years ago I gave her and another woman, who was meeting her for the first time, a ride from New York City to western Massachusetts, where Kael and I are neighbors. Kael remarked regretfully that her review of Stardust Memories had caused Woody Allen to end their friendship.

Kael has always had a particular taste for as in Brian De Palma "the dirty fun of a bad boy. Kael picked up on not only what Stardust Memories was curdled by but what it was all about: Allen's slide into self-hatred, sentimentality, and disdain for his audience.

Now that accepted opinion deplores Allen as a self-absorbed, dysfunctional stepfather, Kael's review of Stardust Memories, reprinted in For Keeps, resonates like a perfect-pitch blow of the whistle. The semi-autobiographical character Allen plays, she wrote in , "is superior to all those who talk about his work; if they like his comedies, it's for freakish reasons, and he shows them up as poseurs and phonies, and if they don't like his serious work, it's because they're too stupid to understand it.

He anticipates almost anything that you might say about Stardust Memories and ridicules you for it. While she was at it, she gave Allen's earlier work its due: he "helped to make people feel more relaxed about how they looked and. What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teen-agers as a quest for true values? She praised several of his movies after Stardust Memories, and after she quit reviewing, she urged all her friends to see his post-scandal comedy Manhattan Murder Mystery.

If she had never liked his work, she would never have been friendly with him. Tell Kael that you enjoyed a movie that she thought was, as she might put it, not. Some people find this absolutism off-putting--well, everybody does. She can say things that make you feel that the room has been flushed with acid. But she's an affable, cheery person to meet.

She was quite cordial to one of my son's friends whom I took to meet her one night at dinner. It won't be. She was the most eloquent appreciator in print of Richard Pryor's best work, but when he called to ask her opinion of his dispiriting autobiographical JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling before its release, she gave it to him straight: it was hopeless. In her heyday several tables in the downstairs rooms of her big turreted shingle house in Great Barrington, which she and her daughter, Gina, restored from a shambles in she made the down payment on it with what The New Yorker paid her for running her Citizen Kane Book in installments , were always covered with neatly stacked book manuscripts, screenplay drafts, and unplaced articles sent to her by friends, acquaintances, and strangers asking for private opinions.

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She devoted an enormous amount of time to this reading, and to energetic encouragement and discouragement. She is the least guilt-inducing woman I have ever known. Once when I was giving her a ride to the country, a big rain came up and flooded the Saw Mill River Parkway. I took an ill-considered detour through a great accumulation of water--don't worry, I told her, I got this figured--and the car conked out. There I was, in a rickety Plymouth Horizon bumper-deep in the middle of rushing water that must have been yards across, with a physically delicate, environmentally hypersensitive bugbites swell her up disastrously , sixty-odd-year-old woman who was the most acerbic critic in America; to boot, I didn't know exactly where we were, except probably in the state of New York.

It was getting dark. The water was rising. I have had a loving mother and several eminently-capable-of-wading sweethearts who would have given me deserved grief at that point. Kael's demeanor was perfectly sunny.

The Problem of Pauline Kael: A Consideration of the Dynamics of Academic and Mainstream Criticism

I would have carried her to Massachusetts on my shoulders if necessary, but as it happened, I got the car cranked and we rooster-tailed out of there. She slipped on ice and broke her nose trying to get to my one-man show off-Broadway, and because I knew she had trouble getting around in the city also because I wasn't sure I knew what I was doing onstage , I hadn't even asked her to come. When I heard about her injury, from someone else, she pooh-poohed my concern.

I don't think anybody else has ever actually told me that. She doesn't talk about her past much, but I can tell you a few things you probably don't know about her. For instance, in the finals of a California high school debate competition one year in the mid-thirties, Kael's opponent was Carol Channing. Perhaps this is one of those supernal matchups you would prefer to speculate about endlessly Who would win, Captain Marvel or King Kong? Mother Courage or Auntie Mame? Here's a poser: Who would win, Kael or Dr. She has bestridden film criticism as colossally as he in his day bestrode letters, and neither of them--in print or in person--left room for disagreement.

Johnson was acknowledged as a giant.

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The Kirkus review of For Keeps fell in with many of Kael's past critics by calling her intelligence "quirky" and averring that she "thought quite highly of herself and her judgment. Maybe even if she were taller.

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Her physical tininess should have no more to do with her "Ochi Chyorniye" than Johnson's hulkingness with his, but, she says in her introduction to For Keeps, "I think that the disjunction between my strong voice as a writer and my five-foot frame somehow got to people. I guess at some level it is. Her brothers used to throw her back and forth between them like a ball, to her delight.

The animals chased her. As a child, she was regarded as such an inspired comedian that her parents thought she might be the next Fanny Brice. Before she got into movie reviewing she wrote plays that were produced for radio but never for the stage. Once, in a hardware store in Great Barrington, a salesman who did not know her pointed to a sign saying Father's Day Special and said, "That goes for you, too, Mom.

She used to make Shawn turn bright red in the face more from apoplexy than embarrassment by insisting on keeping explicit sexual references in her copy. Shawn was himself a connoisseur of bawdy humor, but he was as obsessed with keeping smut out of his magazine as Joe McCarthy was with getting Communists out of the government. Once, he turned down a piece of mine that entailed a man and a woman getting Super Glued together, quite nonsexually, in a dry-cleaning establishment, because he worried about how they would go to the bathroom.

Kael had the nerve to ask Shawn to rewrite his introduction to her Nights at the Movies because she found the first version to be "overflorid. After all, she had occasionally consented to make alterations for Shawn. Once, she showed me proofs of her forthcoming review of Reds. Shawn had adjured her to come up with some other term. She couldn't understand why. It was the right word, she insisted.

Eventually she gave in to Shawn on that one, and recast the sentence, but I still feel proud of her for trying. Let me think how to put this: the two most startling and refreshing moments of my intellectual life as a semi-apostate male Georgia Methodist emigre were when I realized that Kael really didn't see why she could not use in The New Yorker a down-home adjective that I would hesitate to use in conversation among close female friends, and when she observed during a very brief biblical discussion in my car one afternoon that the New Testament was "a bit sticky.

It was largely negative, partly because she found it trendily old-Hollywood leftist. I attended the special screening of Reds that was held for her. This was not long after she had returned to reviewing after being lured by Beatty out to Hollywood to become, at fifty-nine, a producer-consultant at Paramount. During this period Kael felt, to my astonishment, that I could write a movie, and arranged a development deal for me.

She didn't intervene in the writing of the script, although she got it Xeroxed for me, because I couldn't afford to at the time. She liked it. Paramount didn't. Though she received no screen credits during her five months in the business, she says she helped get several movies into production, including The Elephant Man. Kael returned to Great Barrington and The New Yorker no more compromised by having worked for Paramount than Orwell was by fighting in the Spanish civil war. I would like to be able to report that her discernible reactions at the Reds screening were somehow revealing.

But it was usually hard to tell how Kael had responded to a movie until she started talking about it, some minutes after it was over. Sometimes I would feel impelled to state my reaction before she had a chance to. I remember that as soon as the credits for Jonathan Demme's Something Wild had finished rolling, I turned to her and said, "Now, I liked that! For a minute I thought she hadn't liked it, but I think it was just that she was still tasting it.

She came away from Reds looking the same way she looked leaving other movies that disappointed her: let down. I don't know how to suggest that the general reader take For Keeps into his or her life.

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I know that Nights at the Movies richly accompanies my own watching of old movies on television. Many people with whom I have argued about Kael have said, "Okay, she's a good writer. But her opinions about movies. Or quirky. No, they aren't.