Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Oscar Nominees Interview: and Why I Miss Pauline Kael

(REVISED on Feb 10--to correct errors brought on in part by an exhausting day....)

In the weeks ahead, I will offer an occasional opinion, essay, rant, etc., about this year's Oscar nominations.  Tonight, I want to share how an innocent round-table discussion among actors made me yearn for the writing of one of the best film critics this country ever produced.

The latest Newsweek (February 8) featured an interview and  discussion with six of this year's Academy Award Acting Nominees: Morgan Freedman, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Bridges, Woody Harrelson, Gabourey Sidibe, and Carey Mulligan.

It was a lighthearted and entertaining discussion, designed to personalize these performers and give Oscar-watchers a good feeling should any of them eventually take home the gold. 

Among other tidbits, we learned that Sandra Bullock is the daughter of opera singers/voice teachers; that Jeff Bridges is a proponent of motion-capture filmmaking (used in his upcoming film, a remake of Disney's "Tron"); that Woody Harrelson got his start by doing Elvis imitations; that Morgan Freeman is often mistaken for Samuel L Jackson, and calls "Avatar"  "a bit faddish...really cartoons..."; that Gabourey Sidibe blew her audition for a Huggies commercial (as a tot) for crying too much; and that Carey Mulligan wanted to act since age six (and has flexible toes!!)

Then I read the following exchange and realized that something has been missing from the film industry, and the art of film criticism, perhaps never to be recaptured:

NEWSWEEK: Morgan, how did you feel when you were 50 years old to read the opening line of that famous Pauline Kael review of Street Smart: “Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor?” Do you remember that?
FREEMAN: Of course I remember that.
NEWSWEEK: Gabby and Carey, do you know who Pauline Kael is?
[They both shake their head no.]

Even though I understand that these young performers are of a new era, I can't help but wish that somewhere in their education, on their way to working in the industry, they had some familiarity, some understanding, of one of the voices that influenced their profession. 
Critics of the arts define their eras. Pauline Kael defined a period in which I came of age, learning about the art of movies and filmmaking.  Kael was the primary film critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991.  She was smart, idiosyncratic, and brought with her great knowledge of literature and music and theater, elevating the art of film by connecting it to universally accepted and venerable art forms. At the same time, she wrote as a fan, her intelligence shaping her style.  Her love for movies of all kinds, and her sharp eye and wit, always were convincing, even if a reader did not always agree.

I admire her story.  The daughter of Polish immigrants, her family moved to San Francisco when they lost their family farm.  She did a number of jobs (including that of seamstress). By her mid-thirties, she was writing film reviews for City Lights magazine, and running the Berkely Cinema Guild, programming movies for a 2-screen art house (similar to our own Music Box Theater, Chicago's answer to the Castro in San Francisco).  Her capsule reviews, written in a personal style and cutting verbage, were considered collectors items even then.

She approached movies head-on, proclaiming an unabashed love for writing and acting, and a distaste for pretension.  She disparaged moguls, businessmen, and pseudo-artists alike.  She appealed to the childlike wonder of educated filmgoers who were insecure about their love of movies as an art form.  It became acceptable, under a steady diet of Kael, to connect with a movie, to feel as though you could change your life after a work of emotional and cinematic power, but you didn't have to know a lot about "film grammar" to have the experience.

One of my favorite quotes, which sums up her critical philosophy, and one that I think is vanishing from the art of film criticism, is: "The critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”

In 1967, after writing for numerous and high-profile publications, she was hired as the film critic of The New Yorker, and her inaugural review, an in-depth and impassioned rave of "Bonnie and Clyde", vaulted her to national recognition.  That was the beginning of the American Film Generation, the American New Wave.  She admitted that her writing was best at this time because the movies offered so much.  She raved about pictures that became some of my favorites: Cabaret, The Godfather, Nashville. She also went on flights of fancy, and went apart from the crowd. She was true to her views, and while I often violently disagreed with her, I always came away from her reviews feeling as though I had just had the experience--or had the renewed experience--of seeing the movie about which she had written.

That, in the best sense of the word, is a re-view.

She created a new aesthetic: the movie review as an art form in itself, that entertained and informed readers independently of their knowledge of the film under scrutiny, but which added a deeper appreciation  of all of the movies she discussed.

Many critics and filmmakers cite Kael as an influence in their own creative work: Roger Ebert, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, A.O. Scott, Elvis Mitchell, Michael Sragow...many other critics, often referred to as "Paulettes" due to their "homages" and imitation of her style.

And myself..she influenced me and my way of "reading" and appreciating a film, and my way of trying to capture the experience in my writing of them.

I have read all of her books, many of the titles deliberately sexually suggestive (movies were a sensual experience to her, always).  Titles like "I Lost it at the Movies", "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", "Deeper Into Movies", "When the Lights Go Down"...I have read them all, many times until some of them have lost their covers....

She won a national Book award for "Deeper into Movies", the first time a book of film criticism ever won such a prestigious literary award.

I wonder what she would have liked today.... I think she would have loved "Avatar" and "A Single Man" both.

She died on September 4, 2001.

“Trash has given us an appetite for art”. Another characteristic quote...she believed that movies rarely achieved the status of art, and so to love movies at all, we need to find an appreciation for trash.  I go back and forth on this one....

Tempestuous, opinionated, informed, funny, able to recapture a film and do it justice, good or bad....Champion of artists and craftsmen, writers (especially!) and performers that really did have a sincere desire to change the landscape of cinema while entertaining us and making us think (like Altman, Scorsese, Bertolucci, DeSica,  Mankiewicz)......Essayist of an incomparable personal style, who missed nothing, who was unashamed of her own guilty pleasures, who cast herself in each review in the role of the consummate film-lover, who didn't care a bit if you agreed or disagreed but wanted to share her enthusiasm with you all the same.....

I miss her. 


  1. I have read some of her reviews, but not nearly enough. I don't think I've even heard of those books until now! Mayhaps it is time for a trip to the library.

  2. According to Roger Ebert, most of Pauline Kael's books are sadly out of print. Unfortunately I don't own any, but I have been able to read most of her books thanks to the libraries.

    I still remember her review of Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller- it saved that movie from being dumped in the drive-ins by Warner Bros in 1971.

    Anyone who is making a living in the film industry should know the work of Pauline Kael. Or at least have HEARD of her. I do have an anecdote from my college days. My Film Studies professor was talking about Kael and then asked how many had heard of her. My hand was the sole one that was raised. The look on her face was one of astonishment..

  3. What a super post, Tom. I don't know her, but she sounds like she left quite a legacy, what with her passion and style and enthusiasm for film having inspired so many, including yourself! If your reviews are anything like hers, then she must have been a very articulate and astute writer on the subject. Well done!

  4. Thank you for your comments. Walter, you should read her review of "Nashville". It was quite well-known in its initial publication. Bill, I do remember McCabe and Mrs Miller. Your anecdote from film class is a perfect illustration of my entire post! Tom, my dream is to have you as a literary agent....you always give me encouragement.

  5. I miss her too. I have all her books and treasure each one. The only time I disagreed with one of her reviews was the review of "Last Tango in Paris". She had a "thing" for Marlon Brando that seemed to cloud and deeply influence her love of the movie. However, even though I disagreed after seeing the movie, I still thought the review was wrtten brilliantly as all her reviews.

  6. I totally agree with your post - I am a huge fan of Kael and have read/own most of her books and read her first-run reviews for years in the NYer, but it saddens me when "young people today" say things like, "Who's Pauline Kael?" I call it "culturally bankrupt" - people who don't remember ANY films/music/art/history/culture before 10-15 years ago - it's like many people just a few years younger than me who say, "I've never seen Jaws" or "Who are the Talking Heads and what's Remain in Light" I am only 42 and grew up in the 70s/80s, but even as a kid, I had an appreciation/knowledge of film/music/art from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60, etc - today, it seems unless it's a Facebook upddate or Tweet or text message, no one has any long term memory. :(