June 19, 2018

“Most people in any field don’t do a very good job”: Pauline Kael at ninety-nine


If you woke up this morning feeling, oh, cinematic, it may have been because today marks the ninety-ninth anniversary of the birth of the legendary Pauline Kael.

Kael is best known for her time as the New Yorker’s film reviewer from 1968 to 1991, where her talky directness, indifference to convention, vivid style, and exuberant love for cinema made her America’s most revered film writer.

Kael was also the author of more than ten books, mostly collections of magazine pieces. Among them are the 1965 bestseller I Lost it at the Movies, 1968’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and 1984’s Taking it All In. She received a great deal of recognition, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a George Polk Award, a National Book Award, a Special Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and plenty more.

Kael sounded like no one else. When she finally retired from the New YorkerJanet Maslin wrote a mighty appreciation for the New York Times, including, among other things, the critic’s savage take on the then-current state of the cinematic arts:

Writing about “Dances With Wolves,” she said Kevin Costner, the film’s star and director, had feathers in his hair and feathers in his head. When that film wins its Oscars, she said: “I’ll just laugh. I expected that when I reviewed it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse bunch of candidates than this year. It must embarrass people when they have to vote.”

Speaking of Robert De Niro’s performance in “Awakenings,” she now says: “He does the tics and jiggles well. It’s in the quiet moments that he’s particularly bad. People get the idea that somebody is a great actor and it takes them decades to shake it off.”

Kael died of Parkinson’s Disease in 2001.

There’s much one can do today to remember Kael and her work. For starters, Parts One and Two of Raising Kane, her landscape-changing essay on Citizen Kane, are both available online through the New Yorker, which originally published them.

There’s also plenty to read by others, like Wes Anderson’s recollection of cold-calling Kael in the late nineties to ask her to watch his sophomore outing, Rushmore. (“Wes Anderson is a terrible name for a movie director,” she tells him early on.) Nathan Heller contributed a memorable encomium in the New Yorker in 2011. (“She saw the movies as American art’s second chance.”) Another powerful tribute from 2011 is Rogert Ebert’s. (“Pauline had—or took—license.”) To round out the picture, you could also read Renata Adler’s legendary 1980 attack on Kael (“The degree of physical sadism in Ms. Kael’s work is, so far as I know, unique in expository prose”), and the response (“Okay, heat up the electric chair”). Also interesting is this story from a few years ago, about concern over murals San Francisco Renaissance artist Jess Collins painted in Kael’s house, which had just been sold.

Finally, you can’t go wrong by clearing a half hour from your day and watching this episode of PBS’s Writer’s Workshop, hosted by longtime friend-of-the-blog George Plimpton, which finds Kael full of life, boiling over with opinions, and taking questions from James Dickey’s writing students at the University of South Carolina. She talks about jumping out of her seat and shouting at Baryshnikov’s first New York performance, how the wrong actor can ruin a movie, the directors she never wants to see another film from, and a lot more: