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October 01, 2011


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Tony Dayoub

I read this same Kael piece on my flight over to New York this week. It struck me as particularly resonant given Ryan Stewart's 9/23 tweets in which he defended Natasha Vargas-Cooper's recent "insights" into T2, like the following:

"That Sarah Connor is not just wrongly perceived to be crazy, but has in fact gone crazy from her unique predicament."

Maybe this was trenchant in 1991, I thought. But Twitter's limited space hardly allows someone as verbose as I am to adequately make my case. But this, from elsewhere in Kael's piece, which directly addresses a classic movie Vargas-Cooper felt the need to take a potshot at in her T2 thumbsucker:

"The trained eye of an adult may find magic in the sustained epiphanies of DAY OF WRATH, the intricate cutting and accumulating frenzy of LA REGLE DU JEU, the visual chamber drama of LES PARENTS TERRIBLES. American attempts in these directions have met with resistance not only from the public but from American film critics as well. The critics' admiration for 'action' and 'the chase' leads them to praise sleazy suspense films but to fret over whether A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE or THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING is really 'cinematic.'"*

*Kael's last point being relevant this week as well, for entirely different reasons, addressed by you quite expertly earlier this week in your discussion of Polanski's CARNAGE.

D Cairns

Oddly, just watching Mark Cousins' The Story of Film, and there's Stanley Donen talking about how he used to hate Busby Berkeley's stuff... but he appreciates it now.

Unfair to dismiss any critic because of some vagary of taste, but it does seem to me that anybody who dismisses Janet Leigh (magnificent as early as Act of Violence) simply isn't looking and listening.


I agree with the major points you quote here, but I have to say, one of the maddening things about Kael - and I say this as a big fan - was her contradictory attitude towards "highbrow". One minute, she's upbraiding people for not embracing highbrow works enough, the next, she's attacking people for only liking "safe" highbrow films instead of films she feels have the vitality highbrow films lack.

Glenn Kenny

It's one of the things about Kael that drives ME crazy, too Lipranzer, and it's a feature, not a bug. There's a streak of perversity in her perspective that runs all the way through her work, and not to play amateur shrink, but I suspect, after dipping a bit into Kellow's new biography, that a lot of her nettlesome pronouncements in this respect were somehow tied into her desire to tweak the uber-refined William Shawn. There's also the possibility that she equated consistency with complacency.

One of the things that gets me about some of the above is her undisguised disgust with the preferences of working people, particularly female working people—the "office girl" and the "salesgirl." Boy, she just doesn't like THOSE types. But really, does anybody anywhere think anybody anywhere ever said anything like that about Howard Keel? (Who eventually did okay, as did Richard Burton.) But, you know, incidental points of disagreement or peculiarity aside, you have to give it up for someone who just comes out and blatantly says, "No, YOUR taste sucks." And who said it with sufficient potency that she didn't get a few dozen return protests of "But so-and-so is a nice guy!" or something.


I'm going to imitate russians that post all over the world and write in my own language: É surpreendente o estilo de Pauline Kael. Com palavras amenas, ela atinge fundo e certeiramente o alvo de sua crítica: os críticos contemporizadores, mais preocupados com sua posição do que com externar a veracidade de sua crítica. Também tem uma visão fulminante do público cinematográfico: “É tudo uma questão de gosto (e de educação, de inteligência e de sensibilidade)”. O comercialismo do cinema como indústria tem uma síntese objetiva, sem preconceitos ou concessões. Diz verdades profundas com a simplicidade de uma conversa informal, aceitando os fatos mas nem por isto exaltando-os. A profundidade de suas ideias vai ao cerne do cinema. Deixou obra meritória e difícil de ser igualada em profundidade e abrangência.


This sounds so much like Dwight Macdonald that I would have been fooled if you had misattributed the quote to him. Man, why do people get nostalgic for this starchy mid-50s Partisan Review crap, where all cultural criticism reads like it's badly translated Marx? This is probably the first time I've ever felt bored reading Pauline Kael. However, it does make a nice counter-point to the whole Vargas-Cooper thing from this past week.


Glenn, your comment about Kael: "One of of the things that gets me about some of the above is her undisguised disgust with the preferences of working people, particularly female working people--the "office girl" and the "sales girl." Boy, she doesn't like THOSE types."
Wasn't it an old Kael trick (among others)to use as a springboard some comment supposely overheard at a screening or a party to defend or demolish a film?
Also to note that Kael spent most of her adult life making ends meet with menial, backbreaking jobs.

Glenn Kenny

"Most of her adult life?" She did sewing work and ran a laundromat in the early '50s, and then did a bunch of things that writers do to make ends meet at various points...until she didn't. But based on your observation, Haice, I'm gonna start telling people that I worked at gas stations and Pathmarks "most of my adult life." In any case, none of that has a thing to do either way with what I'm talking about, the attitude she adopts in this piece, and that carries over, expanded somewhat, into the radio reviews she would do in the early '60s; that is, this avowal that when lumpen folks like movies she doesn't, it's par for the course, while when that's the case with educated people, It's An Awful Shame, And Something Ought To Be Done About It. I never quite got that sort of fervor, and I feel it less today than I ever did; I'm more interested in criticism as a process of trying to get to the bottom, such as it is, of something, than as a recruiting tool for my tastes/values. I mean of course there's always going to be an element of the latter in there, but it doesn't grab me a huge amount, as a reader OR a writer. Maybe that's one reason I never connected as strongly to Kael as many others did.


"...Busby Berkeley's choreography, as if those were the days."

Well, weren't they?

It's funny, I love Kael, find a number of her general views and sensibilities (and descriptions of certain great films - especially Godard's mid 60s output) articulate my own feelings on the subject magnificently.

Yet my taste in particular films probably overlaps with her less than 10%. Go figure...

@ D Cairns,

there's a Story of Film doc? I had no idea; I love the book despite its idiotic American cover with Jack Sparrow dwarfing Sherlock Jr. (the cover is actually kind of charming once you realize how good a survey the text actually is - just proves the old adage about judging a book). I'll have to check that out.


Glenn - picking up with your "amateur shrink" angle (I have the Kellow book on hold at both the Brooklyn and Manhattan libraries, so I'll get it from whichever one has it first), I seem to remember, in the book "Nine American Film Critics" where the author made a comparison to Kael and Huckleberry Finn, and while I don't remember the reference, I remember thinking it made sense.

David Ehrenstein

One of Pauline's many jobs in the years before she won fame as a film critic was as a mek-up tester for

(wait for it)

Sonja Henie

Yes the studios discovered that Pauline's slin tone was identical to that of the skating star. Think of thet the next time one of Sonya's epics turns up on the tube.

Dan Coyle

Glenn: that's an excellent articulation of My Pauline Kael Problem. I was never sure she actually ENJOYED anything.

Matthew Fisher

Glenn: If and when you (and your readers of course) have finished Kellow's bio, I'd appreciate any thoughts. I was underwhelmed, but I'm not yet able to say exactly why. I got the impression that - whaddaya know? - I must've known more about her life than I thought I did. Repeatedly, I'd read fairly long stretches without learning much in the way of brand new info, a goodly amount of the book consisting of quotes from her reviews or from published interviews. Maybe I expected too much, either from Kael's life or her biographer, or perhaps both. Dunno. She seems like such rich subject matter. Boswell? No. Tosches...

Eddie Carmel

GK: "I'm more interested in criticism as a process of trying to get to the bottom, such as it is, of something, than as a recruiting tool for my tastes/values."

Amen and a hearty "hear, hear!" to that. The Kael excerpt you've posted is unfortunately reminiscent of that shopworn quote of hers that conservatives have used to bash the "liberal elite" for years, the whole "I don't know how Nixon got elected, no one I know voted for him" thing, which I always thought had been taken hideously out of context until I became a little more familiar with Kael's writing.

Matthew Fisher

Kellow writes in his Kael bio, "Although Pauline was careful not to reveal too much of herself directly in her reviews, it had become possible for those who read her closely to get a sense of her position on various political issues - as was the case with her quip about Nixon's liking THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. At around this time she also commented that she couldn't understand how Nixon had gotten elected, because she didn't know a single person who voted for him. The remark circulated widely in conservative circles, something that delighted Pauline no end [sic]." (To be clear: this if from an advanced copy.)


Your opening paragraph reminds me of something Ken Levine noted on his blog a couple of months ago: Tens of millions of American TV viewers religiously tune in each week to see singers who can't sing and dancers who can't dance, but wouldn't be caught dead watching the Tony Awards, which features many of the finest musical talents on the planet. Best guess: They like watching untalented people, perhaps because it lets them feel superior ("He sucks. I could do that so much better.").


Dan - sorry, but my problems with Kael aside, I can't get behind that statement. She was inconsistent in many areas, and in my opinion, she had the default position of "if the film's not treating this subject satirically, it's automatically a failure" way too often, but I think it's exaggerating to say she never enjoyed anything. For starters, she enjoyed good Fred Astaire movies, good Cary Grant movies, early Spielberg (JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T. especially), smaller movies like CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES, THE SKIN GAME, PERSONAL BEST...the list goes on.

Eddie Carmel

Cadavra- So very, very true. And sad.


Better guess: People know the songs that are sung on on the singing shows and danced to on the dance shows. And, of course, many of the contestants actually CAN sing or dance; while I'm sure there's much schadenfreude over the ones who can't, these shows probably wouldn't succeed past the audition episodes if many people didn't become genuine fans of one contestant or another (granted, the best don't always get the most votes). Plus, the Tonys is an award show that honors work unseen by 99% of the potential viewing audience, and there are more speeches than songs.

Other that all that, you guys may be onto something? :)

Eddie Carmel

jbryant- I would call that an extremely charitable view of most DANCING WITH THE STARS/AMERICAN IDOL viewers, though I should point out that that the widespread appreciation of crap by many is hardly a new phenomenon (an application of Sturgeon's Law, not a Kael-like dismissal of what the "office girl" likes to watch on Tuesday nights.) I don't go along with what one may call the underlying snobbery of Kael's words posted above, but the loaded phrase "derision is subversive" and what follows seems to me not a bad place to start. One can admire while not necessarily agreeing.

Eddie Carmel

Actually, let me amend my words a bit: I don't mean to imply that such programs are "crap" or crud in that sense, what I stumblingly meant to say is that I assume regular viewers of these shows enjoy them because in such a democratic medium as the popular radio song or dance move, everyone is free to be their own Pauline Kael whose taste sits supreme above the amateurs (and yes, not all of them are amateurs or even bad) on the television. I would probably enjoy the IDOL-type shows more if they didn't do so much "look at the rubes!" in the audition episodes of which jbryant speaks. But I agree with jbryant (if I'm interpreting your remarks correctly) that these shows have a definite and well-deserved place in the current American scene.

Dan Coyle

LJ: Yeah, my opinion is not one I'd expect many people to get behind.

John Keefer

I love the story about Cassavetes stealing Kael's shoes. It's childish and exuberant and possibly the only end to a debate on taste.

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