Pauline Kael’s legacy of movie lust

Pauline Kael, who is largely considered the most important movie critic of her generation, is the subject of two new books—“Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” by Brian Kellow and “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael,” edited by Sanford Schwartz – which give an impression not only of a woman whose craft stemmed from a literal lust for movies (her first compendium of reviews was aptly titled, “I Lost It at the Movies”) but of a bygone era in moviemaking in which movies were worth lusting after. In his New York Times book review of the Kael biographies, Frank Rich writes that Kael’s love of movies was akin to “orgiastic passion”.

The sexual ardor with which she approached movies, while undeniably safe sex, may have been born out of real sexual confusion. Her father, whom she loved and admired, was a consummate philanderer, and as an adult, Kael gravitated towards affairs with brilliant but sexually mismatched men (the three of note were all either gay or bisexual). Her repressed impulses were unleashed at the movies. 

What many say was so special, and striking, about Kael’s movie criticism was that it broke with traditional criticism by illuminating instinct, not intellect. Her love or hate of a certain film was determined by impulse, gut and emotionalism. Her writing was “exultantly vernacular American prose as if she were writing high-octane fiction, not passing judgment on ‘Cabaret,’” Rich writes.

In another review, in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller observes that “[F]rom the time she wrote her first review until the moment she retired, in 1991, her authority as a critic relied solely on her own, occasionally whimsical taste.” 

As to what she liked on screen, it was a blend of high and low. Rich notes, “She valued emotional messiness over the technical mastery of a Hitchcock or Kubrick…She adored Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray no less than Coppola and Spielberg.” 

Kael was best known as the staff movie critic for The New Yorker from 1968 until her retirement, in 1991, with only a short break in between to try her hand at producing movies at the prodding of Warren Beatty (her 7,000-word review of “Bonnie and Clyde” is believed to have sealed the deal on her New Yorker gig, which she came to at the not-so-tender age of 48).

Kael cut her teeth reviewing for small, specialized or highbrow journals at a moment when criticism aimed at being systematic, intellectually lucid, and tightly defended. “Intuition” was a gooseflesh-raising word in this context—it still is in many circles—but it was one that Kael flaunted in the face of formalism.

Rich, who knew Kael when he was an up and coming theater critic for The Times (but no “Paulette” as her followers were called) writes that Kael was not satisfied by the simple act of getting her own way, she wanted to revolutionize the way people thought about film: “There may never have been an American movie critic with a more voracious desire to work her will on the world — or with a more sui generis back story.”

Kael’s backstory is Jewish. From The Times:

[S]he was in fact a second-generation American of “Yentl”-ish heritage. Her parents had migrated from Poland to the slums of Hester Street and ultimately to the then pastoral town of Petaluma, Calif., where they joined a thriving community of Jewish chicken farmers. Kael, the youngest of five children, was born there in 1919. She adored her father, Isaac, a flagrant adulterer. “Rather than her father for his infidelity to her mother,” Kellow writes, “Pauline seemed almost to take pride in it.”

Kael, on the other hand, was criticized for the hypocrisy of her fidelities. She had several affairs, with men who, as Rich notes, were “all poets and all gay or bisexual”; though she married only once and had one child. In her work, she often played favorites, never bothering to disguise where her loyalties lay, and was consistently (and sometimes unreliably) lavish with her praise.

A fierce skeptic of all dogmas (including religion, feminism and liberalism) who made her name in part by knocking Sarris for promoting the auteur theory, Kael didn’t recognize that she had morphed into a dogmatic auteurist in her own right—lauding her pet directors no matter what. Her hypocrisy didn’t end there. Where once she had derided Dwight Macdonald, then reviewing movies for Esquire, for likening Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” to Joyce and Stravinsky, she now compared Altman’s “Nashiville” to “Ulysses” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” to “Le Sacre du Printemps.”  Her reviews started to swing between implausible overpraise and apocalyptic overkill to such an extent that she might have been describing herself when she dismissed Lina Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties” as “all bravura highs and bravura lows, without any tonal variation.” Someone had to cry foul, and that provocative someone turned out to be Renata Adler, who, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1980, declared Kael’s work, “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.”

Kael’s decline came at the hands of a changing industry and a loss of ingenuity. She was accused of stealing ideas from UCLA academic Howard Suber, and as mentioned above, her writing descended into predictable and unbearable fanaticism. Her home life, at least according to Rich, was equally as dreary—more “Mommy Dearest” than dear mother: “Her overbearing relationship with her daughter — whom she home-schooled as a child and kept on a tight leash as secretary, driver and companion well into adulthood — has a chilling vibe,” Rich observes. 

Kael was an oddity in many ways. But countless great talents throughout history have had poor characters. For someone whose professional success depended so much on personal instinct, Kael remained frighteningly un-self-aware in her social life. And yet, she knew herself well enough to prescribe her own panacea: that the cure to her private dissatisfactions could be instantly erased in the sensuous space of a dark movie theater.