Readersforum's Blog

October 31, 2011

The Carnal Critic

The new biography of Pauline Kael, the influential longtime film critic of The New Yorker

Pauline Kael and the primacy of pleasure.

By Dana Stevens

Pauline Kael stood only 4 feet 9 inches tall, but a decade after her death (and two decades after she published her last New Yorker review), her shadow still towers over the landscape of film criticism. Like it or lump it, if you write about movies in America today (and in the age of the Internet, who doesn’t?), you define yourself at least in part in relation to Kael. In fact, you probably channel her from time to time without realizing it. Even the second-person “you” in those sentences echoes Kael’s chummy yet bullying voice: To read her is to be grabbed by the lapels and yanked down into the theater seat next to her. “She’d have liked you,” a colleague said to me, shortly after Kael’s death and my start as a critic. It was a curiously heady, almost hubristic thought to entertain. For the nearly quarter of a century that she reigned as the New Yorker’s doyenne of film criticism and one of the country’s most visible public intellectuals, there were few cultural dispensations that conferred as much power as being liked by Pauline Kael. Her approbation could make a director’s or writer’s career, and her antipathy could sink it.

Only now, after reading Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow’s new biography of this movie-mad daughter of an immigrant Jewish chicken farmer from Petaluma, Calif., do I realize what a double-edged sword it would have been to be liked by Pauline Kael. Maybe it’s just as well we never met, though she does sound like wonderfully lively company. The woman whose 82-year-long life Kellow chronicles in this meticulously researched, sympathetic book was a real piece of work: self-assured to the point of arrogance, boundlessly energetic and brashly combative, capable of generously nurturing talent in the filmmakers and journalists she admired and then, just as brusquely, abandoning or betraying them.

In her personal life Kael could wear heavy armor; one friend describes her as a lover of vigorous debate who almost never changed her mind about anything. On the page, though, she was capable of extraordinary self-exposure. Her diaristic asides, for which there was ample room in reviews that sometimes ran up to 9,000 words, became a trademark beloved by her fans and mocked by her detractors. Kael’s deepest self seems to have poured out in her film criticism, as she acknowledged late in life when asked why she didn’t write a memoir: “I think I have.” In her review of the 1963 Paul Newman Western Hud, a semiautobiographical description of the long summer nights on Western ranches segues into a vivid childhood memory of playing alone in a barn while her father paid a visit to his mistress. Kael’s sudden bursts of self-revelation, the way she moves seamlessly from a discussion of the images onscreen to a glimpse of her internal life, recall a performer who only truly comes alive on stage. (Judy Garland, another pop artist with an uncanny ability to connect with her public, comes to mind.)

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