I have always had a fondness for the New Yorker magazine and that’s why I don’t dare subscribe. I’d be spending my retirement reading it cover to cover. As it is, I depend on doctor’s and dentist’s waiting rooms and the kindness of my strange friends.
I first check out the week’s lineup of writers, the pages of poetry and movie reviews. Up until 1991 the reviewer was Pauline Kael who held that post for 23 years. When she took over full-time it coincided with a creative burst in Hollywood as well as a general social upheaval.
She was a tough cookie who had a lover’s quarrel with movies. If I loved a film and she did too I felt ennobled. If she turned against a movie she dipped her pen in vitriol and damned it like a lover scorned.
She never watched it more than once. I admired that because it demonstrated her non-analytical approach. She responded intuitively and trusted her instincts on an emotional and sensory level. Kael’s take on a film was highly anticipated and often surprising. I often wondered from where it sprung.
She was drawn to trashy movies as a way in to the American psyche. It seemed as if she tried to align herself with the mass audience, articulate what they felt and often scold them for being gullible. She understood the appeal of certain Depression era gangster films for their identification as folk heroes and by extension embraced Bonnie & Clyde in 1967. The iconic last scene, done in slow-mo, was like an opera of violence. Yet Kael denounced the violence of Clockwork Orange and the Clint Eastwood movies for de-sensitizing the public. Consistency was not her strong suit.
The New Journalism of the sixties ushered in by Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese was a perfect fit for Pauline Kael. She was part of each review, what she brought to the theater with her and the immediacy of her experience. Her passion lent a certain authenticity to her writing whether or not one agreed or took issue. When she attacked a project she couldn’t fathom why the person under assault took offense because she didn’t intend it personally. She disowned her loose tongue, which became even looser with a few drinks.
When she railed against Terrence Malick’s first film, Badlands, she was called into her editor, William Shawn’s office. He told her that Malick was like a son to him. She replied, Tough shit, Bill. Another infamous blurt occurred when she was a guest along with Ginger Rogers on radio. When Rogers related how her agent had discouraged her from accepting her role in, Kitty Foyle, which won her an Oscar in 1940, Kael responded that her agent was right.
It would be difficult to imagine anyone agreeing with Pauline Kael across the board. She was far too idiosyncratic. However she had her acolytes who admired her commitment to filmmaking and the art form she helped create in her erudite reviews. She was more than a movie reviewer. She was, in part, a social commentator who found a vital sign in the popular art of cinema; a portal into contemporary consciousness. When The Godfather came out she saw it as a tragic reality of our times, the nightmare of American capitalism.
She wrote about the mistreatment of women as depicted in Sam Peckinpaugh's, Straw Dogs. She also detected a whiff of fascism in the trend which assumed a primal violence inherent in all of us. It seemed to me she tried, in vain, to reconcile the thrust of emergent filmmakers widening our imagination with the pernicious forces of exploitation movies and the drift toward vacuous values and lawlessness in American life. She raised the low art to an estimable place, as a window into our ways of seeing, how the new technologies had altered our perceptions and numbed our sensibilities.
Anyone interested in her life story will be fascinated by Brian Kellow's biography, Pauline Kael.