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Pauline Kael: One Against the Herd

Published by on May 6, 2012

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Selected Writings of Pauline Kael; Library of America, 2011
Pauline Kael: Alone in the Dark; Brian Kellow, Viking Adult, 2011

by Ron Capshaw

FOR CONSERVATIVES, PAULINE KAEL IS notorious for her much-quoted comment about her astonishment that Nixon won the 1972 election since “everyone I know voted for McGovern.”

Despite this prime example of the liberal whose worldview is confined to a Martha’s Vineyard soiree, she was not usually so blinkered. Unlike the Left of the early 70s who were lionizing American Stalinists, Kael denounced them as joyless agitprop merchants whose politically correct comedies sank the screwball genre. Of their Hollywood descendants such as Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, Kael characterized them as creatively imprisoned by their limousine liberalism.

Her ability to alienate both sides is all the more remarkable when one considers that these offenses occurred during the “Silent Majority” and New Left era. Writers have compared Kael to such legendary film critics as James Agee and Otis Ferguson; Owen Gliebman has even called her “the Elvis or the Beatles of film criticism.” [6] But the figure she has the most in common with is George Orwell. Both warred against ideological fashion. Both approached their topics empirically and not with any preconceived theories. Both were willing to find value in pulp (Orwell in Boy’s Weeklies, Kael in Keaton’s Batman). Both were uncomfortable with immorality; Orwell would famously describe Salvador Dali’s autobiography as a “book that stinks.” Kael’s condemnation of The Exorcist in the filmmaker’s willingness to exploit a 13-year-old actress coupled with the script’s instructions for the priests to abuse her mirrored the sentiments of conservative Christians at the time. Her negative review of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange could have been written by Orwell himself:

“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de-sensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films—the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don’t use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us—that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality.”

Kael never even attempted to be hip. She was old-fashioned enough to appreciate the charm of Cary Grant and to lament that Richard Lester’s gritty and wised-up version of The Three Musketeers didn’t even attempt heroism. Her ideology, described by herself as a McGovern liberal, didn’t prevent her from locating the appeal of such anti-Warren-Court vigilante films as Walking Tall in fears for her own safety in Miranda America.

It is this combination of refusing to be one with the herd and her relentless honesty that makes Selected Writings, containing reviews of such dated films as Billy Jack and The Poseidon Adventure, timeless.

Nothing in her background could have indicated such iconoclasm. In Brian Kellow’s excellent biography, we see her as a Berkeley dropout during the heyday of American Communism, 1936. From there, she migrated to Greenwich Village New York before returning to that most bohemian of cities, San Francisco. She was hired on the spot by City Lights when an editor heard her discussing film and asked her to review Chaplin’s Limelight. The result could not have been predicted. Kael did not draw on her Berkeley experiences in approaching Chaplin, the darling of leftist intellectuals. Limelight, entitled in her review “Slimelight” was simply a sickeningly sentimental film, not an expression of the superstructure. This recoil from crowd-pleasing pablum continued throughout the sixties. The Sound of Music was “a sugarcoated lie that people seemed to want to eat.”

Even her writing process defied the tune-out-drop-out zeitgeist. Kellow shows a workaholic fueled by coffee and liquor, an anti-elitist who attended movies not on nights set aside exclusively for the critics but with crowds. Despite working at the stately New Yorker she was irreverent to the point of self-destructiveness; she could be depended upon at glittering parties to insult whoever was the publisher’s pet celebrity of the moment.

As a critic, Kael’s determination to be one against the herd sometime led her into denouncing films that have since become classics and championing those that haven’t aged well. It is almost like a reflex, a form of mindless rebellion when she raved about Straw Dogs, The Warriors and Man of La Mancha (with a singing Sophia Loren) while roasting It’s A Wonderful Life and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Still in today’s climate of culture wars, where every reviewer has to be a pundit, she is refreshing. It is hard to imagine her praising Michael Moore; one can imagine her saying his film-making resembled one of those religious documentaries celebrating a preaching to the faithful. She may have even ended her review, as she frequently did, with an insult: Moore is simply incapable of patting himself on the back because the fruits of capitalism have made him fat.

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Readers' Comments

  1. Rob Lawson on September 6th, 2012 6:43 pm

    William Shawn no doubt hired Pauline Kael because she could be a “lively” writer. As noted in this article, being “lively” didn’t always mean “insightful,” or even particularly intelligent. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a “monumentally unimaginative movie”; the first showing of Last Tango in Paris “should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913—the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed—in music history.” Kael was often shameless in coming up with a review that would draw attention to…Pauline Kael. Ultimately that was all that she was interested in. Nothing so banal as reviewing a film could interest someone who felt she ought to be seen as a public intellectual, and who cultivated an audience who reveled in what tart dismissal or disarmingly honeyed encomium she would come up with.

    She was informative, even illuminating as a film historian, but her need to fan the coals of her own cult of personality rendered her nugatory as a film critic.

  2. Rob Lawson on September 6th, 2012 7:03 pm

    Also, the film director Sam Peckinpah may have said it best, in his characteristic way: “Sometimes she’s just cracking walnuts with her ass.”

  3. NeoconsNailed on December 12th, 2012 4:10 pm

    Kael was an egomaniac whose writing was precious and leftwing. A traditionalist writing for commie McCall’s and New Yorker? I don’t think so! She hated The Ten Commandments (1956). The first sentence under the first subheading of Wikipedia’s article on her is no surprise.

  4. Andrea Ostrov Letania on June 28th, 2014 10:48 am

    “It is almost like a reflex, a form of mindless rebellion when she raved about Straw Dogs”

    She appreciated its power but denounced it as a small-minded ‘fascist work of art’.

  5. Rob Lawson on June 28th, 2014 7:58 pm

    That comment about Straw Dogs being a “fascist work of art” shows how dim Kael could be. Peckinpah’s work in general, and Straw Dogs in particular, is about the individual struggling against forces at large in the world. Fascism suppresses the individual in favor of the state; Peckinpah favored the individual against the forces of conformism.

    Kael came to think that because she was writing for a prestigious publication she knew what she was writing about, beyond film history and film form, which she did have a depth of knowledge about.

    She was, however, a fine stylist in her writing.

  6. NeoconsNailed on July 3rd, 2014 8:06 am

    Well, you know the Jews and their quaint custom of calling everything they don’t like fascist :)

    Did any of you see Straw Dogs? I didn’t — sounded awful. Some were into trashing on the old standards eg re celluloid violence, I wasn’t. I realize I might personally enjoy it now being as disgusted with humanity as I am.

    So, he was the meter reader in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Keep seeing his name as the credits pass, just looked it up. I assumed for a long time IOTBS was about the blight of political correctness, but the internet came along and I found out it was quite the opposite. (Like Hollywood would bust PC? Well, it used to avocationally.)

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