In case you aren’t a student of film history, Pauline Kael was one of the most influential critics of film in its history. She came on the scene just as film was entering a period as the dominant American art form, writing for bastions of American literary tradition such as McCalls, The New Republic, and The New Yorker magazine. She attempted to bring film criticism to the level of criticism of literature or art- a scholarly examination of a creator’s attempt to create art that was complexly satisfying. In fact, she lost her job at McCalls for panning the saccharine THE SOUND OF MUSIC as the high fructose corn syrup that it was long before the chemical sweetener had become a staple of the American diet. She would inspire latter day critics such as Roger Ebert that film criticism might actually elevate the art form, and was no doubt an influence on Gary Groth when he founded The Comics Journal to do the same thing to a new medium that he loved.
I’ve been reading abridged versions of Pauline Kael’s movie reviews for the last two nights and I have to say that, in spite of her historical importance, based solely on her writing, she makes a good example of why film critics are considered both superfluous and irritating more often than enlightening. Getting past the New Yorker’s wildly pretentious style (and even though she was criticized for being ‘too lowbrow’ for the magazine- how times have changed!), her reviews of movies that have stood the test of time are rooted deeply in the periods of her life when she was in touch with the zeitgeist- the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. But as she grows older she gets more and more out of step with the culture and thus the art of movies until one has to wonder if she’s just an anachronism that has burned out on cinema, or an old woman who was a bitch to start with and has grown crabbier and crabbier with age. Perhaps the point of no return was Renata Alder’s review of her compilation of reviews When the Lights Go Down in which it was said that her work after the 1960’s contained "nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility," In typical faux revolutionary obsequence to fallen idols, Salon.com derided this twenty years later. Obviously without looking at the reviews in question.
The straw that broke the camel’s back (and drove me to write this) was a phrase in her review of John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982): “Carpenter seems indifferent to whether we can tell the characters apart; he apparently just wants us to watch the apocalyptic devastation.” It seems almost impossible to believe that someone who spent their life watching and writing about movies could make such a completely oblivious statement. It’s almost like she wrote the review without seeing the movie.
The other thing that leaps out about Kael’s reviews is that there are damn few movies she likes. It’s the writing of a deeply cynical person, and that’s coming from someone who usually considers cynicism a virtue. Not so much in this case. Reading her reviews makes one think of music criticism written by someone who’s tone deaf or reading literary critique by someone who had their love of books quashed by spending too many years studying them in college. She sees sarcasm where none was intended. And she sometime misses the entire point of a movie. The irony is that she’s a caricature of movie critics herself. She decries bad writing while her writing is clumsy to the point of being almost indecipherable. She faults directors while exhibiting almost no narrative flow in her own prose. She, for fuck’s sake, can’t tell that John Carpenter spent almost the first hour of THE THING trying to establish the characters before the real monster shenanigans started! Yet she calls the 1951 version “wonderfully well staged” and “naturalistic”. Yeah. James Arness, Sheriff Matt Dillon for over twenty years on the television show GUNSMOKE dressed as a giant space potato is “naturalistic”.
Putting all that aside, there are movie insights here. Kael spent her life living in Hollywood and writing about movies, and obviously has an excellent education in literary criticism. She rightly intuits that The World According to Garp is about mutilation rather than sex (either the act or the gender). Instead of fawning over the scope of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns she comments that the director can’t do anything else- even scenes shot in small 19th century hotel rooms look cavernous, as if they were cathedrals (something parodied, whether knowingly or unconsciously in the first indoor scenes of Tarentino’s GLORIOUS BASTERDS). She acknowledges that the main cinematic idea in George Lucas’ STAR WARS was pace rather than special effects. She spots Mel Brooks YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as being far more coherent than BLAZING SADDLES and thus Brooks’ best comedy. (And I’ll give her props for at least realizing that David Lynch’s movie ERASERHEAD is about a man’s sexual history, something many people who see the admittedly obtuse movie often miss). True, she did champion some movies that later were understood to be seminal- Altman’s NASHVILLE and MASH and Walter Hills THE WARRIORS, but truthfully I have to say that after reading a couple hundred reviews I was left with almost no new ideas about the movies she reviewed or movies in general.
There are basically two kinds of movie reviewers: those who simply recommend a movie because they liked it or didn’t (unfortunately most, your friends included), and those who attempt to illuminate a creator’s vision by expanding on themes and uncovering connections not obviously apparent. The former are usually disdained by the very people they write for as being unnecessary and irritating, since their readers are trying to decide what movie to see and probably already have a pretty good idea what they think they’ll like. And because their reviews are padded by plot summaries and rarely contain more than passing reference to what the movie actually has to offer since they are hobbled by not being able to discuss anything that might actually be interesting in the movie for fear of giving it away- the SPOILER ALERT syndrome. The latter are best read after having actually seen the movie. Like literary criticism, they are a discussion of a work, not a recommendation of it. Plot summaries have no place in this kind of reviewing, if you are unfamiliar with the work then the review probably won’t mean anything to you. The two are as different as telling a friend to go to a movie and having a conversation with a friend just after you’ve seen a movie together. Kael falls firmly into the second category, but falls with such a splat that one wonders if her impact was due more to her magazine’s importance that her own.