what i watched last week
music friday: sister rosetta tharpe

wwpd

I saw Pauline Kael give a talk once, back in the spring of 1976, when she had just begun her latest six-month “vacation” from The New Yorker. She spoke for awhile, maybe half an hour, I can’t recall. Her topic was masculinity in movies, and she might have recalled her still-fresh essay on Cary Grant, although again, my memory isn’t much good for this. After she’d spoken, there was a question-and-answer period, and one by one, people from the audience (it was in Zellerbach, for folks who know about Berkeley), given the chance to say a sentence or two to Pauline, would inevitably call up the name of some movie they loved that Kael hadn’t reviewed, asking her what she thought of that movie.

Thirty-five years later, I feel like that night I got an early preview of what it would be like when she died. You see a new movie, and you wonder what Kael would have thought. Given that she only reviewed films for six months out of the year, we have had long practice in wondering what she thought of this or that. Over in our Facebook group dedicated to our fifty favorite movies, Phil Dellio and I found ourselves wondering what Kael had thought of Five Easy Pieces, scrambling through our battered copies of her books (I assume that’s what Phil was doing, I know I was … given that everything is out of print, and given that I read everything on a Kindle now, it’s kind of amazing, but I own all of Pauline Kael’s books, along with several written about her). She scattered a few comments about the film when talking about others, but it came out during one of her six-month sabbaticals, so she never reviewed it. (Despite this, you will see blurbs of Pauline praising Five Easy Pieces … the quotes are from The New Yorker, but the words were Penelope Gilliatt’s, which the publicity folks miss, perhaps on purpose.) Here we are, two grown men sharing an appreciation for a film from the early-70s, and both of us ask ourselves, “I wonder what Kael thought?”

It’s odd, because her lasting influence comes not from her opinions, but from her writing. I don’t think anyone would read her old reviews just to find out what she liked or disliked about a movie. And I don’t think there are any living critics out there who read a review of hers, found that they agreed with her that The Fury was a good movie, and decided at that moment to become a critic. No, people read her writing and were inspired by that. Film critics, music critics, book critics, writers across many fields were influenced by her approach. She wasn’t systematic (this, in fact, is often held against her, that there was no real identifiable “System of Kael” beyond an informed subjectivity), but she brought the entire range of her knowledge to each review. You often learned more about the original text in her review of a movie like The Bostonians than you would from reading a review of the novel itself, because Kael didn’t just talk about the movie, but also about the novel, and about James, and about how the film reflected on James, etc. When Greil Marcus stated in his first great book that when he listened to Elvis he thought about Herman Melville, that was Pauline talking.

And Kael’s conversational tone made you think she was right there, badgering you about whatever movie had crossed her path. If you ever heard her speak, that feeling was even more extreme. To this day, when I read an old  interview with her, I can hear her cadences in her answers.

So it is that Pauline Kael, dead for almost a decade, not having written for two decades, still sits in the backs of our minds, and we think to ourselves, “I wonder what Kael thought?”

Comments

JPK

I do wish I could see what you and Phil and so many others see in her (also Five Easy Pieces, but that's another matter). Obviously she's important to you -- the head quote up top is alone a pretty big clue. I know I have never been exactly attracted to film critics and criticism the same way that I have with music, that might be part of it. Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Nick Tosches -- one or all of them may be as important to me as Kael is to you. I have always liked her New Yorker capsules, she had the enviable (and often underrated) ability to write short. But I also tend to use film criticism differently. I usually want to read it only shortly after I've seen a movie that is sticking with me and I'm turning around in my head. It's the make-do equivalent of coffee and cigarettes at a 24-hour restaurant with friends. Then nearly anyone will do (or, well, anyone within reason, professional blurbers for example are excluded). I'm sure it's my loss -- and I'm officially going to give Kael another try, having recently picked up copies of Taking it All In and I Lost it at the Movies.

Steven Rubio

One funny thing about her: you're right, she had a knack for the short capsules. But her actual reviews were often endless; she would take however long she needed, and The New Yorker mostly let her take it.

I Lost It at the Movies came first, so it's a nice place to start. It's got her infamous piece on Andrew Sarris and auteur theory, and it has her review of Shoeshine, the first paragraph of which is arguably the most Kael-esque thing she ever wrote, always trotted out by fans and non-fans alike as an example of what is good/bad about her writing. And, for me, that paragraph is the best example of her influence on subsequent writers.

Taking It All In has the one piece I still use in the classroom, "Why Are Movies So Bad," which I think is still relevant 30 years later.

Sometimes I think the best way to get a handle on her taste preferences is to read everything she ever wrote about Brian DePalma.

Phil

I'd dive in and start with Reeling: Nashville, Last Tango, Godfather II, Mean Streets, The Long Goodbye, etc. It was pretty clearly her favourite few years during the window of her writing career, and there are more (in)famous reviews in there than anywhere else, first two especially.

JPK

OK, in for a penny in for a pound. I just ordered that one too.

Phil

"In for a penny in for a pound": if this is a hint that you plan on preempting me yet again with Sweet Smell of Success, all I can say is don't be a four-time loser, Jeff--the penalty could be severe.

Steven Rubio

Sweet Smell of Success: #60 on my list!

JPK

That's funny! No, just garden variety cliche-mongering on my part. I like Sweet Smell of Success a lot but it's not on my list.

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