Friday, May 1, 2020

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

The landscape of film criticism has changed considerably since the 1970s, which was the heyday of film critic Pauline Kael. She wrote iconoclastic reviews with a unique style, literary and confrontational. The documentary serves as a primer on Kael's life and work, although the best place to go is to read her books. Kael's ability to bring an academic and popular sensibility to criticism remains influential.

Kael grew up in California and set out to be a writer early on. A single mother, she raised her daughter while trying to earn a living as a writer, working as a nanny and other service jobs. Eventually by the early 1960s her writing started to gain attention. In 1965 she became the film critic for McCall's magazine, but was fired after she wrote a negative review of the 1965 film The Sound of Music

Kael championed films as popular art. Her reactions were unpredictable, but compelling. She dismissed Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for being shallow and redundant. Dubious of blockbusters, she panned Raiders of the Lost Ark, but loved Temple of Doom. Many misread Kael as an elitist, probably because she wrote for the New Yorker, but the documentary presents her as more of a proselytizer for cinema. Movies, a transcendent art, function as a portal to making sense of reality. 

With the platform of the New Yorker which gave her unlimited space, her reviews were widely read and discussed. Her reactions were subjective and unpredictable, glowing praise with razor sharp criticism. Her favorable reviews for Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman heralded the rise of New Hollywood. Her review of Bonnie and Clyde was a sort of manifesto for the new American cinema.

Those closest to Kael also appear in the film including her daughter who served as caretaker and typist. Filmmakers discuss her influence on their aesthetic, including Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell. Her feuds and prickly relationships with her peers are also covered, and also how personal bias could also influence her reviews.

Neither does the film shy away from her cruel streaks. British director David Lean recalled being shaken after an encounter with her. Kael also demanded complete loyalty in her circle of friends, banishing anyone who disagreed with her. Being a woman in a male dominated field meant one had to be tough and uncompromising at times. 

The gracefully argues Kael can make you a believer in movies, providing her readers with the courage to have a point of view.


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