Pauline Kael

It’s sad that it took Pauline Kael’s death to send me back to her early criticism. She had guts and style. She was way ahead of her American contemporaries in celebrating the pleasures of popular cinema, berating the priggishness of her fellow critics who were “ashamed of what they enjoyed and contemptuous of popular entertainment”. She understood the playfulness of art; she wrote criticism which was frequently thoughtful and never obfuscated. She enjoyed a good critical brawl. And from the beginning she understood that the movies could be sexy.

Born in California, Pauline Kael studied philosophy, literature and the arts at Berkeley and briefly considered a career as a playwright. But films were a passion, and for a few years, in the late ’50s, she helped support herself as a freelance critic by managing a Berkeley cinema.

Kael wrote many of her first film reviews for the radical, subscriber-based public radio broadcaster, KPFA, in Berkeley. Maybe the broadcasting experience honed her writers’ voice – one that was chiding, enthusiastic, slangy, argumentative, and sometimes bossy.

Here she is, for example, in l974 announcing the arrival of Steven Spielberg:

The Sugarland Express is like some of the entertaining studio-factory films of the past (it’s as commercial and shallow and impersonal) yet it has so much eagerness and flash and talent that it just about transforms its scrubby ingredients. The director, Steven Spielberg is twenty six, I can’t tell if he has any mind, or even a strong personality, but then a lot of good moviemakers have got by without being profound. (1)

Or here – in her celebrated, infuriating essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” – ruminating on Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968):

Kubrick literally learned to stop worrying and love the bomb: he’s become his own butt – the Herman Kahn of extra terrestrial games theory. The ponderous blurry appeal of the picture may be that it takes its stoned audience out of this world to a consoling vision of a graceful world of space, controlled by godlike minds where the hero is reborn as an angelic baby… 2001 is just a celebration of cop-out. It says man is just a nothing on the tiny stairway to paradise, something better is coming, and it’s all out of your hands anyway … just follow the slab. Drop up. (2)

She had a weakness for the one–liner: “Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes”. It made her enemies but won her fans.

“Panning can be fun – you roll up your sleeves and head into the Augean stables”, she said in an interview looking back on her career. “But it’s also show-offy and cheap – it isn’t sustaining. If you really like something, writing becomes humble and stirring. You give yourself to the work you’re describing. Writing about it intensifies your own pleasure” (3)

In her early essays as a critic, Kael shared her pleasure in filmmakers as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard, Kon Ichikawa, and François Truffaut as well as assailing the current critical tastemakers such as the New York critic Bosley Crowther. She saw “Crowtherism” as a reverence for depressing social realist movies with built in moral uplift, and figured it stood between the audience and pleasure in the new cinema.

Kael was around 50 when she began full-time writing film criticism for The New Yorker. There, she was able to develop her ideas around the same time that the old studio system was being shaken by new talents: Scorsese, Altman, De Palma, the early films of Coppola and Spielberg. She championed their films, and others: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975), and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). She connived with some of this new generation to get their films released, using an early review for a work she believed in, when studios were hovering.

Kael wrote at a sprint, loved the quick turnaround of weekly reviewing and famously claimed she never saw a film a second time. I find this mystifying. I can’t imagine not wanting to revisit a film which has thrilled me or puzzled me or moved me in some way. But she was a product of the generation prior to video and DVDs, and she was impatient. She was also of the generation of women who refused to type for fear it would land them in servitude. So she wrote in longhand, and then picked over the copy in galley proofs, correcting and changing to the last minute. One of the mysteries to many was why William Shawn hired her for The New Yorker. He was an editor who hated screen violence, and vulgarisms – “squeamish”, she called him – and there were constant battles over her copy. Maybe she exaggerated in retrospect, but she claimed: “I had to fight for every other contraction, every bit of slang, every description of a scene in a movie that he thought morally offensive – not my description but the scene itself. He said he didn’t see why those things had to be mentioned” (4)

One of the films Shawn talked her out of reviewing was Deep Throat. She always wished she had written more on eroticism in the movies. In her view it was one of the fundamental connections people made with film. The titles of her collections of criticism, from I Lost It at The Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to Deeper Into Movies reveal this penchant for the bawdy.

There’s a cruel portrait of Kael running through Peter Biskind’s malicious, chatty and highly contested account of this revolution in Hollywood in the ’60s and ’70s. In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Biskind claims Kael was easily duchessed by the movie brats generation. He talks of her courted by Robert Towne, and finally, in l979, wooed and manipulated by Warren Beattie into taking a studio job with Paramount Pictures to work with the writer James Toback, so Beattie could get on with making Reds (1981) without her vocal opposition. It’s a Machiavellian story, and the source, as far as Biskind has one, is Paul Schrader, whom Kael had helped get his first job as a critic. (5)

Kael and Toback lasted five months. But when she got back to New York, she used the experience to write a scathing article about the movie business and its future directions. And when Reds appeared, she panned it. Rightly, in my view.

Maybe Kael was susceptible to flattery. Maybe she did have favourites, and used whatever influence she had to push the films she liked. It’s not uncommon for critics to form a kind of emotional attachment to the work of certain filmmakers, and continue to look with greater care and respect at their new work than they would afford others.

But she was so good, and quick on picking up what confused others. Here she is, for example, on the apparent indifference of Buñuel in an essay provoked by the release of Simon of the Desert (1965):

Other directors tell us how we should feel: they want our approval for being such good guys, and most of them are proudest when they can demonstrate their commitment to humanitarian principles. Buñuel makes the charitable the butt of humour and shows the lechery and mendacity of the poor and the misbegotten.

We feel free to laugh at his anarchic humour because we can feel we’re laughing at fascism and the human stupidity that reinforces fascism. But though his work is a series of argument against the Grand Inquisitor’s policies, his basic view of man is that of the Grand Inquisitor.

Surrealism is both a belief in the irrationality of man, and technique for demonstrating it. In his Land without Bread Spain itself – that country that seems to be left over from something we don’t understand – was a surreal joke, a country where the only smiling faces were those of the cretins. Buñuel is an outraged lover of man, a disenchanted idealist; he makes comedy of his own disgust. He wants man to be purged of inhibitions, yet the people in his movies become grotesque when they’re uninhibited. (6)

And here she is in her essay celebrating Jules et Jim as a film about those who wish to make art, those who wish to live for it, and those who wish to live it. Her focus is on Catherine as the pivotal character:

Catherine is of course a little crazy but that’s not too surprising. Catherine is part of a new breed: the independent intellectual modern woman, so determined to live as freely as a man that while claiming equality she uses every feminine wile to gain extra advantages, to demonstrate her superiority, and to increase her power. She is the merging twentieth century woman satirised by Strindberg, who also adored her … she is the woman who entered Western literature after the turn of the century and has almost always been seen by the male authors as demanding the rights but refusing the responsibilities. This is the traditional male view of the feminist, and the film’s view is not different.

…Catherine, in her way compensates for the homage she demands. She has, despite her need to intrude and dominate, the gift for life. She holds nothing in reserve; she lives out her desires; when she can’t control the situation she destroys it. Catherine may be wrong-headed, as those who aspire to be free spirits often are, but she is devoid of hypocrisy, and she doesn’t lie … Her absolutism is fascinating, but it is also, rather clearly, morally insane. (7)

Pauline Kael never held back on the psychological connections she made to movies. I think she understood Catherine very well.


  1. Pauline Kael, “The Sugarland Express”, The New Yorker, 1974
  2. Interview with Hal Espen, The New Yorker, 1994
  3. Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art and The Movies”, reprinted in Going Steady, Temple Smith, London 1970.
  4. Pauline Kael, “The Movie Lover”, The New Yorker, March 1994
  5. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Simon and Schuster, 1998
  6. Pauline Kael, “Saintliness”, in Going Steady
  7. Pauline Kael, “Jules et Jim”, reprinted in I Lost It At The Movies, Jonathan Cape, 1966

About The Author

Julie Rigg is a film reviewer for ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio and correspondent for Arts Today, Radio National.

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