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Pauline Kael & The Power of Criticism

Here’s a terrific essay by the great Clive James [1], reviewing a collection of the late, great film critic Pauline Kael’s selected reviews. When she was in her heyday, she reigned supreme over the world of movies. James writes:

Nobody will ever again reign supreme over the movie world, because the movies don’t now reign supreme over anyone. All their secrets are known. People know so much about the movies that they know when to laugh when they watch Star Wars Uncut [2], possibly (to borrow her signature verbal device for one last time) the most sensational $10 pastiche-homage since Milton’s Garden of Eden. The grammar of the movies got into their heads as if it had been planted there by Noam Chomsky with a long needle. But it was a great age, and now, as part of its aftermath, it has produced a great book.

Even if you don’t know much about Kael, the James piece is well worth reading, not only as a piece of incisive criticism, but because it tells you something about a world that no longer exists. Movies simply don’t matter like they used to, as James rightly observes. When I first started writing film criticism, I read Kael to understand how to watch movies and to think and talk about them. James identifies the reason why in this line:

Plenty of young people are going to be starting their intellectual careers by reading this book, and precisely because it is not just about the movies: it’s really about every­thing.

That was what was so exciting to me as a young writer and filmgoer about reading Kael. You always had the sense that she deeply felt the connections between art and life. The movies weren’t just about the movies, and aesthetics, and entertainment. They were about, well, everything. Kael’s judgment, as James points out, was often flawed, but overall she was so good at what she did that you wanted to read her reviews even of movies you had never seen and probably never would, just to see what she had to say about it.

James is surely correct to say that a Pauline Kael isn’t possible today because movies don’t hold their place at the center of our popular culture that they once did. I rarely go to the movies anymore, and can’t say that I care about them. I can’t think of a single film I’ve seen in the past five years that had the human depth and emotional resonance of the television series “Friday Night Lights.” I find that I don’t even want to go to the movies anymore, because it’s such an effort, and the movies have disappointed me so often that I have ceased to care. It’s like all of Hollywood has become Woody Allen’s career: rolling on, even though there’s no apparent vision, spirit, or point to the work.

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10 Comments To "Pauline Kael & The Power of Criticism"

#1 Comment By Damon Linker On August 27, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

In the past five years, I’d say The Tree of Life and Synecdoche, NY were genuinely great in the way that so many films were in the heyday of American cinema and Kael’s reviews (the 1970s). And Melancholia and Margaret might be close to being as great. In other words, I’m not nearly as negative as you are about the movies.

#2 Comment By Jack Ross On August 27, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

When I was 17 and still living in that spot at the outer rim of parasite city known as Bethesda, Maryland, the art theater first opened, and around the same time I was falling in love with TAC and thus with Steve Sailer’s movie reviews, may their memory be for a blessing. I was completely absorbed in the world of independent film from then until the time I moved to New York four years later, and then it just stopped. I’ve probably gone to see three movies in the last five years.

Apropos another recent blog of yours, per my charitable view (and in some cases passionate defense) of the much-maligned later seasons of The Simpsons, a fine example of the great gems it can still offer was “don’t thank me, thank Hollywood for completely running out of good ideas,” and indeed all their recent episodes taking on Hollywood generally. (For the record, I consider Seasons 5-8 the golden age).

#3 Comment By Rod Dreher On August 27, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

I didn’t like Synecdoche NY, but as you know I completely agree with you about Tree Of Life — a movie so deep and philosophically rich I finally gave up trying to blog about it.. I’m probably forgetting a few others.

#4 Comment By Helen On August 27, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

I did not get Tree of Life at all. I need a story, plot, characters — all of which were so thin I just didn’t understand it. Maybe that makes me a philistine. But really, what was up with the dinosaurs?

But television — oh yeah, I think we’ve been in a golden age of television for ten years or so. Friday Night Lights, The Wire, Justified, even Mad Men, just to name a few. I wish the Harry Potter books had been made into several miniseries rather than movies. I think it would have done them more justice.

#5 Comment By thomas tucker On August 27, 2012 @ 5:14 pm

I hate to say it, but I feel the same way about movies as you once did, and now do. Plus, I feel the seem the way about politics. Perhaps we are just getting old, and these things don’t matter as much to us as they do to younger people, to whom they are fresh and exciting. Hmm, its seems to me that a lot of people don’t swim much as they get older either- how often do you go swimming, Rod?

[Note from Rod: As little as possible; only when I have to, because my kids make me. At least it gets them off the lawn. 😉 — RD]

#6 Comment By Richard On August 27, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

Rod –

I’ve solved the problem that you and others allude to by treating the best of the older movies like literature, and seeing them again and again. The better movies offer insights through dialogue, image, character, and setting that reward re-viewing. And that doesn’t mean that I sit in empty theatres like Woody Allen, watching re-runs of “Casablanca” (though I could!). It’s an approach that works for spectaculars like “Lawrence of Arabia”, art house films like “The Sporting Life”, performances by iconic actors like “Roman Holiday”, and foreign films like “Battle of Algiers”. A contemporary movie has to line up good reviews on “Rotten Tomatoes” like pins on a state fair midway before I’ll drop the dime – and usually even then it’s via Netflix.


#7 Comment By Hal Espen On August 27, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

Thanks for praising Pauline Kael and her brilliant movie criticism. The Clive James essay is great. The only proviso I’d add is that this decline-and-fall, Golden Ageism argument about movies being not worth the bother and about giving up on being excited about new stuff is the opposite of what Pauline stood for with every fiber of her being until the end of her life. She didn’t have a nostalgic bone in her body and was always open to letting an enthusiastic friend drag her to a fleapit in Times Square to give a wild-card picture a shot, and if the movie was something immensely strange and brilliant like “Re-animator 2,” she’d review it with the same verve she brought to “The Leopard.” It’s true she’d probably find as much to write about on TV today as she would in movie theatres. But she always opposed what Samuel Johnson called “the general conspiracy against contemporary merit.” In that way she was forever young.

#8 Comment By Dave Dutcher On August 27, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

Movies are still important. It’s just we don’t have only three networks, a handful of local tv channels, and the movie theaters as our sole providers of visual content any more. Same with TV.

It’s good because I can easily expand my taste and watch foreign or classic movies just by paying eight bucks a month to netflix, and I can choose what I like. I’m not pressured any more to watch “must see” things. I can’t stand the Coens, for example, and I can just choose not to watch them without having to deal with them being chatted up in the same manner Woody Allen used to be.

So more choice is good. Less pushing, more pulling content to us instead.

#9 Comment By Noah Millman On August 27, 2012 @ 11:55 pm


#10 Comment By David J. White On August 28, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

Of course, Pauline Kael lived in her own New York liberal bubble. Isn’t she the one who supposedly said that she didn’t understand how Nixon won because she didn’t know anyone who voted for him? I suppose this thread is thus connected with the one about how liberals create the culture.