Pauline Kael & The Power of Criticism
Here’s a terrific essay by the great Clive James, 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, 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.