By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Once I found Kael, I was enthralled — though I was alternately amused and appalled by a taste in movies that seemed not only alien but capricious, and analytic reasoning that was often convoluted and numbingly redundant. It didn’t matter. I rarely agreed with Kael, but I almost always found her work exciting, invigorating. Her support of Altman at his most fraudulent, De Palma at his most sadistic, didn’t matter next to words that were as perfect and piercing as diamond tips. (Usually — there’s a reason she never anthologized her disgraceful review of Shoah, in which she complained about “whiny” Jews rather than simply admitting that the film had worn her out.) I started reading Kael shortly after I became a full-time critic, and was trying to figure out how to write reviews that didn’t lean on plot, that said something about the world and — this was crucial — didn’t bore me, much less my readers. More than once, stuck midreview, when I couldn’t figure out how to get from here to there, I would take out one of Kael’s collections, lie on the floor and start reading wherever the book fell open. Somehow reading her calmed me down, got me through my hopelessness as a writer. She didn’t just make writing about the movies and the world seem possible, she made writing itself seem possible.
Kael became a talisman for me, something to hold onto. It mattered that she was a woman. Born in 1919, she was a late bloomer by male standards, but she was also a pioneer, a woman intellectual and California original, like M.F.K. Fisher or Joan Didion. Kael was 34 when she first began reviewing; she was in her mid-40s when, in 1965, she published her first volume of essays, I Lost It at the Movies. (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had been published two years earlier.) Part of Kael’s radicalism was that she took on tough topics and tough directors, including those steeped in a clubby, often violent masculinity that shuts women out, and from which many women gladly recoil. She wrestled them — and other lesser opponents — to the ground like a barroom brawler, and while her posturing could sometimes seem like macho braggadocio, it was clear from the start that she was the equal to any film or filmmaker. She drew from literature, art, opera without blinking, duked it out with Norman Mailer and wrote about Brando not simply as an actor, but as an icon of male sexuality. She’d probably hate this, but often when I think of Kael, I think of Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and the scene in which Dorothy Parker, dead drunk, has just typed, “I wish I could write like a man.” I don’t like the line, but I understand it. I never wanted to be Kael; I just wanted her guts, and some of her words.
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