Pauline Kael, 1919–2001

Photo by Chris Carroll

The critic died last Monday at the age of 82. The following is from “Pauline Kael and the Rise and Fall of the Movies,” written by John Powers and first published in the Weekly in April, 1991.

When I was 17, I wanted to be Pauline Kael. By the time I began writing about movies, she was the enemy. I’ve thumped her in print more than once, and speculated scurrilously about her personal life; I’ve also read every word she’s written more than once, and stolen from her work with a magpie’s lack of conscience. I always think of her as “Pauline.”

Since her retirement last month after 24 years at The New Yorker and 38 as a writer, the press has been hailing the 71-year-old Kael as the most visible, and controversial, film critic of her time. She deserves the accolade, but to say merely this is to diminish her. She’s one of the rare intellectuals who has demonstrably shaped our culture — the only critic I can think of who’s changed people’s lives. With the exception of Betty Friedan, she is America’s most influential woman writer of the last half-century. For good and ill, she’s representative of the country that produced her . . .

Like Orwell, she created a persona that expressed a part of my aspirations that I couldn’t articulate. She embodied an attitude I still find irresistible — serious but never earnest, irreverent but not snide, intellectually savvy but without academic stuffiness. She was as normal as you could be while still being bright in the ’50s, and seemed to belong to a worldly circle who cared passionately about culture, who saw something at stake in the movies and the pop songs which, at that point, â governed my whole life far more than eight hours at school each day . . .

It may be that our first affection for any writer comes because he or she captures a powerful feeling we’ve had but been unable or afraid to express. Pauline first spoke for me in her debunking of the high-minded Hollywood junk my teachers had bullied me into thinking was great. I’d see a prestigious movie like Ship of Fools, find it ponderous and then wonder if I’d missed something important. Pauline made me feel secure in rejecting Blowup, Darling and A Man for All Seasons; it was okay to find them phony or dull or dead rotten . . . She taught me to trust what I enjoyed.

I was told that critics should be objective arbiters of taste, who judge artworks according to accepted standards (an idea that harks back to pre-democratic centuries when ruling elites decided what was beautiful). Such teaching made art distant, disconnected from life. To my delight, Pauline — who always wrote as herself — insisted that what matters is the immediate, sensual, personal experience of the movies. In the brilliant 1964 essay “Hud: Deep in the Divided Heart of Hollywood,” she connected that picture’s “schizoid” style and values to lived experience — stacking Hud’s ranch up against her childhood on the farm, unmasking the telltale ways her socialist friends misunderstood its individualist ethic, even alluding to her father’s infidelities to suggest that Hud could be an adulterer and a good man, too. (Imagine doing that in 1964.) This essay, like many, crackles with a sense of lived life, and is personal in the richest sense of the word. It confirms the paradox that nothing is more universal than the specific.

I took her writing as personally as she took Hud. She’d captured how I experienced movies, records and books; she showed how you could use art to make sense of the world. You could do the same with Pauline’s books, whose values could be used as a guide to life. Her classic essay “Marlon Brando: An American Hero” made me understand his subversive power in the ’50s: “There was a special sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids. There was humor in it — swagger and arrogance that were vain and childish, and somehow seemed very American. He was explosively dangerous without being ‘serious’ in the sense of having ideas. There was no theory, no cant in his leadership. He didn’t care about social position or a job or respectability, and because he didn’t care he was a big man; for what is less attractive, what makes a man smaller, than worrying about his status? Brando represented a contemporary version of the free American.”

Passages like this you could apply to just about anything — why Creedence Clearwater Revival counted for more than a serious group like The Band, to the smallness of defining your life in terms of colleges or prestigious jobs, to what it might mean to be a real American. She proved you could put your whole life into a review.

Next week, remembrances of Kael.


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