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The Lights Have Gone Down: In Memory and Appreciation of Pauline Kael

By Eric Beltmann

Pauline Kael was born in 1919 on June 19th. Exactly 55 years later, I was born. By then, Kael was well into her heyday as the most powerful movie critic of her generation. I spent the '70s dreaming of scooping grounders for the Brewers, but Kael used the decade to playfully embrace her unique aesthetic principles, challenge orthodoxy, and champion her favorite directors, like Altman and De Palma. She became the most respected and feared critic in New York. She altered the way people think about movies, and about criticism, too. Film critics don't have that kind of clout these days (maybe because there are so few who deserve to have some), but I was too young then to understand what was going on. Only later, after I realized I would never replace Robin Yount, did Pauline Kael's influence finally extend to me.

Ten years ago, I was an adolescent first discovering artists like Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut. (Back then, I absurdly thought of them as a troika, the undisputed kings of foreign cinema.) I recall kneeling on the thin carpet of a Walden's bookstore in Milwaukee, as I often did in those years, picking through the film section. Searching for knowledge about my newest interest, I chanced upon Movie Love, Kael's collection of reviews written for The New Yorker from 1988-1991. I remember throwing the book to the ground -- it didn't have far to go -- after reading her description of Born on the Fourth of July as "one of those commemorative issues of Life -- this one covers 1956 to 1976." Her contempt was right there in the open, naked, sharp and unfair, and it irritated me. Not only did she disagree with my judgment, she also made sense. I bought the book.

I guess I've read all of Kael's books since then, including her notorious The Citizen Kane Book, which I checked out from my high school library shortly after encountering Movie Love. I had seen Citizen Kane and admired it and accepted the common wisdom that the success belonged entirely to Welles. Kael wasn't gentle in reminding readers that a movie is a collaborative project. She argued that Herman J. Mankiewicz deserved more recognition for Kane's brilliant screenplay, and I learned the lesson that the writer is often the most important person on a picture, but too often the least respected.

A lot of writers have influenced my conception of the movies -- David Thomson, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Andre Bazin, Robert Sklar, Andrew Sarris, Stanley Kauffmann, and even Roger Ebert, to list a few. Although I now prefer some of those names to Kael, none of them affected me more than she did. Perhaps it was strictly dumb luck, but she was the first "real" writer about movies I knew of. I came across her work when I was a kid too comfortable with flip reviews written by the likes of Leonard Maltin, when I was a teenager in dire need of guidance. Now, when I teach film to teenagers in high school, Kael is, at least in spirit, part of my curriculum. Last week I taught a lesson entitled "Subjectivity and Art," and I admit that my ideas were shaped immeasurably by years spent reading the controversial opinions of St. Pauline.

Unless memory fails, I don't recall her ever writing a word about the Academy Awards, probably because she recognized that Hollywood's annual popularity contest has zero to do with real criticism, or real appreciation of cinema. One of the things I learned from Kael is that criticism, when taken seriously, is an art form, too. Reading her eloquent prose is as exhilarating as screening a classic film -- most of the time, her reviews are more insightful, and more fun, than the pictures she was writing about. Her independent, colloquial, free-associative style launched a series of disciples, derisively called the Paulettes. A few skillfully mimicked her rambling, conversational style, but none were able to approach her substance.

For her, scrutinizing movies was the same thing as dissecting American culture. She adored literature, science, and philosophy, and found space in her reviews to connect them to the pictures she saw, but she was also suspicious of "official culture." Ignoring the distinction between enjoyment and appreciation, Kael argued that we go to the movies for pleasure, and that has nothing to do with good taste. She loved "trash art," and was the leading practitioner of the viewer-response school of criticism: The way a picture makes us feel is more important than what the makers intended to accomplish. She believed that film, and art in general, has meaning only when it elicits strong emotions, and that it is the duty of critics to investigate their reactions. In this way we can learn about ourselves through the art of others.

If cinema is a record of the human condition -- and I think it is -- then critics, when they deny their personality, experiences, and biases, are denying the very things that qualify them to discuss the most human of all art forms. Kael understood that, and regularly chastised her colleagues for their "saphead objectivity." She once said that "you have to be open to the idea of getting drunk on the movies." To understand what she meant, re-read her 1972 rave for The Last Tango in Paris. Observe that document's power to recreate one viewer's experience of exultation. Such writing helped me to realize that I could achieve a deeper understanding of movies by analyzing my own response to them.

She had detractors. After she reviewed The Day of the Locust by saying "There's nothing specifically wrong with Donald Sutherland's performance, it's just awful," Sutherland shot back, "That was the most destructive, stupid piece of criticism I've ever received." The esteemed Jonathan Rosenbaum once complained that Kael "came into prominence through attacking other critics," and frequently countered her more arrogant claims. Answering Kael's negative review of Bird, Rosenbaum wrote, "There are times when Eastwood seems to be in over his head, but when Pauline Kael calls him a 'man who isn't an artist' making an art film, one wants to scream in protest. Can't he at least be granted the status of an imperfect artist? Or does he have to apply to Kael for permission to make movies at all?" (His sarcasm reminds us that in 1979 Kael briefly worked as a producer at Paramount.)

Rosenbaum was right, of course. Kael was indeed hard on filmmakers, and blunt about what she considered their flaws, and sometimes appallingly reckless. Readers flooded her office with hate mail, but Kael welcomed the insults, because she saw her job as a way to initiate banter, to sustain intense discussion about movies and the ways they matter. Her toughness was partially a calculated retort to an industry built upon self-congratulation. (According to Barbara Hershey, she once called Hollywood "the only town where you can die of encouragement.") She was also harsh because she was too smitten with movies to thoughtlessly write them off. I think her brutal comments reveal a certain regard for all filmmakers; even when she cruelly panned a director's efforts, she never simply dismissed them. But mostly, she was tough because she allowed her feelings to drive her reviews -- she said what she wanted to say, and didn't worry about being fair. Her goal was to chronicle her own personal reactions, excessive emotions and all.

Now she is gone. Pauline Kael died on September 3, 2001, in her home in western Massachusetts, at the age of 82. She suffered from Parkinson's disease for nearly 20 years, forcing her to retire from regular reviewing in 1991, the same year I first read Movie Love. Kael's last book was For Keeps, which anthologized her career by reprinting nearly 300 full-length reviews, in chronological order. That title belongs on any movie lover's shelf, right next to her collection of lucid capsule reviews, 5001 Nights at the Movies, which was last revised 10 years ago but seems even more relevant now, at a time when computer effects are squeezing the humanity from mainstream cinema.

Pauline Kael and I shared a birthdate, but more significantly, we shared a common passion, a giddy "fusion of art and love," as she put it. She was forever a demanding critic, but she was also a reverent movie lover, a fan of the first rank. Upon discovering a wonderful new film, her unabashed delight was palpable, her excitement unmistakable. I very quickly learned that her real subject was the relationship we have with the movies, and I understood why that was more interesting -- and more important -- than the pretense of "objectivity." Her personal, infectious raves for pictures made when I was too young to remember them -- such as Shoot the Moon, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Last Waltz, Atlantic City, Diva, and The Night of the Shooting Stars, among countless others -- compelled me to seek them out. Often my response differed from hers, but sometimes her advice led me into a transcendent experience.

A colleague once gave me a clipping of an interview Kael did for Modern Maturity in 1998, seven years after she had retired. The interviewer said, "When I'm at the movies, I feel like I'm swept up, lost." I underlined Kael's perfect reply, because I knew exactly what she meant: "I feel as if I'm found."

Article published 09.07.2001.


I Lost It at the Movies

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Going Steady

When the Lights Go Down

5001 Nights at the Movies

Movie Love

For Keeps

Raising Kane

Conversations with Pauline Kael

The Age of Movies

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