by Leonard Quart
Pauline Kael shook up the critical scene with her controversial 1963 Film Quarterly article, “Circles and Squares,” which attacked auteurist critics for their attempts to promote hack Hollywood films as serious works of art. During the mid-Sixties, she freelanced, writing for McCalls’s, The New Republic, Sight and Sound, and Life, among other magazine. From 1968 on she wrote length critical essays and reviews on film for The New Yorker, retiring in 1991. Today, at age eight-one, she lives alone in a handsome, book-filled, large stone-and-shingle house on the heights overlooking Great Barrington, a bustling, gentrified town in the Berkshires. For a number of years she has suffered from Parkinson’s, and can no longer write. Though she is fragile, and age and disease may have slowed her down, her passion for film and her intellectual combativeness, vitality, and independence remain intact.
In her heyday Pauline Kael was arguably the most formidable and influential voice in American film criticism. She won a Guggenheim, and her fourth book, Deeper Into Movies (1973), was the first on film to win a National Book Award. She was perceived then as somebody with the power to make or break a film. It was her exultant reviews of films like Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Altman’s Nashville (e.g., “It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over”) that made their critical reputations.
Kael never permitted her readers to remain neutral—evoking either devotion or antipathy both from ordinary readers, directors, studios, and other critics. Her criticism was tendentious and at times outrageous, but never dull. One could find many of her critical judgments maddening, but her probing, idiosyncratic, and thoroughly original essays were always worth a careful reading. Her colloquial and pungent prose style was always both accessible and exhilarating—the work of a gifted writer who saw criticism as an art, and cared as much about the metaphors, witty barbs, and turns of phrase she used as about her critical opinions.
Kael had a disdain for theory, eschewing abstraction and critical objectivity for the primacy of her subjective, gut response to the actors, performances, sociological import, and directorial style of a film. She embraced kinetic, unsentimental films and directors given to expressionist excess like Peckinpah, Scorsese, and De Palma, but had a harder time accepting more meditative and severe directors like Bresson. She had only contempt for big Hollywood movies like The Sound of Music (dubbing it “The Sound of Money”), liberal, middlebrow films like Coming Home, and for studio executives who “love to play God with other people’s creations“ and mangle them. At the same time, she loved popular entertainment for the pleasure it provided. But, unlike many film academics, she never pretentiously discovered hidden meanings in schlock or inflated its significance by comparing a film like Pretty Woman to a Shakespeare or Shaw play. Nobody could ever call Kael’s critical responses schematic or programmed. She was always unpredictable, and had the gift of capturing the nature of a film in a single sentence.
Pauline Kael is a singular voice in the history of American film criticism. Cineaste interviewed Kael in the summer of 1999, discussing her critical career and early influences, her philosophy of criticism, great American films of the Seventies, her thoughts about retirement, and her provocative views on some recent American movies. Thanks to Jim Schlachter for transcribing the taped interview. —Leonard Quart
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Cineaste: Who were your critical models?
Pauline Kael: When I was a teenage philosophy student at Berkeley, my friends and I were devoted to James Agee because he was the only movie critic who spoke to us. He reacted to movies the way somebody smart, honest and knowledgeable would respond. Most of the other critics gave us blather about the virtues and defects of a movie, and all the good it was going to do. But he reacted emotionally and intellectually to what was on the screen, and we could recognize the feelings.
When I began writing I cited Eastern critics (I was living on the West Coast then)—the best ones, such as Dwight Macdonald and Stanley Kauffmann—as examples of the mandarin solemnity that was sinking movie criticism. They didn’t react personally to what was on the screen; they filtered the movies through a set of ideas. I tried in most of my West Coast pieces to differentiate myself from them. People on the West Coast saw the movies then in terms of what the Eastern critics told them they should see, and often there were wonderful movies they didn’t pay attention to or rejected.
Cineaste: Did you think that your emphasis on a personal voice demanded that you be as much a writer as a critic?
Kael: Leslie Fiedler once said something like “A critic is an artist or he is nothing.” I’ve always thought of criticism as a branch of writing, and, if you don’t honor the readers enough to write your very damned best, you’re insulting them and you’re insulting the work you’re dealing with.
Cineaste: Were there other critical models besides Agee?
Kael: He was the dominant one for films. I felt an excitement reading Agee. Later, I also enjoyed reading Manny Farber—he’s an amazing man, and a friend—but I don’t feel a rapport with his responses to movie content. It’s his analysis of the film frame as if it were a painter’s canvas that’s a real contribution. I also read people who were critics for a brief period, or who had an unusual slant, like Cecilia Ager and Vachel Lindsay and Robert Warshow, and who sometimes did wonderful pieces on film. I was more influenced, though, by literary critics, such as R.P. Blackmur. But I think it was more my friends’ reactions and arguing with them about movies that got me interested—friends such as Robert Duncan, the poet, and another poet, Robert Horan.
I had no intention of becoming a movie critic; that was a surprise. The law school at Berkeley accepted me, but I got involved with Horan and lost interest. I started to write, and everything snapped together in my life when I wrote about movies. The pieces I submitted were accepted immediately, whereas my articles on books and other subjects interested editors, but I was told to try them again. Still, I didn’t get a position as a movie critic until I was close to fifty. I put an awful lot of energy into crappy jobs, but I couldn’t get a job as a critic. I did a movie review program on KPFA in Berkeley. and it got a lot of attention, but I didn’t get paid. The one related job I had was running twin Berkeley movie revival theaters for five years.
Cineaste: What is your opinion of academic film theory and criticism?
Kael: I think much of it is useless. I don’t understand how people get so far from common sense that they make difficulties where none exist. I tried to deal with some of that when I wrote about Kracauer’s theory of film back in 1962. Contemporary theorists—feminist and deconstructivist—seem even more obfuscatory. So often the theories that are promoted are a way for professors to show off and be idolized by their students. Once this giant cloak of theory is placed over the movie-viewing experience, the students are at the mercy of the teachers because they are told that nothing they have felt is relevant.
It seems to me that the critic’s task should be to help people see more in the work than they might see without him. That’s a modest function, and you don’t need a big theory for it.
Cineaste: What audience did you aim your criticism for, and did you ever tailor your criticism for The New Yorker’s educated, upper-middle-class audience?
Kael: I didn’t aim it at any particular audience. Anybody who wants to read it, can. I wrote the same way for McCall’s as for The New Yorker, and I always tried to be as direct and plain as I could be. I got a terrific amount of mail at The New Yorker—an awful lot of it was from high school and college kids. You don’t expect New Yorker readers to be that young, and sometimes they live in the Midwest or the South and they may be the only people in their small town who get the magazine. They often said that I had made them feel they weren’t crazy— that they had read my criticism and it coincided with what they felt. When William Shawn first talked to me about writing for him I was dubious because of the swank look; the ads and the whole silky texture of the magazine was a real turn-off. I gradually talked myself into it, and was happy that I did.
Cineaste: Do you see the rise of independent American film as a genuine alternative to Hollywood?
Kael: Does that mean that Hollywood is the Great Satan? Generally, as soon as you make a successful independent film, Hollywood releases it anyway. What matters is that the movies reach an audience. I rather like Michael Almereyda’s films, but does it matter where he got the money? You’re always borrowing your money from someone. There have been good films, like Flirting with Disaster, Chasing Amy, and One False Move. I’m not sure which you would consider independent. I love Vanya on 42nd Street. It was certainly a small production. But I also loved the MGM musical Pennies From Heaven, and I preferred Last of the Mohicans to Safe.
Cineaste: You have usually critically excoriated “middlebrow” films like Chariots of Fire and liberal, well-meaning films like Coming Home. How did your New Yorker readers respond to those critiques?
Kael: The angriest mail I got was from disliking Rain Man, because people felt I was somehow putting down autism. It’s the same problem I had when I said that Shoah was not a masterwork. They think you’re being insensitive about the Holocaust, even though they themselves may have seen the movie in a blind torpor of tears and suffering. There’s often a confusion in the audience’s mind between a movie’s message and the quality of the movie.
Liberal moviegoers are so sweet on themselves, and liberal movies flatter them. I tried to make distinctions. For example, in Coming Home, the right-wing military officer was lousy in bed, and the mutilated boy wasn’t just a liberal fellow—he was also great in bed. It’s as if the liberals want to congratulate themselves in every possible way. The plot of a film like that is offensively convenient. It violates what you know about the world. The Front never came close to what we saw in the press, which was that the blacklisted writers looked like Woody Allen and the men who fronted for them looked handsome and distinguished. In the movie they reversed it. All I ask for is a little tough-mindedness. Can’t educated liberals see that a movie like American Beauty sucks up to them at every plot turn?
Cineaste: If you dislike films that project a facile, sentimentally liberal perspective, what is your critical response to two genuinely left, sometimes politically heavy directors whom Cineaste often interviews —Ken Loach and John Sayles?
Kael: I agree that they’re not facile, but their political content is heavy only in the sense of being often oppressive. Loach is no bundle of joy, and Sayles is a literal-minded director. His work is decent, intelligent, and filled with integrity, hut he doesn’t have a real instinct for making movies. There are kids who make movies when they’re twenty-five, who know nothing about anything else, but who have a flair for the medium. He doesn’t.
But to go back: I didn’t dislike American Beauty—I hated it. It’s not that it’s badly made—it isn’t. It has snappy rhythms and Kevin Spacey’s line readings are very smart, and Annette Bening is skillful in the scene where she beats up on herself. But the picture is a con. It buries us under the same load of attitudes that were tried out in Carnal Knowledge and The Ice Storm, with the nice trustworthy young dope-dealers of Easy Rider. Maybe audiences are so familiar with this set of anti-suburbia attitudes that it’s developed into its own movie genre.
Cineaste: Did you allow your political sympathies to intrude when dealing with right-wing films like Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry?
Kael: I don’t know what you mean by “intrude.” The movie was popular with people partly because of its right-wing attitude, but they didn’t necessarily recognize it as right wing. Certainly most of the press didn’t, not when it first came out. I felt it necessary to treat it as a political work because its politics offended me. Eastwood’s films are right wing in a way that doesn’t get analyzed because they’re not explicitly so. I’m amazed at the number of critics who let his attitudes slide right by them.
Cineaste: If you’re critical of the Eastwood films, why is Peckinpah such a favorite?
Kael: I never said he was a good person. But he had a true gift as a moviemaker. I try to look at the quality of the work. That includes the quality of the perceptions.
Cineaste: Was Peckinpah’s machismo more posture than reality?
Kael: Yes. but he lived the posture.
Cineaste: What was the nature of your relationship with Altman? Cassavetes?
Kael: I loved Altman’s work, but I was never close to him personally. I’ve met him only a few times. He’s a great risk-taking director, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville are superb films. And I wouldn’t leave out The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, or Vincent and Theo.
I met Cassavetes one evening on the West Coast just as I was coming East in the mid-Sixties. It’s very’ strange that Cassavetes, who is identified with new directions in movies, had so little knowledge of movie history; he didn’t know the experimental work of the Twenties and Thirties—I was flabbergasted to learn he had never heard of Un chien andalou. There was a naive streak in a lot of what he did. I liked Shadows, but felt that he got into a trap with the films he made with Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk. I felt those movies were tediously overwrought and that he—out of love, no doubt—did the wrong things with Gena Rowlands, who had been wonderful in her pre-Cassavetes work. I felt she was acting all the time in Cassavetes’s movies; she never relaxed. It drove me crazy. I don’t fully understand why so many students and young directors made an idol of Cassavetes. But I could see that they were deeply affected by those movies in which men sit around joshing each other and being piggish.
Cineaste: Few film critics have your capacity to capture the quality of an actor’s performance.
Kael: I think so much of what we respond to in fictional movies is acting. That’s one of the elements that’s often left out when people talk theoretically about movies. They forget it’s the human material we go to see. A movie without actors is not, generally, a very compelling or memorable movie. There are great documentarians, of course, and directors who can make movies where we’re fascinated by the whole look and feel of things, but generally we need an actor, or a group of actors, to involve us emotionally. Or just to pep things up—the way Christopher Plummer peps up The Insider. Or the way Mike Nichols brings something dazzling and original to The Designated Mourner. Or, to look back, the way that Debra Winger could be piercing. Movies give us presents: people like Judy Davis, a wizard at conveying neurosis and making it witty. They give us the sheer charm of Drew Barrymore.
Cineaste: A film critic has written that Pauline Kael seems the most “unself doubting person I’ve ever met.” Given that you write your pieces after only a single viewing, has your self-confidence as a critic ever faltered?
Kael: I’m not a very insecure person. Maybe that has something to do with my having been the youngest in a large family. I was funny, so they liked me and always encouraged me to talk. Would you rather I studied a movie? I feel I get the movie on the first viewing more completely than I would get it if I labored over it. I like it best on the first viewing because it’s got suspense and excitement. This is a personal thing that I should probably never have told people about.
I come from a generation that saw movies once. When 16mm projectors and film societies started to be popular, and, more recently, when movielovers got videos, they began to poke over the movies endlessly. I think that violates people’s first reactions; they become scholars of movies instead of people who respond to what they see. I don’t know why it would make those scholars feel better if I said I watched a picture five times.
Cineaste: If you don’t doubt your perceptions, did you ever doubt your talent?
Kael: I doubted my talent when I first tried to write. I was very pedestrian at first because I’d had a lot of university, and was a very good student. You learn to be pedestrian—to footnote everything and do all those damned things that they teach you to do at college that turn you into a bore. I doubted that I could ever loosen up enough as a writer, but I found I loosened up when I wrote about movies.
Cineaste: Did being a woman present an obstacle to your career?
Kael: I never thought of it as a career. It was more like a folly. Well, women then were gutsier than contemporary women think they were. And maybe I didn’t think about obstacles because I never felt any pressure in the family to be any less than the boys.
It never scared me to be one of the few women critics in a male world. I found that many of the male critics could be quite stupid. But more often they were just scared people who wanted to be in the swing of things, and tried to please their editors and the advertisers. They were gutless, and they’re still gutless. On the other hand, a lot of them lost their jobs by panning movies that had heavy advertising budgets.
Cineaste: Some critics have asserted that your real genius is sociological, and that you are antagonistic to the European art film.
Kael: That’s a hostile question, especially with the sly “your real genius.” Have you read me on Gillo Pontecorvo or Francesco Rosi? Have you read me on Bertolucci’s 1900 or Truffaut’s Story of Adele H. or Visconti’s The Leopard or Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 or Bellocchio’s China Is Near and Leap Into the Void? Or do you think I should have written more about the draggy ones? I know there are people who fell in love with the high-art qualities of movies, but I can’t fully account for that phenomenon. I understand that some people dismiss me as “the ultimate democrat” because I like a lot of popular movies. But popular movies got me involved in movies in the first place, so why deny them now? Many of us love the actors, the excitement, the trashiness, the pure pleasure, without feeling we need to justify that pleasure.
Cineaste: Still, given your critical sympathy for the sexual energy and kineticism of films, isn’t there some implicit antipathy towards art films directed by people like Dreyer and Bresson?
Kael: You’ve got the wrong people for me to be antipathetic towards. I’m not generally drawn to the directors who make spiritual movies that seem to occur in slow motion, such as Ozu and Tarkovsky. But I loved Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath. As he got older, I didn’t respond to his movies in the same way. They simply weren’t for me. Bresson is the only director who made a film (Diary of a Country Priest) that put me to sleep twice. I don’t understand why, since I think it’s a great movie; I admired it while I was dozing.
Cineaste:: What about Godard?
Kael: Oh, I loved writing about films like La Chinoise, Masculine/Feminine and Weekend. I was hired at The New Yorker partly because of a piece I wrote on Godard in The New Republic. William Shawn read it, and, having admired some of Godard’s movies, talked to me about coming to The New Yorker.
Cineaste: The Seventies were arguably the most creative decade in American film. What is your opinion of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s account of Seventies Hollywood?
Kael: It’s a piece of semifictional fantasy. He puts me, for instance, in the middle of situations that I don’t know anything about. And I’ve heard from other people that he treated them similarly. But it’s his approach that’s really sickening. Here’s this great, heroic era in American films, when people were struggling against all sorts of forces to get their visions onto the screen, and they achieved it. It’s the greatest period in our movies. Films like Nashville, and The Godfather I and II, The Landlord, Shampoo, Mean Streets, McCabe and Mrs. Miller—dozens of great films, or at least amazing ones—were made. And all Biskind does is try to make everybody look like a backstabbing egomaniac. However they may have misbehaved, those people had to have some commitment to the art of movies to do what they did. He’s using our knowledge of how great that period was as a come-on to read about how swinish the people were.
Cineaste: Would you say that the Seventies directors were able to harness their self-destructiveness into creative work?
Kael: Their self-destructiveness sometimes worked against them. Ashby died young, and some of the others never did as great work again. Directors such as Wyler and Hitchcock who lasted for decades had a studio system supporting them. These guys had to pull it all out of themselves. It’s miraculous, really, what they did. When you go to a movie now, it doesn’t give you the tensions in how people live now in the way their movies did.
Cineaste: What has happened to Coppola’s career since the Seventies?
Kael: I think people sometimes burn themselves out, particularly in making movies. He’s done some respectable work since then. Some of his pictures have promising conceptions, such as Peggy Sue Got Married and Tucker and Gardens of Stone, but he doesn’t fully realize them. He seems content just to put on a show. Still, if you have three or four great films to your credit, you shouldn’t be called a failure. An author who cared about movies would be obsessed with what a director like Coppola put into his movies—not what (in Biskind’s fancy) burned him out.
Cineaste: You have written that you find films “a supremely pleasurable art form.” Are there any contemporary movies that provide that kind of emotional and esthetic charge?
Kael: No, they don’t offer that richness. The Seventies movies meant so much to young people. They argued, thought about, and were really upset by them. Movies affected audiences in so many ways. The kids who said “Wow!” when they came out of a movie and couldn’t say any more were expressing some deep feeling. The kids who come out of Twister may say “Wow!” but it isn’t the same “Wow!” It’s a special-effects “Wow!” This doesn’t mean that movies are finished; it means they’re changing.
Cineaste: In your critique of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, you wrote that Kubrick is “a clean-minded pornographer that the film’s sex “has no sensuality,” and its characters are “frigidly, pedantically calculated.” Isn’t much of that critique also applicable to Eyes Wide Shut?
Kael: Yes, the two movies have a spirit in common. The big difference is that A Clockwork Orange got to audiences. It works. While Eyes Wide Shut is a lousy movie. A Clockwork Orange is lousy in its attitudes and its thinking. Sometimes I hate a movie more when it works. The thuggishness of Clockwork is comparable to that of some of the Nazi films that worked. Eyes Wide Shut can be ignored. Scene by scene it’s a howl.
Cineaste: You’ve written that in E.T., “Spielberg is like a boy soprano lilting with joy.” What’s your opinion of his ostensibly more morally and socially serious work?
Kael: He’s gone to the pulpit. Everything has gone flat in his directing. He had such flair in Jaws, and his early movies. He seemed so sophisticated and intelligent—so sharp about what he was doing. There’s still a little bit of joy in the Indiana Jones trilogy. But now there’s a real simpleton’s morality that he hands the audience, like when you hear him on television saying that everyone should be forced to see Schindler’s List. Soon he and Benigni, director of Life is Beautiful, will be working up a doubles act.
Cineaste: As a critic, were your relations with directors ever problematic?
Kael: No one enjoys being panned, but what are you suggesting? That my relations with directors were improper? I don’t think they were. How can you be involved in an art form and not know some of the artists? The important thing is to be honest about your responses to their work and not to profiteer off knowing them.
Directors or actors do often say horrible things about a critic in print or on TV and then they may take the critic aside and try to square themselves. They may write you a little private apology—the apology is always private.
Cineaste: Am I right that stylistically you prefer films that are looser, more improvisational and intuitive than those that are more calibrated?
Kael: In general. But some calibrated movies work wonderfully. De Palma is not an improvisational director, and he’s made several movies, such as Casualties of War, that are as good as anything done in this country in the last decades. Some of his very early films were improvisational. Hi, Mom!, for one, is whoopingly giddy about race relations. I don’t mind elegant, careful filmmaking, such as Fred Schepisi’s work in The Russia House. I mind the overly controlled film, one too bound by a classic structure. I like movies to have a little looseness and bounce.
Cineaste: Are you particularly susceptible to films that estheticize kitsch—movies like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America—that are vivid and vital despite having a second-rate script?
Kael: Are you trying to nail me for something? I don’t understand what. The Sergio Leone film was kitsch alright—lyric kitsch; its image of Lower East Side immigrant life is absurd. Leone’s father worked in movies, and the boy literally grew up in the studio. All his movies are dream-plays. They derive from movies, and he didn’t seem to have any experience outside of movies and studio life. So his movies are visions sustained from childhood of Hollywood’s version of America.
Cineaste: Do you feel that some of the younger American directors have been shaped by movies and nothing more?
Kael: They sometimes make a smashing beginning and you think they’re going to have a great career, but they lack the experience, the point of view, and the taste. They haven’t read enough or seen enough of the other arts to grow as moviemakers. Movies by themselves are not enough of an education. Leone breathed a kind of visionary poetry into his epics, but most of the American film-school kids have a hard time projecting a strong enough vision to make their movies cohere. Then there are the very young kids who only seem to know hand-me-downs from Tarantino.
Cineaste: You’ve also written about the special “aphrodisia” of films. Would you expand on what you mean?
Kael: When we first begin seeing movies they have an erotic quality. It’s one of the first attractions that kids feel for them. Part of the appeal of movies is the sensuality of the actors and actresses—their faces give us pleasure. The symmetry of their beauty is often very appealing. They’re more beautiful than the people we see in life, and they give us standards of beauty and feeling. Their emotions transform us. Someone like Garbo opened up a generation of moviegoers to a kind of sensuality they didn’t experience elsewhere. There’s something about a great actress on screen that can be extraordinary. Garbo had something else plus beauty. When you watch her in the scene in A Woman of Affairs, where she inhales a bouquet of roses, you think you’ve never seen anyone inhale so completely. It’s not comparable to what goes on on the stage. The closeness of the people and the darkness of the movie theater and the private quality of our emotions make us relate to the actors in a special way. I think people make a huge mistake when they become interested in film and don’t give the actors and actresses more consideration. The popular audience reacts to a movie as a work with so-and-so. That really is the basis of our wanting to see more movies.
That’s still the case. There’s nothing comparable to the pleasure people get from soaking in beauty. Teenagers certainly go to movies to look at Leonardo di Caprio, Keanu Reeves, and Brendan Fraser. Girls and boys want to look at Rachel Weisz, Jenna Elfman, Jennifer Lopez, and Gina Gershon, with her lovely warped smile—ideal for villainy. Even the special effects in The Matrix had a poetic quality—I don’t think people were going to see that film for the story. There’s something about watching Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest that’s like nothing else. It’s fun watching big, strong women strutting their stuff. It’s fun seeing talent reveal itself—I’m thinking of Amanda Plummer and Madeleine Stowe and Fairuza Balk.
Cineaste: Do you have regrets about pieces you have written, and, more importantly, about retiring?
Kael: I have regrets about retiring, and some of them have to do with extraordinary movies that I would have loved to review. I still love going to movies, and I feel a pang, sometimes, that I could have pointed out to readers some good ones that were passed over or disappeared. I would have liked to write positive things about Bertolucci’s Besieged, Bertrand Blier’s My Man, and Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules. Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik is a great film that almost no one has seen. Run Lola Run I’d have enjoyed reviewing. Being John Malkovich kept me on my toes for about twenty minutes, but by the time it was over I felt no desire to write about it.
In any case, I no longer have the words; I hesitate. I loved writing about movies and I miss it, of course. But look: I was lucky, I lived in the century of pop. Or let me put it this way: culture without pop, to quote a phrase from McCabe “freezes my soul.” That’s why I’m not so keen on Loach and Sayles. David O. Russell’s political farce Three Kings is much more to my taste. I like the mixture of tones— Gunga Din and something of what Richard Lester was trying for in How I Won the War. It’s got pop in it; it keeps you alive.
Source: Cineaste, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2000), pp. 8-13