[Note: The publisher of this new collection of Pauline Kael reviews and essays was kind enough to send over a review copy and I thought LiC regular Chuck Bowen would be the perfect person to do justice to both Kael and the book itself. As you’ll see below, Chuck is a big Kael fan.

Since he’s not one to toot his own horn, you might not know that Chuck has been a regular contributor to Slant Magazine for the last year or so and has recently joined the ranks of the Online Film Critics Society. With his attentions divided, Bowen’s Cinematic has been quiet, though Chuck says he plans on heating things up over there again soon.]

The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
Written by Pauline Kael
Edited by Sanford Schwartz
Publisher: Penguin Group
828 pages
Available: October 27, 2011

Billy Wilder famously had a framed phrase hung somewhere in his office: “What would Ernest Lubitsch do?” Lubitsch, the director of a number of wonderful and sophisticated romantic comedies, acted as a mentor of sorts to Wilder, and the two, of course, collaborated on the classic Ninotchka. Lubitsch had a hold over Wilder’s sensibility that would last, one gathers, a lifetime. I imagine that the same could be said, figuratively if sometimes not literally, of most critics and Pauline Kael, whose name, more than twenty years after her retirement and more than a decade after her death, still exerts a similar hold over nearly every working film writer in the world; even, and perhaps even especially, over those who hate her. Virtually every week Kael’s name pops up somewhere in the deluge of reviews that appear in print and online, sometimes as a strategy for reaffirming a potentially risky opinion.

Kael, who wrote for a number of publications before eventually landing at The New Yorker, where she would write about seemingly every legendary film from the late 1960s through the 1970s, was, of course, famous for her sometimes baffling unconventional opinions, and it was this tendency that initially endeared her writing to me. I bonded with Kael’s work in my junior year of high school, when I discovered that an erudite film critic also found 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange deeply boring on one hand and troubling on the other. Kael, in her jazzy trademark prose, which sometimes reads as a literary version of the sort of purplish writing you might encounter in a Harlequin novel, took these Sacred Cows apart without the faintest shred of self-consciousness or remorse, and thus a love affair, between her writing and myself, commenced.

Obviously a film critic needs to offer a reader more than a simple mutual dislike of cinema touchstones (for the record, I also largely share her sentiments on Malick and late Lean and Fellini). Kael’s most important contribution is that sensuality of prose. Her writing subscribed to the idea that movies hit you absolutely directly, that they weren’t artifacts to be written of in detached, ironic tones. Movie reviews, to Kael, weren’t meant to be inscribed in tablets and delivered to us from high in the mountains. Movies, like any art, or, perhaps like anything else at all, are deeply personal and revealing – even, or sometimes, especially when they’re junk. This is probably why Kael is basically either loved or hated: You either see in her work a revelation or a fraud pissing on a form of academia.

Kael also generally disliked elaborate dissections of movie technique (I doubt this endears her to certain detractors either), and she explained this preference in her prescient and frequently brilliant “Trash, Art, and the Movies”:

“People who are just getting ‘seriously interested’ in film always ask a critic, ‘Why don’t you talk about film technique and ‘the visuals’ more?’ The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn’t very interesting. Hollywood movies often have the look of the studio that produced them – they have a studio style…And for the greatest movie artists where there is a unity of technique and subject, one doesn’t need to talk about technique much because it has been subsumed in the art. One doesn’t want to talk about how Tolstoi got his effects but about the work itself. One doesn’t want to talk about how Jean Renoir does it; one wants to talk about what he has done.”

Yeah, I used an elision to achieve a desired effect – the sort of loose and fast stratagem that Kael would frequently controversially employ. Yet that essay, particularly that quote, freed me, as I imagine it freed a number of other writers who were, or are, passionate about movies but lacked a certain wonk-friendly sensibility that governed quite a bit of the criticism, from notables such as Dwight MacDonald and Bosley Crowther, with which Kael took issue at the time. Kael’s sexiness wasn’t just in her writing, it was also the rebellion that her reviews, which, after initial struggle, were backed and secured by a major publication, represented. Kael’s writing was wild and truly unpredictable – and many of her then-eccentric claims have gone on to significantly inspire what is now thought of as canon.

Kael had problems of course, and I don’t wish to perch her up as a God, as the too-fawning late-life interview book Afterglow did. Kael’s stances were sometimes infrequent: she would persecute the snobbishness of other film writing while more than occasionally exhibiting a certain kind of snobbishness, which could almost be characterized as stereotypical New York upper echelon, of her own. (My favorite Kael detractor is the equally gifted Robin Wood.) There was the much discussed fraternization with Hollywood types such as Warren Beatty and Sam Peckinpah, and she was also capable of the kind of self-promotion that resulted in carelessness, such as her troubled “Raising Kane”, which controversially tried to wrestle much of the credit of that picture away from Orson Welles by relying on facts that she may have never investigated. And Kael, who prided herself so much on her passion for the kinds of films others would deem below them, missed the boat a number of times, particularly in the horror genre, dismissing masterpieces such as Dawn of the Dead, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Robocop as well as much of the output of Alfred Hitchcock.

Still, the good more than justifies the bad; and this inconsistency almost goes to further humanize her. Kael had a piercing seemingly improvisatory sing-song wit that no one can match today (Charles Taylor, who used to write for Salon, is the closest a contemporary writer has come to equaling her, which means, of course, that he apparently has trouble getting hired these days).  When a new Clint Eastwood movie is (over-)praised to the heavens, I wish for the Kael review that could be; when a purposefully lifeless and self-consciously obtuse art film is over-analyzed within an inch of its life, I wish for the Kael review that could be; when a new bloated Martin Scorsese/ Leonardo DiCaprio picture is, well you get the idea. I would love, particularly, especially though, to read the mammoth piece she would’ve written about the democratization of writing and publishing in the age of the internet culture – a perhaps over-rued sentiment with which I’m sure she would have breathed fresh life.

But new Kael reviews cannot be, alas, and so we must make do with what we have. The new Kael collection The Age of Movies is basically a slimmed down version of her mammoth For Keeps. Several of the classic essays – “The Glamour of Delinquency”, “Trash, Art and the Movies”, “The Man from Dream City”, “Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah” – are included. There are a few major omissions though, such as “Circles and Squares”, her attack on the conventional interpretation of the auteur theory, as well the aforementioned “Raising Kane”. On the plus side, however, there is the never before collected, and also eerily prescient, “Movies, the Desperate Art”.

The Age of Movies is mostly a collection of Kael’s straightforward film reviews, pulling from all of her previous collections: I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady, Deeper into Movies, Reeling, When the Lights Go Down, Taking It All In, State of the Art, Hooked and Movie Love, with the emphasis predictably placed more on the earlier books covering many of the legendary American and European films of the 1970s. Despite the breadth of sources, Age of Movies could’ve used more of State of the Art and Movie Love, collections that cover Kael’s reactions to the steady commercialization of particularly American films in the 1980s. This writing is often less exhilarating, of course, as it finds a legend grappling often with what she sees as junk, but this work is necessary for a fuller portrait of the critic as well as allowing for some Rise and Fall pathos.

That said, The Age of Movies, particularly if paired with Kael’s short-review epic 5001 Nights at the Movies, could represent an ideal 101 course for those just beginning to immerse themselves in her work. And for the rabid fans it can serve as a slimmer comprehensive volume for the cinephile who doesn’t wish to take the fat For Keeps to the beach with them. The book is attractive and nicely bound, and Editor Sherwood Schwartz’s predictably fawning introduction is unoriginal but engaging. But, really, you already know if you’re buying this or not.

8 Responses to “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (Book)”

  1. Well, I will be picking this up. I own every other Pauline Kael volume, and like Chuck have a long history of reading her reviews. Like many others I quote her more than I should, but this goes back to a long reverence for her incomparable writing style. She’s one of the two greatest American film critics. The other is 95 year-old Stanley Kauffmann, who incredibly, still pens reviews for THE NEW REPUBLIC. I just quoted Pauline this past week in the body of three reviews I penned for my site’s musical countdown on THE SOUND OF MUSIC, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and OLIVER! Her famous dismissal for writing a pan of MUSIC was refuted years later, when it was revealed that she had actually written bad reviews for a long line of films that everyone else loved. She declared that FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was the most POWERFUL movie musical ever made, and it’s a position I won’t dispute. Likewise she was a big fan of Carol Reed’s OLIVER!, and thought ON THE TOWN (1949) was an extremely overrated film, a position I share.

    But I can’t even count the times she trashed movies I considered masterpieces. She called Bergman’s THE NAKED NIGHT (SAWDUST AND TINSEL) powerfully awful, and issued a mediocre appraisal of one of the greatest of all American films, Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Of course there were also instances where she overrated films, the most (in) famous being Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS in 1973.

    Anyway this is a terrific review, Chuck, and I can’t wait to get my hands on this.

  2. The thing I like about Kael is that even when I disagree on her overall opinion – just recently I re-read her negative review of Straw Dogs after re-watching the film and I think she only got it half right – she’s still a good read. She wrote with the basic passion of a fan, but she had the erudition of a scholar.

  3. Chuck, that was a great review and remembrance of Kael’s stellar talent and humanizing foibles. Congratulations on the writing gig with Slant, you certainly deserve such recognition. I’m with everyone else here. She was my first and most influential film professor. I loved her writing and like Craig learned something of value even when I didn’t agree with her appraisal of a film. And there was always delight to be had in her sometimes Parkeresque sardonic wit. I’ll never forget her hilarious evisceration of Rambo II.

  4. So thrilled that this will be made available. I considered “For Keeps” my bible in my younger years : )

  5. I was surprised to see how many of her collections are out of print. No wonder film criticism is going in the toilet.

  6. There seems to be a Kael renaissance as of late (warts and all). I read this great feature on the New Yorker last week and was all giddy as I recognized how much she shaped the way I look at films. It’s rare to find film criticism that challenges me that way (present company excepted).

    I wonder if the dearth of good film criticism is a standalone phenomenom or the result of the fact that “great” films are not being produced at the same rate as they were before.

    I’ll answer my own question and say no: Kael could write intricately and creatively about the biggest pile of dong, and Hollywood and elsewhere have been crapping those out for a while now.

  7. The dearth of good film criticism is largely attributable to one thing– newspapers firing all the good film critics, and not bothering to hire anybody else. It’s become more and more common for newspapers to simply purchase reviews and articles from other chains or services instead of employing their own in-house critic. In my local paper, I’m reading reviews from guys in Toronto, or the Associated Press, which is particularly depressing as we’ve got a number of local art-house theaters that attract a fair amount of attention. The only place to find good film criticism anymore is online, and people don’t really take that seriously (print may be dead, but it still has the prestige).

  8. I believe you’re right, Bob. And it’s a sad picture you paint. Personally, I only read online reviews (with the exception of the New Yorker and NYT). What I look for are good writers, though, the medium where they work is not determinative for me at all.

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