Pauline Kael and the Joy of Movies

Image courtesy of Jerry Bauer, Cannes, 1977
Image courtesy of Jerry Bauer, Cannes, 1977

Over the Christmas break, there was some long, juicy reading to be had in the form of The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael. It was a good time to read something reflective, discursive, funny, and fitting for the film festival season.

For many decades Ms. Kael stood out as a film critic who was both respected by other critics (even as they strongly disagreed with her) and listened to by moviegoers, in the age where individual critics mattered and long before the presence of aggregated reviews and blogs like this one. She was that rara avis who brought rigorous criticism to both mainstream and art-house films without disguising her Main Street appetite for and enjoyment of a good story, of magic, and of entertainment (“And for women, if the roof leaks, or the car stalls…you may long for a Clark Gable to take charge, but when you think of going out, Cary Grant is your dream date…he’s the man of the big city, triumphantly suntanned.”) In this well-edited compendium of her writings, her wide range of discourse is impressive – Jules et Jim, Norman Jewison, Cicely Tyson, Marguerite Duras, The Godfather, the lighting in Julia. While Ms. Kael had high standards and a critical eye, she was also attuned to the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of critical and popular tastes and denounced snobbery, even as she exhorted her colleagues to make the best films they could. Her legacy is not just measured in the volumes of her writing but also in her unparalleled sense of humor, her joy, and her spontaneity.

Pauline Kael died right before September 11, 2011. It would have been very interesting to hear her thoughts on how the post-9/11-world impacted cinematic language and subject.

Sanford Schwartz, ed., The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, The Library of America (2011).