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Pauline Kael (1919 - 2001)

Related: Berkeley - film criticism - Hollywood

Some of us had never even heard of "The Caesar Trilogy" or The Diary of a Chambermaid or High and Low or Tokyo Story, Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Josef von Sternberg, Eisenstein. Pauline Kael changed all that.


Pauline Kael (June 19, 1919 – September 3, 2001) was a film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine. Kael was known for in-depth, well-informed, deeply personal, sometimes impassioned movie reviews. Though she approached movies intellectually, her writing style was strictly in the vernacular, and her guiding thesis was that movies, regardless of other merits, must be entertaining. Many considered her the most influential American film critic of her day.

Kael's opinions often were not in accord with those of other reviewers. From time to time, she energetically made a case for movies not universally admired, such as Last Tango in Paris. She also harshly criticized films that elsewhere attracted admiration, such as It's a Wonderful Life and West Side Story. The originality of her opinions, as well as the forceful and vivid way in which she expressed them, won her ardent supporters as well as angry critics. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauline_Kael [Nov 2005]

Pauline Kael on Eraserhead

Lynch pulls you inside wormy states of anxiety. He seems to have reinvented the experimental-film movement; watching this daringly irrational movie, with its interest in dream logic, you almost feel that you're seeing a European avant-garde gothic of the 20s or early 30s. There are images that recall (the films of) Fritz Lang, Cocteau and Buñuel, and yet there is a completely new sensibility at work.”
--unknown printed source

Parker Tyler [...]

The great Pauline Kael and the gay Parker Tyler are in my view the best modern film critics --Camille Paglia, Salon.com

Art house cinema [...]

Those of us who lived in Berkeley in the 50s and 60s thought that Pauline Kael invented the Art House Cinema. In the side-by-side Studio and Guild, she ran four different "classic" movies, changing the program every three days, putting out a delightful monthly program to explain what we were getting.

Some of us had never even heard of "The Caesar Trilogy" or "The Diary of a Chambermaid" or "High and Low" or "Tokyo Story," Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel, Josef von Sternberg, Eisenstein. She changed all that, but she wasn't the only one.

There were, it turns out, some 200 similar theatres around the United states --- even if they weren't so consciously intellectual. And, between 1954 and 1960, that number doubled. These were theatres that, in general, showed films that were ignored by those that came out of the big Hollywood studios.

Ms. Wilinsky chooses three films to demonstrate the phenomena of the Art Theatre: Open City, Lost Boundaries, and Tight Little Island. The first was Roberto Rossellini's Italian Neorealist film about the Nazi Resistance in Rome. The second was produced by Louis de Rochemont (who had created the "March of Time" newsreels), and told of a black family passing as white in a New England town. The final was about a merry bunch of Hebrides Islanders who stumble on 50,000 cases of whiskey from a nearby sinking ship.

The author discusses their "commercial" and "industrial" contexts, their style --- how they were different from the Hollywood mainstream --- and, too, looks into modes of production and distribution. Most of this is fairly ho-hum stuff, at least to this reader, but it becomes more interesting when she delves, for instance, into questions of censorship.

Tight Little Island had been called Whiskey Galore! in England --- but suffered a name-change on its way to our shores, presumably to protect American sensibilities about booze. In Chicago, there was much suspicion of the morals of foreign films, and translators --- often priests --- were brought in to make sure nothing was put over on the censorship board. The New York state censors told Open City's distributors to eliminate the word slut from a subtitle and to cut a vial clearly marked "cocaine" and some of the more graphic torture scenes, the reasons for the eliminations being that the scenes were "indecent" and "inhumane" and "[tend] to incite crime."

Ms. Wilinsky spends a fair amount of time defining exactly what is meant by "art theatre," and describes the image of the theatres were trying to project. She also treats the history of art film houses: there had been "Little Cinemas" in the 1920s that had grown out of the Little Theatre movement (for producing plays that were somewhat off the beaten path), and "ciné clubs" (which "screened specialized films and focused on the artistic nature of the cinema"). The theatres were small, had a regular patronage --- thus the term "Sure Seaters" --- and paid less in rentals for films. Usually, at least in the early days, and because they were not aimed at the general public, they were exempt from state censorship boards.

There were nineteen of these in operation by the late 1920s, including the glorious Film Guild Cinema of New York City. They imported films from Europe, and specialized in reruns of Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Fatty Arbuckle. They, say the author, were the first to "create a mood for their acceptability...the little cinema movement sought to make film into art and spectators into individuals."

Ms. Wilinsky knows her stuff and if you are interested in film, film history, and the history of art movies in American, this is your book. However it suffers from two problems. One is that it smells heavily of a PhD thesis converted into published form. Secondly, it is set in type small enough to drive us card-carrying members of the bifocal set into a blind fury.

As far as turning "spectators into individuals," I was reminded of the day I called the Studio/Guild in Berkeley and said to the woman in charge (it was Ms. Kael but this was long before she had become a star in her own right so I wasn't nervous) that I had often heard of City Lights but had never had a chance to see it. She said that because the American Legion had drummed Charlie Chaplin out of the country because of his politics, he had canceled all North American viewing rights. However, she said, they had, by mistake, forgotten to send off reel three the last time they showed it so if we wanted to drop into the Guild that evening, she'd see that it got stuck in between the two main features. We went, and sure enough --- we got to see fifteen minutes of the wonderful City Lights boxing routine. No charge. -- http://www.ralphmag.org/AR/briefs.html


When she was just starting out as a movie critic in the '50s, doing radio reviews of movies for the Berkeley, Calif., public radio station KPFA and writing program notes for the city's revival houses, she was already tossing off unpopular barbs ("I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses 'art' films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood 'product,' finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism") and she was already combative ("My dear anonymous letter writers," she said during one broadcast, "if you think it so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, and so many poets"). She was already looking at the big screen for the big picture ("If you hold the San Francisco Chronicle's review of 'Breathless' up to the light, you may see H-E-L-P shining through it.") --Ken Tucker, Salon.com, 1999, http://www.salon.com/bc/1999/02/09bc.html [Oct 2004]

Renata Adler

The writer Renata Adler, herself a sometime film critic for the New York Times, famously eviscerated Kael in the pages of The New York Review of Books, judging her 1980 collection, When the Lights Go Down, to be “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” Critic Andrew Sarris compared her reviews to papal pronouncements of infallibility. --http://www.goodbyemag.com/jul01/kael.html [Aug 2004]

"I regard criticism as an art"

The quote is from Pauline Kael, answering listeners to the radio station for which she reviewed films during the sixties. They suggested she should try and make a movie herself, if she knew so much about it. Such listeners weren't the only ones she got upset. She quarreled with peers, criticized studio practices, and accused the art-film aficionado of false motives. Distributors frowned when Kael entered the cinema. She enjoys, however, considerable prestige and has a wide and faithful audience. She even has followers, mockingly christened The Paulettes. Since Kael in 1991 retired from regularly reviewing films for The New Yorker, an anthology of her work has been published, For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies, as well as a volume of interviews: Conversations with Pauline Kael.  

Kael's work is highly stimulating. Her independent stance urges the reader to think for him- or herself, and what more can be expected from criticism. Additionally, she can write. Her prose is lively, clear and witty, and she succeeds in conveying her passion. (Compilations of her reviews bear titles like Movie Love and Going Steady.) You want to see, or see again the films she writes about. Art, however, is more than just style; the view that criticism is an art expresses a notion of what criticism should be.  --http://www.cinemazine.com/engels/archief/kael/eng0.html, accessed Apr 2004


  1. Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema (Commerce and Mass Culture Series) - Barbara Wilinsky [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    The Production Code crackdown on American movies in the mid-1930s and the propaganda films made during World War II imposed a blandness on American films. Immediately after the war, international movie production geared up, using fresh talent and handling mature themes with a frankness previously unknown to American audiences. The postwar era became the golden age of art-house cinemas (named "sure seaters" in the patronizing belief that seats would be available for all shows). This brief, scholarly book looks at art-house cinemas, how they operated outside the traditional distribution system, and the pivotal role of film censors and critics. This should be an exciting subject, but it doesn't come across here. Wilinsky (media arts, Univ. of Arizona) fails to convey the excitement of attending these theaters and discovering the works of Luis Bu?uel, Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and other directors. Newsletters, program notes, and oral histories of those "present at the creation" would have added life to this book. Strictly an optional purchase for large academic film collections

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