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The acid wit of Pauline Kael: how America's sharpest film critic changed the way we watch movies

'The dirty reality of death': a poster for Bonnie and Clyde
'The dirty reality of death': Kael made her name defending the controversial Bonnie and Clyde Credit: Film Stills

Pauline Kael, who died in 2001 but would have turned 100 today, looks down on my writing desk askance – or rather, 10 volumes of her reviews do. Hardbacks or softbacks, many foraged from second-hand bookshops in my student days, one or two gifted by friends equally besotted with her writing, they’ve been an inspiration ever since I started taking criticism seriously.

From the start, these collections were published with sexually suggestive titles, ranging from the poppy and pulpy (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) to the naughtily punning (Taking it All In). They span the length of Kael’s career as a critic, from well before she joined the New Yorker in 1968 to her official retirement in 1991.

They are books to dive into with a reckless bliss, because Kael’s engagement with cinema is the opposite of dry or theoretical: it’s a full-body immersion. There’s no other critic I’ve read so assiduously over the years but also been more entertained by, thrilling to the ways she elevated the art of writing and thinking about cinema, while lacerating the desiccated pretensions of film studies.

“I wanted to get away from the paper-term pomposity we have at college,” Kael once told an interviewer about her prose style. “I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice.” She devoted herself to writing about this populist art-form in a grabby way – direct, slangy, shooting-from-the-hip, while somehow swerving the clichés implied (and exemplified) by that phrase.

When Kael has an argument with a film, it can feel like her thoughts are tumbling out as they would in a spoken conversation. Her reviews are structurally rebellious: I love how she starts in on the “smashingly stupid” No Way Out (1987) by applying a Cocteau quote about the privileges of beauty to Sean Young’s bad acting. (“She smirks when she means to be suave, and bares her teeth and jumps up and down when she means to be daring; she emits peals of phony laughter when she’s being delightful. The audience seems perfectly content to have her put away early in the movie.”)

'Smashingly stupid': Sean Young and Kevin Costner in No Way Out

The full flower of her style became possible thanks to William Shawn, the New Yorker editor who hired her for six months of the year until 1979, and then full-time from 1980. No broadsheet critic had her space: she wrote 4000-5000 words every week on the job, a luxury unthinkable in mass-market criticism today. The scale of her pieces was precisely what enabled her to be such a maverick: take her deeply controversial demolition job on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985.

No 9½-hour long Holocaust documentary was ever going to be beyond criticism in Kael’s book, but she dared to call the film a “long moan”, suspicious of what she saw as the director’s “blunt-minded”, tendentious methodology. It was such a risky pan the magazine ran it with a disclaimer upfront about her dissenting take. At shorter length, her broadside would have seemed unforgivably glib, and it’s unlikely any non-Jewish critic would have got away with it.

Before the New Yorker took her on, Kael made her mark with aggressive swagger as a freelancer. She was fired from the women’s magazine McCall’s in 1965 for panning too many commercial hits in a row – The Sound of Music, Dr Zhivago, A Hard Day’s Night. And she took her fight to fellow film critics with breathtaking acidity. In a notorious 1963 essay called “Circles and Squares”, she lambasted current trends in auteurist criticism, which had migrated to America from the “politique des auteurs”, espoused by Cahiers du cinéma in France, which gave paramount important to the role and intentions of certain revered male directors. Kael would have none of this, and caricatured her archnemesis – Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice – as a “list queen” for his unbending loyalty to these old-timers.

Actually, the hills aren't alive: Pauline Kael panned The Sound of Music Credit: AP

One of the joys of Kael is precisely her capacity to be crushingly disappointed and say so – or indeed, to astonish herself with praise. Though she obviously had her favourites, such as Altman, De Palma, and Paul Mazursky, she prided herself on taking every film they made on its own merits. Directors she championed early in their careers, such as Woody Allen, could find themselves suddenly thrown under a bus: their friendship ended when she didn’t like Stardust Memories (1980).

Conversely, though, a Kael paean could rescue a film or launch a whole career. The British actor Ian McNeice has said that his stalling job prospects turned around thanks to one paragraph, written by Kael on his sybaritic lodger in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987). Rarely have such pungent descriptions – “he looks like a wax angel made of rotten tallow” – been handier for the resumé.

Meanwhile, the review which clinched the New Yorker job for Kael also made everyone involved with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) into New Hollywood heroes. Other critics, like the New York Times’s habitually stuffy Bosley Crowther, had squeamishly panned the film. Kael wrote a long, passionate, and rigorously argued counterblast, which the New Republic fatefully passed on, and Shawn published instead.

Kael identified a new aesthetic at work in that film, without falling over herself to overpraise such elements as Warren Beatty’s acting. If an exciting age of risk-taking American cinema – the era of Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin and so on – began somewhere around here, Kael was first on the front lines to point it out. She remained militantly engaged in the New Yorker’s pages with every phase of these fast-exploding careers.

Pauline Kael died in September 2001 Credit: AP

Reading the full sweep of Kael’s work is a history lesson in pictures. You swing from the highs of her embargo-breaking Nashville (1975) review, with everything it summarised about the possibilities of blockbuster art, to the lows of, say, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), an epochal failure from her pet favourite director, where she trenchantly concedes De Palma “walked right off a cliff”.

Kael cared too much about the medium to pull any punches. And she could be doctrinaire in her own way. She pretty much hated Meryl Streep in everything she did – Streep’s supporting role as a caustic shrink in the romcom Prime (2005) is thought to be an actor's revenge. But when Kael flipped for something – see how giddily delighted she was with Philip Kaufman’s wicked Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – there’s nothing you’d rather be watching right then, almost with the sense of doing so alongside her. Bitchy, cutting, sometimes cruel, they called her. But this was her criticism: a kind of brutally honest companionship in the back row.

Holding Hollywood to account: 10 of her best reviews

On Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967):

“Only a few years ago, a good director would have suggested the violence obliquely [...] But the whole point of Bonnie and Clyde is to rub our noses in it, to make us pay our dues for laughing. The dirty reality of death – not suggestions but blood and holes – is necessary. Though I generally respect a director’s skill and intelligence in inverse ratio to the violence he shows on screen [...], I think that this time Penn is right.”

'Sadistically ill-planned': Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

On Ken Hughes’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968):

“This musical for children is almost sadistically ill-planned: it runs 156 minutes, plus intermission, and almost all the fantasy material is in the last hour. That means that the small children (and who else wants to see it?) will be restless, exhausted, overfed, sticky and irritable long before they even get a chance to become frightened and upset. Do the men who concoct these entertainments ever consider the simple logistics of what parents go through before, during and after a three-hour movie?”

On Michael Cacoyannis’s The Trojan Women (1971):

“Vanessa Redgrave never does the expected, and is never sloppy or overexpressive. Her Andromache is being freshly thought out while we watch –– a dazed, pale-golden matron, unflirtatious, enough like [Katharine] Hepburn to suggest that Hector chose her because she was as free from guile and as naturally regal as his mother. Redgrave holds us by the quiet power of her concentration; she does odd little things –– a tiny half sob gurgles from her throat. As an actress, she is such an embodiment of the idealistic, romantic spirit that I find myself rooting for her when she reaches for something new and difficult. There is a long meant-to-sound-wild cry when she is told that her child is to be slaughtered. She brings the cry to a sensational screaming finish; I realized I was hoping that others hadn’t noticed how carefully it had begun.”

On Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972):

“Now 72, Luis Buñuel is no longer savage about the hypocrisy and the inanity of the privileged classes. They don’t change, and since they have become a persistent bad joke to him, he has grown almost fond of their follies – the way one can grow fond of the snarls and silliness of vicious pets. He looks at them now and they’re such perfectly amoral little beasts they amuse him; he enjoys their skin-deep proprieties, their faith in appearance, their sublime confidence. At the same time, this Spanish exile-expatriate may have come to a point in life where the hell he has gone through to make movies is receding into the past, like an old obscene story; he is so relaxed about his medium now that he enjoys pinching its nose, pulling its tail. He has become a majestic light prankster – not a bad way for a man full of disgust and pity to age.”

On Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975):

“Is there such a thing as an orgy for movie-lovers – but an orgy without excess? At Robert Altman’s new, almost-three-hour film, Nashville, you don’t get drunk on images, you’re not overpowered – you get elated. I’ve never before seen a movie I loved in quite this way: I sat there smiling at the screen, in complete happinesss. It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the picture is over; you take it with you.”

'An orgy for music-lovers': Nashville

On Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978):

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet it plunges into emotional scenes with a fast, offhand mastery. At night, Matthew stands on the terrace of his apartment, where he and his three friends have holed up, and looks down at the four adult-size fetuses that are almost ready to replace them. He wants to smash those bodies, but he can’t destroy the ones of his friends, because they’re so close to human that it would be like killing people he loves. He can smash only his own reproduction. This set of variations on the 1956 film has its own macabre originality; it may be the best movie of its kind ever made.”

On Robert Zemeckis’s Used Cars (1980):

“The action is so fast that at times it’s like an adolescent stunt, carried out convulsively – a fit. Everything is staged for motion; there isn’t a static thought in this movie.”

On Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984):

“Kate Capshaw won me over: her low-comedy brazenness and the whole conception of Willie as uncouth give the picture an additional layer of parody. Instead of being a pallid little darling in distress, she’s a broad in distress, and the situations gain from her noisy wholesomeness.”

'A child's debauch': Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice

On Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988):

“Michael Keaton is the Groucho here, but fast and furious, like Robin Williams when he’s speeding, or Bill Murray having a conniption fit. And maybe because of the slow start and the teasing visual design – the whole movie seems to take place in a hand-painted nowhere, with the 'real' town and the toy town miscegenating – Keaton creates a lust for more hot licks. He appears here with a fringe of filthy hair, greenish rotting teeth – snaggled – and an ensemble of mucky rags. And he keeps varying in size (like the star Betelgeuse). When he’s let loose and the transformations start, along with the gravity-defying stunts, I wanted more and more of them. I wanted the overstimulation of prepubescent play – a child’s debauch.”

On Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III (1990):

“There’s no conviction in Michael’s atonement, and none in Vincent’s fire, either. Godfather III looks like a Godfather movie, but it’s not about revenge and it’s not about passion and power and survival. It’s about a battered movie-maker’s king-size depression.”