We Lost It at the Movies

Veteran movie critic Pauline Kael transformed the movie industry — and not really for the better — with her championing of films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Last Tango in Paris, but she was also perceptive enough to quickly see through Michael Moore. (Though would she have done so once he became a major institution amongst his fellow one percenters?)

NPR, where Kael’s pioneering bourgeois bohemian worldview is de rigueur, dubs her “A Critic To Remember” in a review of a recent anthology of Kael’s writing:

Many of her opinions about films like Shampoo and The Deer Hunter haven’t weathered the test of time; her hyperbolic language doesn’t always take flight. (Does Vanessa Redgrave in the 1977 film Julia really possess “maybe the most expressive huge hand the screen has ever known?”)

Clunkers like that one, however, are negatively instructive in their own right. They remind us that writing is hard, that even a magician like Kael had to work to make it look easy as she does in the masterpieces included here — like her long essays on Citizen Kane and Cary Grant, the one lusciously entitled, “The Man from Dream City.”

What Kael continues to give readers through her selected essays and reviews is her gutsy and still controversial article of faith that criticism should be rooted in emotion. She told us it was not only OK but a prerequisite that a critic be a fan. Awe, in Kael’s view, was a legitimate critical response. Consider her writing voice at the end of her 1982 review of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial:

Spielberg has earned the tears that some people in the audience — and not just children — shed. The tears are tokens of gratitude for the spell the picture has put on the audience. Genuinely entrancing movies are almost as rare as extraterrestrial visitors.

Before Kael, no critic worth his whiskey and cigars would be caught dead talking about “tears of gratitude.”

In an excellent 1995 essay that he wrote about Kael for The New York Review of Books, literary critic Louis Menand tells an anecdote about how the eminent public intellectual Dwight Macdonald reviewed Kael’s book I Lost It at the Movies in 1965. In that review, Macdonald asked, in puzzlement, “What did she lose at the movies?” Thanks to Pauline Kael and her liberating legacy, it’s Macdonald’s fussy, over-intellectualized question, not Kael’s erotic confession, that’s the embarrassment.

Actually, we all lost something at the movies thanks to Kael (along with similarly-minded critics of her era): middlebrow culture. Kael loved to champion the sort of pulpy lowbrow culture that Quentin Tarantino has so profitably mined over the last twenty years.

But as Robert Fulford wrote in his 2008 profile of Kael for Canada’s National Post, it’s nowhere near as much fun when that’s seemingly the only type of movie being made:

Kael, whose critical reputation was in its early stages, used Bonnie and Clyde as the opening shot in what turned out to be a war against middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road taste. Her New Yorker piece began: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it.”

She announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond “good taste,” moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?

Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. “Violence is its meaning.”

She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.

When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and ’80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.

It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.”

Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”

Fortunately, we still have NPR as our source of sophisticated highbrow culture.