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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.