To Kael or Not to Kael?

pauline kaelTo be candid, I haven’t read much of Pauline Kael’s work. Her retirement from The New York predates my own reading of that magazine by a few years, so I didn’t have the chance to encounter her work organically. As someone who cares about movies and writing about movies, I dutifully procured battered copies of Reeling and I Lost it at the Movies, but… well, I didn’t get very far. To hear about Paulien Kael or to read about Pauline Kael gets me very jazzed to read her work, but when I sit down to actually read, it falls apart for me.

From what I have read, I don’t dislike Kael or her writing style, per se. It’s just that, ultimately, I’m not very involved in the movies she writes about. For a laundry list of reasons, I cut myself off cinematically sometime around 1967. Which is not to say that object to post-1967 movies, nor that I’ve never seen any, but it’s not where my interests lie. The laundry list of reasons for my post-1967 ban, some arbitrary, some justified, is probably the subject of another post. But suffice it to say, this is why I’ve largely missed out on Pauline Kael.

I do feel like I’ve missed out, though. Again, what I know, what I hear, and hell, even what I’ve read intrigues me. With the publication of  the new critical biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow and a new Library of America collection of Kael’s work The Age of Movies, I’m once again intrigued. Maybe reading about Pauline Kael is an entree into her work? I’ve been reading some reviews and toying around with buying the bio, but I wonder… has anyone read it yet?

How do you guys feel about Pauline Kael’s writing, in general? Have you read this book or are you thinking of reading it? Know any good reviews? Let me know if the comments!

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About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on November 2, 2011, in Miscellany, Readings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Check out Pauline’s book “5001 Nights At The Movies,” a compendium of brief reviews of old movies, many of which she programmed at a San Francisco repertory house in the 1950s, then adapted the notes she wrote then for this volume. Don’t always agree with Kael’s observations, but it’s apparent she knew her film history.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. That’s one I’ve never checked out before, but it’s been on my list. I’ll definitely check it out. I understand that Kael can be a bit of a bully at times, but I also understand that she’s quite passionate. That’s why I get frustrated with myself with not being more familiar with her work.

  2. Kael was probably the first film writer who made me pay attention to and seek out good film criticism. Having said that, I didn’t read her until about 1975, and given that my “cinematic cutoff point” was at bit later, say 1977, I was more interested in what she had to say about films made prior to that point. Back then it wasn’t like you could just pickup a copy of the New York TImes or Village Voice or even The New Yorker on every small town newstand (and of course little coverage in the electronic media of the day), and her passionate writing about film — more so than her opinions on the individual films — is what I found appealing.

    Prior to Kael my conception of “movie reviews” was the simple plot summaries in local newspapers (which prior to the 70s was about all there was outside major media markets), and then from that to being inundated (so it seemed) by having to read “scholarly” film criticism or, worse yet, film theoreticians, in college. Quite a gap between those two extremes, and Kael filled that gap for a brief time. But I’ve never seen the point of “falling in love” with a particular critic, or one whose style of writing or whose tastes were the same as mine. Maybe I just haven’t found the “right” one, maybe I’m too particular, maybe i’ve never seen the point.

  3. You make some excellent points. I’m always searching for film writing that falls somewhere in the sweet spot between thumbs up/thumbs down capsules and weighty film theory. Sadly, it’s something of a rarity.

    I get the sense that Kael is both passionate and smart, even if she has her problems. But I pick up Reeling, say, and the first essay I read is about Shampoo. I’m not opposed to Shampoo, but I’ve never seen it and it doesn’t rank on my watch soon list. The essay become less interesting to me since I have no context, which is frustrating. I do sense there’s much enjoyment to be had in Kael’s work, and I’m missing all the fun.

    That said, Kael’s pieces specifically about classic movies that I’ve come across are always interesting and well worth the reading. Specifically, there was a piece about Cary Grant. Even when I don’t completely agree with the opinion, I enjoyed her debate.

    It’s not that I’m looking for the “right” critic. I’m just out for a good time. 🙂

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