Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Perils of Pauline

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The recent release of Brian Kellow’s biography A Life in the Dark and the Library of America anthology The Age of Movies has led to a resurgence of interest in the career of Pauline Kael. Yet Kael never really went away, at least not for those of us who spend most of our waking hours—and you know who you are—reading about pop culture online. Maud Newton of the New York Times once credited, or blamed, David Foster Wallace for creating the ironic, slangy tone of modern blogs, but three decades earlier, Kael had forever shaped the way we talk about the movies, and, by extension, everything else we care about. Peel back the prose of any top critic on Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll find Kael peeking out from underneath, as writers mimic her snap judgments and rapid turns of phrase while often missing the depths that these surface flourishes concealed.

And while Kael is deservedly remembered for championing the cinema of the sixties and seventies, her lasting legacy is likely to be that of a stylist. I don’t think she’s the best or most insightful film critic of all time; for that honor, I’d nominate David Thomson, although I know he’s the man many movie lovers love to hate. As far as my own personal love of the movies is concerned, I owe the most to Roger Ebert. But Kael’s voice was the most distinctive of all the great film critics, and it’s been jangling in my head for decades. Phrases from her reviews nestle themselves into the corners of your brain, forever changing the way you think of the films under discussion, like her take on Altman’s visual flourishes in The Long Goodbye: “They’re like ribbons tying up the whole history of movies.” Even today, I can recite her enraptured description of the ending of The Fury, which Bret Easton Ellis cheerfully ripped off for his blurb for House of Leaves, almost by heart:

This finale—a parody of Antonioni’s apocalyptic vision at the close of Zabriskie Point—is the greatest finish for any villain ever. One can imagine Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Spielberg still stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter.

But the trouble with Kael as a role model is that her breathless style, in the absence of a larger philosophy of film, can sometimes cover up the lack of deeper understanding, and, at its worst, turn into something alarmingly like trolling. Kael’s reviews as a whole can be nuanced, but her individual sentences (“The greatest finish for any villain ever”) rarely occupy any middle ground. Imitating Kael on the sentence level only feeds our current tendency, as a culture of online commenters, to believe that everything deserves either five stars or none. This all or nothing approach has been discussed before, notably in an excellent Crosstalk at The A.V. Club, but it’s worth noting that Kael is its unlikely godmother. And if that’s the case, then her influence is vaster than even her greatest admirers acknowledge: her style touches everything we write about the arts, both online and in traditional media, down to this very blog post.

Which makes it all the more important to remember that Kael’s style was the expression of a genuine love of movies. Kael could be cruel to movies she disliked, as in her famously savage (and not entirely inaccurate) dismissal of Raging Bull: “What am I doing here watching these two dumb fucks?” But underpinning it all was a fanatical belief in what movies could do, and a determination that they live up to the standards set by other works of art, which is a quality that many of her imitators lack. Kael was a lot of things, but she wasn’t ironic, and her style was less about showing off than a way of getting her readers to feel the same intense emotions that she did—and, of course, to watch the movies themselves. I’ve sought out countless films just so I could read Kael’s reviews of them, and I know I’m not alone in this. And while I’m not sure if Kael would approve, I suspect that she’d at least be glad I was watching the movies she loved so much.

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