The warrior critic: in praise of Pauline Kael

The New Yorkers legendary reviewer would have been 100 this year. Here, fans of her work assess her essential contribution to film journalism

David Thomson Essential and kind of crazy

To be mad about the movies, must you be mad? Isnt sitting in the dark, hooked on light, a little odd? The shrewdest thing to say about Pauline Kael beyond recognising that she was essential is that she was kind of crazy. Yet determined to seem rational or in control. She would have been 100 this year. That is a fanciful proposition, for she often seemed emotionally closer to 19, which must have been some strain if you realise she was nearly 50 before she stumbled into the authority she required being film critic at the New Yorker.

Not that she had the whole job. In some perverse judiciousness, the magazine gave Kael half a year and had someone else do the rest. This was absurd, yet cunning, too, for it left Kael seething, as well as hard up. In her best writing there was a marriage no, an affair between ecstasy and disgust.

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On her way to the New Yorker she had led the untidy life of a beatnik, opinionated and extreme, in the footsteps of Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby or Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner women so coherent and funny it took 10 minutes to sense they may have been unhinged. Kael was the daughter of a poultry farmer in Petaluma. The family moved south to San Francisco and she studied literature and philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley. She wrote plays that didnt work, had a relationship and a daughter. She started writing programme notes for a movie repertory cinema. But she was 48 by the time of her famous piece on Bonnie and Clyde.

The picture was rescued from critical and commercial failure (and its producer Warren Beatty knew it), but Kael was lucky too. By 1967, old Hollywood was breaking apart. Arrogant newcomers were looking to make edgy movies about the actual America. An educated, literary elite was taking over the cinema. Kael was writing in the prime of Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafelson, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Sam Peckinpah not to mention the last days of Luis Buuel, the heyday of Ingmar Bergman and key works from Roman Polanski, Bernardo Bertolucci, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Stanley Kubrick. From the outrage of Bonnie and Clyde to the cultural disaster of Star Wars, writing about movies was living with sex, music, politics, race, paranoia and drugs like flowers in your hair. You felt important; you could claim to be sane.

It wasnt simply that Kael recorded those years as a regular reviewer. Her agitated voice and spurting rhythms were infectious. She was better than some of the film-makers she espoused smarter, more giddily romantic and more insistent that they do good work. She ushered in an age of film controversy at dinner parties. She was as competitive as an old lefty, reckless in taking on disciples and then telling them what to think. But she wrote like a fallen angel, a slangy, cocksure Satan who guessed God was asleep. She said she saw the movies only once and sometimes she wrote as she watched.

That intensity could not last. She took up an offer to go to Hollywood to be a producer. This was a well-intended gesture from Beatty, part of the gamble that hoped a brilliant critic could deliver films (that had happened with the French New Wave). The experiment ended ruefully because Beatty and James Toback, whose Love and Money she tried to organise, were more self-preoccupied than she could fathom. There she was in LA, yet she couldnt drive.

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She came home in a sort of disgrace. That wasnt the worst of it. Movies went off the boil. So many of them didnt deserve her. After Jaws and Star Wars, the business returned with a restored, juvenile confidence. Movies cheered up because of their kid audience, but a lofty 19-year-old despair had been Kaels motor another sign of existential turmoil. She felt that dismaying shift, long before illness made writing harder.

So she was lucky in her timing. But we were lucky, too, those of us who thought our madness didnt show. Film critics today labour in a gloom and irrelevance Kael could not tolerate.

Peter Bradshaw
She was a heroic, live-ammo critic

Kaels legendary essay-review about Bonnie and Clyde was published in 1967 in the New Yorker. For a movie critic to read it now is to experience a mix of emotions: glee, euphoria, fascination, exhilaration and shame that you are not doing anything like as passionate and glorious in your own work.

It is one of the great pieces of journalism or criticism, perhaps the greatest, I have ever read. This is heroic criticism, warrior criticism, live-ammo criticism that boldly intervenes in culture and unapologetically takes on everything: the movie, the movies, the audience, the other critics, history, society, politics, love and death. This isnt simply a demonstration of reviewing in all its habitual simpering passivity that type of criticism which is, paradoxically, entirely uncritical, because it eats up whatever film is put on its plate every week and then obediently raises a thumb up or down or at some angle.

This is criticism that doesnt wait to be asked, Kaels criticism isnt happy with the demurely submissive handmaiden to the arts tag; she is more like Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orlans.

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Fayr Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde. Photograph: Alamy

Bonnie and Clyde was the movie about the real-life Depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, written by David Newman and Robert Benton and directed by Arthur Penn. As a reaction to the mealy-mouthed dismissals of the film that had been appearing in print, particularly on the subject of violence, Kael published this colossal counterblast, proclaiming the films importance and integrity and its importance as American art.

Kael hits her stride right away: confident, easy, muscular, with an edge of severity. She compares Bonnie and Clyde to Fritz Langs You Only Live Once, Nicholas Rays They Live By Night and William Wellmans The Public Enemy, contrasting these movies rhetorical gestures at moralism and comeuppance and finds in Bonnie and Clyde a realism and anti-hypocrisy in portraying the criminals occupational normality of violence and the provocative audacity of its humour.

She sees Bonnie and Clydes indebtedness to the French New Wave and to Jean-Luc Godard and Franois Truffaut, but while her cinephile comrades may have been content to notice this in order to bolster the films importance and intellectual respectability, Kaels response is far more challenging and contrarian. She is suspicious of any Euro-artistry and points out that what the French were infatuated with was the Americans simplicity and populist power: Bonnie and Clyde is strong and vital when it is in touch with this wellspring, but weak when it gets too supercilious and cerebral.

Perhaps the most brilliant thing in the review is Kaels fault-finding in the film itself, her fierce engagement with its flaws which I think is how she managed to get under the skin of Beatty, who perhaps resented his debt to her and resented her lse-majest in refusing to bow the knee to his superior status as a creative artist and movie star. She criticises his acting at various stages, although impudently comments that producing the film may have concentrated his mind on its scene-by-scene structure and his place in it.

His business sense may have improved his timing. The role of Clyde seems to have released something in him. As Clyde, Beatty is good with his eyes and mouth and his hat, but his body is still inexpressive; he doesnt have a trained actors use of his body and, watching him move, one is never for a minute convinced hes impotent. It is, however, a tribute to his performance that one singles this failure out.

The sheer hauteur of this line is magnificent: even FR Leavis telling George Eliot what is wrong with Daniel Deronda isnt quite as grand. She also, in the course of rejecting the ideas that their movie-star good-looks help glamourise violence, hilariously rejects the idea Beatty and Dunaway are all that pretty in the first place. The joke in the glamour charge is that Dunaway has the magazine-illustration look of countless uninterestingly pretty girls, and Beatty has the kind of high-school good looks that are generally lost fast. How that must have annoyed Beatty.

Elsewhere in the piece, she has a shrewd and valuable comment on what is right and wrong with the movies editing something modern criticism too often passes over in silence and she returns to what beame a keynote of her critical career: the importance of writers and the importance of understanding cinema as a collaborative art, and she politely but firmly rejects the auteurist and very male critical cult of the director. She was probably annoyed by the machismo in all that, but isnt afraid of a bit of machismo of her own, a kind of muscle-flexing and provocation and grandstanding: the essential showbusiness of journalism. She strides up on the stage and takes her place alongside Penn and Beatty. How insipid most criticism looks compared with this.

Four critics on their favourite Kael broadsides

Klute (1971)

Jane Fondas motor runs a little fast. As an actress, she has a special kind of smartness that takes the form of speed; shes always a little ahead of everybody, and this quicker beat this quicker responsiveness makes her more exciting to watch. She has somehow got to a plane of acting at which even the closest closeup never reveals a false thought and, seen on the movie streets a block away, shes Bree, not Jane Fonda, walking toward us.

Jane Fonda in Klute. Photograph: Snap Stills/Rex

Kael was so famously sharp that her hitjobs are almost blissfully cruel. But faced with Alan Pakulas Klute, a film she felt was no work of art, she used her razor-pen to dissect Fondas lead performance instead of merely to list the claptrap she found in its narrative mechanics. And this is a tribute as tough as any takedown. In Fonda, she found an actor who had moved beyond working the audience, giving a full-scale, definitive portrait of a call girl. There wasnt, she said, another actress in the US to touch her. It was typical of Kael that she could praise a major stars performance as a sex worker in a gritty thriller without being snooty about her former babe persona. In fact, she went so far as to say that she wished Fonda could divide herself in two. Kael respected the no-nonsense dramatic actress of Klute as much as the naughty-innocent comedienne and her taste in cinema was broad enough that she craved movies starring both of them. Pamela Hutchinson

Repo Man (1984)

Repo Man is set in a scuzzy sci-fi nowhere: it was shot in the Los Angeles you see when youre coming in from the airport the squarish, pastel-coloured buildings with industrial fences around them, although they dont look as if there could be much inside that needed to be protected. The action in the film takes place on the freeways and off-ramps, and the lots in back of these anonymous storefronts and warehouses that could be anything and turn into something else overnight. Its a world inhabited by dazed sociopaths soreheads, deadbeats and rusted-out punkers. The young English writer-director Alex Cox keeps them all speeding around always on the periphery. Theres nothing at the centre.

Harry Dean Stanton in Repo Man. Photograph: Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Kael is renowned for sticking the knife in and giving it a slow twist. Panning can be fun, she said. But its also show-offy and cheap it isnt sustaining. And besides, she loved as fiercely as she hated. That struck me when I first stumbled on her books in a university library at the age of 19. I never knew reviews could run so long and so deep, or that critics could rummage around hungrily in a movie rather than merely making judgment calls. To read Kael is to be in her skin as she sits in the cinema; morality, sensuality, intellect and taste run together inseparably. Her Repo Man piece, though short, shows her ability to capture a films texture in evocative prose and to carry its pleasures from screen to page without spilling a drop. It ends with a typically punky pay-off: A movie like this, with nothing positive in it, can make you feel good. Ryan Gilbey

Its a Wonderful Life (1946)

Frank Capras most relentless lump-in-the-throat movie In its own slurpy, bittersweet way, the picture is well done. But it is fairly humourless and, what with all the heros virtuous suffering, didnt catch on with the public. Capra takes a serious tone here, though theres no basis for the seriousness; this is doggerel trying to pass as art.

Henry Travers, Donna Reed, James Stewart and Karolyn Grimes in Its A Wonderful Life. Photograph: Allstar/RKO/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

I have always loathed Its a Wonderful Life, and Kaels takedown is spot-on, as she needles received opinion, bewildered by the films later popularity on repeat every Christmas. Her language is spankingly crisp and her reactions that of a ticket-buying human, not someone sweating ink as they try to impress.

While always a populist her Batman (1989) review is a paean she also knew when not to forgive. Of Moonraker, she said: Its an exhausted movie Roger Moore is dutiful and passive as Bond; his clothes are neatly pressed and he shows up for work like an office manager who is turning into dead wood but hanging on to collect his pension. Kate Muir

Images (1972)

Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepetitive. He goes out in a new direction each time, and he scores an astonishing 50% one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe and Mrs Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.

Robert Altman: Clearly Kaels favourite film-maker of the early 70s. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

Kael went to war against auteurist critics famously, the likes of Andrew Sarris, with his rigid pantheon of greats and not-so-greats. There were direct attacks, but there were also her jaggedly unpredictable reviews. It meant something when she leapt to champion, say, Alan Parkers sole great film (that would be 1982s Shoot the Moon) or came down like a ton of bricks on Altmans lesser work, even though he was clearly her favourite film-maker of the early 1970s.

Beyond this killer opening, her pithy demolition of Altmans eerie schizoid curio, Images, showcases how Kael could appreciate and damn technique at the same time: she admires the editing, weighs every visual ploy, critiques the sexless proficiency of the Cannes prizewinner Susannah York in the lead and finds the sum of it all shallow and mannered a hollow puzzle […] a prismatic Repulsion. This isnt one of her longer pieces, because this gadgety movies tiresome prisms cant be allowed to detain her, restless even in mid-flow for Altman to move on and astonish her next time. Which with 1973s The Long Goodbye he certainly did. Tim Robey

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