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.
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.
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.
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.