The measure of any critic is not if they were right, the measure of a critic is if they were interesting. Criticism is an artform like any other art, even if a secondary, perhaps parasitical one.
Pauline Kael is the greatest film critic there has ever been - perhaps the greatest critic America has ever seen in any artform - because she was usually wrong, and utterly unafraid to be wrong. She hated Hitchcock for his blatant manipulation, Bergman and Fellini for their insistence on autobiography, Ozu for his slowness, thought Mel Brooks was trash, thought Woody Allen’s turn to the serious was disastrous, and panned Peter Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show by claiming that it was a movie Richard Nixon could love (incidentally, Nixon did). She admitted the genius of Orson Welles only grudgingly, and claimed that Welles had nearly nothing to do with the brilliance of Citizen Kane. I do have some tastes in common: I share her hatred of Kubrick and Antonioni, her love of Hawks and Renoir, and her mixed feelings about John Ford and Fritz Lang, and I find myself coming around to her Chaplin hatred - but there was something more obvious which troubles me about Kael. She was a complete hedonist, moved by pleasure and nothing else. Her tastes were oddly soulless - she loved movies, but she was never moved by them. She loved Renoir for the pleasure he gave, but his humanity never struck her as important. The warmth of Ozu meant nothing to her, and she basically thought Mel Brooks wasn’t funny. One screenwriter was quoted as saying “Pauline Kael was a great critic who had shitty taste in movies.” So how could such an idiot be such a great critic?
Pretty easily, actually. What Kael loved was immediacy of communication. She hated movies that had a fake ‘this is good for you’ intellectual formality as much as she hated poorly made trash (and there was some poorly made trash she loved). She loved movies stimulated the primal imagination and generated emotion above any thought. She loved Last Tango in Paris because she thought it was the only example of true ‘fucking’ on screen, called Nashville an ‘orgy for movie lovers’ (I disagree strenuously with her opinion of Last Tango, and minorly with hers of Nashville). She loved Godard for his cool, and De Palma for his heat, and I don’t particularly care for either director. But when she was good, her insights scorched from the page, illuminating light more brightly on a great film as though you’ve never seen it before.
And she was hired by the New Yorker just in time to welcome a whole new generation of American filmmakers for the Golden Age of American Film (which is different than the Golden Age of American Movies…). Before she arrived, she was a despairing freelancer who believed that American movies had grown so timid, so utterly generic that the entire magic of the movies was virtually lost. But by 1967, a generation of filmmakers were raised not only on classic Hollywood but also on the great European filmmakers - filmmakers like Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Jonathan Demme, David Lynch, she even loved Steven Spielberg for his early pictures.
Pauline Kael wanted to see movies which unapologetically asserted their dominance over the viewer, and unfortunately she had little patience with the idea that movies should do anything but constantly demand our attention. Any movie which took its time or put chaos on the screen was almost automatically written off.
She’d have hated most movies today. She retired in 1991, but she made it clear in later inverviews that she hated cows as sacred as Schindler’s List and American Beauty. But it’s difficult to believe she wouldn’t have loved living in this current television paradise of ours. She even said in a 1999 interview that she thought television was in much better shape and had very kind words for The Sopranos, The West Wing, and Sex and the City. So I wonder if I could play a little game and imagine her as a TV critic and muse on what she’d have thought of today’s TV shows. There seems to be no Pauline Kael equivalent in today’s television atmosphere (Nathan Rabin? Matt Zoller Seitz?). My guess is, she’d have been crying foul again and again when her favorite TV shows were on for too long. She’d have also bemoaned the immaturity of most comedies, saying that these were shows for perpetual adolescents (which, let’s face it, a lot of us Americans are). But I have to believe that TV dramas, their visceral impact, their commitment, their limitlessness, would have thrilled her.
Arrested Development: She’d have loved everything about the first run from beginning to end. She’d have compared its unbelievably intricate anarchy to The Marx Brothers. But I think she’d have minded the unmistakable streak of cruelty that goes through it and finally compared it unfavorably to her favorite comedy team. Furthermore, I think the second run is one of a number of revivals about which she’d have cried bloody murder.
South Park: I doubt she’d have understood it or liked it much. I think she’d have appreciated the raunchiness, but I don’t know how she’d have taken the infantility of it. She may well have gushed about the early years when it was nothing but dick-and-fart jokes, even if she’d have found them puerile, but even if she did, she’d have hated the satire with the libertarian point of view and soured on South Park fairly quickly.
30 Rock: I think she’d have ultimately not liked it. She’d have appreciated the banter between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy (easily the best thing in the show anyway) but I think she’d have found the rest of the characters exactly as tiresome as they were. She’d have no regard for the autobiographical element to Tina Fey’s character, and she’d have found the feminist angle of it self-pitying.
Louie: I think she might have loved Louis CK’s standup. But I doubt she’d have had anything but contempt the show, which she’d find incredibly self-indulgent and masturbatory (not literally). She’d have said that nobody cares about the life of a comedian, and certainly nobody cares about the life of a comedian who insists on being so glum.
The Simpsons: Like the rest of the world, she’d have easily realized the brilliance of its early years. She might have compared its melancholy humor (rightly) to Mozart and Renoir. But if any critic could have gotten The Simpsons off the air for its own good, it was Pauline Kael. The diminishing returns of the second decade would have enraged her, and she’d have gotten ever more scathing toward the show as it sucked up more airtime. I don't doubt she'd have followed a similar trajectory toward Family Guy.
Community: She would have hated it like anything. The constant ironic parodies, the insistence on cleverness at the expense of humor, the shallow takes on deep philosophy, she would have blasted it from episode 1 and bemoaned the fact that its fans managed to keep it on the air.
Sex and the City: She loved romance and sexual honesty, she loved banter and subtle humor. I thin she’d have loved it from beginning to end. But then again, I’ve seen maybe three episodes. Maybe I’m wrong about it. One day I’ll force myself to sit down and see what the big deal is, but I’m still not sure I’ll understand it.
Seinfeld: I’m of two minds about what she’d have thought. On the one hand, I think she’d have loved the absurdity, the elegance, and the vitality. I think she’d have even been able to take the autobiographical element because it was worn so lightly. But I think she’d have bemoaned the insistence in so many comedies on immature attitudes, and I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have dated the embryo of that immaturity to Seinfeld - probably by way of Mel Brooks.
The Office: Who knows? She might have found Ricky Gervais a creep, but she might have also recognized the vitality in his work. I’m pretty sure she would have hated the British version, and found it both mean-spirited and boring. Though I can’t imagine she’d couldn’t have seen the hilarity in Extras and all those celebrity parodies. I do wonder if she’d have liked the American version better. I think she’d have appreciated the sweetness and dignity of these characters, not to mention the idiocy. I think she’d have marveled at the improvisation of all these performers and how such a diverse cast could could be so good so consistently. I also think she’d have found it all a little glum. Kael, for all her iconoclasm, was a voice of her generation, and would not have been fond of the ironic fatalism of modern America, which to her would get in the way of everything pleasurable (and it probably does…).
Note: I have never seen enough Deadwood, True Blood, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, or The Shield to make an opinion on them.
The Sopranos: Kael was on record loving The Sopranos’s first season and panning the second and third. But I think had she lived to its conclusion, I’m sure she’d have fallen back in love with it, perhaps to the point that she’d have seen a worthy successor to the gangster movies of the ‘70s which she so loved. I think she would have sympathized with those who made James Gandolfini into a sex symbol, and she would have thrilled to the show’s black humor, she’d have loved the heated exchanges between Tony and Carmela. Perhaps a critic like Kael is impossible today because it’s impossible to sustain the same visceral impact from TV episode to episode. But if it’s possible, then I guess she might have found in TV drama the next logical step from her favorite movies, and it would begin with The Sopranos.
Breaking Bad: I’m nearly as sure that she’d have loved Breaking Bad - the humor, the violence, the dream-like beauty of the landscape, the “chemistry” between Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn, the hallucinatory drug-like intensity of the show was perfect for her.
Game of Thrones: If there is any show I’m positive Kael would have loved, it’s Game of Thrones. Granted, Kael usually hated Costume Dramas, and who knows if this would be an exception. But I got the very idea of this post when the thought occurred to me: this is a Costume Drama even Pauline Kael could love. It has all the Kael ingredients: sex and violence, coolness and heat, dark comedy and light tragedy. She’d have adored Peter Dinklage and Diana Rigg, and I’d venture a guess that she’d have even loved the hammy-booby sex. And while I’ve never seen a full episode of True Blood, I’m sure she’d feel much the same about it.
Mad Men: It pains me to say that I think Kael would have hated Mad Men. I think she’d have seen its slowness and meaningfulness as anaesthatized self-importance. She would have accused the show of recreating the details of the era with none of its frission. She’d have found Don Draper generic and boring, Betty Draper nauseating, and while she might have reserved a soft spot for Roger Sterling, I think she would have seen the archetypes of the show as constricting the characters utterly. She might have liked Mad Men’s understated humor, but I think she’d have found the space between the jokes as long-winded as the space between the action.
The Wire: I think Kael would have had mixed feelings. She’d have absolutely loathed the self-importance, the earnestness, the preachiness, the absence of women, etc... But I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have warmed to the macho humor, the bizarreness of the characters, and the general nightmare state of its Baltimore vision.
Lost: Oh god she would have hated Lost. The superficiality, the incomprehensibility, the emotional manipulativeness, the spiritual malaise of the characters… case closed.
The West Wing: I was stunned when I read an interview at the end of Kael’s life and she said that in her opinion, the best show on TV was The West Wing. I suppose I sort of understand it - Aaron Sorkin’s perhaps the only writer working today who can recall the barbed wit of Golden Age Hollywood, and his lines are spoken by a cast whose ability can rival any TV show’s in history. But how on earth could she deal with the treacle, the liberal pieties, the utter sense of emotional manipulation? It’s a judgement which seems so unlike her… God knows what she’d have made of Studio 60 or The Newsroom.
Downton Abbey: She’d have loved Maggie Smith. The rest of the show would have irritated her beyond belief - I can hear her in my mind calling it a soap opera for educated old ladies who got their Mrs degrees at Radcliffe and Barnard and retired into premature dowagerdom.
Great Lines from Kael:
“Regrettably, one of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down.”
“The words "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.”
“Audiences who have been forced to wade through the thick middle-class padding of more expensively made movies to get to the action enjoy the nose-thumbing at "good taste" of cheap movies that stick to the raw materials. At some basic level they like the pictures to be cheaply done, they enjoy the crudeness; it’s a breather, a vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses. Patrons of burlesque applaud politely for the graceful erotic dancer but go wild for the lewd lummox who bangs her big hips around. That’s what they go to burlesque for.”
“Movies make hash of the schoolmarm’s approach of how well the artist fulfilled his intentions. Whatever the original intention of the writers and director, it is usually supplanted, as the production gets under way, by the intention to make money — and the industry judges the film by how well it fulfills that intention. But if you could see the "artist’s intentions" you’d probably wish you couldn’t anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist.”
“Men are now beginning their careers as directors by working on commercials — which, if one cares to speculate on it, may be almost a one-sentence résumé of the future of American motion pictures.”
“And for the greatest movie artists where there is a unity of technique and subject, one doesn’t need to talk about technique much because it has been subsumed in the art. One doesn’t want to talk about how Tolstoi got his effects but about the work itself. One doesn’t want to talk about how Jean Renoir does it; one wants to talk about what he has done. One can try to separate it all out, of course, distinguish form and content for purposes of analysis. But that is a secondary, analytic function, a scholarly function, and hardly needs to be done explicitly in criticism. Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole. The critic shouldn’t need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together. The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made — which is more or less implicit.”
“Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.”
“Kicked in the ribs, the press says "art" when "ouch" would be more appropriate.”
“Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
“When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable.”
“The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new.”
“If we make any kind of decent, useful life for ourselves we have less need to run from it to those diminishing pleasures of the movies. When we go to the movies we want something good, something sustained, we don’t want to settle for just a bit of something, because we have other things to do. If life at home is more interesting, why go to the movies? And the theatres frequented by true moviegoers — those perennial displaced persons in each city, the loners and the losers — depress us. Listening to them — and they are often more audible than the sound track — as they cheer the cons and jeer the cops, we may still share their disaffection, but it’s not enough to keep us interested in cops and robbers. A little nose-thumbing isn’t enough. If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.”
“At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don't have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact desensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you're offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don't believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there's anything conceivably damaging in these films — the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don't use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us — that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it's eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?”
“TV executives think that the programs with the highest ratings are what TV viewers want, rather than what they settle for.”
“The conglomerate heads may be business geniuses, but as far as movies are concerned they have virgin instincts; ideas that are new to them and take them by storm may have failed grotesquely dozens of times. But they feel that they are creative people — how else could they have made so much money and be in a position to advise artists what to do? Who is to tell them no?”
“In movies, the balance between art and business has always been precarious, with business outweighing art, but the business was, at least, in the hands of businessmen who loved movies. As popular entertainment, movies need something of what the vulgarian moguls had — zest, a belief in their own instincts, a sentimental dedication to producing pictures that would make their country proud of their contribution, a respect for quality, and the biggest thing: a willingness to take chances. The cool managerial sharks don’t have that; neither do the academics. But the vulgarians also did more than their share of damage, and they’re gone forever anyway. They were part of a different America. They were, more often than not, men who paid only lip service to high ideals, while gouging everyone for profits. The big change in the country is reflected in the fact that people in the movie business no longer feel it necessary to talk about principles at all.”
“It would be very convincing to say that there’s no hope for movies — that audiences have been so corrupted by television and have become so jaded that all they want are noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level. And there’s plenty of evidence, such as the success of Alien. This was a haunted-house-with-gorilla picture set in outer space. It reached out, grabbed you, and squeezed your stomach; it was more gripping than entertaining, but a lot of people didn’t mind. They thought it was terrific, because at least they’d felt something: they’d been brutalized. It was like an entertainment contrived in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by the Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering.”
“Moviegoers like to believe that those they have made stars are great actors. People used to say that Gary Cooper was a fine actor — probably because when they looked in his face they were ready to give him their power of attorney.”
“If you can't make fun of bad movies on serious subjects, what's the point?”
“Moviemaking is so male-dominated now that they think they’re being pro-feminine when they have women punching each other out.”
“For some strange reason we don't go to charming, light movies anymore. People expect a movie to be heavy and turgid, like "American Beauty." We've become a heavy-handed society.”
“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”
“It seems likely that many of the young who don't wait for others to call them artists, but simply announce that they are, don't have the patience to make art.”
“This movie is a toupee made up to look like honest baldness.”
(about Dances with Wolves) “Kevin Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head. The Indians should have called him 'Plays with Camera.'”
“A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.”
“The problem with a popular art form is that those who want something more are in a hopeless minority compared with the millions who are always seeing it for the first time, or for the reassurance and gratification of seeing the conventions fulfilled again.”