Pauline Kael’s long-form reviews often begin with hyperbole and then proceed to unpack the foundation of that emotional response. Take her review of Éric Rohmer’s “Love in the Afternoon”: she begins by describing it as “forgettable as a movie can be,” which might scan as emptily provocative on face, before examining Rohmer’s choice to withhold information, claiming, “while most artists set up situations selected for their power to reveal, Rohmer, refusing to reveal, sets up arbitrary situations in which he can control everything and not have to bother with the psychology or the messy texture of common experience.” She concedes it’s a movie of “the highest gloss,” but not one of “deep insight—or generosity of spirit, either.” Kael concludes with another broadside: “What is frequently described as rigor and austerity may be no more than polished aridity, polished pettiness. [Rohmer’s] a clever traditionalist in a medium in which bourgeois worldliness can pass for much more.”
Similarly, her review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” starts with comically effusive praise (“This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made…”) only to analyze the intersection of eroticism (specifically, audience’s responses to it projected on film) and Brando’s celebrity persona: “We are watching Brando throughout the movie, with all the feedback that that implies, and his willingness to run the full course with a study of the aggression in masculine sexuality and how the physical strength of men lends credence to the insanity that grows out of it gives the film a larger, tragic dignity. If Brando knows this hell, why should we pretend we don’t?”
Like any critic worth their salt, Kael’s conclusions run the gamut between understandable and baffling. Frankly, it’s valid to align oneself with Woody Allen’s famous opinion of Kael: “She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment.” Yet, her work has endured not because of one opinion or another (save for possibly her career-making review of “Bonnie and Clyde”), but because it’s deliriously entertaining to read her reasoning, both when she’s on point and when she’s pigheadedly off-base.
Starting today, Quad Cinema will run a two-week retrospective entitled “Losing It At the Movies: Pauline Kael at 100,” in honor of the critic’s 100th birthday on June 19th. The series will cover a cross-section of films she championed (“Nashville,” “Taxi Driver,” “Shampoo”) and hated (“La Notte,” “The Fury,” “The Gauntlet”), plus a handful about which she felt decidedly mixed, e.g. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend,” in which she said “it’s possible to hate half or two-thirds of what Godard does—or find it incomprehensible—and still be shattered by his brilliance.”
From a programming perspective, it makes sense to broaden the scope of inquiry beyond films Kael enthusiastically loved. It obviously allows for a broader variety of viewing options that can potentially reach different audiences, not to mention a couple of oddities that fall outside of the rarefied canon, i.e. two philanderous comedies Irvin Kershner’s “Loving” and Paul Mazursky’s “Blume in Love,” both on 35mm. From an audience’s perspective, however, there’s an impulse to construct a Kaelian worldview via the films in the series. What are the commonalities between the films she loved or hated? How do they explicate her critical acumen or personal biases? While that might be a futile, reductive venture, it’s an interesting exercise at the very least, especially when it comes to the films that many people have all but absorbed through cultural osmosis.
Mostly, it’s a way to revel in the contradictions of Kael’s approach. She frequently criticized films for pomposity or self-seriousness but finds none of those qualities in “Nashville,” a film that many tar with that brush. She derided the auteurist theory but worked those muscles for the auteurs she liked; her oft-cited “Taxi Driver” review essentially splits time between an auteurist reading of Scorsese and a unified theory of De Niro. The inconsistency might broadly frustrate, especially when it comes from someone known for broadsides, but, for me, it’s a testament to the wiles of subjectivity as an active profession. Even the most inflexible opinions become pliable when diffused across a half century of art.
Kael has a special knack for The Sentence, an incisive line that cuts through the thicket and gets to the heart of something honest. It’s rarely where you think it’s going to be and it’s often outside of her thesis. In preparation for this piece, I was re-reading Kael’s review of “The Godfather Part II,” a movie I remember enjoying (though not nearly as much as the first “Godfather”) but one I haven’t actively thought about it in quite a while. At one point, she writes, “It’s as if the movie satisfied an impossible yet basic human desire to see what our parents were like before we were born and to see what they did that affected what we became—not to hear about it, or to read about it, as we can in novels, but actually to see it.” That one sentence made me want to re-watch the film on the spot. The ability to inspire that feeling is certainly worth celebrating.
Losing It At the Movies: Pauline Kael at 100 runs at New York’s Quad Cinema from June 7-20. For more information on the series, click here