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Women Journalists: Pauline Kael

February 01, 2008
by findingDulcinea Staff
Pauline Kael has long been considered one of the most influential film critics of all time, advancing the field of criticism to an "art," as she called it. Passing away just days before 9/11, Kael was remembered in journalistic publications around the world. Today we pay respect to a writer who remains elusive to many of us, especially the younger generations who did not grow up reading her work in the New Yorker, where she published from 1968 to 1991.

Perfecting Criticism

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Still available online, Salon magazine's 1999 feature, "Brilliant Careers," profiled VIPs such as artist Claes Oldenburg, Apple chief Steve Jobs, and Pauline Kael. Writer Ken Tucker describes Kael's "gift for effrontery" (her own term). Her candid, often biting style immediately set her apart from fellow critics. Instead of taking a formal and objective style to the material, Kael approached each film as a down-to-earth movie lover.

But there were certainly a great number of films that Kael did not like, and she never hesitated to say so. When she began her career in the '50s, Salon says, "she was already tossing off unpopular barbs … and was already combative." But it was all in the name of exalting the genre of film criticism and, of course, exalting the films "with the serene authority of a genius autodidact."

Self-Taught Wisdom

A collection of memorable quotes from Pauline Kael is available at the Quotations Book, a blog where you'll find the pithiest expressions of many of history's celebrities. One such Kael quote is evidence of her wide-ranging wisdom. As Salon noted, Kael often injected adages that connected film to the rest of culture and society. Her reviews could be social commentaries as much as they were reviews recommending the public for or against a film.

"Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize."

Keeping Kael

Kael published many books that collected her prolific career, starting with I Lost It at the Movies, a bestseller released in 1965. For a sampling of Kael's reviews online, consult one fan's site, which compiles short segments of hundreds of Kael's pieces in one place.

For Keeps, published in 1995, is Kael's final and most comprehensive book. As Louis Menand, reviewing For Keeps in the New York Review of Books, said, "this final book is a greatest-hits package drawn entirely from previously published collections of Kael's work. Kael estimates, in the introduction, that the book represents about a fifth of her total output." (A staggering fact when we learn that the book is 1,291 pages long.)

Menand's review gives great insight into Kael's early career and her very particular tastes and viewpoints. Intensely critical, she was also philosophical and romantic. As Menand explains, "She despised any filmmaker who assumed that because a thing is popular it must also be cheap, or that an audience drawn to sex or violence deserves to have its nose rubbed in it."

Listening In

NPR's Web site hosts an obituary and three radio interviews with Kael from 1984, 1986, and 1995, as well as radio pieces following her death. Hear commentary from a noted film historian, an NPR journalist, and listen to a special feature on Kael from NPR's well-known news show, All Things Considered.
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