Pauline Kael: Wikis


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Pauline Kael

An undated photograph of Kael.
Born June 19, 1919
Petaluma, California
Died September 3, 2001 (aged 82)
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Occupation Film critic
Period 1951 - 1991

Pauline Kael (June 19, 1919 –September 3, 2001) was an American film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1968 to 1991. Earlier in her career her works were published by City Lights, McCall's and The New Republic.

Kael was known for her "witty, biting, highly opinionated, and sharply focused"[1] movie reviews. She approached movies emotionally, with a strongly colloquial writing style. She is often regarded as the most influential American film critic of her day.[2][3]

She left a lasting impression on many major critics, including Armond White[4] and Roger Ebert, who has said that Kael "had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades."[5]


Early life and career

Kael was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, to Isaac Paul Kael and Judith Friedman Kael, Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her parents lost their farm when Kael was eight and her family moved to San Francisco, California.[2] She matriculated at the University of California, Berkeley in 1936; she studied philosophy, literature and the arts but dropped out in 1940 before completing her degree. Nevertheless, Kael intended to go on to law school but fell in with a group of artists[6] and moved to New York City with the poet Robert Horan.

Three years later, Kael returned to San Francisco and "led a bohemian life," marrying and divorcing three times, writing plays, and working in experimental film.[2] In 1948, Kael and filmmaker James Broughton had a daughter, Gina, whom Kael would raise alone.[7] Gina had a serious illness through much of her childhood,[8] and to support her, Kael worked a series of menial jobs, such as cook and seamstress, along with stints as an ad-copy writer.[9] In 1953, the editor of City Lights magazine overheard Kael arguing about movies in a coffeeshop with a friend and asked her to review Charlie Chaplin's Limelight.[2] Kael memorably dubbed the movie "slimelight," and began publishing film criticism regularly in magazines.

Even these early reviews were notable for their informality and lack of pretension; Kael later explained, "I worked to loosen my style—to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice."[10] Kael disparaged the supposed critic's ideal of objectivity, referring to it as "saphead objectivity,"[11] and incorporated aspects of autobiography into her criticism.[9] In a review of Vittorio De Sica's 1946 neorealist Shoeshine (Sciuscià) that has been ranked among her most memorable,[12] Kael described seeing the film

[...]after one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, 'Well I don't see what was so special about that movie.' I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?... Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.[12]

Kael broadcast many of her early reviews on the alternative public radio station KPFA in Berkeley, and gained further local-celebrity status as Berkeley Cinema Guild manager from 1955 to 1960. As manager of a two-screen theater, Kael programmed the films that were shown "unapologetically repeat[ing] her favorites until they also became audience favorites."[13] She also wrote "pungent" capsule reviews of the movies, which her patrons began collecting.[14]

Going mass market

Kael continued to juggle writing with other work until she received an offer to publish a book of her criticism. Published in 1965 as I Lost It at the Movies, the collection sold 150,000 paperback copies and was a surprise bestseller. Coinciding with a job at the high-circulation women's magazine McCall's, Kael (as Newsweek put it in a 1966 profile) "went mass."[15]

During the same year, she wrote a blistering review of the phenomenally popular The Sound of Music in McCall's. After mentioning that some of the press had dubbed it "The Sound of Money," Kael called the film's message a "sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat."[16] Although, according to legend,[9] this review led to her being fired from McCall's (The New York Times printed as much in Kael's obituary), both Kael and the magazine's editor, Robert Stein, denied this. According to Stein, "I [fired her] months later after she kept panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day's Night."[17]

Her dismissal from McCall's led to a stint from 1966 to 1967 at The New Republic, whose editors continually altered Kael's writing without permission. A few days after quitting the Republic "in despair,"[18] Kael was asked by William Shawn to join The New Yorker staff as one of its two film critics (she alternated every six months with Penelope Gilliatt until 1979, after which she became sole film critic.) Her first review in the New Yorker raved about Bonnie and Clyde. According to critic David Thomson, "she was right about a film that had bewildered many other critics."[14]

Initially, many considered her colloquial, brash writing style an odd fit with the sophisticated and genteel New Yorker. Kael remembered "getting a letter from an eminent New Yorker writer suggesting that I was trampling through the pages of the magazine with cowboy boots covered with dung."[19] During her tenure at the New Yorker, however, she took advantage of a forum that permitted her to write at length and with presumably minimal editorial interference, and Kael achieved her greatest prominence; by 1968, Time magazine was referring to her as "one of the country's top movie critics."[20] Kael noted that during this period her reviews were so interesting because the movies were so compelling.

New Yorker tenure

In 1970, Kael received a George Polk Award for her work as a critic at the New Yorker. She continued to publish hardbound collections of her writings, many with (deliberately) suggestive titles such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, When the Lights Go Down, and Taking It All In. Her fourth book, Deeper into Movies (1973), was the first non-fiction book about movies to win a National Book Award.

Kael also wrote philosophical essays on moviegoing, the modern Hollywood film industry, and the lack of courage on the part of audiences (as she perceived it) to explore lesser-known, more challenging movies (she rarely used the word "film" to describe movies because she felt the word was too elitist). Among her more popular essays were a damning review of Norman Mailer's semi-fictional Marilyn: a Biography (an account of Marilyn Monroe's life); an incisive look at Cary Grant's career, and an extensively-researched examination of Citizen Kane, entitled Raising Kane (later reprinted in The Citizen Kane Book). She argued that Herman J. Mankiewicz, Citizen Kane's co-screenwriter, deserved as much credit for the film as Orson Welles did, a thesis that provoked controversy and hurt Welles to the point that he considered suing Kael for libel.[11]

Kael battled the editors of the New Yorker as much as her own critics. She fought with William Shawn to review the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat, though she eventually relented.[21] According to Kael, after reading her negative review of Terrence Malick's 1973 movie Badlands, Shawn said, "I guess you didn't know that Terry is like a son to me." Kael responded, "Tough shit, Bill," and her review was printed unchanged.[22] Other than sporadic confrontations with Shawn, Kael said she spent most of her work time at home writing.[23]

Upon the release of Kael's 1980 collection When the Lights Go Down, her New Yorker colleague Renata Adler published an 8,000-word review in The New York Review of Books that dismissed the book as "jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless."[24] Adler argued that Kael's post-sixties work contained "nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility," and faulted her "quirks [and] mannerisms," including Kael's repeated use of the "bullying" imperative and rhetorical question. The piece, which stunned Kael and quickly became infamous in literary circles,[23] was described by Time magazine as "the New York literary Mafia['s] bloodiest case of assault and battery in years."[25] Although Kael refused to respond, Adler's review became known as "the most sensational attempt on Kael's reputation";[26] twenty years later, (ironically) referred to Adler's "worthless" denunciation of Kael as her "most famous single sentence."[27]

In 1979, Kael accepted an offer from Warren Beatty to be a consultant to Paramount Pictures, but in mid 1980 she left the position after only a few months to return to writing criticism.

Later years

In the early 1980s, Kael was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. As her illness worsened, she became increasingly depressed about the state of American movies, along with feeling that "I had nothing new to say."[22] In a March 11, 1991, announcement which The New York Times referred to as "earth-shattering," Kael announced her retirement from reviewing movies regularly.[28] At the time, Kael explained that she would still write essays for The New Yorker, along with "some reflections and other pieces of writing about movies."[28] During the next ten years, however, she published no new work besides an introduction to her 1994 compendium, For Keeps. In the introduction (which was reprinted in The New Yorker), Kael stated, in reference to her film criticism, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have."[29]

Though she published no new writing of her own, Kael was not averse to giving interviews, in which she alternately praised and derided newly-released films and television shows. In a 1998 interview with Modern Maturity, she said she sometimes regretted not being able to review, saying, "A few years ago when I saw Vanya on 42nd Street, I wanted to blow trumpets. Your trumpets are gone once you’ve quit."[22] She died at her home in Massachusetts in 2001, aged 82.


Kael's opinions often ran contrary to consensus critical opinion. Occasionally, she energetically championed movies that were considered critical failures, such as The Warriors and Last Tango in Paris. Soon after the latter film's release, Kael won the 1973 Harvard Lampoon Bosley Award, named after New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther and given to "that critic who consistently explores the farthest limits of bad taste"[30]. She was described by the Award's judges as "Pauline Kael, whose hysterical encomium loosed Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris on an all-too-trusting world." She was not especially cruel to some films that had been roasted by many critics, such as the 1972 Man of La Mancha, in which she praised Sophia Loren's performance. She also condemned films that elsewhere attracted admiration, such as It's a Wonderful Life, West Side Story, and Shoah. The originality of her opinions, as well as the forceful way in which she expressed them, won her ardent supporters as well as angry critics.

Notable movie reviews by Kael included a venomous criticism of West Side Story that drew harsh replies from the movie's supporters; ecstatic reviews of Z and MASH that resulted in enormous boosts to those films' popularity; and enthusiastic reviews of Brian De Palma's early films. Kael's scathing critique of Ryan's Daughter (1970) allegedly dissuaded director David Lean from making a film for fourteen years afterwards. Her 'preview' of Robert Altman's 1975 movie Nashville appeared several months before the film was actually completed, in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to catapult the film to box office glory.

Views on violence

Kael had a taste for anti-hero movies that violated taboos involving sex and violence, and this reportedly alienated some of her readers. She also had a strong dislike for films that she felt were manipulative or appealed in superficial ways to conventional attitudes and feelings.

She was an enthusiastic supporter of the violent action films of Sam Peckinpah and early Walter Hill, as evidenced in her collection 5001 Nights at the Movies, which includes positive reviews of Hill's Hard Times (1975), The Warriors (1979), and Southern Comfort (1981), as well as Peckinpah's entire body of work. Although she initially dismissed John Boorman's Point Blank (1967) for what she felt was its pointless brutality, she later acknowledged it was "intermittently dazzling" with "more energy and invention than Boorman seems to know what to do comes out exhilarated but bewildered."[31]

Kael responded negatively, however, to some action films that she felt pushed what she described as "right-wing" or "fascist" agendas. While praising Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) as "trim, brutal, and exciting; it was directed in the sleekest style by the veteran urban-action director...," she labeled it a "right-wing fantasy [that is] a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values".[31] She also called it "fascist medievalism".[32] In an otherwise extremely positive critique of Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, Kael concluded that the controversial director had made 'the first American film that is a fascist work of art'.[32]

In her negative review of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Kael explained how she felt some directors who used brutal imagery in their films were de-sensitizing audiences to violence:

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 de-sensitizing 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.

Accusations of homophobia

In preface to a 1983 interview with Kael for the gay magazine Mandate, Sam Staggs wrote that "she has always carried on a love/hate affair with her gay the bitchiest queen in gay mythology, she has a sharp remark about everything."[33] In the early 1980s, however, largely in response to her review of the 1981 drama Rich and Famous, Kael faced notable accusations of homophobia. First remarked on by Stuart Byron in The Village Voice, according to gay writer Craig Seligman the accusations eventually "took on a life of their own and did real damage to her reputation."[34]

In her review, Kael called the straight-themed Rich and Famous "more like a homosexual fantasy," saying that one female character's affairs "are creepy, because they don't seem like what a woman would get into."[35] Byron, who "hit the ceiling" after reading the review, was joined by The Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo, who argued that Kael equated promiscuity with homosexuality, "as though straight women have never been promiscuous or been given the permission to be promiscuous."[35]

In response to her review of Rich and Famous, several critics reappraised Kael's earlier reviews of gay-themed movies, including a wisecrack Kael made about the lesbian-themed The Children's Hour: "I always thought this was why lesbians needed sympathy — that there isn't much they can do."[36] Craig Seligman has defended Kael, saying that these remarks showed "enough ease with the topic to be able to crack jokes — in a dark period when other reviewers....'felt that if homosexuality were not a crime it would spread.'"[37] Kael herself rejected the accusations as "craziness," adding, "I don't see how anybody who took the trouble to check out what I've actually written about movies with homosexual elements in them could believe that stuff."[38]

Nixon "quote"

Kael is frequently quoted as having said, in the wake of Richard Nixon's landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election, that she "couldn't believe Nixon had won", since no one she knew had voted for him. The quote is sometimes cited by conservatives (such as Bernard Goldberg, in his book Bias), as an example of liberal bias in the mainstream media. There are variations as to the exact wording, the speaker (it has variously been attributed to other liberal female writers, including Katharine Graham, Susan Sontag, and Joan Didion),[39][40] and the timing (in addition to Nixon's victory, it has been claimed to have been uttered after Ronald Reagan's re-election in 1984.)[41]

There is, in fact, no record of Kael making such a remark. The story may have originated in a December 28, 1972 New York Times article on a lecture Kael gave at the Modern Language Association, in which the newspaper quoted her as saying, "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."[42]


Almost as soon as she began writing for The New Yorker, Kael carried a great deal of influence among fellow critics. In the early seventies, Cinerama distributors "initiate[d] a policy of individual screenings for each critic because her remarks [during the film] were affecting her fellow critics."[43] In the seventies and eighties, Kael cultivated friendships with a group of young, mostly male critics, some of whom emulated her distinctive writing style. Referred to derisively as the "Paulettes," they came to dominate national film criticism in the 1990s. Critics who have acknowledged Kael's influence include, among many, A. O. Scott of The New York Times,[44] David Denby and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker,[45][46] David Edelstein of New York Magazine,[47] Greil Marcus,[47] Elvis Mitchell,[48] Michael Sragow,[47] Armond White, and Stephanie Zacharek of[49] It was repeatedly alleged that, after her retirement, Kael's "most ardent devotees deliberate[d] with each other [to] forge a common School of Pauline position" before their reviews were written.[50] When confronted with the rumor that she ran "a conspiratorial network of young critics," Kael said she believed that critics imitated her style rather than her actual opinions, stating, "A number of critics take phrases and attitudes from me, and those takings stick out—they’re not integral to the writer’s temperament or approach."[51]

When asked in 1998 if she thought her criticism had affected the way films were made, Kael deflected the question, stating, "If I say yes, I’m an egotist, and if I say no, I’ve wasted my life."[22] Several directors' careers were indisputably affected by her, though, most notably Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, who was accepted at UCLA Film School's graduate program on Kael's recommendation. Under her mentoring, Schrader worked as a film critic before taking up screenwriting and directing full-time. Also, film critic Derek Malcolm claimed that, "If a director was praised by Kael, he or she was generally allowed to work, since the money-men knew there would be similar approbation across a wide field of publications."[11] Alternately, Kael was said to be able to prevent filmmakers from working; David Lean claimed that her criticism of his work "kept him from making a movie for 14 years."[52] (He was most likely referring to the break between Ryan's Daughter in 1970 and A Passage to India in 1984.)

Though he began directing movies after she retired, Quentin Tarantino was also influenced by Kael. He read her criticism voraciously growing up and said that Kael was "as influential as any director was in helping me develop my aesthetic."[29] Wes Anderson recounted his efforts to screen his film Rushmore for Kael in a 1999 The New York Times article titled "My Private Screening With Pauline Kael".[53] He later wrote Kael that "your thoughts and writing about the movies [have] been a very important source of inspiration for me and my movies, and I hope you don't regret that."[5]

In his 1988 film Willow, George Lucas named one of the villains "General Kael," after the critic. Kael had often reviewed Lucas' work without enthusiasm; in her own (negative) review of Willow, she described the character as an "hommage à moi."

Bibliography (partial)


Selected reviews and essays


  1. ^ "Pauline Kael". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2006-09-01. 
  2. ^ a b c d Van Gelder, Lawrence (2001-09-04). "Pauline Kael, Provocative and Widely Imitated New Yorker Film Critic, Dies at 82". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  3. ^ "Remembering Pauline Kael". New Yorker. Retrieved 2006-09-01. 
  4. ^ Ross, Matthew. "The Critic (Interview with Armond White)". Filmmaker. Retrieved 2007-01-19. 
  5. ^ a b Feeney, Mark. "Viewing the parcels of Pauline". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-01-19. 
  6. ^ Obituary: Pauline Kael | Obituaries |
  7. ^ Seligman (2004). p. 11.
  8. ^ Brantley (1996). p. 10.
  9. ^ a b c Tucker, Ken (1999-02-09). "A gift for effrontery". Retrieved 2007-04-18. 
  10. ^ Brantley (1996). p. 95.
  11. ^ a b c Houston, Penelope (2001-09-05). "Obituary: Pauline Kael". The Guardian.,3604,546921,00.html. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  12. ^ a b Seligman (2004). p. 37.
  13. ^ Hom, Lisa (2001-11-21). "All Hail Kael: A film series remembers the uncompromising New Yorker critic Pauline Kael". San Francisco Weekly. Retrieved 2007-04-18. 
  14. ^ a b Thomson, David (2002). "Pauline Kael." The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-3757-0940-1. p. 449-50.
  15. ^ Brantley (1996). p. 3-4.
  16. ^ Kael, Pauline (1968). Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Toronto: Bantam. ISBN 0-31648-163-7.  p. 214-5.
  17. ^ "THE SOUND OF MUSIC: Kael's Fate". The New York Times. 2000-09-03. Retrieved 2007-04-18. 
  18. ^ Brantley (1996). p. 12
  19. ^ Seligman (2004). p. 12.
  20. ^ "The Pearls of Pauline". Time. 1968-07-12.,9171,712147,00.html. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  21. ^ Davis (2002). p. 32.
  22. ^ a b c d Goodman, Susan (March/April 1998). "She Lost It At the Movies" (reprint). Modern Maturity. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  23. ^ a b Davis (2002). p. 40.
  24. ^ Adler, Renata (1980-08-14). "The Perils of Pauline". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  25. ^ "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Ouch Ouch)". Time. 1980-08-04.,9171,920938,00.html. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  26. ^ Seligman (2004). p. 137.
  27. ^ Johnson, Dennis Loy (2000-08-21). "Interview with the heretic". Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  28. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (1991-03-13). "For Pauline Kael, Retirement as Critic Won't Be a Fade-Out". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-25. 
  29. ^ a b Corliss, Richard (1994-11-07). "That Wild Old Woman". Time.,9171,981763,00.html. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  30. ^ St. Petersburg Times, 01 December 1973, p12
  31. ^ a b Kael, Pauline. 5001 Nights at the Movies, Henry Holt and Company, 1991. ISBN 0-8050-1367-9
  32. ^ a b Kael, Pauline. Deeper into Movies, Warner Books, 1973. ISBN 0-7145-0941-8
  33. ^ Brantley (1996). p. 91.
  34. ^ Seligman (2004). p. 151.
  35. ^ a b Seligman (2004). p. 152.
  36. ^ Seligman (2004). p. 155.
  37. ^ Seligman (2004). p. 156.
  38. ^ Brantley (1996). p. 96.
  39. ^ Hecht, David G.D.. "Diversity of Opinion". Collumbia College. Retrieved 2008-11-08. 
  40. ^ Brooks, David (1998-06-29). "David Brooks and Susan Estrich". Slate. Retrieved 2008-11-08. 
  41. ^ Taranto, James (2007-05-03). "From the WSJ Opinion Archives". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2008-11-08. 
  42. ^ Shenker, Israel (1972-12-28). "2 Critics Here Focus on Films As Language Conference Opens" (fee required). The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-04-18. 
  43. ^ Brantley (1996). p. 16.
  44. ^ Scott, A. O. "The Movies Lose a Love And a Friend", The New York Times, 2001-09-16. Retrieved on 2008-04-02.
  45. ^ Denby, David. "My Life As a Paulette," The New Yorker, 2003-10-20.
  46. ^ Charlie Rose interview with Lane
  47. ^ a b c Menand, Louis. "Finding It at the Movies", The New York Review of Books, 1995-03-23. Retrieved on 2008-04-02. In his review, Menand writes of Kael's influence on Sragow, Edelstein, and Marcus.
  48. ^ "Q&A: Elvis Mitchell: Part 1", Undercover Black Man, 2007-03-05.
  49. ^ Zacharek, Stephanie. "The critic: Pauline Kael, R.I.P.",, 2001-09-03.
  50. ^ "Pauletteburo?: Fur flies over the Kael "kopy kats"". The Phoenix. 1997-03-27. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  51. ^ Espen, Hal. "Kael Talks," The New Yorker 21 March 1994. p. 134-43.
  52. ^ Jacobs, Diane (1999-11-14). "REVIEW: Running Time: 17,356,680 Minutes". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-04-19. 
  53. ^ Anderson, Wes (1999-01-29). "My Private Screening With Pauline Kael". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-08. 


  • Brantley, Will, ed. (1996). Conversations with Pauline Kael. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 0-87805-899-0.
  • Davis, Francis (2002). Afterglow: A Last Conversation With Pauline Kael. Cambridge: Da Capo. ISBN 0-306-81230-4. 
  • Seligman, Craig (2004). Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me. New York: Counterpoint. ISBN 1-58243-311-9. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Pauline Kael (1919-06-192001-09-03) was an American film critic best known for the reviews she wrote in The New Yorker. Collections of her reviews were later published in book form.



  • I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.
  • Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.
  • In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.
  • Before seeing Truffaut's Small Change, I was afraid it was going to be one of those simple, natural films about childhood which I generally try to avoid — I'm just not good enough to go to them. But this series of sketches on the general theme of the resilience of children turns out to be that rarity — a poetic comedy that's really funny.
    • Review of Small Change, from When The Lights Go Down (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980, ISBN 0-030-42511-5)
  • I loved writing about things when I was excited about them. It's not fun writing about bad movies. I used to think it was bad for my skin. It's painful writing about the bad things in an art form, particularly when young kids are going to be enthusiastic about those things, because they haven't seen anything better, or anything different.
    • Quoted in Francis Davis, Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (Da Capo, 2003, ISBN 0-306-81230-4)
  • After one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, "Well I don't see what was so special about that movie." I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?... Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.
    • Review for Shoeshine (1946) as quoted in Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (2004) by Craig Seligman.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968)

[Little, Brown ISBN 0-316-48163-7]

  • 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.
    • "A Note on the Title"
  • Watching old movies is like spending an evening with those people next door. They bore us, and we wouldn't go out of our way to see them; we drop in on them because they're so close. If it took some effort to see old movies, we might try to find out which were the good ones, and if people saw only the good ones maybe they would still respect old movies. As it is, people sit and watch movies that audiences walked out on thirty years ago. Like Lot's wife, we are tempted to take another look, attracted not by evil but by something that seems much more shameful — our own innocence.
    • "Movies on Television"
  • The past has a terror and fascination and a beauty beyond almost anything else. We are looking at the dead, and they move and grin and wave at us; it's an almost unbearable experience. When our wonder or our grief are interrupted or followed by a commercial, we want to destroy the ugly box. Old movies don't tear us apart like that. They do something else, which we can take more of and take more easily; they give us a sense of the passage of life. Here is Elizabeth Taylor as a plump matron and here, an hour later, as an exquisite child.
    • "Movies on Television"

Going Steady (1969)

[Marion Boyars, ISBN 0-714-52976-1]

Trash, Art and the Movies (February 1969)

See the essay in its entirety here

  • Alienation is the most common state of the knowledgeable movie audience, and though it has the peculiar rewards of low connoisseurship, a miser’s delight in small favors, we long to be surprised out of it — not to suspension of disbelief nor to a Brechtian kind of alienation, but to pleasure, something a man can call good without self-disgust.
  • 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.
  • People who are just getting "seriously interested" in film always ask a critic, "Why don’t you talk about technique and 'the visuals' more?" The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn’t very interesting.
  • The craftsmanship that Hollywood has always used as a selling point not only doesn’t have much to do with art — the expressive use of techniques — it probably doesn’t have very much to do with actual box-office appeal, either.
  • 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 small triumph of "The Graduate" was to have domesticated alienation and the difficulty of communication, by making what Benjamin is alienated from a middle-class comic strip and making it absurdly evident that he has nothing to communicate — which is just what makes him an acceptable hero for the large movie audience. If he said anything or had any ideas, the audience would probably hate him.
  • The recurrence of certain themes in movies suggests that each generation wants romance restated in slightly new terms, and of course it’s one of the pleasures of movies as a popular art that they can answer this need. And yet, and yet — one doesn’t expect an educated generation to be so soft on itself, much softer than the factory workers of the past who didn’t go back over and over to the same movies, mooning away in fixation on themselves and thinking this fixation meant movies had suddenly become an art, and their art.
  • The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new.
  • One’s moviegoing tastes and habits change — I still like in movies what I always liked but now, for example, I really want documentaries. After all the years of stale stupid acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them, I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of non-actors and for knowledge of how people live — for revelations, not for the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of.
  • 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.

Deeper into Movies (1973)

[Little, Brown ISBN 0-316-48176-9]

  • 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?

5001 Nights at the Movies (1982)

[Holt, Rinehart and Winston ISBN 0-03-00042-x]

  • The action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it surfaces in this movie.
  • The slender, swift Bruce Lee was the Fred Astaire of martial arts, and many of the fights that could be merely brutal come across as lightning-fast choreography.
  • Picasso has a volatile, explosive presence. He seems to take art back to an earlier function, before the centuries of museums and masterpieces; he is the artist as clown, as conjurer, as master funmaker.
    • "Le Mystère Picasso," p. 400
  • De Mille's bang-them-on-the-head-with-wild-orgies-and-imperilled-virginity style is at its ripest; the film is just about irresistible.
    • "The Sign of the Cross," p. 533
  • De Niro's inflamed, brimming eyes are the focal point of the compositions. He's Travis Bickle, an outsider who can't find any point of entry into human society. He drives nights because he can't sleep anyway; surrounded by the night world of the uprooted — whores, pimps, transients — he hates New York with a Biblical fury, and its filth and smut obsess him. This ferociously powerful film is like a raw, tabloid version of Notes from the Underground. Martin Scorsese achieves the quality of trance in some scenes, and the whole movie has a sense of vertigo. The cinematographer, Michael Chapman, gives the street life a seamy, rich pulpiness.
  • One of the biggest box-office successes in movie history — probably because for young audiences it's like getting a box of Cracker Jack that is all prizes. Written and directed by George Lucas, the film is enjoyable in its own terms, but it's exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. There's no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the image of a double sunset. The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, and the relentless pacing drive every idea out of your head, and even if you've been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension — a sense of wonder, perhaps. It's an epic without a dream.
    • "Star Wars," p.714

Taking It All In (1983)

[Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ISBN 0030693616]

Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers (1980-06-23)

See the essay in its entirety here

  • 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.
  • People have expected less of movies and have been willing to settle for less. Some have even been willing to settle for Kramer vs. Kramer and other pictures that seem to be made for an audience of over-age flower children. These pictures express the belief that if a man cares about anything besides being at home with the kids, he’s corrupt. Parenting ennobles Dustin Hoffman and makes him a better person in every way, while in The Seduction of Joe Tynan we can see that Alan Alda is a weak, corruptible fellow because he wants to be President of the United States more than he wants to stay at home communing with his daughter about her adolescent miseries. Pictures like these should all end with the fathers and the children sitting at home watching TV together.
  • 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.

State of the Art (1985)

[Dutton, ISBN 0-525-48186-9]

  • In the sixties, the recycling of pop culture — turning it into Pop art and camp — had its own satirical zest. Now we're into a different kind of recycling. Moviemakers give movies of the past an authority that those movies didn't have; they inflate images that may never have compelled belief, images that were no more than shorthand gestures — and they use them not as larger-than-life jokes but as altars.
    • "A Bad Dream/A Masterpiece," review of The Moon in the Gutter (1983-09-19), p. 48
  • Unlike storybook heroes and heroines but like many actual heroes and heroines, she was something of a social outcast. (As Simone Weil noted, it was the people with irregular and embarrassing histories who were often the heroes of the Resistance in the Second World War; the proper middle-class people may have felt they had too much to lose.)
  • If I never saw another fistfight or car chase or Doberman attack, I wouldn't have any feeling of loss. And that goes for Rottweilers, too.
  • It tackles a wonderful subject without preening, and brings it off unassertively — so unassertively that the movie is in danger of being overlooked. (Variety has already dismissed it as something "for a very limited audience.") We're getting to the point where the press assumes that movie audiences won't be willing to bring anything to a picture, and warns them off.
    • "Circus," review of Moscow on the Hudson (1984-04-16), p. 160
  • Since I have an aversion to movies in which people say grace at the dinner table (not to the practice but to how movies use it to establish the moral strength of a household), the opening night montage of Sunday-night supper in one home after another in Waxahachie, Texas in 1935 — a whole community saying grace — made me expect the worst.

Hooked (1989)

[Dutton, ISBN 0-525-48429-9]

  • Is there something in druggy subjects that encourages directors to make imitation film noir? Film noir itself becomes an addiction.
  • If there is any test that can be applied to movies, it's that the good ones never make you feel virtuous.

Movie Love (1991)

[Penguin, ISBN 0-452-26635-1]

  • 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.
  • This is a nature-boy movie, a kid's daydream of being an Indian. When Dunbar has become a Sioux named Dances with Wolves, he writes in his journal that he knows for the first time who he really is. Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.


  • If you can't make fun of bad movies on serious subjects, what's the point?
    • Interview with Hal Espen, The New Yorker (1994-03-21); reprinted in Espen's Conversations with Pauline Kael (University of Mississippi Press, 1996, ISBN 0-878-05899-0), p. 162
  • Goodman: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
    Kael: I hate it. It is very creepy being imitated.
    • Interview with Susan Goodman, Modern Maturity (March/April 1998) [2]
  • Earlier generations went to see what was forbidden in life and developed a real excitement about the movies. Today’s rating system keeps kids out of the good ones. I wouldn’t want them to see movies like Natural Born Killers, but my tendency is you’re better off seeing things than not. That glazed indifference kids develop can be worse than over-excitement.
    • Interview with Susan Goodman, Modern Maturity (March/April 1998)
  • Moviemaking is so male-dominated now that they think they’re being pro-feminine when they have women punching each other out.
    • Interview with Susan Goodman, Modern Maturity (March/April 1998)
  • It's sometimes discouraging to see all of a director's movies, because there's so much repetition. The auteurists took this to be a sign of a director's artistry, that you could recognize his movies. But it can also be a sign that he's a hack.
  • I still don't look at movies twice. It's funny, I just feel I got it the first time. With music it's different. People respond so differently to the whole issue of seeing a movie many times. I'm astonished when I talk to really good critics, who know their stuff and will see a film eight or ten or twelve times. I don't see how they can do it without hating the movie. I would.
    • "The Perils of Being Pauline," interview with Francis Davis, The New Yorker (October 2001)
  • 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.
    • "The Perils of Being Pauline," interview with Francis Davis, The New Yorker (October 2001)


  • 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.

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