As a critic, Pauline Kael tends to be now overlooked as Roger Ebert and Rotten Tomatoes attracts more of the general population and Susan Sontag usually occupies the academics. On the East Coast, she is very likely more well known than she is here in the west, since a bulk of her writing was for The New Yorker and other publications along the Atlantic. Kael I’d say ranks somewhere in the top 100 most important people in film, which is odd considering she wasn’t directly involved in their production.
Francis Davis, a friend to Pauline Kael as well as a writer for magazines himself, was lucky enough to meet with Kael shortly before she passed away, and recorded his conversation with her. The book Afterglow is his transcription of their chat, as well as an introduction containing his reminisences of her.
Kael’s importance as a critic was that she was never afraid to go against the grain, to jeer what others cheered, and cheer what others jeered. It was the latter that was so very important. All too frequently in the film world, perfectly decent films go unnoticed while shlock reigns supreme. Every movie buff has at least a dozen films on their favorites list that no one else has heard of or bothered to watch.* As a critic, she’s one who essentially kicks the alpha-dog and feeds the underdog when necessary.
Kael was instrumental in bringing Jean-Luc Godard’s movies to America. While other critics tended to go ga-ga over Breathless (which is not by any means his best film), they shooed away his later, better films. I was so refreshed to hear Kael speaking lovingly of his less conventional films Masculine-Feminine and La Chinoise. Kael also frequently praised the early works of Robert Altman and Woody Allen (although she lambasts just about everything he made after Husbands and Wives). Kael was also very funny in her observations, like she’s quoted saying Dyan Cannon (actress in Deathtrap, as well as Cary Grant’s wife) was “looking a bit like Lauren Bacall and a bit like Jeanne Moreau, but the wrong bits.” The other thing that makes Kael so interesting as a critic is that she had originally considered being a philosophy professor before becoming a film critic. Her criticisms, like Roger Ebert at his best, have a philosophical edge to them that make them invaluable, unlike a majority of what you see on Rotten Tomatoes for example.
Afterglow is a wonderfully enjoyable book to read. Kael was quite the gifted conversationalist, and Davis, for his part, keeps the conversation going. What was so funny to me was not how frequently I agreed with her, but how frequently I didn’t. Here’s some examples.
I completely agreed with her in some respects, like in her love for Jean-Luc Godard’s films from the sixties and how she openly stated that she thought Steven Spielberg to be a bad director. I wanted to applaud her for disparaging against Steven, who’s so frequently trumpeted as the greatest director who ever lived.
I disagreed with her more often. For instance, she says that Howard Hawks was a genius (and I agree here) but that Monkey Business was a bad film (what????). She then later dismisses one of Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpieces To Be or Not to Be. I can’t even conceive of calling those bad movies. Another jaw-dropping moment for me came when she called the original Star Wars movies bad. Perhaps because I grew up watching them I’m biased. The most unexpected thing I read from her was that she both liked Mel Gibson and thought he was only going to get better. We all know that prophecy wasn’t actualized.** In her defense, she said this long before he went off the deep end. She also said Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was “wrong from the word go,” whereas I find this movie to be a brilliant end to a brilliant director’s career, despite how the movie borders on being unwatchable.
I ended up adding about six movies to my Netflix queue because Kael recommends them. She speaks very highly of Robert Altman, and I’ve seen next to nothing by him.
What I found most peculiar about Pauline Kael was that she insisted on not watching a single movie twice, even if it was a movie she loved. For instance, she says she was almost convinced to rewatch Altman’s Nashville when it was released on DVD, but then stopped and realized she’d already gotten the most out of it the first time. Myself on the other hand, like most readers I’m guessing, feel that I have to watch a movie twice sooner or later to really understand it. I think in seeing the entire structure first, you can go back and see how the little pieces do (or don’t) fit together. Although, I’d also say people often waste their time watching a movie ten or twelve times when they could be watching something new.
While I’d highly recommend Afterglow for any film fan, I wouldn’t necessarily insist you buy it (unless you have a good income). The entire book can be read in about an hour or an hour and a half. It’s only about 130 pages. Check the library, or, if anything, sit down and read the entire thing at a book store. Whether or not you agree with her criticisms, I think you’ll see what a delightful and intelligent person she was.
*For instance, I’m quite fond of Hitchcock’s movie Stage Fright, a film that critics panned and even die-hard Hitchcock fans don’t bother to watch.
**If you ask me, he only went downhill from Mad Max. First I moderately disliked him for his movies, then grew to find him unbearable due to his anti-semitism. Also, I’d say Apocalypto is quite possibly one of the top three worst movies I’ve seen.
If you enjoy reading about the world of film, check out the following review.