Pauline Kael, 82, movie critic at New Yorker for 25 years, author of books, film essays

September 04, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Pauline Kael, the former movie critic for The New Yorker, died of natural causes yesterday at her home in Great Barrington, Mass. She was 82.

Her first published piece of criticism was an attack on Charles Chaplin's Limelight that appeared in the small San Francisco magazine, City Lights, in 1953. For nearly four decades, she convinced several generations of moviegoers that movies were, as she put it, "our national theater."

The power of her arguments and the colloquial wit and panache of her prose revolutionized movie reviewing, New Yorker writing and American criticism in general. For 15 years she free-lanced for publications such as Film Quarterly and Partisan Review. After her first book, I Lost It at the Movies, appeared in 1965, she served brief stints as the movie critic for McCall's (she was fired after panning The Sound of Music) and The New Republic.

Ms. Kael was closing in on 50 and almost ready to give up on being a professional reviewer when William Shawn invited her into the pages of The New Yorker. She ended up contributing to the magazine for a quarter-century.

Ms. Kael broke into its pages in 1967 with an essay on watching movies on television. She made a bigger splash that year with a passionate defense of Bonnie and Clyde that helped turn the picture from a big-studio discard into a critical and box-office sensation.

She began writing "The Current Cinema" column in 1968. She took a leave of absence in 1979 to work in the movies, at Warren Beatty's instigation, and spent five months as an executive consultant at Paramount, in Los Angeles, before returning to the magazine in 1980 as its sole movie critic until 1988. Ms. Kael retired in 1991.

She won many awards, including the first National Book Award for Arts and Letters given to a book on movies, for her 1973 collection Deeper into Movies. But her importance is better gauged by the impact she had on writers as various as the humorist and novelist Roy Blount Jr., the rock and cultural critic Greil Marcus -- and on filmmakers as diverse as Philip Kaufman and Quentin Tarantino.

According to Virginia Wolff, there are two kinds of criticism: written and spoken. Ms. Kael wrote spoken criticism.

She first nurtured the art of expressing nuanced perceptions in shot-to-the-heart reviews as the manager of the first U.S. twin art movie house, the Cinema Guild and Studio in Berkeley, Calif., where she penned legendary program notes, and as a critic for the listener-supported KPFA radio.

When she started writing regularly for The New Yorker, she was able to channel her energy into a continuing celebration of the fresh and the vital -- and excoriation of the slick and the dead. She honed the vernacular into an elegant conversational flow that laid bare her visceral reactions as well as her ideas.

Her reviews were as seductive and compelling as the films of her favorite directors -- especially Jean Renoir and Sam Peckinpah. She recorded the psychology and the sensations of movie-going.

To produce this kind of criticism demanded more than education, instinct, intelligence and talent. It required strength of character. In her first years at The New Yorker, she once wrote, she had to fight Mr. Shawn "for every contraction, every bit of slang, every description of a scene in a movie that he thought morally offensive." They "squared off like two little pit bulls" and she stood her ground.

Still, Mr. Shawn must have realized that Ms. Kael's style fit the volatile atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a way the magazine's staid house style didn't. Her sensitivity to culture as it is imbibed on street corners and in subways, in nightclubs and cafes, as well as in museums and theaters made her an essential commentator on America's mood swings in that vital and explosive era. Yet when movies became more corporate, Ms. Kael was the first to decry their waning.

As early as 1974, in "On the Future of Movies," she declared, "The public no longer makes a picture a hit. If the advertising for a movie doesn't build up an overwhelming desire to be part of the event, people just won't go."

In 1980, after her sojourn in Hollywood, she wrote "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers," noting that if "rotten pictures are making money," and if "studio heads want nothing more than to make money and grab power," there's no pressure on them to produce good movies.

Ms. Kael's courageous, uncorrupted voice served as inspiration and conscience to many of our finest filmmakers. And her vision of the intersection of politics, high art and mass culture fulfilled Virginia Woolf's definition of a critic's function: "Not merely to deal out skillfully measured doses of praise and blame to individuals, but to keep the atmosphere in a right state for the production of works of art."

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