Favourite Thinkers II: Pauline Kael

Now that I live in a town almost devoid of bookshops, it’s a big occasion when I get out at the weekend and end up buying a book of any sort. Last week in Stroud, the slightly odd leftie-hippy enclave in the heart of the staunchly Tory Cotswolds, I picked up two second-hand volumes of collected reviews by Pauline Kael, the long-time film critic for The New Yorker from the late 60s through to the early 90s. I haven’t read anything by her since I was a student in the late 80s, in the days when I tended to go to the cinema on average once a day, mainly at 11pm at night. I remember liking her not least because she had a soft-spot for John Hughes-style teen movies, on the grounds that they were the only American films left which centred on questions of class.

I was primed to re-acquaint myself with Kael because earlier this year I read a great little book by Craig Seligman, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, which compares and contrasts the styles of criticism of these two quintessential ‘New York intellectuals’, both very serious writers, both interested in ‘the popular’, but one, Kael, more than the other, managing to avoid the traps of avant-garde disdain for popular taste. Reading the essays in the two volumes I bought in Stroud, Reeling (which covers the early 70s) and When the Lights Go Down, covering the ‘golden age’ of mid and late 70s Hollywood films (although one surprise is just how many films Kael didn’t seem to review, no Chinatown, or plenty of other ‘classics’ of that time, but lots of reviews of late-period John Wayne), is proving a joy, partly because lots of these films are the films I grew up watching on TV, so there is a familiarity to them, but also because reading Kael writing about them contemporaneously, placed in their 1970s milieu of the weekly or monthly review, throws films like Westworld or Taxi Driver or Saturday Night Fever into wholly new perspective, as part of their time, sitting alongside Rooster Cogburn or The Gauntlet, as part of a contested public culture of representations of violence, sexuality, liberation, aspiration, and resentment.

What I have most enjoyed about reading Kael again is the principled populism of her criticism, expressed most clearly I think in the sense that the object of her criticism is not ‘Film’ so much as ‘the movies’, ‘movies’, or a ‘movie’. This is the privileged term of her writing, and I think it captures something quite distinctive and valuable that offsets her writing from more solidly ‘academic’ styles of film analysis. ‘Movies’ indicates an appreciation of the unavoidably populist dimension of this form of, well, popular culture – Kael’s negative judgements are always shaped by a sense of disappointment that a particular movie fails to be as good a version of the kind of movie it claims to be (in one of these pieces, she describes the latest release by a reknowned French director as probably ‘a perfect film’ but for her an ‘entirely forgettable movie’). This attitude is summed up in a great definition she gives at the start of Reeling, of the ‘maze of borderlines’ in which criticism operates: “criticism is a balancing act, trying to suggest perspectives on the emotions viewers feel, trying to increase their enjoyment of movies without insulting their susceptibilities to simple, crude pop”. This is wonderful statement of Kael’s appreciation of the visceral, sensual qualities of ‘movies’ – that they can leave us ‘reeling’ – but also of her self-understanding of her own relationship to viewers/readers. This definition of criticism strikes me now, on reading it for first time some three and a half decades after Kael penned it, as standing in very stark contrast to a style of cultural theory in which discovering the emotional or ‘affective’ dynamics of enjoyment involved in unashamedly ‘mass’ forms like the movies is still, astonishingly, presented as a politically charged act of revelation and de-mystification. Reading Kael again has reminded me of the rarity of finding academic writing about popular culture that doesn’t fall into the trap of condescending towards popular taste, and of how much of the writing and thinking about ‘culture’ I have learnt most from has not been written by academics at all, but by ‘critics’ who actually like  the cultural forms, if not every example, about which they write.

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