Today marks the centenary of film critic Pauline Kael’s birth. Beside recreating film criticism in her New Yorker column and giving shape to our conversations of cinema — particularly that of America in the 70s (if not launching the careers of more than a few directors), Kael was a product of my hometown.
“She had discovered her passion for the screen early on, as a child growing up in the farming community of Petaluma, California,” writes Brian Kellow is his doorstopper (and perhaps showstopper) of a biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. The screen in question belonged to the Mystic Theatre, which is directly below me as I write this (my office is upstairs in the Historic McNear Building).
And back when the Mystic was temporarily the Plaza Theatre in the 70s and 80s, I too discovered my passion for the screen. In fact, my feature film Pill Head debuted there this Spring. If that isn’t enough to inspire in me a sense of kinship with Kael, there’s her taste, which seamlessly spliced together cinema’s loftier aspirations with its seamier sensational side. I think of it as a continuum that she joined together in her prose, the snake of low art biting the ass of the high — the sweet spot. That’s where I like films to land, my own included.
Or, as she put more succinctly, “Trash has given us an appetite for art.”
That appetite, however, didn’t extend to the ilk of blockbuster that evolved under her watch during the peak of her career. Kael was witness, if not critical midwife, to the best filmmakers of the 70s but also had a front row seat to era’s end as filmmakers overreached for the stars. Consider her review of George Lucas’ first Star Wars:
“The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head; for young audiences ‘Star Wars’ is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes.”— Pauline Kael
Then there’s the fact that Kael was one of a few women in a male-dominated industry writing about another male-dominated industry. She was forthright with her criticism of this state of affairs:
“Moviemaking is so male-dominated now that they think they’re being pro-feminine when they have women punching each other out.”— Pauline Kael
Naturally, everyone is a critic — especially nowadays when would-be Siskel and Eberts thumb their reviews (if not their noses) into the very devices from which they consume their media, the kind of deep tissue, insightful cinematic observances we got from Kael are fewer and farther between. But her legacy continues in a smattering of bright lights, who, like Kael recognize that “Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again” and have the talent to still convince you that it’s true. They’re out there, even if the films aren’t.