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November 3rd, 2011 By Jason Gargano | Movies |

The Return of Pauline Kael

Tags: Pauline Kael

A pair of new books centering on film critic Pauline Kael — The Library of America's lavishly rendered The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael and Brian Kellow's incisive biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark — have resulted in an avalanche of recent Kael appraisals and reminiscences a decade after her death in 2001 and 20 years after her retirement from writing in 1991.

I can't quite remember when I became aware of Kael, but it had to be in my late teens, which is when I began to move beyond the Hollywood blockbusters of my youth and into deeper, more adventurous cinematic waters. I do know that my initial Kael exposure occurred after she had retired from The New Yorker, where she rather famously wrote film essays and reviews for nearly 25 years.

Unfortunately for both Kael and an entirely new generation of readers, taking in her expansive, personality-driven, zeitgeist-channeling pieces outside of their original context couldn't possibly have had the same impact as reading her on a weekly basis during her 1970s zenith — a period during which she became, as Sanford Schwartz writes in the introduction to The Age of Movies, “undoubtably the most fervently read American critic of any art.” Unfortunate not because her writing hasn't dated well (though some of it hasn't), but that it must have been so much more visceral and engaging when experienced during its immediate cultural moment. Further, as one of the many who have followed in her wake, it's now almost impossible to imagine a time when a writer of any sort was “fervently read,” a fact that led her to become the most powerful and influential critic of her (and probably any other) time.

As a burgeoning movie geek, I vividly recall purchasing her previous career-spanning collection, For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, upon its publication in 1994.

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Fascinated by her expansive cross-cultural knowledge, lively prose style and (for better or worse) unabashedly decisive, often bullying opinions, I would never look at movies the same way again.

It was no coincidence that Kael's career ran parallel to the New Hollywood films of the 1970s, a golden age of American cinema that saw such filmmakers as Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and many more working at the height of their powers. It's also no coincidence that Kael's retirement came at the dawn of the 1990s when both her health and the movies had begun to fail her.

In actuality, the movies (or at least mainstream American movies) had been in decline long before that — a depressing fact Kael so presciently wrote about in a 1980 essay called, “Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers.” Like so much of American culture at this late date, the need to meet corporate profit margins had begun to completely obliterate the nurturing of and/or tolerance for distinctive filmmaking visions. The fact that Kael lasted another 11 years was a testament to her passion for an art form that would rarely again live up to her voracious appetites.

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