Perhaps around the time that New Yorker critic David Denby published “My Life as a Paulette,” in which he described how the late film critic first mentored him and then wrote him off as “not really a writer,” I lost my taste for Pauline Kael. Not because of her dismissal of Denby — if I’ve learned anything, it’s that film critics backbite each other worse than mosquitos in a swamp — but because the piece brought home how she spawned the monotone dominating contemporary film criticism. It wasn’t her fault necessarily, though some reports suggest she encouraged great flattery from her adherents. But the plainspoken chattiness that was her trademark has congealed into a sometimes ugly glibness when attempted by the many critics who’ve either taken cues from her or, perhaps, reacted against her. Once upon a time a review would be about whether or not the reviewer recommended the film — a simple, even simplistic, goal but a nonetheless honorable one. These days, a review still may serve that purpose, but too often it engages in a variation of the following dialogue: Q. Would you fuck it?” A. Ah, but you just did, my friend. Fair or not, I named Kael as the godmother of all that glibness.
Then the other night, I watched Altman’s Three Women and fell knee-deep under its spell: the illusive, elusive dichotomies that Lynch should be so lucky as to achieve; the mirrors found in pools and windows and fishtanks and dumb lugs; the spot-on performances from Sissy Spacek and Shelly Duval. At the film’s end I still lacked much insight into its characters or plot or even intentions. Yet I was utterly hooked — deeply uncharacteristic for a girl who tends to dismiss such opaqueness as mere smoke and mirrors. It was a moment when I longed for a teacher or a good review to illuminate me or even frame the context of the conversation, and I realized that more than anyone I longed for Kael and her smart-cookie two cents.
For the first time in a dog’s age I cracked open one of her review collections: I Lost It at the Movies. And, though I never found her essay on Three Women (I did suss out that he’d improvised the film from a dream), in my search I fell knee-deep under her spell as well. In a way, Altman and Kael’s tone is of a piece: marked by a high-minded chattiness that never borders on pretension even when it misses the mark. What distinguishes Kael’s writing, even after all these years and even in this era of critical oversaturation, is that she’s writing for someone who’s already seen the movie.
She never lost what they call in yogic circles “beginner’s mind,” always demonstrating a generosity more typical of viewers who’ve paid for a sitter and consumed a heady cocktail of popcorn and smashing trailers before the feature. It’s why her now-infamous second person voice doesn’t grate nearly as much as when others slather it on: she really was talking to us. Her reviews were written as if we were all cradling cups of tea around a kitchen table after having seen the movie togther, savoring the pleasure of the experience with a satisfying post-mortem. That’s why, even when she didn’t like a film in question, her prose never devolved into vitriol.
Her musings on the ’60s and ’70s classics are best remembered; how (like Sontag, like Warhol) she relished jop and pazz and dispensed briskly with such dichotomies as high and low culture that other critics still drew upon with a straight face. But even when reviewing a mostly mediocre batch, like the films in Movie Love, her collection of 1989-1991 reviews, she drew upon her significant body of knowledge to excavate positives — a lingering shot, a director’s development, a new actor’s performance. And when she did find fault, she did so cheerily, with no loser-in-a-black-cape fury fueling her assessments.
It’s been said that Kael didn’t much cotton to female Paulettes in her life, but none of that Adrienne Rich “exceptional woman” pathology colored her prose. She admired actresses as well as actors, and pointed out without rancor where sexism sank plots by not fleshing out female characters. She was funny, but only in service of more precisely nailing her point rather than gilding her reputation. She was smart but in a matter-of-fact, unshowy way that suggested she’d be a smart observer of any human milieu. Her calm, confiding tone inspired both confidence — and confidences — in each of us, and she used her good name to cultivate filmmakers and critics and an American audience whom she recognized as worth cultivating.
Only Kael tapped into the basic psychology of film-viewing; that there, in that temperature-regulated womb of a movie theater complete with a light flickering at the end of the tunnel, we each, alone but together, shoulder to shoulder, are silently reborn again and again. She remained both open-hearted and open-eyed to the end, a too-rare combination these days in any field. She may have been the progentitor of contemporary film criticism but more than that (I smell test tubes in that word, anyway), she was, and remains, its good mommy.