Election Section

ARTS: Pauline Kael: Berkeley’s Great Movie Critic By PHIL McCARDLE Special to the Planet

Friday August 05, 2005

Pauline Kael (1919-2001) was the nation’s preeminent critic of motion pictures for almost 40 years. The London Times Literary Supplement described her writings as “a body of criticism which can be compared with George Bernard Shaw’s criticism of music and theater.”  

She was not the first talented writer to take movies as a subject. They attracted critics from their earliest days—anonymous reviewers in newspapers at the beginning of the 20th century; up and coming writers like Robert Sherwood in the ‘20s and James Agee in the ‘40s. However, these distinguished writers treated movie criticism as a sideline. For Pauline Kael, it was the main event. She believed movies are our national theater and deserve serious grownup attention. Through the force of her writing, she made movie reviews important.  

The essay was her medium. Her style was conversational and aphoristic. Hundreds of her phrases stick in the memory, such as her dismissal of The Sound of Music as “The Sound of Money.” She had a sharp wit, a tough mind, and an endless fund of information about movies. (Who else writing about Some Like It Hot would have known that “in one of the earlier versions of this material, a German musical film, the orchestra girls were called The Alpine Violets”?) She inhabited a spacious world of sophisticated ideas, dealing comfortably with such unfamiliar (to most of us) topics as American experimental film and European theories on the nature of cinema. 


Her background 

It is surprising to discover that this seemingly urban woman had strong roots in Northern California ranch country. In Movies on Television, she wrote, 

“A few years ago, a jet on which I was returning to California after a trip to New York was instructed to delay landing for a half-hour. The plane circled above the San Francisco area, and spread out under me were the farm where I was born, the little town where my grandparents were buried, the city where I had gone to school, the cemetery where my parents were, the homes of my brothers and sisters, Berkeley, where I had gone to college, and the house where at that moment, while I hovered high above, my little daughter and my dogs were awaiting my return.” 

She was a child in Petaluma long before it became a bedroom community for San Francisco. In her review of Hud, she described Petaluma as a rough idyll: “The summer nights are very long on a western ranch. As a child, I could stretch out on a hammock on the porch and read an Oz book from cover to cover, while my grandparents and uncles and aunts and parent’s didn’t stir from their card game. The young men get tired of playing cards. They either think about sex or try to do something about it.” But she had also seen “the same boys ... enter a blazing building to save the lives of panic-stricken horses, and emerge charred but at peace with the world and themselves.”  

During the great depression her father lost his property and the family moved to San Francisco, where she attended Girls High School, graduating in 1936. 


Student days in Berkeley 

She enrolled at Cal, majoring in philosophy. The philosophical training shows in her writing—especially in her deflation of the cliches that pass for ideas in the movie world. She was an inveterate reader of fiction and poetry, as well as a moviegoer, and a lot of her undergraduate friends were English majors. 

She gravitated to Berkeley’s bohemian artistic circles. Her reading and her friendships contributed to the singular breadth of literary reference she brought to her film criticism. Among our leading film critics, she has shown the most respect for writers, always identifying the authors of plays and novels on which pictures were based, and the screenwriters who did adaptations or wrote original material. 


Non-student days 

From 1940 to 1952 the public record of her activities is meager. In various places she mentioned writing plays, screenplays, and essays, living in New York and Hollywood, and involvement in making experimental films. She married and divorced more than once, and was a single mother. When she found it difficult to make ends meet, she scraped by with day jobs as a seamstress, cook, or clerk. 

In the 1950s she emerged on the Berkeley scene as a fully formed personality—publishing in magazines devoted to cinema, broadcasting reviews of current films, and managing the Berkeley Cinema Guild. She was in her thirties, intense, and physically energetic. She was small, about the same height as Dorothy Parker and, when the mood was on her, just as acidic.  

In 1953 her first published review appeared, almost by happenstance. Peter Martin, the editor of City Lights, overheard her in a coffee house arguing with a friend about Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. He invited them both to review it, but only she produced any copy. Then she started writing for such publications as Sight and Sound, Moviegoer, and Film Quarterly. None of them paid much. In an interview in 1966 she said, “In 10 years I made under $2,000 from film criticism.”  

But her published reviews led to a program at KPFA, where she gave her opinion of films playing in theaters around the Bay Area. Her reviews were vivid and usually at odds with what was printed in the Examiner and the Chronicle. 

In 1953, through marriage, she became involved in the Cinema Guild Theaters at 2436 Telegraph Ave. (between Haste and Dwight), a venture which lasted into the 1960s. The two theaters, the Guild and the Studio, each running a double bill, were dowdy little places, but her programming was brilliant.  

The Cinema Guild astonished me when I arrived in Berkeley. For the cost of tickets a student could afford, within the space of a year or two, regular communicants (I became one) could see almost every significant film ever made. At that time even in Hollywood there was no place for people to see the old masterpieces on a regular basis. Young film makers and actors I knew faced their calling as bereft of opportunities to learn from their predecessors as an aspiring poet would be if there were no anthologies of poetry. The Cinema Guild was a wonder.  

Stephen Kresge, a Cinema Guild employee in those days, believed Pauline Kael was trying to forge a whole new cultural attitude: that film as an art was as good or better than the novel or the theater. “She previewed many more films for the Cinema Guild than she actually ran,” he told me. “She was deeply involved in films, but not as an escapist. She was not immersed in fantasies to escape herself, but she was immersed like an artist in her medium. She was an absolute genius in selecting background music for silent pictures and for intermissions.” 

Kresge also believed composing monthly program notes helped her enormously as a writer. The programs limited the number of words she could write about any film. It was always, he said, “a matter of fighting the size of the program to say what she wanted to say and to entice the audience to see films about which it knew nothing.”  

Her connection with the Cinema Guild ended after her divorce. For some time afterward, Kresge recalled, “Pauline lived hand to mouth.” At first she considered opening her own theaters; if she had made that decision, he believed “Money would have been forthcoming.” Instead, she decided to write a book. 


I Lost It At the Movies 

She applied for and got a Guggenheim Fellowship, pulled together a decade’s worth of published reviews and essays, transcribed some of her KPFA broadcasts, and wrote new material to go with them. This became, of course, I Lost It At The Movies, and was a nationwide success in 1965. 

The book is a collection of essays grouped thematically, and unified by her ideas and her personality. It begins by viewing the current state of movies with alarm: “Movies are going to pieces.” 

She argued that academic interest in movies was a bad sign: “Our academic bureaucracy needs something alive to nourish it and movies still have a little blood which the academics can drain away.” 

Next came “Broadsides,” essays aimed at the art-house audience and other favorite targets. In “Movies Remembered with Pleasure,” she reviewed some pictures representing her own touchstones of movie quality. “Broadcasts and Reviews” consists of a selection of her reviews broadcast and printed between 1961 and 1963, and is notable for the KPFA broadcast, “Replying to Listeners.” In it she dismembers female listeners who want her to be more “womanly,” men who objected to her brains, and listeners whose agreement she found embarrassing. The book concludes with “Polemics”—criticism of Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film; Andrew Sarris’s “auteur theory;” and cold war politics in Night People and Salt of the Earth. 

Much of I Lost It At the Movies was intensely local in reference. Looking back, we can read it as documenting the intellectual and emotional tensions of life in left-wing Berkeley between, roughly, the end of World War II and the murder of President Kennedy.  


New York 

After I Lost It At the Movies, Pauline Kael moved to New York and worked for Life, Vogue, McCall’s, and the New Republic. None of these jobs lasted very long, and she was still extremely poor. “I quit [the New Republic] in some despair,” she told Hollis Alpert, “and had no idea what to do. I had come to the conclusion that it was just about impossible making a living as a movie critic. I was lying in bed with the flu, I was busted, when a telephone call came from William Shawn of the New Yorker.” He offered her the job as a reviewer which she kept for 24 years (1967-1991).  

I Lost It At the Movies was followed three years later by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Then came a cascade of collections of essays and reviews—Going Steady, Deeper Into Movies, The Citizen Kane Book, and many others, ending with Movie Love. When she left the New Yorker, she retired, covered with glory, to Massachusetts, where she lived for the rest of her life. 

In an interview in 1994, she said, “My pieces belong to the breakneck era before people could rent videos of old movies and before distributors began to supply reviewers with videos of new movies ... I wrote at first sight and, when referring to earlier work, from memory. This had an advantage: urgency, excitement. But it also led to my worst flaw as a writer: reckless excess, in both praise and damnation.”  

Back in 1915, at the dawn of the movie era, a reporter for the New York Dramatic Mirror wrote, “It is always rather difficult to make a sweeping statement about the film field, for no one person may ever see it all.” Many have tried. Pauline Kael came close. A less passionate writer could not have done so much, and her opinions will matter to us for a long time to come.