When the Lights Go Down

The movie worshiper's high priestess, Pauline Kael

SHE WAS THE doyenne of "subjective" film criticism, right? So here's my leaf on the funerary pyre of Pauline Kael, who died last week in Massachusetts at age 82. Of all my memories of burgeoning film-geekness, the happiest by far was the experience of pedaling my bike from one side of my hometown, Des Plaines, Illinois, to the other on Wednesday evenings to pick up the local newsstand's copies of the New Yorker, hot off the press. Pauline Kael wrote only every other week then--it was the summer of 1981--so it was always a kick to try to guess what film would be the recipient of her godly attentions. (What the hell is Cattle Annie and Little Britches? She wrote 2,000 words on This Is Elvis?) Like many other fans, I always felt as if I was part of a secret correspondence--nobody else in my little town got this stuff, but I did!

The key to the genius of Pauline Kael was that even the movies she claimed to hate clearly often filled her with mirth. (Her piece on Scorsese's King of Comedy reads like a little boy dipping a beloved girl's pigtails in the inkwell.) Even the bad stuff set her perception mechanisms whirling in celestial motion. Nobody in criticism ever conveyed the ecstasy of seeing, feeling, thinking, and perceiving as Kael did. The subject more often than not wasn't the point. Her 10,000 words on Honeysuckle Rose seem silly until you realize the review's real subject: her return to the job of writing, which filled her with a carnal glee.

Kael was able to get away with her key Shakespearean flaw--there was not a trace of religion or politics or any other belief in her, save twirling sensual pleasure--because her ideas and prose burned with a diabolical fervor. Her peak can be seen in the masterly collection When the Lights Go Down, which roughly covers the terrain between Visconti's Conversation Piece and Woody Allen's Interiors--in short, 1975 to 1978, one half of the golden age of American movies. I recall receiving that book as a present on an Easter morning in 1979, and the taste of chocolate rabbits and the experience of the book have forever been intertwined. Suddenly, everything made sense: Movies were the secular religion, the giver of hope, meaning, and transport. I speak for what I suspect is a majority of schooled movie lovers when I say that it would have been impossible to have fully fallen for movies without Pauline Kael.

As the movies ebbed, so did the writing--not the stylistics, necessarily, but the thinking. As the Eighties rode roughly over the art form, movies turned from Kael's onetime rough lover to her pudgy, comfort-food husband. The word genial crops up way too much. The interesting movies of this period--Brazil, Blade Runner, Goodfellas--get passed over in favor of cozy sweaters like Wish You Were Here and Club Paradise. The unpretentious and "genial" trumps the audacious and daring almost every time.

Yet in our McBlurb era, Kael's high points will keep soaring. She was known for her harshness and lustiness, but much of her best work was extraordinarily genteel. She could knock down a pompous, overpraised dud--an Ordinary People or a late Eric Rohmer picture--with a gentle croquet whack and an ironic look of motherly concern. Unlike the Sons of Pauline--her club of middlebrow admirers and protégés who are still filling column inches--she wrote, especially in the later phases, with increasing economy and finally a micro-minimalist austerity. Some of her best late work comprises reviews made up of a single paragraph, as eloquently sculpted as a breath by Henry James.

To wit: The bliss-out of my adolescent film obsession was receiving a series of tiny, cream-colored envelopes, hand-addressed, from the New Yorker magazine, in reply to my torrential stream of fan mail. To quote from memory my favorite of them: "You liked The Big Red One and Gloria? Kid, are you nuts? Sincerely, Pauline Kael."

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >