Tribute to Pauline Kael


If you are reading these words, or any of the reviews on this website, or anything I have written on film in newspapers or magazines, it’s unlikely you’d be doing so were it not for Pauline Kael, who has died aged 82. I never met her, and I take it personally that I’ll now never be able to. When I turned my newspaper page to the obituary section and saw her name, my reaction was as severe and violent as any I can remember – among ‘movie people,’ I think only the passing of Vincent Price comes close, but I’m a critic, not an actor.

We all have our influences, and mine are Kael, Danny Peary, James Agee and David Thomson. Kael is the only one of the four renowned for full-length reviews, and last night, writing my wordy verdict on Scary Movie 2, once I reached a certain length I passed from the realm of Peary into the land of Kael. It’s vital for each film critic to develop his or her own voice, but that’s much easier said than done where Kael is concerned, and anyone reading my SM2 review will know what I mean. And influence can be healthy – Kael’s example showed it’s OK to express exactly how you feel about movies, and not just what you think. SM2 isn’t much of a film, but there were occasions watching it when I was in tears of laughter – and I wasn’t scared about saying as much in print. Thanks, largely, to Pauline Kael.

I’ve been reviewing films, on and off, for as long as I can remember, but I only wrote my first ‘professional’ review at the age of 29. And every time I think that I’ve left this career too late, I remember what David Thomson wrote about Kael in his essay ‘The Godmother,’ published in the collection Overexposures, that her career didn’t begin until she was 32. So, as I write this tribute, I’ve still got exactly a year and a half’s grace. Thomson also wrote that, by 1979, Kael was “the most famous, admired, and disliked of movie critics-the only one who has managed to matter.” It’s a fine piece – it would have to be, given that it’s criticism of criticism – and I could quote huge chunks to express just how important Kael has been to so many of us who think writing about film is a worthwhile – perhaps occasionally even honourable – profession.

Instead, I’ll end with a brief blast of Kael herself, writing about Robert De Niro and Godfather II:

We have come to expect a lot from De Niro : miracles. And he delivers them-he brings a bronze statue almost to life. He does improvisations on nothing, and his sea-to-shining-sea muscularity is impressive. But Michael, the transcendent hero, is a hollow figure. There is never a moment when we feel, Oh my God, I know that man, I am that man.

Now, go out and read the rest for yourself.

Neil Young


5th September, 2001

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