The great film critic Pauline Kael was born on this day in 1919.
And so much of who I am as a filmgoer and someone who attempts to write about movies, particularly from a personal perspective, can be directly traced back to a Saturday night in Eugene, Oregon, 1977, perhaps 1978, when I entered the Koobdooga Bookstore on 13th Street and picked up the paperback edition of Reeling. I was just looking for something fun to read, and I was certainly aware of Pauline Kael, but I had never actually read anything she wrote. That was quite a collection to start with—it covered the end of the Nixon era, from September 1972 to May 1975. As you may be well aware, an awful lot of good movies came out within that period of time, and not all of them, I would be shocked to discover, were American. For this neophyte seer and thinker, Kael provided as enthralling and infuriating a guide down the bramble-bush path of seeing and thinking about movies as anyone could have hoped for. And the joy of her writing is that, so many years later, she still does.
I remember reading her assessment of two popular actresses of the early ‘70s and thinking I’d died and gone to heaven (you’ll have to forgive me for paraphrasing, but I’m at work and the volume is unavailable to me; I’ll replace the following with the precise quote later tonight):
“Whenever I see Candice Bergen, I’m convinced she’s the worst actress I’ve ever seen. But then I’ll come across an Ali MacGraw performance, and I’ll think she’s the worst actress I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it just comes down to who you happen to be watching at the time.”
A couple of other great quotes from Pauline Kael strung together seem to say a lot about her approach, her sensibility, and the ones (like mine) she helped to cultivate:
“Trash has given us an appetite for art,” and “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
And yet she remained passionate about writing about them, even when they fell short, only ever feeling perfunctory in her task, in her colloquial art, when the movies themselves, in the mid-to-late ‘80s, became perfunctory, less and less fun to think about, let alone write about. Tonight, for her birthday, I may just pick up Reeling again and refresh myself as to just why she was so important, so vital, such a good read, and how she helped make film criticism an art.