Thursday, February 23, 2006


I'd like to take a moment to second some remarks made by Flickhead regarding the lasting effect of Pauline Kael and the pleasures to be had from reading her criticism. He writes, in his latest post:

"If it weren’t for her, I seriously doubt that I’d be writing at all: this blog entry, this blog, my website…anything. Kael showed me that personality and opinion needn’t be stifled by rules or popular opinion. As someone with aspirations of being a writer, reading her work was perhaps the most liberating and educational experience I’ve ever had."

This is certainly true for me as well. When I first picked up a copy of Reeling in the Koobdooga (read it backwards) Bookstore in Eugene, Oregon in 1977, I was aware of who Pauline Kael was. I'd seen her name blurbed in some movie newspaper ads and actually saw her appear sometime in the early '70s as a guest on The Mike Douglas Show, of all things. But that night, thumbing through the film section, I was just looking for some easy reading and thought this might be the way to go. Funny how life-changing experiences spring themselves on you, isn't it? Kael shook my perceptions and presumptions to their foundations. (And I had quite a few presumptions, being a fairly snotty, emboldened college freshman who was sure he knew pretty much everything there was to know already, especially about movies.) She addicted me to her writing and her ability to make me re-view (that is, re-see) the movie through her eyes. It's a measure of just how good she is that I've probably read (and reread) most of her pieces on individual films more often than I've actually seen the works in question. And I, like Flickhead, largely credit her with the inspiration for trying to forge ahead, in my own voice, with the challenge of writing perceptively and entertainingly about film, or about anything else, for that matter.

I never met Pauline Kael; I never communicated with her; I never heard her speak in person, only on some recordings of her Pacifica radio show that I obtained 15 or so years ago. But she still connects to me through her writing, even that which dates back the furthest, constantly challenging me to think independently, to argue with her stubborn persuasiveness, to express my own responses. But now, thanks to the gatekeepers at If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, we can all listen to a nearly hour-long MP3 recording of Kael speaking circa 1963, which means that Andrew Sarris and "Circles and Squares" are front and center on the list of topics. This is a rare and wonderful opportunity to actually hear one of the great film critics just as she was beginning to climb to the heights of her profession. Thanks to Tom Sutpen and Stephen Cooke for making it available, and to Pauline Kael for leaving a body of work still worth experiencing after all these years.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention!

Something that's surprised me in the 24 or more hours since I posted the recording has been the wellspring of retrospective affection, true affection, for Kael; even though she could drive cinephiles (me included) up a wall with greater ease than anyone who ever wielded a pen with the intention of writing about Cinema; even though she didn't exactly finish her career on a series of high notes.

In retrospect, it shouldn't surprise me a bit (after all, I too look back on her writing with considerable affection), but it's a measure, is it not, of how decidedly UN-fashionable her work was (particularly with the admirers and acolytes of Sarris, MacDonald, etc) that the words of fond remembrence I encountered yesterday and today should raise more than one eyebrow of mine after all these years of sharing the same sentiment. Odd, that.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely little piece on Pauline Kael. I remember when I was just out of college, and always had a copy of THE NEW YORKER around--my dad told me accusingly that he knew the only reason I was reading it was to read Pauline Kael. Instead of crumpling in shame, I readily admitted it: although I read as much of each issue as I could (and what person with a job could ever read the whole thing each week?!), I was happy to cop to my devotion to Pauline. I have you to thank for introducing me to her--thanks!

I remember when Mrs. Blaaagh and I went to see Ms. Kael speak at UCLA back in '85, and some fawning person in the audience told her how much they admired how she wrote in her own "voice," which sounded so much like the way she talked. Kael said that it had been one of the most difficult things to master, to make her writing sound like the way she talked. This made a big impression on me, and as I've seen your writing develop, Dennis, I've seen the hard road you've traveled from struggling to express your own (impressive) perceptions while bound to some critic-like writing conventions to gradually finding your own conversational but acutely well-expressed style.

Thank God, I've finally gotten to the point where, as much as I love her stuff, I can read and enjoy it and still find that I completely disagree. Come to think of it, I can say the same for your stuff! Keep it coming.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I finally listened to the whole recording last night-- it's basically PK reading "Circles and Squares" in a lecture situation-- and it's fascinating to hear her speak it and realize, as you say, she sounds so natural reading it because the written word is probably exactly how she would have said it, had it been an extemporaneous musing. Which shows how unadorned by overstylization, and yet so well-written her thoughts really were, because they can be read and still sound so natural. You should also check out the comments at Tom Sutpen's site-- the Pauline debate still rages on!

And thanks for all your encouragement, too. Are we all so lucky to have a best friend of your caliber? I truly hope so. Now, about these disagreements with me... How long is it gonna take for you to come around on The Dukes of Hazzard?

Anonymous said...

No, it is I who is lucky, my friend!

I hope I find enough breathing room in my insane schedule soon to listen to this, and read the debate. Glad Pauline's still stirring people up.