Pauline Kael: A Reader’s Guide

My eFilmCritic associate William (“Not Will.I.Am”) Goss put out a Twitter request for “any preferred Kael volumes.” I own Pauline Kael’s complete output, and at the time of her death in 2001 I posted a brief guide to her books on my website. So I figured, why not revive it?

I Lost It at the Movies (1965) – David Rabe used this seminal book as a prop in his play Streamers; in return, Kael criticized some of the more speechy passages of Rabe’s script for Casualties of War. In this first collection, which includes a truly funny bit when she answers irate reader mail (back when she was writing reviews for the radio), Kael gets to tackle Truffaut, Kurosawa, Godard, and most hilariously, her scorched-earth diatribe on West Side Story. She was just getting warmed up.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968) – Kael nicked the title of this one from a poster for an Italian movie. This collection includes pieces on Brando, Kurosawa, Chimes at Midnight, the review of The Sound of Music that got her booted from McCall’s, a lengthy report from the set of The Group, and almost 200 pages of “movie notes” that are sort of a dry run for her later 5001 Nights at the Movies.

Going Steady (1970) – Kael on Norman Mailer, Mel Brooks, Planet of the Apes, Yellow Submarine, Coppola before he was Coppola, and the great, huge essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” in which, among many other things, she definitively brings her admiration for Kubrick to an end (“…maybe some people love 2001 just because Kubrick did all that stupid stuff….In some ways it’s the biggest amateur movie of all…”).

The Citizen Kane Book (1971) – Kael’s hotly debated (mainly by Andrew Sarris and Peter Bogdanovich) epic essay “Raising Kane” was packaged with the original screenplay for this out-of-print collection. Kael’s essay was later reprinted in its entirety in For Keeps.

Deeper Into Movies (1973) – The fireworks begin. Kael skewers more than a few critic’s darlings (Butch Cassidy, A Clockwork Orange, El Topo, Husbands) and popular hits (Billy Jack, Dirty Harry), but also discovers Altman (M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Fosse (Cabaret), and Coppola (The Godfather). This is also where you’ll find Kael’s famous summing-up of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs as “the first fascist work of art.”

Reeling (1976) – And the hits keep on coming — it begins with her singing the praises of Sounder and The Emigrants, and towards the end she hauls out her infamous Nashville rhapsody (infamous because she published it long before the movie was even released). Somewhere in there she’s also got Mean Streets, The Godfather Part II, Last Tango in Paris, and The Sugarland Express, the debut of some guy named Steven Spielberg (“uses his gift in a very free-and-easy, American way — for humor, and for a physical response to action….If there is such a thing as movie sense…Spielberg really has it”).

When the Lights Go Down (1980) – Kicks off with “The Man from Dream City,” Kael’s mammoth tribute to Cary Grant. As Kael moves into the mid- and late-’70s, you can see the beginning of the end — Kael grows more and more exasperated as movies like Star Wars (“like a box of Cracker Jacks which is all prizes”) rule the roost. Still, she works up enthusiasm for Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver, Citizens Band, De Palma’s back-to-back telekinetic blockbusters Carrie and The Fury, and even B-movie stuff like King Kong (yes, the remake) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

5001 Nights at the Movies (1982; expanded in 1991) – Essential collection of capsule reviews — many are short versions of reviews in her other books, but tons of them are older movies you won’t find Kael covering anywhere else.

Taking It All In (1984) – This one picks up Kael after her return from her six-month tour of duty as a consultant at Paramount. She jumps right back into the thick of things with a slam at The Shining (“It’s like watching a skater do figure eights all night, or at least for two hours and twenty-six minutes”), then follows that with a beefy essay called “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers.” She gets to praise two more De Palma movies here (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out), slap Spielberg down to size (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and then lift him back up (E.T.), and write a review of a Richard Pryor concert film that’s really an excuse for her to discuss his greatness in general. She also deals Scorsese a one-two punch with unimpressed takes on Raging Bull and The King of Comedy (the latter of which she hated, hated, hated).

State of the Art (1985) – No big central essay on the status of movies (in fact, her next two books don’t have one, either) — just reviews, reviews, and more reviews. Kael has to find good stuff in an awful lot of unremarkable movies here. Still immensely readable, from her baffled disappointment in De Palma’s Scarface to her “what the hell, it’s fun” review of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the beginning of her hate affair with Tom Cruise (Risky Business is “like a George Bernard Shaw play rewritten for a cast of ducks and geese”).

Hooked (1989) – One last hurrah, mainly because she discovers a lot of new talent in the wasteland of the ’80s — Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), Tim Burton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice), as well as new gems by old favorites (Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Almodovar’s Law of Desire and Matador, Huston’s The Dead, Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being). It was really her last real run of meaty, zesty films to cover. As Kael herself says in her intro, “The period covered in this book…begins rather lamely, and then suddenly there’s one marvellous movie after another” — just like old times. Not that Kael doesn’t open a can of whup-ass when called for, either — her hoots of disbelief at Tom Cruise and Top Gun are hilariously cruel (“The best part of the movie comes when he’s suffering: he speaks in a little-boy voice and looks such a Nautilized, dinky thing”).

Movie Love (1991) – Kael in decline. You can’t really blame her for losing steam, forced to make do with stuff like Punchline, Always, Beaches, and Madame Sousatzka. Still, she finds glowing things to say about Batman, Scrooged, Vampire’s Kiss, Vincent & Theo, Glory, My Left Foot, and of course De Palma’s Casualties of War. But Kael giveth and Kael taketh away: the collection also includes Kael’s what-was-he-thinking pan of De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sacred cows like Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Dead Poets Society, Roger & Me, Field of Dreams, GoodFellas, Edward Scissorhands, and The Little Mermaid also fall under Kael’s broadsword. She finishes off the Godfather trilogy with a rather depressed-sounding “oh how the mighty have fallen” review; Kael’s overjoyed reviews of the first two Godfather films are included in For Keeps, but her dispirited review of the third one isn’t, maybe because she couldn’t bear to kick Coppola one more time. Her very last published review is of a Steve Martin comedy, L.A. Story, which is sort of fitting — she always loved his style. But she retired a week before The Silence of the Lambs came out, and damn, I would’ve loved to have read a Kael review of that. (In a later interview, she said she wasn’t very impressed with it.)

For Keeps (1994) – Or, The Portable Pauline Kael, except it isn’t portable (thought I’d swipe a line from her review of Bertolucci’s 1900, included here) — it weighs in at 1,291 pages. It’s a decent sampler of her work, which is a good indication of how much writing she produced, when a 1,300-page book is only a sampler. If you buy this without owning her other books, be warned that the omnibus may well drive you to bookfinder.com in search of her entire output (much of which is out of print). I don’t actually open For Keeps very often — I prefer to swim around in a movie period along with Kael (“Okay, Pauline, tonight we’re going to revisit 1975-1978”), reading her reviews as she wrote them, week in and week out.

Also recommended:

Conversations with Pauline Kael (1997, edited by Will Brantley), a collection of interviews with Kael spanning four decades (1966-1994), including a lengthy chat with Hal Espen in the pages of The New Yorker three years after she left it. This is where you’ll find her talking off-the-cuff about some movies that came out after she put her pencil down.

Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), wherein her friend, jazz critic Francis Davis, talks movies and other things with Kael. Essentially a (barely) book-length companion to the above collection.

Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me (2004), Craig Seligman’s tribute to Kael and Susan Sontag, perhaps the two most-admired and most-feared female essayists of their day. Kael was safely dead when it came out; Sontag died seven months after its publication, though of leukemia, not of a severe case of umbrage.

Also worth looking up: Wes Anderson’s account of taking Kael to a private screening of Rushmore.

Explore posts in the same categories: book review

One Comment on “Pauline Kael: A Reader’s Guide”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: