Pauline Kael (June 19, 1919 – September 3, 2001) was an American film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1968 to 1991. Earlier in her career, her work appeared in City Lights, McCall’s and The New Republic.
Kael was known for her “witty, biting, highly opinionated, and sharply focused” reviews, her opinions often contrary to those of her contemporaries. She is often regarded as the most influential American film critic of her day.
She left a lasting impression on many major critics, including Armond White, whose reviews are similarly non-conformist, and Roger Ebert, who has said that Kael “had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades.” Owen Gleiberman said she “was more than a great critic. She re-invented the form, and pioneered an entire aesthetic of writing. She was like the Elvis or the Beatles of film criticism.”
Kael was born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, to Isaac Paul Kael and Judith Friedman Kael, Jewish immigrants from Poland. Her parents lost their farm when Kael was eight, and the family moved to San Francisco, California. She matriculated at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1936; she studied philosophy, literature, and the arts but dropped out in 1940 before completing her degree. Nevertheless, Kael intended to go on to law school but fell in with a group of artists and moved to New York City with the poet Robert Horan.
Three years later, Kael returned to San Francisco and “led a bohemian life,” marrying and divorcing three times, writing plays, and working in experimental film. In 1948, Kael and filmmaker James Broughton had a daughter, Gina, whom Kael would raise alone. Gina had a serious illness through much of her childhood; and, to support Gina and herself, Kael worked a series of such menial jobs as cook and seamstress, along with stints as an advertising copywriter. In 1953, the editor of City Lights magazine overheard Kael arguing about films in a coffeeshop with a friend and asked her to review Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. Kael memorably dubbed the film “slimelight” and began publishing film criticism regularly in magazines.
Even these early reviews were notable for their informality and lack of pretension; Kael later explained, “I worked to loosen my style—to get away from the term-paper pomposity that we learn at college. I wanted the sentences to breathe, to have the sound of a human voice.” Kael disparaged the supposed critic’s ideal of objectivity, referring to it as “saphead objectivity,” and incorporated aspects of autobiography into her criticism. In a review of Vittorio De Sica’s 1946 neorealist Shoeshine (Sciuscià) that has been ranked among her most memorable, Kael described seeing the film
“after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, ‘Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.’ I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?… Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.”
Kael broadcast many of her early reviews on the alternative public radio station KPFA, in Berkeley, and gained further local-celebrity status as Berkeley Cinema Guild manager from 1955 to 1960. As manager of a two-screen theater, Kael programmed the films that were shown “unapologetically repeat[ing] her favorites until they also became audience favorites.” She also wrote “pungent” capsule reviews of the films, which her patrons began collecting.
- Firing an Icon, Pauline Kael (themoderatevoice.com)
- The Classical #14 (sundancenow.com)
- Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (csmonitor.com)
- Misunderstanding Kael (superextremecloseup.wordpress.com)
- For the Love of Movies: Feb 12 on the Documentary Channel (mrmovietimes.com)
- Greil Marcus on The Doors, Pauline Kael, and James Wolcott (themillions.com)
- The Classical #16 (sundancenow.com)
- The Other Film Critic at The New Yorker (slate.com)
- Donald Sutherland: “‘The Hunger Games’ could be the most influential American film since I can’t remember” (telegraph.co.uk)
- Pencil This In: Lou Reed Speaks in Long Beach, Pauline Kael Biographer at Book Soup and Another Cirque in Town (laist.com)