Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Critical Essay on Pauline Kael: She’s sassy and she knows it


“Not many reviewers have a real gift for effrontery.  I think that may be my best talent.” –Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael, “the Elvis or the Beatles of film criticism,” has every right to be sassy (online).  Queen of the zingers and Master of detail, she knows everything about a film: the director, the actors, the script, the culture, and then some.  She is a walking Encyclopedia of cinema, with her own zesty twist. 

  William Zinsser in On Writing Well advises that a film critic has to be a “movie buff who will brings along a reservoir of knowledge, passion and prejudice.” With her major in Philosophy at UC-Berkeley and her critical writing experience as a play writer and a radio show reviewer, Kael is more than credible to assert her judgment on film.

But it’s not like she gives a hoot about what others think of her.  She follows her own ‘pencil’ as she pans widely adored movies like The Sound of Music (she defines its admirers as “emotional and aesthetic imbeciles…humming the sickly, goody-goody songs”) and champions films denounced by other critics, such as Pennies from Heaven and Casualties of War (Ken Tucker, Francis Davis).

Sticking to her guns, Kael is the tough woman on the block, she fights for the underdog films and she disputes what the big bad New York critics have written about them.  Francis Davis describes this behavior as “independence—or the nerve—to go to bat for a good movie that’s been given up for dead by its distributors” but, in Kael’s own words, she simply “feel[s] it when [she] see[s] it” (Davis 25, 107). 

Kael is a woman of her word.  Never compromising her opinion, she once reviewed a close friend’s film, Hardcore, stating that “Paul Schrader may like the idea of prostituting himself better than he likes making movies” (Davis).  To put it lightly, a genuine critic, just like a friend, tells the film like it is—no matter the circumstances. 

Unlike other critics who shy away from dealing with socially awkward subject matter in films such as Deep Throat or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Kael welcomes (--and craves--) to review their sexual and racial content (respectively).  Her analytical and insightful thinking allows her to find a deeper meaning in all movies, even in a Disney animated princess flick, The Little Mermaid –Kael refers to it as “the closest thing women have to a feminine Faust story.” 

There is no doubt that Kael has a knack for word choice.  She is cognizant of the film’s context and target audience, in her review of The Sting starring Paul Newman and heartthrob Robert Redford, she concludes, “The Sting is for people—and no doubt there are quantities of them—who like crooks as sweeties” (Reeling 245). 

Some critics accuse Kael as “relentless” or “inexorable”, but that is exactly the type of critic people want to read—someone with an opinion and not afraid to say it (Adler 331). As William Zinsser says, “criticism is the stage on which journalists do their fanciest strutting” (195).  As long as her reviews are sharp and honest, why not let Kael walk the catwalk?

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