Viewers' fave critic

Viewers' fave critic

Viewers' fave critic

First she was praised, then vilified, and now Pauline Kael is once again being held up as the model of who a film critic should be, as the film community around the world observes an anniversary of sorts of her contribution to film criticism.

There was a time not long ago when I couldn’t mention Kael without some film aficionado jumping at me to say that she wasn’t a great film critic.

And the things she was justly praised for — impassioned, personal, slangy, colloquial writing — don’t look as charming, fresh and invigorating as they once did, because everyone is writing that way. (For better or worse — she has been that influential).

So, when you do get the odd film review that is reserved, balanced and cautious, it seems such a welcome change.

And it’s true that towards her last reviewing days (particularly in her film review collections).

Taking It All In, State of the Art and Movie Love), her impressionistic, frenzied style and cantankerous voice was leading to a kind of vagueness and repetition in her writing, a certain laziness where she used slangy, colloquial and subjective prose as a shorthand to convey what she felt, rather than elaborating her argument the way she used to.

Her own writing had become a parody of her style.

Pauline Kael’s contribution to film criticism may not even lie in film criticism.

She was not so much a film critic or film essayist as much as a film reviewer. (Her film books, for instance, are a collection of reviews, not essays on cinema).

To have knocked off as many good reviews as she did week after week with deadlines choking her — that was something. (She would see six or seven films a week and sit up writing till dawn, and she wrote all her reviews with a pencil, in longhand, sitting on a straight-backed chair).

The pleasure she took in watching films came through in her writing.

You could see she really cared, that movies mattered to her. You didn’t see that in most critics then who seemed more preoccupied with literature, theatre and opera.

At the time she began reviewing, so much writing on film was academic, inaccessible and joyless that her personal, polemical style of approaching a film made a reader feel there was a person behind the review.

She would often say “I feel...” and put an end to the (so called) objective, pretentious, “One feels...” I’ve always felt that her great gift was not how to teach you to look at films, but how to feel about them.

With the exception of James Agee (who said ‘movies have done more for Shakespeare than Shakespeare has done for movies’) she was the only other critic to point out daringly that cinema was as great an art form as literature, music, theatre or art.

That may seem obvious to us now, but it wasn’t then — not till Kael, in review after review, fought for cinema to be recognised as the greatest art form of the 20th century.

Not that she could only get excited about the ‘kiss-kiss, bang-bang’ variety of movies — she loved the films of Satyajit Ray and showed an uncanny understanding of them.

Her review of Devi in I Lost It At The Movies is one of the most luminous essays on the cinema of Ray and contains some lovely thoughts on The Apu Trilogy.

In reviewing his Days and Nights in a Forest, she says: “Ray’s films can give rise to a more complex feeling of happiness in me than the work of any other director.”

Sometimes, reading Kael on a film was more fun than the film itself.

Her passion for films was so infectious that on reading her review you couldn’t wait to see the films she spoke so glowingly about.

Or keep away from a film she trashed — unless you liked it and she didn’t.

Then you were angry, really angry. You took it personally. You went all day arguing with her in your head.

She won most of the times. You let her; because when she liked the film you liked, there was no one better you could ask to be on your side.

Nobody could nail a film with the passion she could. Sometimes you were disappointed with the film she was so crazy about — you couldn’t see what she was seeing — but her review of it strangely remained exciting.

Years later, I realised why — what you were reading was the film as she had experienced it; the film in her head.

And in a perverse way that became the film for you, not the one on the screen! Richard Corliss, her friend and film critic, said: “Her hyperactive intelligence wanted movies to speak up, move fast, go crazy, make her swoon. She needed pictures to do for her what her reviews did for her readers.”

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