Crazy Kael.


I began and finished A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael today. It’s a nice little book, both easygoing and short whilst retaining a decent amount of insight. It’s written in transcript form based on an interview with Kael by a close friend – another, younger critic whose first form of contact with her was a letter asking her to read his work and give feedback. She did, and they soon became friends upon meeting.

The format means the prose lacks the bite we came to expect in her reviews, but that might also have to do with the fact these discussions took place in the late 90s, almost a decade after Kael had retired from professional film criticism and not far from her death from a long battle with Parkinson’s.

The disease certainly didn’t eat away entirely at her enthusiasm for cinema. It seems that she continued to see all major releases, only giving up the post-film procedure of writing down and sharing her thoughts with the world and no longer having to watch every piece of mindless drivel that had been pushed out of Hollywood each week.

And that, it seems, was the main reason for her early retirement. The Parkinson’s played a part. She talks of short-term memory problems and an inability to recall all the details of a film she thought were crucial to her job, but even more influential in her decision was simply the fact that movies had gone rotten. There were just fewer people around doing things with film that excited her.

She talks of a few exceptions, including Paul Thomas Anderson, who she sees as doing mysterious but enormously interesting things in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Oh how I wish she had lived to see (and I could read her reaction to) There Will Be Blood. Amazingly, she also lavishes praise on The West Wing and Sex and the City (!), insisting that at least in their early days both were great sources of entertainment. She claims The Sopranos was at times as good as GoodFellas. I suppose the endorsements express more generally here willingness to embrace what the typical, more aloof critic might deride as low culture. She’d take a Jim Carrey comedy (or apparently even Austin Powers) over Blowup any day of the week.

Of course, there’s also time for the odd anecdote about her meetings with Hitchcock and Godard, and about how directors even up until 2000 sent her videos early of their new work, pushing for her much prized opinion. She also has time to stick the knife in old Stanley once more. Some of her fiercest criticism, for me, comes in the attacks on A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, and she adds the claim that Eyes Wide Shut was an utter joke of a film from the outset. The only Kubrick film she appears to appreciate is Lolita.

What struck me most, though, was a fleeting reference to an idiosyncrasy that she is allegedly infamous for: never watching a movie more than once. Really; it was her First Commandment. There’s far from a full explanation here as to why she did this, but it seems to be a combination of growing up in an age when home movie-watching was impossible (not just a lack of DVDs or videos, but a lack of TVs), and a belief that any film, however good, would drag with repetition.

The first reason, I can partially understand. When you grow up with the cinema being your Church – the only place you watch films, and those films only ever showing once – it must be easier than it is for us to move on from a movie you truly love. The second ‘reason’, however, seems only to support caution in not overplaying a film, not categorically refusing even a second viewing. There’s definitely a truth here somewhere. I’ve probably tarnished my ability to think unequivocally positively of films like The Social Network through overviewing, despite believing it to be a masterpiece. But now it is possible with such ease to see a film again, the prospect of never even considering returning to The Godfather at some point in my life is enough to make me want to cry!

I will never understand Kael’s policy, but I retain a huge level of fascination with her perspective on cinema, and I’ve never found her views – and the way they are expressed – anything short of magnificent. Sometimes after reading her analyses I feel like giving up even trying to write about film in the way she managed to. But at other times, she can really egg me on. I look back on some of the reviews I’ve written and wonder why I bothered to finish them, but I am also proud of a handful. I think my reviews of Pretty Woman, The Departed and Midnight in Paris especially have made the time trying worthwhile. And all of them were undoubtedly written with Kael’s techniques in mind.

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