Pauline Kael was one of the most influential film critics in America, and she landed her stint at The New Yorker just in time for New Hollywood and retired before the turn of the millennium. She did not have the academic training as most critics had at the time, but more than most film bloggers do today. Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Penguin Group) by Brain Kellow is an effective biography that does not exonerate her matter-of-fact stance on criticism or rake her decades of work through the mud. The book is an honest exploration of Kael’s life, work and ethics.
Born to Jewish parents on a farm in Petaluma, California, Kael’s take-no-bullshit sensibilities existed at an early age. She dropped out of college just a few classes shy of graduating to loaf around with groups of artists. After a brief and unsuccessful stint in New York, Kael returned to San Francisco and would find her self married and divorced three times. One marriage brought her daughter Gina into the world, and another marriage was an attempt to reduce the financial burden of raising a daughter with a heart murmur.
Kael fell for the movies hard, seeing everything should could and certainly letting her friends know her opinion. She took a relatively simple stance on film; it needed to be like sex. All of her books refer the to the act, and her reasoning is simple: sometimes its pretentious, sometimes its fantastic, but most times its trashy, and we might as well enjoy the trash since quality is far and few in-between. After overhearing Kael destroy a movie she had just seen to a friend at a diner, Peter D. Martin offered Kael a job to review Charlie Chaplin’s new film at the time, Limelight. Martin found Kael’s articulate and independent opinions refreshing. She would later begin delving into her movie reviews over the air for KPFA-FM, even bashing the station at times for attempting to interfere with her opinions.
She never took bullshit, and would often fling such notions back at other critics she thought were damaging film criticism. Her so-called battle with Andrew Sarris regarding his immature conception of The Auteur Theory as the defacto way to interpret a film was less of a battle and much more of brief moment in time in which common sense and pseudo-academia fought. Pauline’s “Circle’s and Squares” tackled Sarris’ attempt to define The Auteur Theory. The fight did not last long, Kael invited Sarris out to dinner one night. Most of the battles between them would be fought between their individual followers. Kael would even mentor her admirers who were interested in moving into film criticism, but most would be labeled as Paulettes and fail to have any style of their own.
When feminists fought together for independence, Kael seemed to do it all by herself. Kael raised Gina alone and barely got by, even when she was reviewing films for The New Yorker for half the year. Her foul-mouth, hard demeanor would sting everyone at some point. When she would buddy up with a filmmaker she admired, she would still insert her opinion when it was never requested. What is stunning about Kael is that her career really did not become a reality until half-way though her life. She took menial jobs to make ends meet, and the darker days never seemed to end. It is a refreshing life story to anyone who is down and out when fighting for their dreams.
Kellow’s own style is fluid and easy to digest. He never attempts to put his own diction and style above the biographical content. The content is backed by letters and notes from Kael’s own correspondence, interviews with friends and family, and other sources that are cited. A Life in the Dark is fantastic biography of a film critic who inserted her own sensibilities into her reviews to create a more conversational form of criticism. Although, I personally dislike this form, it was Kael’s and Kael’s alone, and she made it okay (for a time) to have a clear personality in critical film reviews.