Pauline Kael in 1994


By Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: If you were starting off now, would you write about films?

Pauline Kael: In this period of movies, in terms of what’s being done now, I doubt it….I’m not sure.

People don’t talk about movies the way they used to.

How can you talk about special effects for more than a minute? You say, how was that done? And somebody explains how it was done, and you think, why did I ask?

Is it because movies so thoroughly take over your consciousness that, even when they stink, people are still fascinated by them?

I think so. Even a dumb movie often has a lot going on in it.

I know in San Francisco you worked on experimental films.

It interested me a lot at the time, but my talents, such as they were, probably tied in more with entertainment movies than with experimental movies.

How do you explain this?

Because of my interests, which were primarily in films reaching large numbers of people. There is something rather closeted about experimental films. They seem like part of the foundation world, or the art gallery bureaucracies. And I love the idea of the democratic medium of the motion picture. Whitman’s poetry reached out to people in a way that early movies did too.

Have movies lost that?

Well, now they’re made for subliterate cultures. American action films travel so well all over the world. Whereas the films that try to do something unusual are trapped.

Doesn’t that make the action film even more democratic?

It’s democratic in the worst way. It degrades the mass audience. If there’s nothing else in movies but action it’s just one special effect thrill after another. And people learn to settle for that.

What do you make of critics’ eternal search for the great new B movie?

A mystique has been built up that B movies were really the all-American goods, and if you can bring that quality to bigger movies you’ve got something. But the trouble with B movies is the B conception of character. You don’t have characters with many sides. The characters are really a function of the plot.

Do A movies today offer anything more than B movies used to?

They still have more interesting performances, particularly in the smaller roles. A bum actor in the leading role will be surrounded by whiz-bang players to keep the picture going.

What direction might your life have taken if William Shawn hadn’t been a fan?

I don’t really know, because I was at the point of giving up. I had just quit the New Republic because the publisher had dumped some reviews of mine, and chopped up another while I was out of town. And I was in bed with the flu, and I thought, well, it’s really hopeless. Shawn phoned when I was at my sickest and offered me to start the following Monday. He had printed the pieces that the New Republic had rejected — “Movies on Television” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” Shawn liked movies, he cared about them. Most editors are just not that interested.

There’s a roomful of editors waiting for you to speak to them. What do you say?

I’d say, stop assigning so many stories, and listen to what the writers want to write about. The worst thing that’s happening in magazines and newspapers is that people get trained to write on assignment, and they cook up fake stories about whatever the editors have heard a little buzz about. If it was a story they really cared about, they could do some independent research, and they might have some background in it, and it might be something they believed in.

Where does “the buzz” come from?

The publicists, often. They take their cue from the executives in the movie companies. It starts with what the executives think is going to be the hot picture. And goes all the way up to what’s featured on magazine covers and TV talkfests.

Why do editors trust what they’re told?

Because they don’t trust themselves. They go out with important people at dinner parties or at openings. They trust what they hear or overhear more than they trust their own critics.

Was the magazine world at the time you were getting going similar to the magazine world today?

No, but it was terrible in its own way. Things were chopped up and hacked, but I wasn’t told in advance what to write about. After I wrote about something, then the editors would get their fists in it. One way or another they get you.

It’s an editor’s world.

In many ways The New Yorker wasn’t a dream, either. There were movies I couldn’t review because the thought of them upset Shawn so much. For example, I didn’t publish a review of “Deep Throat.” He simply wouldn’t allow it.

If you had been Paul Kael, how might things have been different?

(laughs) I don’t know who can say, because I very specifically took a woman’s point of view. And I used bitchery as a tool. So I can’t say I wasn’t putting myself ready up there for it.

Why did you so deliberately take a woman’s point of view?

Because so many movies were being judged in what I thought were absurdly masculine terms. Cowboy movies and war movies, and everything else, too.

Would a woman critic starting off now be badgered as you were?

I think she might have it easier than a man. Where before editors wouldn’t consider women critics, now they’re looking for them, because they think there is some kind of political advantage in having them.

What is it success does to entertainers?

They begin to view themselves as having a responsibility to the public. And that generally means a responsibility to present themselves as ideal characters. They’ll no longer do the things they did earlier on.

Some people go to pieces.

Often they start on drugs or high living or new marriages or new sex lives. They just can’t handle it. But often it’s a matter of wanting important pictures with important themes. I think there are directors who have more talent than brains — Spielberg, Demme, maybe Scorsese. Streisand. Some of them are technically and emotionally incredibly gifted, but they don’t know what they should be doing with their gifts. They pick terrible material. It’s almost incredible that a man of Spielberg’s gifts should have made “Always.” And when you hear him making speeches about how everybody should see “Schindler’s List” — as if it were a duty — you lose heart.

Is Coppola an example of someone who couldn’t handle success?

I think it was overpowering for him. It was really at the peak of the counterculture, and of the drug culture, and I think he got swept up in it. Certainly the people he worked with got swept up in it. By the time he was going to Cuba and being feted by Castro, and was announcing he was going to buy Belize, he’d really become a savior. And I think he still has something of that grandiloquence.

Did you ever feel bad panning someone?

You can’t help knowing that you’re hurting a person. I’ve sometimes had accounts of how so-and-so went to bed for three days after reading my review. It’s a comedy, but it’s also awful. You realize that months out of their lives had gone into this role, and suddenly they feel they’re subjected to public ridicule. But it’s part of working in the arts that you have to accept esthetic criticism, and lord knows I’ve been panned, so I know how it feels.

People often don’t realize that as a critic you’re a public performer. They think all you’re doing is —

— attacking other people. They don’t realize you’re on the line too. And as a critic you get attacked with a particular hostility that people reserve for critics, because they think of them as parasites.

Are they parasites?

The subject a movie critic writes about is movies. It seems to me as legitimate an object of contemplation as any other. (laughs) I think it’s a great subject, especially how movies interact in our lives. It’s difficult to be a good critic. There are very few great ones. A handful — Hazlitt and Shaw. Virginia Woolf with the “Common Readers,” D.H. Lawrence in “Studies in Classical American Literature.” Tynan early on in “Curtains” wrote stunningly on actors.

Before flowers
Photo by Don Hannah.

How important is it for a movie critic to be right?

There’s no standard to judge right or wrong by in any of the arts. You have to go on whether other people see something different in the work because of what you’ve written. In movies, judgment is often not so important in a critic as responsiveness to what a movie feels like, and where it’s heading and what its vision is.

There’s a roomful of Pauline Kael imitators waiting for you to speak to them. What do you say?

“Cut it out!” (laughs) I don’t see how you can develop your own responsiveness if you keep using somebody else’s vocabulary or attitudes. It’s the attitudes that they take over, which are sort of tough-girl attitudes, and seem aberrant in male critics.

Are there works or artists you find yourself unable to respond to?

Yeah. Fassbinder I never got with. I just didn’t see what all the fuss was about. A lot of later Bresson didn’t interest me. There are big names I don’t care for very much. For me, Zhang Yimou joins Ozu and Tarkovsky. I find Zhang Yimou’s pictures mostly very tiresome. They seem like a reprise of what was done in the ’20s and early ’30s, and slower and more pictorial.

What do you think of the British movie critics?

Graham Greene could summarize a movie in two or three sentences that were just about unforgettable. He could do it with a phrase. And he had a strong point of view about what kinds of movies he believed in. There are some remarkably smart critics now, but you feel they could be writing about almost anything. It wouldn’t have to be movies.

Is that a failing?

It’s a failing in terms of a strong movie sense. They don’t have a strong feeling of what they want movies to be, besides better entertainment.

The Modern Review gang seem to be the first Brits who don’t condescend to American pop culture.

They’re still on a high from it. They haven’t yet had too much of that high. We’re overdosed on American pop culture. We could stand a little something else.

Some of us Americans get tired of having our nervous systems raped.


Why does pop culture take over everywhere it’s introduced?

Because it’s so basic, and charged with energy. Why does rock music or country music take over? Because everybody can take part in it, everybody can feel it. You don’t need an education for it. It gets to you instantly. And American pop movies have the same instant accessibility to people. The emotions and drives are so simple.

It’s like sugar. In every culture where sugar was introduced —

It swept the country. Sure.

The ’60s exhilaration about pop culture left a lot of people thinking there was liberation of some sort to be found in pop.

It was fun bombarding people with pop culture and getting them to agree that they really enjoyed it. Because academic people had been talking about it as if it wasn’t worth discussion. And the fact is it has basic qualities that often have gone out of serious fiction and movies. But it’s not all we want. Pop culture in its most extreme form is what you get in the action film.

Well, now that pop culture has been admitted into polite society —

There is no polite society.

So has the fight for pop culture been won?

It’s been won in a terribly distorted way. I don’t think anybody who wanted a recognition of it wanted it to be recognized as the sole art of America.

So where in the ’60s you were arguing for people to recognize the virtues of pop, you would now be responding to people who have become addicts of pop?

That’s right. Those who resent anything that requires more attention than the simplest forms of pop do.

How do you explain that resentment?

If people grow up on pop music, how do they respond to more complex music? Are they willing to make the effort, or do they scorn it because it doesn’t have the immediate pleasures for them?

What might be ideal?

What you get in Renoir or Satyajit Ray, or Preston Sturges at his best. You get it in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” in dozens of films. “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Wild Bunch.” Not just action. A vision.

A vision that at the same time doesn’t deny the popular aspect?

That’s right.

On the sofa
Pauline and Polly Frost

Bonus: Remarks Pauline made about various movie figures

Kathryn Bigelow. She’s the only woman director I know of who’s really gifted at action yet not particularly gifted at character, story or emotions. There’s an exuberance in the way she approaches action. It’s not the usual approach. Her action is visually a little off-center, yet it’s central to her movies — it’s what brings them to life.

Oliver Stone. The fake energy of his movies gives me the feeling that they’re made by a speed freak. They’re druggy movies. They’re portentous and self-important. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some talent, but it’s a crude, heavy-handed talent. A number of people who saw “Natural Born Killers” — and these are bright people — tell me they find it exhilarating. The fast cutting and the horrors — that kind of attack on American history and American life — get to some of them. There’s still a residue of the ’60s in a number of people who see a movie like that and get excited. They still think this is hot stuff.

Sharon Stone. I like her. She has humor, and she’s lovely to watch. She moves her arms and her body beautifully. There are so many actresses who are stiff and awkward. And she knows how to move with the role. On TV appearances there’s a genuine humor there. It strikes me she might have something of Carole Lombard in her if she were given the chance.

Tim Burton. It’s hard to know where Burton is heading. Nobody else I can think of could have directed “Beetlejuice.” Nobody else would have thought of doing some of those scenes that way. And even his early shorts have “Tim Burton” written all over them. But he also has a self-pitying side and a self-justifying side, which came out in “Edward Scissorhands.” And he has difficulty with structure and narrative which showed in parts of “Batman.” In general it was an amazing movie for him to have brought off. He could be a major, flukey moviemaker.

Madonna. I thought she was going to be great fun when I first saw her in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” but she hasn’t been great fun since. And somehow she’s blown it by now. She’s never really scored in front of the camera the way she gave promise of doing. There’s something iron-plated in the way she meets the camera.

Camille Paglia. She’s a lot more fun to read than the people who blast her. And there are genuine insights there. She’s smart, but why does she so often seem to be itching for a catfight? She certainly can stir things up. The women writers who refuse to debate her are kind of amazing. The self-righteousness that can go into putting yourself beyond argument!

Quentin Tarantino. He’s certainly talented, but it’s too early to say if there’s any depth to the talent. I laughed a lot at “Pulp Fiction.” It tickled me the way Paul Morrissey’s 1970 porno-absurd “Trash” did, and Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator.” There’s nothing under “Pulp Fiction,” no serious undercurrents. And I didn’t find any of the important “statements” I had read about in the reviews, but it’s got a crazy good humor. Tarantino has a flair for pop dialogue, and a flair for casting. He used wonderful people.

© 1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Published by

Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s