“It’s appalling to read solemn academic studies of Hitchcock or von Sternberg by people who seem to have lost sight of the primary reason for seeing films like Notorious or Morocco—which is that they were not intended solemnly, that they were playful and inventive and faintly (often deliberately) absurd. And what’s good in them, what relates them to art, is that playfulness and absence of solemnity. There is talk about von Sternberg’s technique—his use of light and decor and detail—and he is, of course, a kitsch master in these areas… Unfortunately, some students take this technique as proof that his films are works of art, once again, I think, falsifying what they really respond to—the satisfying romantic glamour of his very pretty trash. Morocco is great trash, and movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them. The kitsch of an earlier era—even the best kitsch—does not become art…
“We are now told in respectable museum publications that in 1932 a movie like Shanghai Express ‘was completely misunderstood as a mindless adventure’ when indeed it was completely understood as a mindless adventure. And enjoyed as a mindless adventure. It’s a peculiar form of movie madness crossed with academicism, this lowbrowism masquerading as highbrowism, eating a candy bar and cleaning an ‘allegorical problem of human faith’ out of your teeth.” — Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” 1969*
“Not long before she died, Pauline remarked to a friend, ‘When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture.’ That’s exactly the point. [Kael] and her foot soldiers won the battle but lost the war.” — Paul Schrader, “Fruitful Pursuits,” 2002**
Pauline Kael (1919–2001) was the film critic for The New Yorker throughout the 1970s, when American film culture—if not the magazine—was at its peak, and the country’s preeminent writer about the movies was at the height of her powers. In the obituary he wrote for his colleague, Roger Ebert said, “Kael had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades. She had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her ‘approach’ to a film. With her it was all personal.”
Kael had her pet critics and filmmakers, and this coterie style of extreme subjectivity brought many detractors—most notably Renata Adler, whose 1980 takedown “The Perils of Pauline” (published in the New York Review of Books) sent shock waves through Manhattan media circles.
This week at the Newport Beach Film Fest, Rob Garver will present his documentary WHAT SHE SAID—THE ART OF PAULINE KAEL.
Thursday, May 2, at 7:45 pm.
Big Newport 5
300 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach.
*Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Harper’s, February 1969, republished in American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now, edited by Phillip Lopate (New York: Library of America, 2006), 337–367.
**Paul Schrader, “Fruitful Pursuits” section of “Prose and Cons,” a posthumous Kael assembly, Artforum, March 2002, 129.
Also see Craig Seligman, Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (New York: Counterpoint, 2004).
From top: Pauline Kael; Kael in Chicago with Tony Randall on the Irv Kupcinet Show, 1968; book cover image Little, Brown & Company, 1971; Kael at Cannes with Jacques Perrin in 1977; Kael.