It is hard to narrow down why exactly it happened, if the readers just lost interest or the people involved did (the latter seems highly unlikely) or if the dawn of the Internet age caused it, but for the most part the art of film criticism is ancient history. That is not to say that there aren’t still thousands of “critics” out there telling the general public how they feel about the week’s newest films, if anything that number has grown. I am talking about the critics who spend numerous pages discussing a single film, the critics who dissect the minutest details of a film and in turn make that detail a reflection of the film as a whole. In my mind the critic that encompasses this trait and many others that make her so worth reading is Pauline Kael, an almost omniscient and forever penetrating voice that for better or worse will be haunting my own opinions (and dreams) of films for years to come.
Before reading through Kael’s collection of New Yorker reviews in For Keeps the only real exposure I had to film critique was through the odd film textbook, the internet and ‘shudder’ Alison Gilmour. What I found with most of these critics is that none of them had a distinctive voice; none of them seemed to sift through all the rubble to find even a single positive element in a film they didn’t like. My view of film criticism as an art form before I read Kael was basically that it wasn’t, I simply hadn’t read someone who opened up my (what I thought to be film-savvy) eyes to an entirely other realm of criticism. One that doesn’t involve thumbs or stars or tomatoes, a film review that actually leaves some of the thinking to the reader.
In my mind Kael’s review of Fellini Satyricon is the perfect example of the way a critique should be made. Not only does Kael make her thoughts on the film quite apparent in saying, “I think it’s a really bad movie…” she makes an argument for why she thinks it will be a success, “…Fellini has such intuitive rapport with the superstitious child in the adult viewer that I imagine [the film] will be a considerable success.”(Kael, 353) For anyone who has seen the film, it is filled with (as Kael puts it rather non-saliently) “…freaks – bloated or deformed, or just simulated freaks with painted faces and protruding tongues.”(Kael, 353) And yet with that being said, she digs much farther than just calling them freaks, she attempts (and in my mind succeeds) to interpret why it is exactly that the audience will acquiesce with the ludicrous images on the screen. Kael links the “freaks” back to the fairy tales of our youth and of the presence of a fear of God in all of us, the idea that the ugliness we see in this film is “God’s punishment for disobedience” (Kael, 353) In reading her critique of Fellini Satyricon, Kael’s general distaste towards the film is made quite apparent from the get go, but strangely enough, her pan of the film affected me in a strange way. I found that the way she described the film made me absolutely have to see it, I couldn’t get these images that she described out of my head. In some way or another, Pauline Kael managed to sell me on a movie she despised. While Fellini Satyricon proves to be an excellent example of Kael’s skill at dissecting a filmmaker’s (in her mind) failed attempt to bring a truly mesmerizing idea to the screen, it does not highlight her unparalleled skill at reading an actor (or actress) and creating a portrait of them as not only a performer but as a person in the public eye. The review that highlights this idea most effectively is undoubtedly her famous and extremely well written, ecstatically positive critique of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. This is a film that she claims “…altered the face of an art form.”(Kael, 450) and while I am ashamed to admit that I have never seen it, I find myself struggling not to take her word for it. Kael recreates the violent sexual passion that Marlon Brando exudes by referring to his “…male physical strength and the mythology he has built on it…” (Kael 451) The most touching aspect of her review is how she never denies that Brando is visibly acting on screen, but instead she applauds the fact that “He’s an actor: when he shows you something, he lets you know what it means.”(Kael 453) This observation should be seen as a guideline for actors, in that it does away with many textbook preconceptions that you should hide the fact that you’re acting. What Kael is trying to say, I think, is that acting isn’t about making it look easy or emitting a “naturalism” of sorts. Instead it is about putting a meaning behind every action you take, every word you utter. In other words, if an actor looks too natural it may be because he is not challenging himself in the way he should. For a viewer to truly feel the performance (like Kael did of Brando’s) the actor must push themselves past any comfort zones they may have hid behind in the past. Kael’s appreciation for Marlon Brando as an actor can be summed up in these words, “…when Brando is a full creative presence on the screen, the realism transcends the simulated actuality of any known style of cinema verite.” (Kael, 453)
Pauline Kael’s true power as a critic boils down to her voice. Although I have never heard her speak, I feel like all this time I have been listening to her. Her reviews always come off as fresh and unpredictable in that they never follow a strict structure. She alters her review according to the demands of the film’s content. If a performance demands the most attention (like Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris) then she dedicates a massive portion to a single actor or actress. No one paragraph is dedicated to summarising the film, but instead the film unfolds right before our very eyes through her taut analysis of key moments which reflect the film as a whole. Even more important is the idea that if she has mixed feeling towards a film she is not afraid to show it. I find her all the more respectable in that she will make a point of mentioning the few glimpses of quality in an otherwise bad movie. Take her review of Billy Jack as an example, while she calls the film’s plot and structure “…a shapeless mess.”(Kael, 408) She makes a point of saying that the director “…shows an ingenious, romantic talent…” (Kael 408) and that “The good things in Billy Jack create an atmosphere that helps blot out the dumb plot…” (Kael 408-409) It is through comments like these that Kael’s integrity as a film critic shines. She is not out to push audiences away from a certain film, she is simply giving them an alternate and well educated opinion to consider and nothing more.
In my reading of Kael I have been trying desperately to find some sort of fault in her writing. I’ve tried to convince myself that she’s pretentious, or just a smart ass, but the truth is they simply don’t make film critics like her anymore. She’s shameless in her honesty and hilarious in her brutality, but she’s never unfair. In the few examples I’ve shown above the most important aspect of her that I have tried to display is that she truly does care about every movie she sees. She goes in with zero predispositions about the filmmakers or performers previous works and is constantly willing to have her mind blown right open. The majority of critics today lack the rationality that Kael had and I can’t help but ask myself how she’d feel about this year’s or for that matter any future year’s films. It is her timeless voice that gives each and every one of her reviews an incomparable strength.