Nov 1, 2011

In agreement with herself, most of the time

"My father had a subscription to The New Yorker, and every week I would pick it up and start an argument with Kael. The argument had to remain in my own head, as that was well before the Web made it possible to storm into a comments section and tell off a critic. Usually, I didn’t want to tell off Kael, not exactly, no matter how much I objected to what she had written, and I objected to quite a lot. I wanted to ask her questions. I wanted some interaction with that brain. I would read her capsules in the front, or her ever-lengthening reviews in the back, and marvel at the syncopated, give-a-damn writing style and her utter faith in her own judgment. The fact that she was a woman mattered to me, too. Growing up in Alabama, I did not encounter many women with that kind of intellectual aggressiveness. Only gradually did I realize how widely Kael is criticized, even despised. The volume of things for which Kael is faulted begins to approach the size of her own output. She had too much power and wielded it unwisely. She collected acolytes, she started feuds. She overpraised Last Tango in Paris, she was blind to the virtues of Dr. Strangelove. She had no consistent set of criteria. She placed too much emphasis on screenwriters. Her kinship with ugly ducklings meant she gave too much credit to Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand. She sent David Lean into a spiraling depression with her review of Ryan’s Daughter. She helped ruin Orson Welles and the piece that did it, “Raising Kane,” showed lack of ethics, as did her stint in Hollywood, as did her rave over the rough cut for Nashville. She palled around with filmmakers, tuts Dargis, as though friendships with Woody Allen and Robert Altman kept Kael from hating Stardust Memories or 3 Women--the latter judgment prompting Altman to scream at her in the middle of an airport. (Altman got over it; Allen did not.) Others fault her for lack of loyalty to directors we now idolize. She never expounded “a theory, a system, or even a consistent set of principles,” points out A.O. Scott. And my response is, “well, thank god for that.” But the question also arises, is that the highest goal of criticism? Start Your Own -Ism?" — Self-Styled Siren
From the Siren's superb double-barrelled review of the Wolcott and Kael books. I've been amazed at the amount of sniping at Kael along the lines of "she was wrong about such-and-such", as if it were her job to get anybody's opinion right but her own. Who would they have her be in agreement with? Themselves, naturally, but even if she devoted herself to agreeing with person A, she would probably find herself in disagreement with person B and quickly run afoul of the old adage about not being able to please everyone all of the time. The worst thing you can say about a critic is not: she doesn't agree with me, but: she is not in agreement with herself. And Kael got herself right about 99% of the time.


  1. I remember reading AMERICAN FILM in either the late 70s or early 80s and an article about Kael and Altman stated that Pauline fell out of cinematic love with Bob around the release of BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS.

  2. There was a stretch after "Nashville" where she didn't care for Altman's stuff. Then she praised "Come Back to the Five and Dime," "Vincent & Theo," and "Cookie's Fortune." I don't know what she thought about "The Player," but she said "Short Cuts" represented Altman at both his best and worst. In Francis Davis's "Afterglow," she said something to the effect of, "When Altman's on, nobody can touch him; and when he's not, he's nothing." With a few notable exceptions (Ford, Kubrick), Kael's opinions of filmmakers, and their movies on a case-by-case basis, were more nuanced than she's usually given credit for.

  3. Thanks! Glad you liked the post.