Pauline Kael: Unraveling the Brilliance of the Maverick Critic

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Who was the enigmatic Pauline Kael? 

She was a film critic with a rare and distinctive point of view, who revolutionized the way audiences viewed movies. While she passed away in 2001, her influence has not been forgotten. Kael achieved widespread recognition as one of America’s premier movie critics, and is considered one of the most well-known and influential film reviewers of the 20th century.

Born in 1919 in California to Russian Jewish parents, Kael began honing her passion for writing and film criticism in the 1940s, with her first review for City Lights magazine. From there, her reputation grew, and she pushed strict boundaries in her reviews, paving the way for a new era of movie criticism. Not only did she criticize each film, but she encouraged readers to engage with the craft, pushing them to think more deeply and critically.

In this article, we will dive into Pauline Kael’s legacy and uncover what made her one of the most famous–and controversial–film critics of the 20th century.

Early Life and Career of Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael was born in Petaluma, California in 1919 to Jewish-Russian immigrants who had fled to the United States during a wave of anti-Semitic violence and political turmoil in their home country. She grew up in a household that valued education and art. Her mother was a cultured pianist, and her father was an avid reader, who introduced her to American classics like Mark Twain.

Kael initially pursued a degree in philosophy at the University of California Berkeley where she began writing film reviews for the student magazine. Although she did not finish her degree, her years in Berkeley proved to be some of the most formative and influential for her future career as a film critic.

Kael left Berkeley in 1939 and moved to San Francisco, where she wrote for City Lights, a local periodical. She married not long after, and while she embraced the role as a mother, she continued her writing. In 1958, she began freelancing for Film Quarterly, and carefully honed her craft.

The Rise of Pauline Kael

Kael’s reviews soon caught the attention of other publications, and she rose to fame with her unapologetic views and straightforward opinions. She wrote candidly, cunningly and sometimes shockingly—all reasons why her readership grew measurably year after year.

In 1968, Kael began writing for The New Yorker, and soon after, she published her first collection of reviews, titled I Lost It at the Movies. The book was a hit, and throngs of people sought to catch her thought-provoking take on the film world—soon enough, she was signing hundreds of autographs each hour.

The Work of a Rebel Film Critic

Kael’s reviews went far beyond dismissing or praising a movie; she examined the political, psychological, and historical contexts. Her writing was often idiosyncratic, merging her personal life and experiences into the reviews. She was a master at forming persuasive arguments, calling out relevance in some of the most unlikely circumstances.

During the 1960s, Kael was an outspoken critic of the Hollywood industry, criticizing celebrities and big names in the film industry alike. She wrote fearlessly and wasn’t afraid to cause a stir with her writing, which earned her the nickname “Queen of the Mavericks”.

Kael’s Move to Feature Films

Kael’s successful career as a critic earned her not just notoriety and fame, but also the opportunity to work on big budget movies in Hollywood. Kael was brought on as a script reader for legendary director Robert Altman, for the film “MAS*H.” In 1974, she traveled to Los Angeles where she began her short stint as a screenwriter.

At the same time, Kael was writing for the New Yorker, where she started a series of long feature reviews. Her reviews were predominantly apologetic in nature, focusing more on the idea of the film and far less on the technicalities. Kael had an uncanny ability to critique movies while still finding something to admire.

Kael’s Short Films

Kael tried her hand in filmmaking, producing several short documentaries. In 1973, she produced an experimental short called “Corkscrews,” which documented a film festival. In 1976, Kael wrote and enacted a short dramatic film titled “Ride of Life.” The film depicts a man’s experience with death—something Kael experienced in her own life.

Kael the Iconic Critic

Pauline Kael is regarded by many as one of the most influential movie critics of all time, and her status as an icon in the industry remains intact. While she is no longer alive, her impact is evident in modern film critique, influencing the likes of Roger Ebert and Quentin Tarantino.

Kael’s reviews pushed boundaries and challenged the traditional assessments of movies. Her unique style of writing was meant not to teach but to persuade. She was not here to paint a movie in broad strokes, rather she sought to explore, feel, and uncover the nuances of filmmaking and all its complexities.

Kael’s Written and Philosophical Contributions

Kael wrote over 600 reviews, essays and interviews during her career, and she also left behind an impressive philosophical legacy. She challenged standard and even controversial notions in her pieces, offering keen insights into the norms and conventions of the film and culture core.

Kael is most famously remembered for her essay “Raising Kane” which explored the narrative and structure of the classic 1941 film, perpetuated by the work of genius filmmaker and movie idol, Orson Welles. This essay is often the source material for debates about authorship, control, and the power of the director in the film production process.

Kael also wrote reviews of celebrity and classic films, giving them a unique analysis and flavor With each review, Kael established her mark on the cinematic world, looking at the structure and composition of the film, in addition to the concrete details of its success or failures.

Pauline Kael was a revolutionary force in the film world, pushing the boundaries of criticism and leaving behind an influential legacy. Kael was an iconoclast, determined not just to critique films, but to explore and challenge conventional standards in the movie world.

She got her start writing film reviews in the 1940s, eventually becoming the premier critic of the 20th century. Kael used her reviews to push her readers to think critically and engage with the craft of filmmaking. She championed the power of the auteur, and challenged the cultural structures of the film industry.

Kael is undeniably an icon of the film world, leaving an impressive body of written work as well as her deep philosophical contributions behind. Her influence on future generations of movie watchers and her impact on the history of film critique remain with us today.

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