Pauline Kael (1919- 2001)

Many people today live far more fully than they would have if Pauline Kael had never written. As a Petaluma-born, at first Berkeley-based movie critic whose first piece, “Some Notes on Chaplin’s ‘Limelight,’” appeared in the occasional journal of the San Francisco bookstore City Lights in 1953, she was kin in her ’50s way to both idol-smashing literary critic Leslie Fiedler (born in Newark, working out of Missoula, Montana) and then shockingly frank and funny lovelorn columnist Dear Abby (born in Iowa, first publishing in the San Francisco Chronicle). From places that on the media map did not exist, people were speaking without care for what people would think of them—or, maybe, trying as hard as they could to piss people off, to rattle their cages, to wake them up.

Still, Fiedler cultivated a certain archness and Dear Abby had responsibilities—to all the abused, desperate, suicidal people writing her in hopes that she might save their lives. Kael was neither arch nor responsible: she responded, then dove down deep into her own responses—I hate this, I love this—and came back with stories, analyses, wisecracks overheard in the theater, with a picture of the U.S.A., or Europe, or anywhere else, in which she was the citizen and the movie in question the charter for the world to come or the world that was already lost. Her credo—“Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply,” she wrote in 1963, “just because you must use everything you are and everything you know”—brought countless readers, and countless people her readers talked to, argued with, scorned, laughed at, dragged into theaters to see movies they would never forget or never forgive, into the action. Embarrassment in the face of movies—of anything you care about—is a sin, her pieces said, one by one, year after year; pretending to like a movie or anything else you’re supposed to like is worse. Making that case is a battle that’s never won, but Kael turned up the volume. I don’t know if the world is a better place because for more than 40 years she wrote, but I know it’s more of a place.

Happy birthday, Pauline, for as long as I’m around to say it.


Salon, September 4, 2001
[Above citation from Lipstick Traces, p. 475]


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2 thoughts on “Pauline Kael (1919- 2001)

  1. It was in the preface to Mystery Train that I first noted the title of a book (actually three, but this turned out to be the most important), I Lost It At the Movies. Nice to be reminded of the debt I owe Marcus.

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