Love letters

Pauline Kael's For Keeps is a diary of a strange and passionate affair with movies

"A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre," writes legendary film critic Pauline Kael in an influential 1969 essay entitled, "Trash, Art, and the Movies." "If somewhere in the Hollywood entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn't all corruption. The movie doesn't have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor's scowl, a small, subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a bit of sense."
It's precisely that sort of breathless, stargazing sentiment that made Kael's writing so important to so many moviegoers. And that's what makes reading the titanic new anthology For Keeps--an assortment of Kael's favorites from her four decades of movie reviewing that amounts to roughly one-fifth of her total lifetime output--so preposterously entertaining.

She wasn't like other critics. Her work was conversational, rough-edged, sometimes even profane. For legions of film buffs, her disappearance from regular reviewing four years ago because of advancing age and declining health meant that the world made just a bit less sense.

Kael was addictive--a hyped-up writer with a pen full of adrenaline. She could be insightful, reckless, infuriating, and touching, sometimes in the same piece. And she was fearless: she wrote mostly for herself, to hash things out and make sense of art and life. If you agreed with her conclusions, fine. If you didn't, you respected her passion. And if you thought her passion was tiresome, you could at least laugh at her wisecracks or admire her gift for hurtling adjective-packed, sometimes stunningly lyrical sentences.

She exposed Hud as a well-made but dishonest piece of liberal sermonizing and rolled her eyes at the visionary sci-fi noir adventure Blade Runner ("With all the smoke in this movie, you feel as if everyone connected with it needs to have his flue cleaned"). She gloried in the hyperkinetic violence of George Miller's The Road Warrior ("Miller must have the jittery nervous system of an exploitation filmmaker linked to the eyes of an artist").

She appreciated the emotionalism, crude showmanship, and silly sex jokes in the 1976 remake of King Kong. "Like the earlier Kong, this one has no visible genitals; he doesn't need them--Kong is a walking forty-foot genital. What makes him such a pop hero is that he's also pre-phallic--the Teddy Bear Christ of the sixties flower children, Christ as a mistreated pet." She poked fun at the cultivated sweetness of Dances with Wolves ("Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head"), and responded so strongly to the moral and artistic courage of Brian DePalma's Casualties of War that she bent over backwards to justify its flaws. ("DePalma has such seductive, virtuosic control of film craft that he can express convulsions in the unconscious.")

Whether these opinions would be deemed right or wrong by film history never mattered to Kael, mainly because Kael believed film criticism was related to filmmaking but not dependent upon it. She saw it as a related yet distinct art.

Time's Richard Corliss said that Kael's best criticism "soars into the highest realm of word jazz." The comparison is apt: any musician who sweats every note assures himself of mediocrity. So week after week and year after year, Kael sat down at her typewriter, and let 'er rip. She slapped bizarre phrases together so they sounded like scholarly scat and proclaimed the greatness of filmmakers and performers she'd write off later as worthless, lavished praise on popular trifles, and blasted ambitious films that didn't ring her bell. Like all truly brave artists, she continually risked--and sometimes endured--embarrassment. (Her repellently catty review of Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary Shoah showcased her worst shortcomings: she came on like a juvenile delinquent spray-painting a tombstone, and her readers blasted her for it.)

She compared the debut of the controversial Bernardo Bertolucci picture Last Tango in Paris to the tumultuous premiere of Igor Stravinsky's "Les Sacres du Printemps," and the comparison didn't seem farfetched or inappropriate to her; she felt no need to apologize for linking one of the most exhaustively analyzed works in the history of classical music with an intellectualized skin flick in which Marlon Brando rubs butter on a woman's anus while delivering a free-form monologue. When she thought Richard Attenborough's 1982 film Gandhi made the great Indian leader come off as a nagging Jewish mother, or that Michael Moore's gonzo documentary Roger & Me "[used] its leftism as a superior attitude," she went ahead and wrote it. To hold back--to refine her impulses so they sounded more evenhanded and genteel--would have meant falsifying her gut reactions. And in Kael's critical value system, that was tantamount to lying under oath.

Kael was a farm girl from Northern California who just couldn't resist making trouble. As her longtime friend, humorist Roy Blount, Jr., recalled in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, "she cut short her own violin-prodigy career by getting up before a synagogue audience, whose expressions of fond expectancy rubbed her the wrong way, and swinging into 'Onward Christian Soldiers.'" She grew to adore Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, the poems of Rilke, and the music of Mahler and Bruckner--all artists who prized passion over caution and precision.

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