Saturday, August 14, 2010
From the Vault: For Keeps by Pauline Kael
Siskel & Ebert may be better known, but probably no film critic ever earned more respect (and scorn) or influenced more movie writers than Pauline Kael, whose long tenure at The New Yorker set the standard for what film criticism could — and should — be. Perhaps alone among well-read critics, Kael could make readers contemplate her rationale even if they completely disagreed with her.
For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies places together Kael's favorite reviews (and pieces of reviews) for her 10 compilation books as well as a lengthy excerpt from Raising Kane, her book about the landmark film Citizen Kane.
All told, For Keeps contains about a fifth of her writing — which amounts to a whopping 1,250 pages.
This compendium of Kael's career shouldn't be mistaken as yet another video guide — the book gathers mostly in-depth discussions of films. For Keeps offers old fans and new readers a great opportunity not only to follow the course of Kael's opinions from 1961 to 1991, but to get an interesting view of the development of moviemaking itself, a time which included the last truly exciting era of filmmaking (the early 1970s) as well as the near drought of the past couple of decades.
The book also includes a witty and informative introduction by Kael about her career desire "to develop a voice that would avoid saphead objectivity and let the reader in on what sort of person was responding to the world in this particular way." What makes Kael so great is that she truly is a movie lover and that shines, even when she's lambasting Hollywood for trying to pull the wool over the audience's eyes.
"Movies are made, criticism is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination and discrimination. There is a standard answer to this old idiocy of if-you-know-so-much-about-the-art-of-film-why-don't-you-make movies. You don't have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good."
However, Kael isn't a film snob. She was just as hard on the so-called "art films" and never liked something just because it seemed as if she should.
"When a really attractive Easterner said to me, 'I don't generally like musicals, but have you seen West Side Story? It's really great,' I felt a kind of gnawing discomfort. I love musicals and so I couldn't help being suspicious of the greatness of a musical that would be so overwhelming to somebody who didn't like musicals."
One of the most famous sayings attributed to Kael is something to the effect that movies are so seldom great art, you really have to appreciate them when they're great trash. Her reactions came from her heart, her guts and her brain.
In many of her critiques, the reader actually can sense her thought process at work. She also was brave enough to admit when she had an ambiguous reaction to a film, but most importantly she never backed down or second-guessed herself because of a picture's perceived profits or popularity. Simply put, Kael is the greatest film critic movie fans have ever known and For Keeps belongs on any film buff's bookshelf.