The late New Yorker writer's favorites may not last, but her style will endure, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
Updated September 05, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Pauline Kael: AP/Wide World

How Pauline Kael changed movie criticism

The Paulettes are rending their garments, a lot of people in Hollywood are quietly opening bottles of champagne, and much of the general moviegoing public is united in a mass shrug. Pauline Kael is dead at 82.

You may be in the latter group yourself, but understand this: Even if you never read one word written by the longtime film critic for The New Yorker, she changed the way we all think about movies. Through the revolutionary slanginess of her tone, her native distrust of Art and embrace of Trash, the brutal confidence with which she slew sacred cows and defended found geniuses like Martin Scorsese — above all, through an approach, an attitude, and a writing style that continues to deeply influence every major critic working today — Kael brought serious discourse about movies into the mainstream. Connecting the theories of the intellectual elite with the gut impulse of the filmgoer in the street, she — and pretty much she alone — made it possible to be thoughtful and profane about the cinema in the same breath. Better yet, her reviews were often more entertaining than the films she was reviewing.

Here she is, for instance, on the original 1968 ”Night of the Living Dead”: ”It would be fun to be able to dismiss this as undoubtedly the best movie ever made in Pittsburgh, but it also happens to be one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made.”

Who else would have said ”No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way [Frank] Capra can — but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” And here’s Kael on ”Star Wars,” the film that spelled the end of the new wave of personal filmmaking in 1970s Hollywood and set the stage for the age of the blockbuster: ”The film is enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus… The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, and the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head, and even if you’ve been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension — a sense of wonder, perhaps. It’s an epic without a dream.”

Agree or disagree, nobody wrote reviews like that before Kael. And, for better and for worse, almost everybody (including the collected critical staff of Entertainment Weekly) writes like that now. Lord knows, my own critical worldview was deeply affected by reading Kael during my adolescence: She spoke in a language that was intuitive to my moviegoing experience, far removed from the stodgy pronouncements of critics like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther. She turned me on to genres and individual films I might have passed by; even late in her career, she was perceptive enough to rescue the great little 1984 thriller ”The Stepfather” out of the trash-flick bargain bin. And when I disagreed with her — as I did, to my youthful shock, over her pan of ”Harold and Maude” — I had to force myself to articulate why.

Oddly, you would think that given how powerful Kael was in her late-1970s/early-1980s peak, her judgments would have lasted. Instead, her true legacy is her style and approach — her voice — not her feelings about individual films. Does anyone out there really believe that ”Casualties of War” is ”the culmination of [Brian DePalma’s] best work”? Or that, in ”Chinatown,” ”you don’t care who is hurt, since everything is blighted”?

Looking at it another way, though, the prickly eccentricity of Kael’s opinions was one of her most salutary qualities. For the nasty little truth about professional movie reviewing is that it’s ALWAYS just one person’s opinion, no matter how many films they’ve seen, courses they’ve taken (or taught), or 800-pound words they use. Kael’s picks and pans stood just far enough out in left field to remind you of that fact — and to make you stretch your brain to figure out where YOU stood. Disagreeing with a writer so witty, knowledgable, and enragingly self-assured took work. For many of us, it was worth it.