Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review Of A Review Of A Reviewer By A Reviewer

Todd McCarthy reviews Brian Kellow's biography of Pauline Kael in The Hollywood Reporter.  I admit I've blown hot and cold and Kael.  She's a vibrant writer, but with significant flaws.  I don't always love her mix of slanginess and erudition, and grow tired of her assertions presented with the the assumption that we must agree.  Also, while she could be amazingly receptive, she had significant blind spots, championing certain artists beyond what they deserved, and resisting many solid entertainments (and sometimes even being a bit suspicious of art).  But better too opinionated than not enough.  And better vibrant and wrong than predictable and tiresome.

Her life as a critic is well known, but she didn't really make any waves until she was into her forties.  This book will fill in her early years (which she sometimes would mention in reviews, but was mostly hidden)--a young, small Jewish girl raised on a chicken farm out west who hangs out with gay, artistic types, is rejected by the New York intellectual scene, and forced to raise a daughter alone after her second failed marriage.  With so many strikes against her, she still rose to the top of her profession (which was barely a profession before she made it one) by the force of her will.  All along her love for movies (which might have replaced love for others) came across more powerfully than with almost any other critic.

Then there were the battles she had in print, especially with auteurist Andrew Sarris.  In fact, some of her early, caustic essays, before she got her perch on The New Yorker, were her best work.  (Throughout her career she seemed surprised when people took her reviews personally.  Of course, she got plenty of tongue lashings herself and always seemed to take them with equanimity.) Later, when she gained power, she could be exciting, and make you look at certain works differently, but it also seemed that she played favorites (without giving full disclosure), and for that matter could be sweet-talked by certain filmmakers.

I've reread a lot of her stuff, and it doesn't all hold up. (Few regular critics do.) But as McCarthy notes, film critics are noted for how they react to others' work, so it's surprising that one should get a bio. But Kael, who was in her own way as big as the movies she reviewed, deserves one if anybody does.

PS  Here's a decent essay on Kael from--where else--The New Yorker.


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