The Gospel According to St. Pauline
Roger Ebert may have been the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, but Pauline Kael was the first to become a household name (and the first to win the National Book Award). Critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, Kael was a one-woman Cahiers du Cinema, combining an encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history, theory and technique with a tart, vivid literary style and very strong opinions as to what made a good movie. She excelled at the long-form reviews she published in The New Yorker every week, in which she could expound on the cinematic trends she considered important and the actors, directors and screenwriters she most admired (or, more memorably, despised). However, readers can still get an idea of her style and her influence by reading 5001 Nights at the Movies, a compendium of her encapsulated reviews still in print 26 years after the first edition appeared.
Rereading Kael after a number of years, I can attest that her reviews always make a bracing read, even when (fairly often in my case) I disagree with her. I still don't comprehend Kael's enthusiasm for John Boorman's indigestible Excalibur("It's as if Boorman were guiding us down a magic corridor and kept parting the curtains in front of us," she wrote); still less do I endorse her dismissal of John Ford's masterful The Quiet Man as "fearfully Irish and green and hearty" or of the exquisite David Lean-Noel Coward Brief Encounter as "implicitly condescending." And don't get me started on her downgrading of Hitchcock (a petit maitre if ever there was one") while she praised Brian De Palma for doing Hitchcock knockoffs. Nevertheless, at her best she could encapsulate a director's entire oeuvre perfectly in one line; of Jean Cocteau, she wrote, "Cocteau's special gift was to raise chic to art." She was every bit as good at pinpointing the appeal of popular films she didn't necessarily admire: she wrote of An Officer and a Gentleman, "It's crap, but crap on a motorcycle." And of Easy Rider, she wrote, "The film became a ritual experience. It was the downer that young audiences wanted; they puffed away at it."
Of course, no one ever got skewered in print until they got skewered by Kael. She positively body-slammed Samson and Delilah: "De Mille, with God as his co-maker...The sets are wondrous chintzy." And she was no respecter of high reputations, as evinced by her review of Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour: "(I)t makes you so conscious of its artistry tht you may feel as if you're in church and need to giggle." And I am overjoyed when Kael agrees with me about a movie; I cannot tell you how happy I am that there's one other reviewer besides me who doesn't think Terms of Endearment is the heartbreaking, staggering, magnificent, eternal, makes-Jean-Renoir-look-like-Andy-Milligan masterpiece that every other critic said it is, at least in 1983.
Reading Kael's capsule reviews is like eating a jar of macadamia nuts: a gourmet but compulsive experience. Although you may not always agree with her, you will respect her as a cinematic scholar who despised the generic, who championed what she saw as the idiosyncratic and innovative, and who had the guts, brains, and literary talent to make her influence felt.
P.S. To update my pre-Oscar entry, left hanging so shamefully for two months: Congratulations to Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who made headlines in Dublin, Prague, and everywhere else after all.