Pauline Kael

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Pauline Kael (1968)

Pauline Kael (June 19, 1919September 3, 2001) was an American film critic best remembered for the reviews she wrote for The New Yorker. Collections of her reviews were later published in book form.


  • Object to the Hollywood film and you’re an intellectual snob, object to the avant-garde films and you’re a Philistine. But, while in Hollywood, one must often be a snob; in avant-garde circles one must often be a Philistine.
    • "Movies, the Desperate Art" (1956)
  • I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.
  • Regrettably, one of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down.
  • A mistake in judgment isn't fatal, but too much anxiety about judgment is.
  • Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.
    • "Raising Kane", The New Yorker (February 20, 1971 and February 27, 1971); reprinted in Kael's The Citizen Kane Book (1971).
  • October 14, 1972: that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 — the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed — in music history. There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it’s fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism. [...] Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?
  • I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them.
  • In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.
    • Newsweek (December 24, 1973).
  • A woman who taught at Berkeley dropped in on me once and saw a book burning in the fireplace. She pointed at it in terror, and I explained that it was a crummy ghostwritten life of a movie star and that it was an act of sanitation to burn it rather than sending it out into the world which was already clogged with too many copies of it. But she said, "You shouldn’t burn books" and began to cry.
    • The New Republic (December 24, 1966)
  • Before seeing Truffaut's Small Change, I was afraid it was going to be one of those simple, natural films about childhood which I generally try to avoid — I'm just not good enough to go to them. But this series of sketches on the general theme of the resilience of children turns out to be that rarity — a poetic comedy that's really funny.
  • I loved writing about things when I was excited about them. It's not fun writing about bad movies. I used to think it was bad for my skin. It's painful writing about the bad things in an art form, particularly when young kids are going to be enthusiastic about those things, because they haven't seen anything better, or anything different.
  • After one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, "Well I don't see what was so special about that movie." I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?... Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.
    • Review for Shoeshine (1946) as quoted in Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (2004) by Craig Seligman.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968)[edit]

[Little, Brown ISBN 0-316-48163-7]

  • The words "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.
    • "A Note on the Title".
  • Watching old movies is like spending an evening with those people next door. They bore us, and we wouldn't go out of our way to see them; we drop in on them because they're so close. If it took some effort to see old movies, we might try to find out which were the good ones, and if people saw only the good ones maybe they would still respect old movies. As it is, people sit and watch movies that audiences walked out on thirty years ago. Like Lot's wife, we are tempted to take another look, attracted not by evil but by something that seems much more shameful — our own innocence.
    • "Movies on Television".
  • The past has a terror and fascination and a beauty beyond almost anything else. We are looking at the dead, and they move and grin and wave at us; it's an almost unbearable experience. When our wonder or our grief are interrupted or followed by a commercial, we want to destroy the ugly box. Old movies don't tear us apart like that. They do something else, which we can take more of and take more easily; they give us a sense of the passage of life. Here is Elizabeth Taylor as a plump matron and here, an hour later, as an exquisite child.
    • "Movies on Television"

Going Steady (1969)[edit]

[Marion Boyars, ISBN 0-714-52976-1]

Trash, Art and the Movies (February 1969)[edit]

See the essay in its entirety here

  • Alienation is the most common state of the knowledgeable movie audience, and though it has the peculiar rewards of low connoisseurship, a miser’s delight in small favors, we long to be surprised out of it — not to suspension of disbelief nor to a Brechtian kind of alienation, but to pleasure, something a man can call good without self-disgust.
  • Audiences who have been forced to wade through the thick middle-class padding of more expensively made movies to get to the action enjoy the nose-thumbing at "good taste" of cheap movies that stick to the raw materials. At some basic level they like the pictures to be cheaply done, they enjoy the crudeness; it’s a breather, a vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses. Patrons of burlesque applaud politely for the graceful erotic dancer but go wild for the lewd lummox who bangs her big hips around. That’s what they go to burlesque for.
  • Movies make hash of the schoolmarm’s approach of how well the artist fulfilled his intentions. Whatever the original intention of the writers and director, it is usually supplanted, as the production gets under way, by the intention to make money — and the industry judges the film by how well it fulfills that intention. But if you could see the "artist’s intentions" you’d probably wish you couldn’t anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist.
  • People who are just getting "seriously interested" in film always ask a critic, "Why don’t you talk about technique and 'the visuals' more?" The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn’t very interesting.
  • The craftsmanship that Hollywood has always used as a selling point not only doesn’t have much to do with art — the expressive use of techniques — it probably doesn’t have very much to do with actual box-office appeal, either.
  • Men are now beginning their careers as directors by working on commercials — which, if one cares to speculate on it, may be almost a one-sentence résumé of the future of American motion pictures.
  • And for the greatest movie artists where there is a unity of technique and subject, one doesn’t need to talk about technique much because it has been subsumed in the art. One doesn’t want to talk about how Tolstoi got his effects but about the work itself. One doesn’t want to talk about how Jean Renoir does it; one wants to talk about what he has done. One can try to separate it all out, of course, distinguish form and content for purposes of analysis. But that is a secondary, analytic function, a scholarly function, and hardly needs to be done explicitly in criticism. Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole. The critic shouldn’t need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together. The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made — which is more or less implicit.
  • Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.
  • Kicked in the ribs, the press says "art" when "ouch" would be more appropriate.
  • Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.
  • When you clean them up, when you make movies respectable, you kill them. The wellspring of their art, their greatness, is in not being respectable.
  • The small triumph of The Graduate was to have domesticated alienation and the difficulty of communication, by making what Benjamin is alienated from a middle-class comic strip and making it absurdly evident that he has nothing to communicate — which is just what makes him an acceptable hero for the large movie audience. If he said anything or had any ideas, the audience would probably hate him.
  • The recurrence of certain themes in movies suggests that each generation wants romance restated in slightly new terms, and of course it’s one of the pleasures of movies as a popular art that they can answer this need. And yet, and yet — one doesn’t expect an educated generation to be so soft on itself, much softer than the factory workers of the past who didn’t go back over and over to the same movies, mooning away in fixation on themselves and thinking this fixation meant movies had suddenly become an art, and their art.
  • The critical task is necessarily comparative, and younger people do not truly know what is new.
  • One’s moviegoing tastes and habits change — I still like in movies what I always liked but now, for example, I really want documentaries. After all the years of stale stupid acted-out stories, with less and less for me in them, I am desperate to know something, desperate for facts, for information, for faces of non-actors and for knowledge of how people live — for revelations, not for the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of.
  • If we make any kind of decent, useful life for ourselves we have less need to run from it to those diminishing pleasures of the movies. When we go to the movies we want something good, something sustained, we don’t want to settle for just a bit of something, because we have other things to do. If life at home is more interesting, why go to the movies? And the theatres frequented by true moviegoers — those perennial displaced persons in each city, the loners and the losers — depress us. Listening to them — and they are often more audible than the sound track — as they cheer the cons and jeer the cops, we may still share their disaffection, but it’s not enough to keep us interested in cops and robbers. A little nose-thumbing isn’t enough. If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.

Deeper into Movies (1973)[edit]

[Little, Brown ISBN 0-316-48176-9]

  • At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don't have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact desensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you're offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don't believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there's anything conceivably damaging in these films — the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don't use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us — that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it's eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?

5001 Nights at the Movies (1982)[edit]

[Holt, Rinehart and Winston ISBN 003000442X]

  • There is a dreadful discrepancy between Michelangelo's works and the words put into the mouth of Charlton Heston, who represents him here, and this picture — which is mostly about a prolonged wrangle between the sculptor and Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison), who keeps sweeping into the Sistine Chapel and barking, "When will you make an end of it?" — isn't believable for an instant.
  • Apparently, Lillian Hellman couldn't shake off the predatory Hubbards after The Little Foxes; she wrote this play about the same family, setting it back 30 years earlier in their dark history. The Hubbards, who are supposed to be rising Southern capitalists, are the greatest collection of ghouls since The Old Dark House of 1932. Hellman must combine witchcraft with stagecraft — who else could keep a plot in motion with lost documents, wills, poisonings, and pistols, and still be considered a social thinker?
  • The action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it surfaces in this movie.
  • Hilariously florid — sometimes referred to as "Lust in the Dust." This Wagnerian western features Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones as lovers so passionate they kill each other. She's Pearl Chavez, a half-breed wench, and so, by Hollywood convention, uncontrollably sexy, and Peck actually manages to bestir himself enough to play a hunk of egotistical hot stuff — maybe the name Lewt McCanles got to him, or maybe the producer, David O. Selznick, used electric prods. Peck clangs his spurs and leers, while Jones heaves her chest; when they kiss, lightning blazes.
  • The slender, swift Bruce Lee was the Fred Astaire of martial arts, and many of the fights that could be merely brutal come across as lightning-fast choreography.
  • Charles Laughton is superbly vulgar in this whack at the backside of Victorianism. He makes a great vaudeville turn out of the role of an egocentric scoundrel, the prosperous bootmaker who doesn't want to part with his three marriageable daughters because they are too useful as unpaid labor. As the oldest daughter, the spinster in spite of herself, Brenda de Banzie is so "right" that when she marries her father's best workman and puts belching, drunken old Dad out of business, one feels the good old-fashioned impulse to applaud.
  • A filmed play like this doesn't offer the sensual enjoyment that movies can offer, but you don't go to it for that; you go for O'Neill's crude, prosaic virtuosity, which is also pure American poetry, and for the kind of cast that rarely gathers for a stage production. [...] Larry, a self-hating alcoholic, is a weak man and a windbag, but Ryan brings so much understanding to Larry's weakness that the play achieves new dimensions. Ryan becomes O'Neill for us; he has O'Neill's famous "tragic handsomeness" and at the end, when Larry is permanently "iced" — that is, stripped of illusion — we can see that this is the author's fantasy of himself [...] Fredric March interprets Harry Hope with so much quiet tenderness that when Harry regains his illusions and we see March's muscles tone up, we don't know whether to smile for the character or the actor.
  • Though she came from the theatre, Barbara Stanwyck seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the fluid physical movements that work best on camera; perhaps she had been an unusually "natural" actress even onstage. This was her first big hit in the movies. Under Frank Capra's direction, she plays a tough "party" girl (euphemism for call girl) who poses for a wealthy young artist (Ralph Graves); he sees in her the spirituality that she attempts to deny. The story is a museum piece of early-talkies sentimentality, but, in a way, that only emphasizes Stanwyck's remarkable modernism.
  • Picasso has a volatile, explosive presence. He seems to take art back to an earlier function, before the centuries of museums and masterpieces; he is the artist as clown, as conjurer, as master funmaker.
  • De Mille's bang-them-on-the-head-with-wild-orgies-and-imperilled-virginity style is at its ripest; the film is just about irresistible.
  • Whom could this operetta offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel. We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs. The dauntless, scrubbed-face heroine (Julie Andrews), in training to become a nun, is sent from the convent to serve as governess to the motherless Von Trapp children, and turns them into a happy little troupe of singers before marrying their father (Christopher Plummer). She says goodbye to the nuns and leaves them outside at the fence, as she enters the cathedral to be married. Squeezed again, and the moisture comes out of thousands--millions--of eyes and noses. Wasn't there perhaps one little Von Trapp who didn't want to sing his head off, or who screamed that he wouldn't act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa's party guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get on a stage? The only thing the director, Robert Wise, couldn't smooth out was the sinister, archly decadent performance by Christopher Plummer--he of the thin, twisted smile; he seems to be in a different movie altogether.
  • One of the biggest box-office successes in movie history — probably because for young audiences it's like getting a box of Cracker Jack that is all prizes. Written and directed by George Lucas, the film is enjoyable in its own terms, but it's exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. There's no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the image of a double sunset. The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, and the relentless pacing drive every idea out of 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.
  • De Niro's inflamed, brimming eyes are the focal point of the compositions. He's Travis Bickle, an outsider who can't find any point of entry into human society. He drives nights because he can't sleep anyway; surrounded by the night world of the uprooted — whores, pimps, transients — he hates New York with a Biblical fury, and its filth and smut obsess him. This ferociously powerful film is like a raw, tabloid version of Notes from the Underground. Martin Scorsese achieves the quality of trance in some scenes, and the whole movie has a sense of vertigo. The cinematographer, Michael Chapman, gives the street life a seamy, rich pulpiness.
  • [T]his film offers a nightmare image: the "Black Rebels," an outlaw motorcycle gang — a leather-jacketed pack who resemble storm troopers — terrorize a town. Their emblem is a death's head and crossed pistons and rods, and Marlon Brando, in his magnetic, soft-eyed youth, is their moody leader. The picture seemed to be frightened of its subject — the young nihilists who say "no" to American blandness and conformity — and reduced it as quickly as possible to the trivial meaninglessness of misunderstood boy meets understanding girl (Mary Murphy), but the audience savored the possibilities, and this clumsy, naive film was banned and argued about in so many countries that it developed a near-legendary status.

Taking It All In (1983)[edit]

[Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ISBN 0030693616]

"Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers" (June 23, 1980)[edit]

See the essay in its entirety here

  • TV executives think that the programs with the highest ratings are what TV viewers want, rather than what they settle for.
  • The conglomerate heads may be business geniuses, but as far as movies are concerned they have virgin instincts; ideas that are new to them and take them by storm may have failed grotesquely dozens of times. But they feel that they are creative people — how else could they have made so much money and be in a position to advise artists what to do? Who is to tell them no?
  • In movies, the balance between art and business has always been precarious, with business outweighing art, but the business was, at least, in the hands of businessmen who loved movies. As popular entertainment, movies need something of what the vulgarian moguls had — zest, a belief in their own instincts, a sentimental dedication to producing pictures that would make their country proud of their contribution, a respect for quality, and the biggest thing: a willingness to take chances. The cool managerial sharks don’t have that; neither do the academics. But the vulgarians also did more than their share of damage, and they’re gone forever anyway. They were part of a different America. They were, more often than not, men who paid only lip service to high ideals, while gouging everyone for profits. The big change in the country is reflected in the fact that people in the movie business no longer feel it necessary to talk about principles at all.
  • People have expected less of movies and have been willing to settle for less. Some have even been willing to settle for Kramer vs. Kramer and other pictures that seem to be made for an audience of over-age flower children. These pictures express the belief that if a man cares about anything besides being at home with the kids, he’s corrupt. Parenting ennobles Dustin Hoffman and makes him a better person in every way, while in The Seduction of Joe Tynan we can see that Alan Alda is a weak, corruptible fellow because he wants to be President of the United States more than he wants to stay at home communing with his daughter about her adolescent miseries. Pictures like these should all end with the fathers and the children sitting at home watching TV together.
  • It would be very convincing to say that there’s no hope for movies — that audiences have been so corrupted by television and have become so jaded that all they want are noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level. And there’s plenty of evidence, such as the success of Alien. This was a haunted-house-with-gorilla picture set in outer space. It reached out, grabbed you, and squeezed your stomach; it was more gripping than entertaining, but a lot of people didn’t mind. They thought it was terrific, because at least they’d felt something: they’d been brutalized. It was like an entertainment contrived in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by the Professor of Feelies in the College of Emotional Engineering.

State of the Art (1985)[edit]

[Dutton, ISBN 0-525-48186-9]

  • In the sixties, the recycling of pop culture — turning it into Pop art and camp — had its own satirical zest. Now we're into a different kind of recycling. Moviemakers give movies of the past an authority that those movies didn't have; they inflate images that may never have compelled belief, images that were no more than shorthand gestures — and they use them not as larger-than-life jokes but as altars.
    • "A Bad Dream/A Masterpiece," review of The Moon in the Gutter (September 19, 1983), p. 48.
  • Unlike storybook heroes and heroines but like many actual heroes and heroines, she was something of a social outcast. (As Simone Weil noted, it was the people with irregular and embarrassing histories who were often the heroes of the Resistance in the Second World War; the proper middle-class people may have felt they had too much to lose.)
    • "Busybody," review of Silkwood (January 9, 1984), p. 107.
  • If I never saw another fistfight or car chase or Doberman attack, I wouldn't have any feeling of loss. And that goes for Rottweilers, too.
  • It tackles a wonderful subject without preening, and brings it off unassertively — so unassertively that the movie is in danger of being overlooked. (Variety has already dismissed it as something "for a very limited audience.") We're getting to the point where the press assumes that movie audiences won't be willing to bring anything to a picture, and warns them off.
    • "Circus," review of Moscow on the Hudson (April 16, 1984), p. 160.
  • Since I have an aversion to movies in which people say grace at the dinner table (not to the practice but to how movies use it to establish the moral strength of a household), the opening night montage of Sunday-night supper in one home after another in Waxahachie, Texas in 1935 — a whole community saying grace — made me expect the worst.

Hooked (1989)[edit]

[Dutton, ISBN 0-525-48429-9]

  • What's disgusting about the Dirty Harry movies is that Eastwood plays this angry tension as righteous indignation.
    • "Pop Mystics," review of Pale Rider (August 12, 1985), p. 17.
  • Is there something in druggy subjects that encourages directors to make imitation film noir? Film noir itself becomes an addiction.
  • If there is any test that can be applied to movies, it's that the good ones never make you feel virtuous.
    • "Ersatz," review of Stand By Me (September 8, 1986), p. 197.

Movie Love (1991)[edit]

[Penguin, ISBN 0-452-26635-1]

  • Moviegoers like to believe that those they have made stars are great actors. People used to say that Gary Cooper was a fine actor — probably because when they looked in his face they were ready to give him their power of attorney.
  • This is a nature-boy movie, a kid's daydream of being an Indian. When Dunbar has become a Sioux named Dances with Wolves, he writes in his journal that he knows for the first time who he really is. Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.


  • If you can't make fun of bad movies on serious subjects, what's the point?
    • Interview with Hal Espen, The New Yorker (March 21, 1994); reprinted in Espen's Conversations with Pauline Kael (University of Mississippi Press, 1996, ISBN 0-878-05899-0), p. 162.
  • Goodman: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
    Kael: I hate it. It is very creepy being imitated.
    • Interview with Susan Goodman, Modern Maturity (March/April 1998) [1].
  • Earlier generations went to see what was forbidden in life and developed a real excitement about the movies. Today’s rating system keeps kids out of the good ones. I wouldn’t want them to see movies like Natural Born Killers, but my tendency is you’re better off seeing things than not. That glazed indifference kids develop can be worse than over-excitement.
    • Interview with Susan Goodman, Modern Maturity (March/April 1998).
  • Moviemaking is so male-dominated now that they think they’re being pro-feminine when they have women punching each other out.
    • Interview with Susan Goodman, Modern Maturity (March/April 1998).
  • It's sometimes discouraging to see all of a director's movies, because there's so much repetition. The auteurists took this to be a sign of a director's artistry, that you could recognize his movies. But it can also be a sign that he's a hack.
  • I still don't look at movies twice. It's funny, I just feel I got it the first time. With music it's different. People respond so differently to the whole issue of seeing a movie many times. I'm astonished when I talk to really good critics, who know their stuff and will see a film eight or ten or twelve times. I don't see how they can do it without hating the movie. I would.
    • "The Perils of Being Pauline," interview with Francis Davis, The New Yorker (October 2001).
  • For some strange reason we don't go to charming, light movies anymore. People expect a movie to be heavy and turgid, like "American Beauty." We've become a heavy-handed society.
    • "The Perils of Being Pauline," interview with Francis Davis, The New Yorker (October 2001).


  • I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
  • I am mystified. I know only one person who voted for Nixon.
    • Attributed to Kael after the 1972 American Presidential election, which Nixon won easily. This misquote is presumably based on "I live in a rather special world." above, but there is no evidence that Kael was mystified or surprised by that election's outcome. Full quote: "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them."

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