Hooked & Gridlocked: Notes on Pauline Kael’s Provincialism
by Michał Oleszczyk

We are bumpkins, haunted by the bottle of ketchup on the dining table at San Simeon. We garble our foreign words and phrases and hope at least we’ve used them right. Our heroes pick up the wrong fork and the basic figure of fun in American theatre and American movies is the man who puts on airs.—Pauline Kael, Bonnie and Clyde review

If Pauline Kael’s movie reviews amount to a sort of personal diary (as suggested by the preface she wrote for her last, hand-picked retrospective collection, For Keeps), the one word that comes to mind when trying to define her personality must be: insatiable. The sheer volume of her work, the length of particular reviews, the amount of detail taken in, digested, and referred to in print are nothing less than astonishing—especially if one reads through all of Kael’s collections in unbroken succession. It’s been stated over and over again that, for Kael, moviegoing was akin to a sexual experience (the titles she kept choosing for her books suggested as much), but it may be far more true that movies provided her with something more substantial than just pleasure and rapture: she might have seen them as a form of nutrition, an indispensable fodder for her voracious need to see new things and new people, to analyze them and share the results with the reading public.

Of all the great American film critics, Kael was the one who followed Robert Warshow’s famous definition of what constitutes the essence of the critic’s task—“A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man”’—in a literal fashion: namely, she turned her writing into a literary re-creation of the viewing experience she had just had. While most film reviews are burdened by glib topical references and quick, throwaway judgments (thus becoming barely readable a few years after original publication), hers do what the best descriptive prose is supposed to do: each review conjures up a movie in its entirety and dramatic progression, complete with images, carefully selected plot twists, fleeting impressions, and lasting meanings. No other film critic of Kael’s (or any) generation was as masterful when it came to turning a superbly nuanced synopsis into a richly textured critical essay. As I read through her complete works twice during the preparation of my doctoral thesis on Kael’s approach to film authorship, the main distraction that often prevented me from getting my own work done was that I kept being lured into particular movies by the force of Kael’s descriptions. I would often start to seek them out, rather than work on my own research goal (a pitfall not uncommon in the era of instant wish-fulfillment that Amazon, YouTube, Netflix, and VOD provide).

At the same time, as addictive and fascinating as I found it, Kael’s prose struck me as tiresome when gobbled up in heftier chunks: for some reason, I couldn’t make myself read more than a dozen or so of her reviews in one sitting (not the case with Robert Warshow, Otis Ferguson, or James Agee, mind you). Reading Kael for too long always felt a bit like having a long conversation with an idiosyncratic genius trapped in a world of her own: as fascinating as it was one-sided, as insular as it was enriching.

It is this peculiar incongruity—of Kael’s voracious openness to experience and the strange weariness that creeps in every time I read her for a long stretch—that had first set off the reflection that serves as the basis for this essay. After three or so years of my Kael-centered doctoral research, I started to suspect that the reason my subject’s prose can feel tiresome after a while stems from the fact that it contains a paradoxical quality: vibrancy verging on closed-mindedness. In the closing remarks of his highly informative biography, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow referred to a similar impression he had, which only reinforced my own belief: “I discovered to my surprise that she had not traveled widely, and that her curiosity had been unflagging but in some ways oddly limited.”

How is it that the greatest film critic of all time (for I have no doubt Kael deserves this title), as well as one famous for her insatiability, is at the same time strangely aloof and willfully disinterested when it comes to particular types of movies, or—more specifically—movies from some regions of the world? Being Polish myself, and recognizing the fact that Kael’s parents were both Polish Jews who immigrated to the United States from Warsaw in the first decade of twentieth century, there is one particular absence in her writing that I find particularly glaring: namely, the films of Central and Eastern Europe. 

It is almost shocking to discover that, in her quarter-century as a film reviewer for The New Yorker, Kael had only once reviewed a film that can even remotely be deemed Eastern European, since, although it was nominally a West German production, it was made by a Hungarian director and produced by a Hungarian studio: namely, István Szabó’s Oscar-winning Mephisto (1981), which she had mixed feelings about. As far as we know (and I base my knowledge on several interviews I did with Kael’s acquaintances and friends, as well as on Kellow’s book), she never traveled anywhere behind the Iron Curtain and one would be hard-pressed to detect so much as a tiny bit of interest in this part of the world in her writing. In fact, whatever mentions of Eastern Europe do appear in her reviews, they are usually derogatory and anxiety-driven, as if Eastern Europe represented something shriveled, dry, and vaguely repugnant: definitely not a place one would identify with, even though one was not even a full generation distant from the geographical heart of it.

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Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3