Nearly 14 years after her death, film critic Pauline Kael still inspires controversy. During her lifetime she was loved by many, hated by some and feared by studios and publicists (much of Hollywood felt, with some justification, that she could make or break a movie with her New Yorker reviews).
One matter than nearly everyone agrees on is that she was an exceptionally good and forceful writer. Her collections fall in and out of print, but just as every generation of theater people discovers Shakespeare anew, so does every new cycle of film people find its way to Kael. And if those copies of "I Lost It At The Movies" or "Kiss Kiss Band Bang" are a little dog-eared and foxed, then so be it, the contents are immortal.
Kael began writing about film professionally when she managed and programmed a small two-screen theater for the Berkeley Cinema Guild from 1955 to 1960. She wrote beautiful, insightful and persuasive capsule notes for the films she chose. At around the same time she became the on-air film critic for Berkeley's community radio station KPFA. A number of the reviews Kael read on-air are collected in her first books and her capsule reviews can be found in the invaluable collection "1001 Nights At The Movies," revised as "5001 Nights At The Movies."
She had an 8-year run as unpaid film reviewer for KPFA before quitting in 1963. Some of the frustrations that led to her resigning the post are apparent in this broadcast, recorded just before she quit. Kael's legendary wit, incisiveness and truculence are here, in a giant-sized portion. All of us who replay an argument in our heads afterwards, thinking, "I should have said that!" will appreciate the precision and sickness of the burn she administers here.
I sheared the existing broadcast recording of a few minutes of KPFA business. Her full broadcast script (including the portion not available on tape) is reprinted here:
I am resolved to start the New Year right; I don’t want to carry over any unnecessary rancor from 1962. So let me discharge a few debts. I want to say a few words about a communication from a woman listener.
She begins with, “Miss Kael, I assume you aren’t married—one loses that nasty, sharp bite in one’s voice when one learns to care about others.” Isn’t it remarkable that women, who used to pride themselves on their chastity, are now just as complacently proud of their married status? They’ve read Freud and they’ve not only got the idea that being married is healthier, more “mature,” they’ve also got the illusion that it improves their character. This lady is so concerned that I won’t appreciate her full acceptance of femininity that she signs herself with her husband’s name preceded by a Mrs. Why, if this Mrs. John Doe just signed herself Jane Doe, I might confuse her with one of those nasty virgins, I might not understand the warmth and depth of connubial experience out of which she writes.
I wonder, Mrs. John Doe, in your reassuring, protected marital state, if you have considered that perhaps caring about others may bring a bite to the voice? And I wonder if you have considered how difficult it is for a woman in this Freudianized age, which turns out to be a new Victorian age in its attitude to women who do anything, to show any intelligence without being accused of unnatural aggressivity, hateful vindictiveness, or lesbianism. The latter accusation is generally made by men who have had a rough time in an argument; they like to console themselves with the notions that the woman is semi-masculine. The new Freudianism goes beyond Victorianism in its placid assumption that a woman who uses her mind is trying to compete with men. It was bad enough for women who had brains to be considered freaks like talking dogs; now it’s leeringly assumed that they’re trying to grow a penis—which any man will tell you is an accomplishment that puts canine conversation in the shadows.
Mrs. John Doe and her sisters who write to me seem to interpret Freud to mean that intelligence, like a penis, is a male attribute. The true woman is supposed to be sweet and passive—she shouldn’t argue or emphasize and opinion or get excited about a judgment. Sex—or at least regulated marital sex—is supposed to act as a tranquilizer. In other words, the Freudianized female accepts that whole complex of passivity that the feminists battled against.
Mrs. Doe, you know something, I don’t mind sounding sharp—and I’ll take my stand with those pre-Freudian feminists; and you know something else, I think you’re probably so worried about competing with male egos and those brilliant masculine intellects that you probably bore men to death.
This lady who attacks me for being nasty and sharp goes on to write, “I was extremely disappointed to hear your costic speech on and about the radio station, KPFA. It is unfortunate you were unable to get a liberal education, because that would have enabled you to know that a great many people have many fields of interest, and would have saved you from displaying your ignorance on the matter.” She, incidentally, displays her liberal education by spelling caustic c-o-s-t-i-c, and it is with some expense of spirit that I read this kind of communication. Should I try to counter my education—liberal and sexual—against hers, should I explain that Pauline Kael is the name I was given at birth, and that it does not reflect my marital vicissitudes which might over-complicate nomenclature?
It is not really that I prefer to call myself by my own name and hence Miss that bothers her or the other Mrs. Does, it is that I express ideas she doesn’t like. If I called myself by three names like those poetesses in the Saturday Review of Literature, Mrs. Doe would still hate my guts. But significantly she attacks me for being a Miss. Having become a Mrs., she has gained moral superiority: for the modern woman, officially losing her virginity is a victory comparable to the Victorian woman’s officially keeping hers. I’m happy for Mrs. Doe that she’s got a husband, but in her defense of KPFA she writes like a virgin mind. And is that really something to be happy about?
Mrs. Doe, the happily, emotionally-secure-mature-liberally-educated-womanly-woman has her opposite number in the mailbag. Here is a letter from a manly man. This is the letter in its entirety: “Dear Miss Kael, Since you know so much about the art of the film, why don’t you spend your time making it? But first, you will need a pair of balls.” Mr. Dodo (I use the repetition in honor of your two attributes), movies are made and criticism is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination, and discrimination. I suggest it is time you and your cohorts stop thinking with your genital jewels. There is a standard answer to this old idiocy of if-you-know-so-much-about-the-art-of-the-film-why-don’t-you-make-movies. You don’t have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good. If it makes you feel better, I have worked making movies, and I wasn’t hampered by any biological deficiencies.
Others may wonder why I take the time to answer letters of this sort: the reason is that these two examples, although cruder than most of the mail, simply carry to extremes the kind of thing so many of you write. There are, of course, some letter writers who take a more “constructive” approach. I’d you to read you part of a long letter I received yesterday:
I haven’t been listening to your programs for very long and haven’t heard all of them since I began listening … But I must say that while I have been listening, I have not heard one favorable statement made of any “name” movie made in the last several years…. I have heard no movie which received any kind of favorable mention which was not hard to find playing, either because of its lack of popularity or because of its age. In your remarks the other evening about De Sica’s earlier movies you praised them all without reservation until you mentioned his “most famous film—The Bicycle Thief, a great work, no doubt, though I personally find it too carefully and classically structured.” You make me think that the charge that the favorability of your comments on any given movie varies inversely with its popularity, is indeed true even down to the last nuance. But even as I write this, I can almost feel you begin to tighten up, to start thinking of something to say to show that I am wrong. I really wish you wouldn’t feel that way. I would much rather you leaned back in your chair, looked up at the ceiling and asked yourself, “Well, how about it? Is it true or not? Am I really biased against movies other people like, because they liked them? When I see a popular movie, do I see it as it is or do I really just try to pick it apart?” You see, I’m not like those other people that have been haranguing you. I may be presumptuous, but I am trying sincerely to be of help to you. I think you have a great deal of potential as a reviewer…. But I am convinced that great a potential as you have, you will never realize any more of that potential than you have now until you face those questions mentioned before, honestly, seriously, and courageously, no matter how painful it may be. I want you to think of these questions, I don’t want you to think of how to convince me of their answers. I don’t want you to look around to find some popular movie to which you can give a good review and thus “prove me wrong.” That would be evading the issue of whether the questions were really true or not. Furthermore, I am not “attacking” you and you have no need to defend yourself to me.
May I interrupt? Please, attack me instead—it’s this kind of “constructive criticism” that misses the point of everything I’m trying to say that drives me mad. It’s enough to make one howl with despair, this concern for my potential—as if I were a cow giving thin milk. But back to the letter—
In fact, I would prefer that you make no reply to me at all about the answers to these question, since I have no need of the answers and because almost any answer given now, without long and thoughtful consideration, would almost surely be an attempt to justify yourself, and that’s just what you don’t have to do, and shouldn’t do. No one needs to know the answers to these questions except you, and you are the only person who must answer. In short, I would not for the world have you silence any voices in you … and most certainly not a concerned little voice saying, “Am I really being fair? Do I see the whole movie or just the part I like—or just the part I don’t like?”
And so on he goes for another few paragraphs. Halfway through, I thought this man was pulling my leg; as I got further and read “how you missed the child-like charm and innocence of The Parent Trap … is quite beyond me,” I decided it’s mass culture that’s pulling both legs out from under us all. Dear man, the only real question you letter made me ask myself is, “What’s the use?” and I didn’t lean back in my chair and look up at the ceiling, I went to the liquor cabinet and poured myself a good stiff drink.
How completely has mass culture subverted even the role of the critic when listeners suggest that because the movies a critic review favorably are unpopular and hard to fine, that the critic must be playing some snobbish game with himself and the public? Why are you listening to a minority radio station like KPFA? Isn’t it because you want something you don’t get on commercial radio? I try to direct you to films that, if you search them out, will give you something you won’t get from The Parent Trap. You consider it rather “suspect” that I don’t raise more “name” movies. Well, what makes a “name” movie is simply a saturation advertising campaign, the same kind of campaign that puts samples of liquid detergents at your door. The “name” pictures of Hollywood are made the same way they are sold: by pretesting the various ingredients, removing all possible elements that might affront the mass audience, adding all possible elements that will titillate the largest number of people. As the CBS television advertising slogan put it—“Titillate—and dominate.” South Pacific is seventh in Variety’s list of all-time top grossers. Do you know anybody who thought it was a good movie? Was it popular in any meaningful sense or do we just call it popular because it was sold? The tie-in campaign for Doris Day in Lover Come Back included a Doris Day album to be sold for a dollar with a purchase of Imperial margarine. With a schedule of 23 million direct mail pieces, newspaper, radio, TV and store ads, Lover Come Back became a “name” picture.
I try not to waste air time discussing obviously bad movies—popular though they may be; and I don’t discuss unpopular bad movies because you’re not going to see them anyway; and there wouldn’t be much point or sport in hitting people who are already down. I do think it’s important to take time on movies which are inflated by critical acclaim and which some of you might assume to be the films to see.
There were some extraordinarily unpleasant anonymous letters after the last broadcast on The New American Cinema. Some were obscene; the wittiest called me a snail eating the tender leaves off young artists. I recognize your assumptions: the critic is supposed to be rational, clever, heartless and empty, envious of the creative fire of the artists, and if the critic is a woman, she is supposed to be cold and castrating. The artist is supposed to be delicate and sensitive and in need of tender care and nourishment. Well, this nineteenth-century romanticism is pretty silly in twentieth-century Bohemia.
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.
Some of you write me flattering letters and I’m grateful, but one last request: if you write me, please don’t say, “This is the first time I’ve ever written a fan letter.” Don’t say it, even if it’s true. You make me feel as if I were taking your virginity—and it’s just too sordid."