Monday, February 18, 2013

Pauline Kael's Superpower

When Pauline Kael wrote, people read. Her reviews were controversial, often criticized and even hated, but people read them. Kael wrote and her audience was smitten with, engrossed in her prose of highly-developed opinion and independence. In her review of Silkwood, Kael criticizes Meryl Streep, asserting that “in her starring performances [Streep] has been giving us artificial creations.” Honestly, how could anyone criticize Meryl Streep, let alone say that her performances are artificial? But Kael does, and by the end of her review even a serious Streep fan must admit that Kael’s reasoning is fair and logical. This was Kael’s superpower. She could build an opinion based not off what others believed and advertised, but rather on how she felt and reacted; she could then convince her audience that her opinion, however controversial, was valid—and she did it all through energetic and engaging artful prose.

Kael was attracted to and embodied an energy that filled her writing. In Francis Davis’ Afterglow, a final interview with Kael, they talk about pop-culture and Kael says she loves “the energy of pop.” She thought “pop has a bite to it—a life to it” and she surrounded herself with that life. She enjoyed Tom Waits and Duke Ellington. She watched Sex in the City. Kael was interested in new things. She didn’t like repeats of what was already done. When writing about Disney’s The Little Mermaid, she stated, “I expected to see something more than a bland reworking of old Disney fairy tales, featuring a teen-age tootsie in a flirty sea-shell bra.” Kael wanted something new but received the typical Disney story, and made her point through energetic and confrontational language.

Because of her desire for the new, she took issue with movies made after the seventies. Kael believed movies stopped changing—that after the seventies, for the most part, movies were just re-made in different ways. By the end of her career, Kael didn’t enjoy reviewing films because there were no longer films she enjoyed. She was unafraid to say the movie industry is in decay and getting worse, because that is what she believed.

Kael’s idiosyncrasies reflect her values and opinions. Kael hated repetition: she hated watching a movie twice because she “got it” the first time. In her review on Hiroshima Mon Amour, she describes her reaction to lyrical repetition in a script: “I lost patience…Ok, I got it the first time, let’s get on with it.” She wanted something new and didn’t allow artful tricks to cloud her opinion.

In the age of the typewriter and rising computer, she refused to type; she always wrote long-hand, despite the inconvenience or anyone’s judgment, because it worked for her. She never allowed anyone’s judgment to dissuade her in anything. In a society where people praise the deep, meaningful, heavy-handed films, Kael argued for the charming, light-hearted, pleasurable films because that is what she enjoyed. Kael fought for her opinions, stated what she believed, and never let the conclusions of others, of the masses, dissuade her when writing, but more importantly she did so in life as well. This 5-foot-tall, stubborn, spunky woman simply stuck with what she believed. And that is something to be respected. Something to admire.

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