Hooked on Kael

by Emily Woodward

20 September 2001


Pauline Kael, the iconoclastic critic of movies (she disdained the term “films” as too pretentious) died September 3 at age 82. She has been credited with revolutionizing the ways that movies are seen and in many cases, made. Though Kael stopped writing reviews for The New Yorker in 1991, when the world wide web was still in its infancy, her influence as a critic and writer continues today.

And her writing style—intimate, direct, and provocative—might serve as a model for those of us who compose for the web. Rereading Hooked, Kael’s collection of reviews from 1985-1987, I am struck by how much of her writing unfolds like well-crafted e-mail messages. Kael’s reactions to movies, whether they enthralled, angered, or bored her to tears, are captured in candid, idiomatic, and immediate language.

Take, for example, her description of Jack Nicholson in 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, which immediately stirs up memories of the 1980s, pre-Joker incarnation of the actor (before he became a self-parody). Nicholson, Kael writes, “snuffles and snorts like a hog, and he talks in a growl… he has half-closed priggish, insinuating eyes, and his big, shaggy head doesn’t look as if it belonged on those small, fleshy shoulders… He seems to have given more attention to assembling his flowing brocade robes than he ever gave to assembling his body. He’s so repulsive, he’s funny” (Hooked, 323-324). Her portrayal is vivid and wicked, broad and yet dead-on. It is also provocative.

While many writers today still write for print publications, much of their work has been reincarnated in a new and arguably more potent form on the web, sparking daily praise and outrage across online chat forums from readers the world over. Likewise, reading Hooked made me to want to contact Kael and sound off on the movies she’d reviewed, as well as on the reviews themselves. And she welcomed feedback. As noted by Peter Biskind in his book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the grande dame was an “activist critic” who enjoyed fraternizing with other movie-lovers as well as movie-makers, including Warren Beatty, Barbra Streisand, Martin Scorcese, and Steven Spielberg. Such luminaries were keenly aware of the effect that her immediate, visceral responses to their work had on their careers. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver, among other films, credited Kael with “pluck[ing] him out of nowhere” (Biskind, p. 290). Conversely, one former president of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose movies Kael had panned, reportedly called her a “miserable bitch.”

Perhaps the greatest indication of Kael’s impact on the movie industry lay in its repeated attempts to lure her over to its side. Indeed, Paramount Pictures succeeded in snatching her up briefly as a production consultant in the late 1970s. But Kael ultimately returned to her domain at the New Yorker, where she continued to exact immediate, visceral responses from her readers and subjects alike. During her 40-year career, she wrote an enough reviews to fill 11 volumes.

Many of her book titles use overt double entendres: I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Deeper into Movies, Taking It All In, and When the Lights Go Down. When her first books came out in the early 1970s, her high-brow detractors said that such blithe sexual references had no place on the pages of serious critical texts. Perhaps Kael’s marriage of off-color humor and on-target commentary would have found a better forum through a DSL hookup. Her work always reflected what critic Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe aptly describes as her “deeper connection to both medium and readership.”

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