Pauline Kael’s 20 Quotes on Film

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Pauline Kael (1919–2001)

1. “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.”

2. “If you can’t make fun of bad movies on serious subjects, what’s the point?”

3. “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.”

4. “Moviemaking is so male-dominated now that they think they’re being pro-feminine when they have women punching each other out.” (March/April 1998)

5. “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.”

6. “What’s disgusting about the Dirty Harry movies is that Eastwood plays this angry tension as righteous indignation.”

7. “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.”

8. “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.”

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9. “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.”

10. “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.”

11. “TV executives think that the programs with the highest ratings are what TV viewers want, rather than what they settle for.”

12. “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”

13. “Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.”

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14. “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.”

15. “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.”

[amazonjs asin="B006N57P86" locale="US" tmpl="Small" title="The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael"]16. “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.”

17. “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”

18. “Regrettably, one of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down.”

19. Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.”

20. “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.”

More Quotes on Film:

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  1. Kael’s strength seems to have been the form of her writing, not the content. Woody Allen noted that, “She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. . . . great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising.” And I love Dirty Harry, his righteous indignation is the whole point

    • Well, the content is excellent too. No lack of substance there.
      The thing is, some people have their own expectations and pigeonhole writers. I was listening to a a debate with film critics and one of them complained of writers who were reviewing a movie and started talking about their lives. Pauline Kael did that to perfection. Her review of Shoeshine should be on a pedestal. As long as you don’t think that there should be x amount of description of acting, y amount about lighting and editing, etc., and you’re open to a different way to do things, I don’t think one could make that criticism of Kael. Maybe Woody was still made at the poor reviews his movies got from Kael.
      Disclaimer: I love both!