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(Response Paper) Pauline Kael’s Journey to the Two Sides of the Spectrum

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In response to: “Replying to Listeners” in the book “I Lost It at the Movies” by Pauline Kael and the blog post “Trash and Art: Critics on/of Pauline Kael” by Jim Emerson in the RogerEbert.com blog “Scanners with Jim Emerson”

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

Pauline Kael (1919 to 2001), is a household name in American film criticism, as well as a familiar name cited when looking for film books for academic use, as far as my experience goes. In a realm dominated by men, as the entire Hollywood ecosystem continues to be at this point, Pauline (I would normally address her with her last name on a paper, but I would like to call her with the name that ultimately pertains to her being a woman on this paper, in line with how she addressed “Mrs. John Doe” in this reading) is both revered and vilified for various reasons.

As a background in a nutshell, Pauline had that distinct writing style that made her critiques more palpable to the general American public. As expected in the society, especially during her time, certain scholars and high-art patrons found this a disgrace. Even her taste on cinema found both champions and challengers, as many would say that her subjective thoughts often had big impact on box-office results, alongside the career trajectory of filmmakers she either admired or denounced – all of which can either be a good thing or a bad thing. Filmmaker Paul Schrader said that “She took film criticism to the average filmgoer. Unfortunately, cultural history was not very kind to her. She was a brave writer who spoke as herself than try to make up for critical snobbery and High Art.”

Reading Pauline’s selected responses to mostly anonymous letters sent to her in reference to their reactions to her words for/against films in her radio show, it is very clear that this woman knew her ground. She effectively used sheer wits zinging through puns, sly innuendos, and repulsions tempered by scholarly rigor. She was undoubtedly a smart woman with passion for film, unafraid of taking sides based on her very specific taste. Some people found this annoying, insulting, and/or unprofessional, as if there were very strict rules on how to critique a film the way cooking pastry should have exact ingredients and precise cooking time. Others even attacked her outside the professional sphere. They attacked her being a woman, which is pathetic, especially for someone who read it in 2019. What allowed me to mellow down a bit was the consideration of the time frame when these conversations happened.

One of her letter writers, dismayingly a woman, attacked her using the context of not being married, while addressing her as a “Miss Kael.” Pauline replied, “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.” She moved further wondering how a woman of her time was unable to show any intelligence without being accused of unnatural aggressivity, hateful vindictiveness, or lesbianism – the latter being an accusation of generally men who tried to console their egos after losing a conversation to a woman with a semi-masculine trait. Anyway, going back to the “Mrs.” issue, I myself is a married woman who continues to find confused reactions from various people of all gender every time they find out that I kept my original name because that is not just legal (though most people never thought so), it is my choice to remain as myself as how I was born as myself. A day would never end without a government or private worker giving me that bewildered look while I update my civil status record, as if I’m committing a crime. This issue is worth an entire book for a solid discussion, so I end this here. Let me go back to Pauline and film criticism…

Attacking her being a woman first than her being a writer when the topic was clearly about her writing is definitely a form of discrimination – and this persists until now. Come to think of it, the best possible names of women in Hollywood the public can remember continue to fight over unequal pay with their male counterparts. In the case of the first woman to win the Oscar Best Director Award, the issue on having to comply with a theme that is deeply male centric is being raised as a need for a woman to finally win the much-coveted directorial award. 

With some of Pauline’s detractors challenging her to make her own films as it seemed so easy for her to criticize, she replied saying, “You don’t have to lay an egg to know it tastes good.” She informed the letter writer though, that she actually worked in the film industry as well.

Pauline regards criticism as art. I agree with her. Criticism is an art in the form of words the way literature is. She said that “if criticism is easy compared to being an artist or poet, then why is it that there are more poets than critics?” This leads me to my conviction that film criticism, like filmmaking, requires a clear perspective. With myself having professionally reviewed films in various platforms since 2005, I am convinced that my manner of writing and the content of my reviews primarily depend on the target audience of the web or print media I write for. Certain facets of my review would be greatly affected by my mood and state of mind the time I watched the film and the time I wrote the review. I believe there will always be a subjective side to film criticism because “reading a film” is quite a personal experience.

Pauline made a good point when she said that someone bashing her was actually listening to her radio show in a minority radio station instead of a commercial radio station, which would obviously offer something more popular. Perhaps, he was looking for something else than the popular, she added. Meanwhile, a blog comment from the reading said, “I don’t read Kael to agree with her or even necessarily to argue with her. I read her because she jump-starts my critical thinking. She is capable of raising a dozen points worth pondering in a single essay, even if one point is appallingly silly. Maybe even *especially* when one point is appallingly silly.” From the off-topic bashing of her letter writers to this comment from someone with the online name Campaspe, Pauline’s case is a clear proof that no one can please everybody. The diversity of the comments about her speaks so much as people have varying tastes and preferences. Pauline in the world of film criticism is no different from filmmakers who are so different from one another. They all have different inclinations and varying styles. It is healthy to debate and even disagree and what matters most is acknowledging this diversity and be respectful and open-minded in handling differences. Indeed, discourse puts more value to art, as how I said it in my prior response paper on the Susan Sontag essay “Against Interpretation.”

With Pauline’s movie choices for her critiques, she said that “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.” I concur with this view. Moreover, I have a similar take on not wasting time on reviewing films I find way too awful, except in unavoidable circumstances when my work would require me to do so. If there is nothing good to say but I need to produce a review for my work, it should be short and straight to the point. If there is a film that really struck me or made me more than smile, it urges me to write about it even if there’s no initial plan to do so.

The fact that Pauline had patrons and writers following her suit, there is no doubt that she had a significant contribution to cinema as a film critic. It is interesting to note how Schrader talked about her championing the so-called “trash culture” to the point that it would “eventually become the only culture.” A blog commenter named John doubted if Pauline really said that as he tried to ask for a more solid proof (Schrader said that the statement was Pauline’s remark to a friend). This leads me to the realities of public writing where those with influence can either be idealistic and will always turn down propaganda-like writings or go the more pragmatic route to the point of receiving payola, especially from the powers-that-be (those with money, a.k.a. the capitalists). Is it worth studying like a Sherlock Holmes case to find out? Does it matter in the larger scheme of things? Some would say yes, some would say no. Some would say, who cares… What is trash culture to begin with? Indeed, so many questions, so much to study. Bring it on.

Works Cited:

Kael, Pauline. “Replying to Listeners,” I Lost It at the Movies, M. Boyars, 2007, pp. 228–234.

Emerson, Jim. “Trash and Art: Critics on/of Pauline Kael: Scanners with Jim Emerson,” RogerEbert.com, www.rogerebert.com/scanners/trash-and-art-critics-onof-pauline-kael.

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Rianne Hill I. Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano is a freelance production artist working as a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. 
https://www.riannehillsoriano.com
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