Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s movie critic, is a front row humanist, her eight hundred enimitable reviews in one hand, hot buttered popcorn in the other. On the one hand, she upholds the dead-center aesthetic standards of Western culture, and on the other, she tries to keep unmuddied the mainstream of social and moral values in popular culture. Robert Brustein, one of America’s most astute and hard-to-please theater reviewers, said of Kael in The New York Times, “An intellectual who is not afraid of sensation, she is probably more in tune with the popular audience than any other serious American reviewer.” A Los Angeles reviewer said that while her judgments are unusually well-informed, she endeavors to “connect performance with life.” Out of the tradition of Robert Warshow, Graham Greene, Otis Ferguson, and Dwight Macdonald, she writes reviews “so audacious and passionate” said a Chicago reviewer, “that critics across the country lined up to dispute or discuss them.” Her direct, personal voice once suggested the first hero of film criticism, James Agee, whose greatness Kael attributed, in her first book, to his use of “the full range of intelligence and intuition, rather than relying on formulas.” Her genius has reached beyond Agee now, beyond her contemporaries John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann, the quality of whose work comes closest to her own.
Kael has been raising Cain in the swamps of Hollywood since she began reviewing in 1953. From the beginning, she has tried to affect audiences directly. She ran the Berkeley Cinema Guild, showing American and foreign classics, and her famous program notes on 280 of those movies are included in her second book, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. From San Francisco, she broadcast reviews in the 1950’s and 1960’s; and in her published reviews, one hears her direct speaking voice clearly. Even the titles of her collections suggest that movie-going is primarily a sensual, personal experience for her: I Lost It at the Movies (1966), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968), Going Steady (1971), Deeper into Movies (1973), and Reeling (1976). And her controversial essay in The Citizen Kane Book (1971) is called “Raising Kane.” The company she keeps changes over the years. Most of the pieces (articles more than reviews) in the debut volume appeared in small circulation film and literary publications and built her reputation; the slick, mass-circulation magazines published most of the work in the second collection; in 1968, she found a home at the New Yorker, and the next three collections contain, except for two pieces, reviews from that magazine.
That Kael has structured her past three collections chronologically makes sense, for her reviews are always grounded in the immediacy of going to the movies in the context of the times. The present volume covers the period from September 30, 1972 to May 12, 1975, during which she reviewed 137 American and foreign movies—trendy block-busters, the disaster flicks, the black ventures, the last of the counter-culture hypes, along with the major works of cinematic art; Reeling also includes reviews of The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book and of Mailer’s perverse study of Marilyn Monroe, and a long piece on the bleak future of the movies.
Reeling is too long—more than five hundred pages, with a thirty-one-page index—to afford a start-to-finish reading experience. Reading all that lush, tough rhetoric would be like watching six Nashvilles in succession. One might read, as impulse directs, reviews of those movies one saw in that period, then sample reviews of movies one wishes one had seen. The book thereafter becomes a magnificent reference volume, a time-capsule telling the way we were in those transitional years.
In her Foreword, Kael reminds us of the nature of movies, their ability to “overwhelm us,” “arouse special, private, hidden feelings,” their “erotic potential,” their basic sensuality. We don’t say we like movies, we say we “love” them. Theater audiences maintain a degree of control that is lost at the movies, where we experience sensations tribally—even those who have learned to discriminate, to think for themselves, to refuse to be led blindly. Whether we like or dislike current movies, we feel them in such a way that thinking about them is difficult. “The greater sensory impact of films in recent years—the acceleration in violence and in shock-editing” result in “marvelous entertainment” that creates a major problem: “they can be effective on shameless levels.” The critic’s problem is to convince people “that a shallow, primitive work can give them a terrific kick.” A critic cannot fight the effects of The Exorcist, for instance, “because it functions below the conscious level.” Airport 1975 “is processed schlock, and it’s really beneath a level at which movie criticism might serve a function.”
Even the titles of Kael’s reviews shape our attitudes: “Sex in the Head,” “Round up the Usual Suspects,” “Out of Tragedy, Suds,” “New Thresholds, New Anatomies” (from a poem by Hart Crane), “Back to the Ouija Board,” and “the Darned.” Kael starts with a kiss kiss or a bang bang, praise or attack, and her Philip Marlowe voice—image-laden, witty, long-spinning convoluted sentences relieved by slangy, wisecracking, staccato declarative strokes—holds us to the climactic finish. Opening her review of Sounder (the first in the book), Kael raises the question of praise and attack: “It’s easy to say why you think a movie is bad, but elements of embarrassment sneak into praise.” She opens her review of Nashville in the language of praise: “Is there such a thing as an orgy for movie lovers—but an orgy without excess?” Having called it a “radical, evolutionary leap,” she closes with: “Nashville is the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.
Opening on the attack, she hooks the reader’s attention: “The theories of R.D. Laing, the poet of schizophrenic despair, have such theatrical flash that they must have hit John Cassavetes smack in the eye” (A Woman Under the Influence). Or, having made a judgment of taste, “the realism here is very offensive,” she leaves the reader with a contemptuous wisecrack: “The Towering Inferno has opened just in time to capture the Dumb Whore Award of 1974.” A few weeks later, she turned that crack around to damn a pretentious foreign film....
(The entire section is 2715 words.)