PRINT March 2002

Paul Schrader

Pauline Kael was the recipient of considerable invective in her lifetime; attacks which were not so much the result of her specific opinions, but of her enormous impact on film (and cultural) criticism. She upset the applecart. She meant to. What she didn’t know was that there would be no one to put the apples back.

At another time I would have welcomed Artforum’s invitation to write about Pauline as an opportunity go back through her reviews line and verse, as an occasion to reread her work and put it into context. Unfortunately, I’m in Los Angeles, far from my film books and notes, deeply steeped in preproduction for a film I’m to begin shooting in a month. So I'll respond with a series of observations instead.

Pauline changed criticism in a number of ways:

1. She removed pop criticism from the purview of the Eastern Establishment (i.e., the Upper West Side Jewish literary world). Pauline was a farm girl from Petaluma; there was always something about the Trilling crowd that riled her. This lay at the core of her objections to “high art.” When she came to New York in middle age, the feeling was she’d be incorporated or co-opted into that Establishment. Instead she created her own Establishment, and generations of younger critics still carry her banner. Granted, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, and Amos Vogel were all sniping at the Eastern Establishment, but it was Pauline who breached the walls. She did this by—

2. Taking film criticism to the average filmgoer. She wrote for people who went to movies, not for those who read magazines—a technical distinction, but an important one. She learned her craft writing notes for the Berkeley Film Guild and reviewing on KPFA, the local public radio station. She responded to the experience of filmgoing; she had no vested interest in a publication “of record.” This led to—

3. Personalizing film criticism. Pauline’s writing was as much about herself as the films. Using the insidious “we” (“We need to respond to movies because . . .”), she made the reader part of her experience. Robert Warshaw once wrote that “a man watches a movie and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” But he never wrote like it. Pauline did. Only she was a woman. This led to—

4. Sexualizing film criticism. Critics rarely investigated a film’s sexual subtext, and, when they did, it was never from the woman’s point of view. Pauline’s voice was not only a blast of fresh West Coast airy it was also West Coast feminine air, like that swept in by those other western girls, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. (Parker Tyler attempted the same thing for pansexuality—more to the point when it comes to the movies—but was marginalized by the times, and by his writing skills.) Because of these four broad contributions—

5. She validated film reviewing. Difficult as it is to believe today, at the height of America’s countercultural upheaval movies truly mattered: it mattered which movies were made, which movies audiences saw, and what they thought of the movies they did see. Godard was important, Buñuel was important, Paul Mazursky and Hal Ashby were important. Art was not happening in the museums; it was h the streets and movie houses. Kael was the pied piper of reviewers who made readers believe that movies, even disreputable movies, were important. If movies were important, it followed that movie reviewing was important.

A considerable achievement, and I wish I could say a wholly beneficial one. Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline. She was able to rail against critical snobbery and High Art, defend mass-audience taste and extol “trash” because she never feared for culture. She knew that there would always be standards. Because she had standards. She appreciated great art and literature and opera; no amount of “trash” could change that.

Not long before she died, Pauline remarked to a friend, “When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture.” That’s exactly the point. She and her foot soldiers won the battle but lost the war. Mass taste has become acceptable taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth. The pop films Kael most loved, such as Hud (1963), if made today, would be considered art-house fare.

Who would have thought the Establishment would crumble so easily? That, forty years after Kael began writing, Harold Bloom would be standing outside the multiplex like a lonely Jeremiah? It was fun watching the applecart being upset, but now where do we go for apples?

Paul Schrader is a film director and critic.