Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
Pauline Kael became the voice for a new generation of film-goers.
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Having achieved success, Kael, like many before her, at times abused her power. In one unsavory episode, she offered to collaborate with a tenure-track professor at UCLA, who had conducted substantial research on screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz for a book on Citizen Kane. Kael took his research, only to use it, unacknowledged, to produce one of her most celebrated and controversial essays, “Raising Kane.” (Watching poor Howard Suber handing over his interviews, eager to be affiliated with Kael, is a little like watching a horror flick – one wants to cry out, “don’t go into that room!”) Also problematic was Kael’s influence on a younger generation of critics, the “Paulettes,” who circled in tight ranks around her, competing for her favor.Skip to next paragraph
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Ok, so I didn’t hate the second half of the book, but I did find it tedious. Comprised of short paragraphs describing Kael’s take on particular films in the 1970s and 80s, its choppiness may tire even the most avid moviegoer (apart from the last 35 pages or so, which describe the shifting fortunes of The New Yorker and Kael’s softening in her later years). Surely, there must have been a better way to organize this material. Another minor weakness lies in the way Kael’s daughter, Gina, appears briefly only to vanish for many pages (i.e., years) in Kellow’s account. It’s not her story, yet given that she was Kael’s only child, who lived with her mother well into her 30s, she seems oddly peripheral. That Gina declined to contribute to this project may account for Kellow’s reticence here.
Nonetheless, it is Kael, the critic, that movie aficionados will care most about, and they get her here in spades. Given the dearth of powerful women in American culture who aren’t either Barbie dolls (see pretty much every female newscaster) or vilified by the mass media, I could be tempted to give this book to every young woman I know. And in our age of sound bites, “thumbs-up’s!”, “rottentomatoes” reviews, and what Kellow astutely refers to as the “infantilization of the great moviegoing audience,” Kael’s voice is missed indeed.
Elizabeth Toohey is an English professor at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., where she specializes in postwar American culture.