RCC Honors History Project

Film Critic: Pauline Kael

Posted by chad612 on May 4, 2009

Since most of the pieces in Working seem to provide an intimate look at individual “pyramid builders,” it was in great contrast for me the two times the subjects were well known. The Pauline Kael piece is unique in the book because she doesn’t really talk about her working process, but the depiction of labor in the movies and television, how viewers appreciate the occupations of film characters for the wrong reasons, and how the nature of the Film Business discourages these companies from accurately showing how industries “dehumanize¬† their workers.” In her final paragraph (she seems to have written her whole entry, rather than being interviewed like other subjects), she asks “It’s a long time since we’ve had a movie about a strike, isn’t it?” The last time was probably Salt of the Earth in 1954, made by a writer, director and producer who had been blacklisted in Hollywood as socialists, and thus the “only U.S. blacklisted film.” The next would be the 1977 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., about striking coal miners in Kentucky.

I have a book of Kael’s abbreviated film reviews, 5001 Nights at the Movies, and respect her as a writer but find that often her reviews of some of my favorite films are very negative for reasons that have little to do with what I thought were major themes of the movie. Which calls into question the art critic’s role in general. As long as the world is saturated with films, books and other art pieces past and present, we will need people to help us find our way through it all but we will always have to consider things for our selves.

Roger Ebert seems to be one of the last film critics to have the kind of respectabililty Pauline Kael did. Many modern critics are more from the Gene Shalit school of the quotible blurb.

A 1976 review of Salt of the Earth that references Kael’s 1954 essay :


A reference to Kael’s review of one of my favorite films:

Kael battled the editors of the New Yorker as much as her own critics. In a 1998 interview for Modern Maturity magazine, she described an encounter with the New Yorker’s editor, William Shawn. After Shawn read her review of Terrence Malick‘s movie Badlands, he said, “I guess you didn’t know that Terry is like a son to me.” Kael’s response was simply: “Tough shit, Bill.”

Kael’s review of Clockwork Orange, where she initiates the idea that excessive violence in film “desensitizes” viewers:



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