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Moriarty Comments Upon Pauline Kael's Passing

Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

We frequently report the passing of people here on AICN, but rarely do I feel it with the acuity I do tonight. As much as I am a student of filmmakers like Kubrick and Scorsese and Lean and Gilliam, I am a student of those who write about film, like Bogdonavich and Truffaut and Harlan Ellison and, more than anyone else, Pauline Kael.

To report that she passed away at 82 after a long and spirited battle with Parkinson's disease is my profoundly sad job here tonight. I opened my e-mail box for just a moment, hoping to see if there was anything from any friends before heading back out for the rest of my Labor Day with my girlfriend. Instead, I was blindsided by this news, and I found myself sitting speechless, suddenly aware of the huge debt I owe this diminuitive woman, equally aware that I now will never have a chance to thank her directly.

I remember when I discovered Kael's work, in the collections she published, and how I used to take them along on vacation and read them cover to cover. The first two books of hers I read, both in a single weekend, were KISS KISS BANG BANG and I LOST IT AT THE MOVIES. It didn't matter if I'd seen the films she was talking about or if I agreed with her perspective on those films. Her passion for movies, and for the particular pleasures we derive from films as an audience, is what made her work important and enduring. I learned from her each time I read her work, and I consider her to be one of the most important voices in steering my own gradual evolution as a writer about this industry and about this art.

I love her reviews for the films of Brian De Palma. She was the first person to steer me towards his work, and I'll always cherish her for that. I remember buying the Criterion laserdisc of LAST TANGO IN PARIS with her entire rave review of the film reprinted as the gatefold of the jacket. Whenever I am around my movie-crazy friends, Kael's name invariably comes up. I know people who collect Pauline Kael stories, and I love hearing about people's personal encounters with her. Bill Condon, writer/director of GODS & MONSTERS, told me a great story once about going to show her STRANGE INVADERS in the town where she lived and taking Nancy Allen along for the ride. There's a similar story in the introduction for the published version of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson's RUSHMORE script.

Mere words cannot sum up the impact this one writer made on this industry. She made it okay for us to be drunk on movies, in love with the movies, and she gave permission for us to express it in whatever language we chose, with whatever passion we chose. Her support of filmmaker like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola was important at a time when cinema was actually being treated as an art and not just a way to make money. She got to sit front and center for one of the most exciting eras in the short history of filmmaking, and by reading the work she leaves behind, you can get a sense of why that moment was important.

I wish peace to the immediate family she leaves behind, and I wish longevity on the words she wrote. Pauline Kael was a giant, and even though she retired from reviewing in 1991, it wasn't until tonight that it felt like she was gone. For a woman born in 1919, she has left a surprisingly long shadow over the last 50 years of film criticism, and she saw so much change that I wonder what she must have made of how the field has developed. It is a strange new world now, with more voices than ever clamoring to weigh in as each film is released. The somber e-mail I got from a reader with a whacked-out internet nickname sums up the way we mix the serious and the silly these days, and it made me smile just a bit, even through the ache that's already settling in, to see this reminder of how we, the children of Kael, carry ourselves into the next century of film criticism:

Hi Harry,

The prominent and influential film critic Pauline Kael has passed on today from Parkeson's disease. This is most unfortunate considering she was probably the most insightful of all critics I have had the pleasure to read. She will be missed dearly.

Call me Butt Monkey.

Indeed. Whatever future there is in serious writing about film, it is possible in large part because of Pauline Kael. God bless, and good night.

"Moriarty" out.

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 3, 2001, 7:23 p.m. CST


    by The Yattering

    The last of the greats have passed. Hopefully this will motivate a round of soul-searching essays on the death of film criticism. And shame those critics that still make a living writing what passes for commentary these days.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 7:23 p.m. CST

    This is horrible news

    by Jungle-face-jake

    Words cannot begin how borderline distraught i am over this. Pauline Kael is(was, i guess, but i don't like saying that)one of the most passionate people ever. Whether you thought she was full of shit or was a just divinity manifest, she was passionate. she was real. this is a true black mark for cinema.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 7:30 p.m. CST

    Oh dear god no!

    by Pips Orcille

    I never thought she had much taste, but I'll be damned if I didn't think her reviews were thought provoking. Damn, she was one of those film critics who was actually smart and not arrogant and made sense, whereas with Owen Gilberman, Mick LaSalle, Richard Roeper, etc., a lot of film critics these days have no heart and therefore don't get out much, critiquing films in their own little "cinematic minds." Let's teach every film critic to believe in common sense and that's what Roger Ebert is like.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 7:42 p.m. CST

    Terribly Sad...

    by Lina_Lamont

    It seems so weird to come to read of Pauline Kael's death. My friends and I had just had a discussion about movies today involving her. She was truly one of the great reviewers, writing reviews that were not just pop culture b.s. trash, but intellectual disections of the movies. I've read her books and don't always agree with her, but that doesn't make a difference. What makes a difference is the fact that she brought a delightful reverence towards filmmaking and a love for the industry to the nation and that allows for us to post here and discuss movies on this site. Most of us have grown up in a moviegoing generation directly or indirectly influenced by Ms. Kael's reviews. So every time we have an intelligent film discussion (and no, the crap posted by most talk-backers on this site doesn't count), stop and give her some credit.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 7:44 p.m. CST


    by hktelemacher

    I just today watched the documentary "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures" and it struck me funny that Pauline Kael reamed 2001 upon it's initial release. That's what I liked about her, she so eloquently ripped into movies, even the occasional masterpiece. If I may draw a gender line, she was without a doubt the most brilliant female in the giant realm of entertainment. She wasn't a creative force, but I don't doubt that she could have been. She had a deeply nuanced understanding of film that is rare in anybody and it's always sad to see somebody pass. If anybody reading this is an aspiring writer/producer/director, read the books Moriarty mentioned and every bit of criticism written by Kael. Reviewers used to be smarter than the films they wrote about, now there are so few critics operating on a higher level than Jerry Bruckheimer's latest slam-bang opus. In my opinion, there won't be a critic of Kael's stature again, but that might just be because the films out there aren't challenging enough for someone to actually make insightful comments about it. Except maybe Roger Ebert, who with his review for Wet Hot American Summer redeemed himself for any and all past blunders.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 7:50 p.m. CST

    Sad and unfortunate news ... written by someone called Butt Monk

    by timmer33

    'nuff said.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 8:02 p.m. CST

    What a tremendous woman...

    by rushmorefan

    Pauline Kael was the finest critic to ever watch movies. She was a beautiful writer and possessed a rare, genuine outlook on film. Younger filmgoers are often unaware of who she is, but I hope her death bring will about a revival of her books. God bless her.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 8:29 p.m. CST

    Correct me if I'm wrong...

    by Sith Witch

    But is it not Pauline Kael who erroneously trashed Robert Altman's Popeye upon its release, and then when Altman was eating in a fancy restaurant happened to look over and see her, and proceeded to walk over, pick up her wine glass, and throw the wine in her face before storming out? Why someone would have ripped that movie apart I have no idea why. Sure a few of the musical numbers were not up to par, but other than that it is fantastic. Anyway, I always loved that story about that restaurant incident, but cannot ever find out if it was indeed Kael who this happened to...

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 9:01 p.m. CST

    say it ain so. . .

    by CZ

    I can't believe it. I just can't. The idea that Pauline Kael is gone is simply inconceivable.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 9:38 p.m. CST

    The Kael is Dead. Long Live the Kael.

    by Rarecreater

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 9:54 p.m. CST

    Thanks Pauline...

    by Tezuka

    ...your many books gave me so much pleasure. It says a lot that I remember her reviews better than the dross she was writing about (remember her review of Dances With Wolves? "Kevin Costner has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head"...ouch!!!). Few critics have the courage to lampoon sacred cows at all, let alone with the wit and insight of Ms Kael...although I have to say, I though she had lost her battle a couple of years ago?

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 10:11 p.m. CST

    Agree or disagree with her, at least she was interesting.

    by Uncapie

    Can't say I agreed with most of her reviews(She gave Don Siegel's "Dirty Harry" a thumbs down along with a negative review on the classic "2001".) but, it was always interesting to read her comments.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 10:43 p.m. CST

    Well, I never read her...

    by Prankster

    But what I know of her, second hand, from books like "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls", really made me dislike her attitude. So many classic movies fell to her knife, for reasons that seemed rather spurious. Writing negative reviews does *not* make one smarter, or contribute more to the discussion; film is a highly flimsy and ephemeral art form as it is, and it relies on a certain trust or even effort on the viewer's part. It's quite easy to shut off this attitude and tear apart a film, no matter how brilliant it is, and Kael too often seemed to be doing this for the sake of the hip aloofness that's become so annoyingly prevalent today. Yes, merely functional clods like Roeper or Jeffrey Wells or Glieberman or "David Manning" are worthless hypemongers, but does that mean a "worthwhile" critic needs to be an unfair snob? Kael cultivated that attitude among the literati, and film criticism has never recovered. Still, if she really was insightful as people are claiming, that's something worthwhile. But I'd personally take Moriarty or Harry or Garth or Widgett or almost any other web critic, bad spelling and all, than Kael's spiritual descendants.

  • Sept. 3, 2001, 11:40 p.m. CST

    Thank you

    by Johnathan Robie

    So there goes the dream of one day showing Pauline Kael something I made and having her tell me it was a bunch of shit. I loved what Kael wrote even though I so often disagreed with her. When there's passion and talent behind a voice it becomes an art in and of itself -- no matter the forum, even if the voice is that of a critic -- and good art lets us look at things from a slightly different vantage point. Kael was able to see what others could not. She was wrong about a hell of a lot, of course -- the 70s remake of Kong better than the original? -- but part of the fun of reading her work was finding a defensible position to it. So thanks for all of it, Ms. Kael. I hope the movies are better is Heaven. And if they aren't, I hope you're having fun dismantaling them.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 12:10 a.m. CST

    For the record...

    by Lazarus Long

    Kael trashed almost everything Scorsese did. The last positive review I remember reading from her was for Taxi Driver, and if I'm not mistaken that one wasn't exactly enhusiastic. See my post in the TB for Harry's comments for the rest of my thoughts on Kael. Great writer, snobby bitch.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 1:02 a.m. CST

    Farewell, Pauline Kael.

    by Huneybee

    A very formidable lady with a passionate love for movies...even though she is gone, her influence will remain.____A very well written eulogy, Moriarty. I am afraid that y'all need to start an obituary section; this last week has not been good to the movie industry.____Bee

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 3:34 a.m. CST

    Another great one is gone

    by Martin_Blank

    First Siskel (whom I always preferred to Ebert -- more levelheaded), now this. DAMN. This is shitty news to wake up to. Considering how terrible movies have been lately as opposed to their peak (and Kael's peak) in the '70s, it's as if an era just officially passed into memory. The New Yorker better do a long-ass tribute piece. Even if she retired in 1991, every now and then someone would contact her for an interview and there'd usually be a few thoughts from her on recent movies. I always wanted to know what she thought of Spike Lee's films, since she only reviewed his first one. Would've been curious to see what she thought of stuff like 'Fight Club' or 'Being John Malkovich.' We'll never know now. This truly sucks. On the other hand, she had a long run and a long life, and she lived a lot in that life. It's just the same way I felt about Kubrick or Charles Schulz -- it's weird knowing they're not out there somewhere, even if they're not producing any more.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 4:22 a.m. CST

    The passing of an original voice

    by Wicked Willow

    I was very sad to read this morning in the NY Times that Pauline Kael passed away-her reviews showed me that people could speak passionately and intelligently about movies. I've read two of her books-I Lost It At The Movies & Going Steady-plus I have her collection,For Keeps(which I just looked in yesterday for her review of Carrie*bought the Special Edition DVD*)and have always liked that she could back up her agruments for/against a film/actor/director with solid reasoning. That doesn't mean I always agreed with her(was surpised that she didn't like West Side Story,for example)but I respected her opinions. There are still some good film critics out there such as Jamie Bernard and(occasionally)Roger Ebert but there will be no one like Pauline Kael again. Hope she has a private screening room in the hereafter to enjoy the rest of filmdom-She will be missed.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 5:10 a.m. CST

    Brief Thoughts On Kael

    by mrbeaks

    I discovered Kael rather late in my development as a film geek, and my first experience with her criticism was not at all favorable. For me, in the summer of 1989, there was only one film that mattered, DO THE RIGHT THING, and when I was blessed with a gift subscription to The New Yorker from my grandmother, the very first issue I received included Kael's negative review of the very film I decided had somehow changed the face of cinema. Needless to say, I immediately dismissed her; a decision that seemed all the more sage when her pan of THE ABYSS surfaced two months later. It wasn't until that fall, however, that I realized the extreme error in judgment which I had committed; the precise moment of revelation being her brilliant, one-sentence assessment of STEEL MAGNOLIAS, which went something like this: "Two hours of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard." Seeing as how this unspeakably wretched movie had somehow enchanted so many seemingly intelligent individuals, I rejoiced at having discovered a kindred spirit. Almost immediately, I began buying the many collections of her criticism (I LOST IT AT THE MOVIES, MOVIE LOVE, FOR KEEPS etc.), and was overjoyed to find she, too, was smitten with the cinema of Brian De Palma. From that point on, even when I didn't agree with her, I realized that there was always some worthwhile insight in each of her reviews, no matter how swift or seemingly spiteful her wrath. Now, as I write criticism of my own, I find myself drawing upon the wisdom of Agee, Truffaut, Bazin and Kael. I am forever in her debt.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 7:34 a.m. CST

    Uhh... it's a little off the subject, but...

    by White_Noise

    Are all the talkbackers on this particular TB film critics? I don't mean to be disrespectful to the memory of an obviously well-respected and appreciated person, but is film criticism even relevant or necessary? As much idiocy as I have to wade through on these TalkBacks, they are more useful to me than all the film critics combined. Critics present one point of view and it's usually a point of view showing how superior they are to the filmmaker and anyone ignorant enough to pay their way into the theater. The exception is to the Artiste (or style) that they decide to champion, which they point out is worthwhile and well-done because it's pleasing to their sensibilities. Film criticism is like music and art criticism... it's value is only to the writer and those who suck-up to the writer. My opinion is that Shrek was the most entertaining, well made movie of the year. I could write 1000 words to tell you why, but who cares what I think? See it (and any other movie) for yourself. If it makes you happy or causes you to think or presents captivating images or in any other way affects you in a positive way, then it's a good movie. Don't shy away because some jaded psuedointellectual has judged it meritless. I think it's funny how so many write about the commercialization of Hollywood like it's something that is a recent phenomenon or that the fact that the Machine tries to produce movies based on what the audience might like is somehow in itself a negative. An artist who has no interest in what his audience wants to see is as worthless as a critic. I don't think they should be chained by that, after all, they are the dreamers, the ones who create images and stories that we realize we love only after we see or read them. But to have no concern at all for your audience is, well, let's just say that people used to believe that you would go blind from such behavior.------------------------------------------- P.S. My condolences to Ms. Kael's family, friends and all who mourn her passing.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 9:56 a.m. CST

    "Moriarty Comments on Pauline Kael Too"

    by Angus

    ... Did anyone else find this headline, umm, hilarious?

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 2:11 p.m. CST

    My greatest influence

    by melville2

    I always thought myself incredibly lucky that, when I became a movie geek, around 1970, I almost immediately stumbled onto the writing of Pauline Kael. Contrary to what some here have said, she was the opposite of a snob. She was the one who explained to us all that we were right to respond positively to trash and popular art, that our visceral responses were exactly how we were supposed to respond to all art, pop and otherwise. Art wasn't something pedantic, not something that was "good for us", it was a pleasure. And her way of talking about that pleasure was so complete and sophisticated, we realized we weren't dummies for feeling that way. She kept me (and countless others) from becoming humorless snobs about art. I read her faithfully for years (and still do. My copies of Going Steady, Deeper Into Movies, Reeling, and When The Lights Go Down are falling apart from years of re-reading and reference). When I found I was disagreeing with her more and more as the years went by, I realized it was because my years of reading her had taught me to think for myself, to create my own opinions, to think critically. Only a great critic can do that. Pauline Kael was the greatest.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 2:32 p.m. CST

    god, she was infuriating...

    by Krinkle

    ...because she was such a damn fine writer, and because she disliked so VERY many worthwhile movies. I can't remember how many times I threw "1001 Nights At the Movies" across the room or spread grape jelly on a review. She was so very superior. BUT, I will never forget that she is the only critic I ever read who agreed with me on the underrated value of the '76 "Kong" (it IS as good as the original) and Spielberg's lunatic "1941." God bless ANYONE who takes film seriously. Rest in peace, General Kael. I'm sure you will find Heaven amazingly trite.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 5:45 p.m. CST

    Critics are necessary...

    by Axuve

    DragonMa73, though I disagree with your opinion of critics, it seems to me that, in a way, you're right when you ask, "who cares what critics think?" Today it seems like all critics do is say whether they liked something or not. If insight is gone and this is all they are doing then they really aren't worthwhile. Anyone can give a simple Opinion. But Kael's in depth arguments made me understand a movie better, and especially made me understand my own reactions better. When you first discover movies you don't realize how you're being manipulated and what it is about a movie that you're actually responding to. In Dances With Wolves the audience would like to believe that they are good people, respecting Native Americans by liking the picture. But Costner stacked the deck by giving the characters modern values. I loved Kael's reviews - passionate and provoking beyond beleif. Yes, she could be infuriating. I remember throwing her books across the room many times, but I would always find myself picking it back up.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 6:41 p.m. CST

    Axuve, you nailed it...

    by melville2

    What was great about Kael was that she helped you understand your own reactions, and so taught you how to think for yourself about movies. Anyone can give an opinion (which is, as you said, what's wrong with almost all of what passes for film criticism now), but how many critics get you thinking for yourself? It almost seems right for us to have disagreed with her so much. The highest compliment I can think of for her is to compare her work to what she once wrote about Jean Renoir, that he "has helped people to find their own way. You don't have to walk behind Renoir, because he opens an infinite number of ways to go"(from Going Steady). If you really absorb her lessons, you learn to trust your own reactions and opinions, you understand why you like what you like, and so become your own best critic to consult.

  • Sept. 4, 2001, 7:09 p.m. CST

    To quote Teddy Roosevelt:

    by Darth Brooks

    "It is not the critic who counts."

  • Sept. 5, 2001, 2:07 a.m. CST

    I case every one from here on in post on this report instead of

    by Neosamurai85

    Fist off I did not know of her. I hate to use my age as a excuse for things since it often allows people to underestimate me, (a job I prefer to keep solely mine as much as I can) but being sixteen I really missed her time. Especially since my love of film as an art only truly accrued the year Kurosawa died. (Before that I had grown up mostly in love with the very good film Alien and stayed up late watching horror flicks

  • Sept. 5, 2001, 2:10 a.m. CST

    "In case!" not "I case"!!!!

    by Neosamurai85

    God I've Got to get some sleep! Peace.

  • Sept. 5, 2001, 7:14 a.m. CST

    I've been in love with movies since I was seven.

    by Wee Willie

    I've read thousands of books on the cinema, taken a degree in cinema, and watched countless films. And in that whole time I've never agreed with or liked anything Pauline Kael wrote.

  • Sept. 5, 2001, 7:19 a.m. CST

    Thanks Axuve and Angel66 for something to think about!

    by White_Noise

    Now see, this is why I value the AICN TBs. The critics I am exposed to never seem to have the effect on me that Axuve expressed so well. The idea that they would help me to understand my reaction to a film rather than force a reaction upon me is something I can really appreciate. Still, Angell66's comment about those who liked "Shrek" illustrates my point perfectly. Angel66 suggested that if I was exposed to the writings of these critics it would somehow open my eyes and I would have a different viewpoint about this (or any other)movie. That is what I object to. My reasons for liking "Shrek" or any other movie are MY reasons. The fact that I'm an electrician in suburban Detroit and not a film professor or a columnist at a newspaper in no way makes my opinion any less legitimate. Now a critic whose opinion (pro or con) helps me to think about why I love or hate a movie without insulting me, that's something I could champion like you folks champion Ms. Kael. Regardless, I ain't hatin'! Thanks to both of you for giving me something to think about!

  • Sept. 5, 2001, 7:24 a.m. CST

    By the way, I should have thanked Melville2 for also really givi

    by White_Noise

  • Sept. 5, 2001, 5:38 p.m. CST

    Yes, 'too' is interesting ...

    by Ansai

    ... considering Moriarity's comments have a lower Article ID, which would support my belief that I saw it posted _before_ I saw Harry's. Pretty low topic to flex one's webmaster muscle and play 'one-upmanship' with.