June 19 marks 100 years since the birth of Pauline Kael, the most influential film critic of her era, and one of the most noteworthy cultural critics of all time. (Here in New York, the Quad Cinema is celebrating with “Losing it at the Movies: Pauline Kael at 100,” a retrospective program featuring some of the films she championed, and a few she famously abhorred.)
There’s so much to consider about Kael – from her many controversies to her fascinating personal life to the films and filmmakers that fell on the right and wrong side of her poison pen – that it’s easy to lose sight of what made Kael so special: the quality of her writing. But there really was no one who wrote about the medium like she did (though many have certainly tried), combining passion, intellect, hyperbole, vernacular, and history into a whirlwind of prose that could leave the reader breathless. And often, her insights were so keen, the specificity of her time didn’t matter; her pieces on the state of the industry or the audience are, if anything, more accurate today.
In commemoration of Kael’s centennial, here are a few of this fan’s favorite passages from her work.
From “Movie Brutalists” (1966):
“Aesthetically and morally, disgust with Hollywood’s fabled craftsmanship is long overdue. I say fabled because the “craft” claims of Hollywood, and the notion that the expensiveness of studio-produced movies is necessary for some sort of technical perfection or ‘finish,’ are just hucksterism. The reverse is closer to the truth: it’s becoming almost impossible to produce a decent-looking movie in a Hollywood studio. In addition to the touched-up corpses of old dramatic ideas, big movies carry the dead weight of immobile cameras, all-purpose light, whorehouse décor. The production values are often ludicrously inappropriate to the subject matter, but studio executives, who charge off roughly 30 percent of a film’s budget to studio overhead, are very keen on these production values which they frequently remind us are the hallmark of American movies.”