Pauline Kael on Being a Critic
• Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher.
• In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.
• A mistake in judgment isn't fatal, but too much anxiety about judgment is.
• There is a standard answer to this old idiocy of if-you-know-so-much-about-the-art-of-the-film-why-don’t-you-make-movies. You don’t have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good.
• How completely has mass culture subverted even the role of the critic when listeners suggest that because the movies a critic reviews favorably are unpopular and hard to find, that the critic must be playing some snobbish game with himself and the public?
• It seems to me that the critic's task should be to help people see more in the work than they might see without him. That's a modest function, and you don't need a big theory for it.
• A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense.
• Leslie Fiedler once said something like "A critic is an artist or he is nothing." I've always thought of criticism as a branch of writing, and, if you don't honor the readers enough to write your very damned best, you're insulting them and you're insulting the work you're dealing with.
• Our emotions rise to meet the force coming from the screen, and they go on rising throughout our movie-going lives.
• A movie without actors is not, generally, a very compelling or memorable movie. There are great documentarians, of course, and directors who can make movies where we're fascinated by the whole look and feel of things, but generally we need an actor, or a group of actors, to involve us emotionally.
Signature Pauline Kael Lines
• There are so many kinds of innocence to be lost at the movies. [about the title of her book, I Lost It At The Movies]
• Her only flair is in her nostrils.
• This movie is a toupee made up to look like honest baldness.
• [about E.T.] Spielberg is like a boy soprano lilting with joy.
• If there is any test that can be applied to movies, it's that the good ones never make you feel virtuous. [writing about Stand by Me]
• [About Marilyn Monroe] Her mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cuddly drugged sexiness seemed to get to just about every male; she turned on even homosexual men. And women couldn't take her seriously enough to be indignant; she was funny and impulsive in a way that made people feel protective. She was a little knocked out; her face looked as if, when nobody was paying attention to her, it would go utterly slack -- as if she died between wolf calls.
• [about Suzy Delair] When this voluptuous slut sings "Avec Son Tra-la-la," she may make you wonder if the higher things in life are worth the trouble.
• Intolerance was intended to be virtuous and uplifting. It turned out to be a great, desperate, innovative, ruinous film -- perhaps the classic example of what later came to be known as cinéma maudit.
• [about Dirty Harry] The movie was popular with people partly because of its right-wing attitude, but they didn't necessarily recognize it as right wing. Certainly most of the press didn't, not when it first came out. I felt it necessary to treat it as a political work because its politics offended me. Eastwood's films are right wing in a way that doesn't get analyzed because they're not explicitly so. I'm amazed at the number of critics who let his attitudes slide right by them.
• [About Bonnie and Clyde] The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: how we came to love them and feel they were ours -- not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours.
• [About Robert Altman's Nashville] It's a pure emotional high, and you don't come down when the picture is over.
• I didn't dislike American Beauty -- I hated it. It's not that it's badly made -- it isn't. It has snappy rhythms and Kevin Spacey's line readings are very smart, and Annette Bening is skillful in the scene where she beats up on herself. But the picture is a con. It buries us under the same load of attitudes that were tried out in Carnal Knowledge and The Ice Storm, with the nice trustworthy young dope-dealers of Easy Rider. Maybe audiences are so familiar with this set of anti-suburbia attitudes that it's developed into its own movie genre.
• I've been told I've influenced some people to become directors. Unfortunately, most of them are lousy.
Pauline Kael on Bad Movies
• If you can't make fun of bad movies on serious subjects what's the point?
• Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.
• Trash has given us an appetite for art.
• There is no way to estimate the full effect of Vietnam and Watergate on popular culture, but earlier films were predicated on an implied system of values, which is gone now, except in the corrupt, vigilante form of a Dirty Harry or a Walking Tall. Almost all the current hits are jokes on the past, and especially on old films, a mixture of nostalgia and parody, laid on with a trowel... Nobody understands what contemporary heroes or heroines should be, or how they relate to each other, and it's safer not to risk the box-office embarrassment of seriousness.
• I try not to waste air time discussing obviously bad movies — popular though they may be; and I don’t discuss unpopular bad movies because you’re not going to see them anyway; and there wouldn’t be much point or sport in hitting people who are already down. I do think it’s important to take time on movies which are inflated by critical acclaim and which some of you might assume to be the films to see.
• I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses "art" films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood "product," finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.
• Genre movies are often just what we want and all we want.
Pauline Kael on Work
• Where there is a will, there is a way. If there is a chance in a million that you can do something, anything, to keep what you want from ending, do it. Pry the door open or, if need be, wedge your foot in that door and keep it open.
Pauline Kael on Artists and Art
• The first prerogative of an artist in any medium is to make a fool of himself.
• I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
• I believe that we respond most and best to work in any art form (and to other experience as well) if we are pluralistic, flexible, relative in our judgments, if we are eclectic.
• It seems likely that many of the young who don’t wait for others to call them artists, but simply announce that they are, don’t have the patience to make art.
• In this country we encourage "creativity" among the mediocre, but real bursting creativity appalls us. We put it down as undisciplined, as somehow "too much."
• Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.
Pauline Kael on Culture
• People are cynical about advertising, of course, but their cynicism is so all-inclusive now that they're indifferent, and so they're more susceptible to advertising than ever.
• McLuhanism and the media have broken the back of the book business; they've freed people from the shame of not reading. They've rationalized becoming stupid and watching television.
• One of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down.
• A book might be written on the injustice of the just.
Pauline Kael on Writing
• It's very difficult to be married to somebody and write books. When you're married, you can't read in bed, you can't write at all hours, you can't chase around. I wasted a lot of years being unhappy because I couldn't do the things I wanted to do.
• I started to write, and everything snapped together in my life when I wrote about movies.
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Quote collection assembled by Jone Johnson Lewis. Each quotation page in this collection and the entire collection © Jone Johnson Lewis 1997-2012. This is an informal collection assembled over many years. I regret that I am not be able to provide the original source if it is not listed with the quote.
Jone Johnson Lewis. "Pauline Kael Quotes." About Women's History. URL: http://womenshistory.about.com/od/quotes/a/Pauline-Kael-Quotes.htm . Date accessed: (today). (More on how to cite online sources including this page)