Does your taste in movies define who you are? If you’re engaged in cinema discourse in 2019, it often seems like it does. People treat the films they love as extensions of their identities. What do your preferences say about your values and how you see the world? In celebration of film critic Pauline Kael’s centenary, the Quad Cinema is staging Losing It at the Movies, a retrospective on her likes and dislikes. Kael, who wrote for McCall’s, the New Republic, and most famously the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, was a defining figure for a generation of critics and cinephiles, wielding an influential hand in the way we talk and write about movies. Her unmistakable voice, acerbic and personal, has a way of jumping off the page. Highlighting the subjects of some of her most infamous reviews, both positive and scathing, the Quad has curated a collection of movies that reflect Kael’s obsessions and pet peeves.
Exploring a critic’s career through the films she wrote about offers an interesting perspective on her personality, shedding light on the contradictions and peculiarities of personal opinion. Kael could be ahead of her time (she was an early champion of filmmakers like Brian De Palma and Jonathan Demme), but she was also very much a product of it. A California-born woman transplanted to New York, she was in many ways the opposite of Joan Didion (one of many contemporaries she rivaled with), her style loud and masculine. “The bloody deaths are voluptuous, frightening and beautiful. Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western,” she wrote about The Wild Bunch, “Peckinpah explodes the bottle.” Kael’s preferences reflect her vision of America, rife with conflict and pleasure.
What set Kael’s criticism apart was visceral sensuousness. There was a physicality to her writing. The titles of her essay collections, such as I Lost It at the Movies and Deeper Into Movies, evoke sex more than romance. She treated any movie that could make her laugh as a step above the rest, and abhorred self-seriousness above all else — she saw early Woody Allen as the pinnacle of contemporary comedy, but was apprehensive of his later work. Less obviously, she deemed films like Jaws and Taxi Driver “hilarious.” Writing about Jaws, she pinned its comedy on Robert Shaw’s performance as the shark hunter Quint. He is “so manly that he wants to get killed; he’s so manly he’s homicidal.” In contrast, she had an obvious disdain for Antonioni for his seriousness. Writing about La Notte, she referred to the characters as “cardboard intellectuals.” There was nothing but contempt for films about the empty suffering of the rich and beautiful.
There is something distinctly American in the way Kael writes; not an apple pie sweetness, but Americanness deeply entrenched in garbage. “This is indigenous American junkiness” she wrote about Re-Animator, a film she loved. She had an out-of-vogue affection for masculinity that led her to celebrate some of cinema’s most macho filmmakers. Her passion for the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman often came from how they were able to exaggerate and empathize with men who were increasingly out of their time. When writing about movies like Nashville or Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, she loved that they were about sex, music, and having a good time, and found a way to also be about something greater than that. In stark contrast, she viewed social pictures that dealt seriously with “important” ideas as cheap and fraudulent. Kael loved trash and vulgarity, and saw authenticity in violence and sex that she didn’t see in some of the most acclaimed films of her era. But this rule didn’t always apply. She disliked A Clockwork Orange because of his treatment of rape and violence (she also hated 2001: A Space Odyssey). While she celebrated Peckinpah’s violence, she felt Kubrick worked too hard to make the audience love the violence he portrayed, saying he was “determined to be pornographic, and he has no talent for it.”
While ideologically an ardent anti-auteurist, in practice Kael was a die-hard for her pet filmmakers. She had her own canon of directors she celebrated, and simultaneously engaged in a war with Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, who brought the auteur theory to the American public. Often working in tension with the predominant cinematic canon, she usually preferred the lowbrow over glamorous Hollywood prestige films. This might be the ultimate contradiction in her work, since her role at the New Yorker, one of the country’s premier thought leaders, all but assured her favorites would be canonized.
With all-time classics like Jaws and lesser-known gems such as Loving, the Quad’s retrospective offers an opportunity to revisit one of the most important critical voices of the 20th century. As a showcase of Kael’s ideas, Losing It at the Movies is an eclectic and challenging group of films. But in the greater context of her writing, the series offers a fantastic opportunity to think about the intersection between art, self, and taste.