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The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael: A Library of America Special Publication Kindle Edition
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I once wrote Pauline Kael a letter asking her to read a screenplay of mine, which I wrote as a graduate film student. She responded with the kind of typical Kaelian breeziness which was so characteristic of her work. “Send it Along,” she wrote. (Would make a good song title for Madonna (i.e “ Open Your Heart,” or “True Blue.” Pauline Kael, like Madonna had/has perfect pitch. Who else would have titled an essay on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” with this demand: “Take Off Your Clothes.” (Another good song title for Madonna.)
A year later the verdict came back. “I think this would be a good one to forget about,” Kael wrote. pulling her punches as usual, rather like Madonna did when she delivered a sour opinion of Kevin Costner in “Truth or Dare.”
“Your letters have a voice; the script doesen’t. I suspect it is too far away from you.”
She got it half right. The script wasn’t too far away from me. I was too far away from it. It was an uneasy mixture of high-mindedness and bile. It was truthful in its way, but it didn’t express what I was trying to say.
“Don’t get sore at me,” Kael closed her short note with.
At around the same time (1980) a fellow New Yorker critic, Renata Adler, writing in the New York Review of Books, took it upon herself to bring Pauline Kael, one of the most important voices in cultural criticism, ( in jacket copy she had been compared to George Bernard Shaw) to her knees.
Adler blew this trumpet several paragraphs into her essay: “The Sad Tale of Pauline Kael.” “When the Lights Go Down,” Kael’s twelfth collection of movie reviews) “is piece by piece, line by line and without interruption worthless.”
How about the first line of the first essay in “When the Lights Go Down:” “In the Man From Dream City,” Kael opened with “You can be had,” Mae West said to Cary Grant in “She Done Him Wrong.” And that’s what the female stars of the 30’s and 40’s were saying to him for decades, as he backed away, but not too far.”
This very astute summary of Cary Grant’s appeal is not only not “worthless,” it is a prime example of Pauline Kael’s ability to capture very quickly an actor’s personality and bearing.
In her unprecedented attack on Pauline Kael, Renata Adler ignored most of what is in “When the Lights Go Down,” built herself a sandbag of references to reviews which are not even in the book, (i.e. “Last Tango in Paris,” which is collected in “Reeling,”) Adler’s literary apparatus reduced a great critic’s taste to little more than something she could declare was insignificant and politically correct.
In calling Kael a “vulgarian” Adler knew she was on to something — how to spread a little “shame on you” on Kael and her legion of fans. (Adler’s literary persona is sexual repression.) Every line of her critique was accompanied by a “gotcha.” Here’s one: “There are in principle three things that she (Kael) likes: “ fantasies of subjugation by apes, pods and extraterrestrials” (blind references to the remake of “King Kong,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and Steven Spielberg’s “ET”) — reviews which are at least in the book under so much and so little scrutiny. With the exception of the Dino Delaurentis remake, which I would like to revisit (It was Jessica Lange first movie) all the movies referenced are great, some of them beloved. So what was Adler’s problem with Kael’s raves? There wasn’t one. She had no case.
Adler just likes to feel superior to popular culture. Her credentials amounted (and continue to amount) to very little: an occasional piece for The New Yorker, a six month stint as a reviewer for the New York Times, a job she proudly quit,and a handful of short novels. (A typical Kael review is longer than a novel by Adler.)
There is something marvelous going on here despite the fact that everything Adler said about Kael was wrong. Her prose is both ridiculously airbrushed and transcendently structured to deceive. Suddenly it becomes immoral and somehow manages the trick of not letting Adler in on her own joke. Try this on: “The sadism in Ms. Kael’s work is unique in expository prose (as opposed to declamatiory prose?) so far as I know.” Let me stop her right there. She doesn’t know enough. The Marquis DeSade? Ann Rice?
Let’s cite one more backhanded quote from Pauline Kael, used by Adler. “For Paul Schrader to call himself a whore would be vanity. He doesn’t know how to turn a trick.” Adler calls this statement “a breakthrough in vulgarity and unfairness.”
On the quote in question, Adler almost has a point. This sentiment bothered me too, particularly because Shraeder and Kael had once been friends. But Kael loved these kind of wisecracks. She was a bawd, like Chaucer, Shakespeare, the silent film star Fatty Arbuckle, Bob Hope, Mae West and Madonna. Bet Adler doesn’t much care for Madonna.
Adler despises pop culture, can’t discern the mix of high and low that Kael spotted so early. Adler basically has nothing to offer anyone except moral superiority and contempt — which are the same thing.
Adler claims that this piece, published 25 years ago, and still the most famous thing she has ever done, destroyed her career at the New Yorker. This is a little hard to take seriously, considering that Adler’s opinion of Pauline Kael was shared by William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker for a storied half century, who had legendary battles with Kael over language and her refusal to reform or even change a line. Adler has republished this essay as an e-book and retitled it “The Story of Pauline Kael.” It comes a lot closer to being “The Story of Renata Adler.”
By example, if not by design, Pauline Kael taught readers how to really look at movies; how to think for themselves; and to outgrow her and move on. Her kindness backfired. In her New York Times obituary, the headline, which should have been about a distinguished career, was trumped by the widely-held observation that she had a great deal of influence over other writers. (Why is this bad? Kael complained in an interview.)
Kael had many devotees among would-be critics, who were drawn by her funny and trenchant insights and her lollipops and ice cream prose. They sought her out and became successful in their own rights. She was famous for getting the ones she liked movie reviewing gigs. The clan began to be mocked as “the Paulette’s” specifically by James Wolcott in Vanity Fair in a rearguard action intended to insulate him from the obvious fact that he was one too.
Adler seized on this as evidence of a conspiracy. In fact, Adler has a law degree but doesn’t practice. What she does instead is to utilize the trial lawyer’s sneering innuendo to work herself into a composed frenzy.
Kael was the first critic to declare that the energy in trash had value: that a good movie came from the clash of art and popular ideas. She then reversed herself late in her career when it became obvious that trash had won the day. (One could say that by 2018 it had become a technical knockout.) What would Kael have to say about today’s movies. I don’t think she would like them. The last line of her famous essay, “Trash, Art and the Movies,” was “Trash has given us an appetite for art.” It was a prescient thought for the time — in the late sixties and early seventies — until the advent of “Jaws,” by a director she liked, and then by George Lucas, more of a producer than a director, whom she disliked, changed everything about how movies got made and marketed.
Pauline Kael published her first essay, a pan of Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight, in 1958. Her last review, a lukewarm appreciation of Steve Martin’s “LA Story” ran in the New Yorker in 2001. She died a decade later on September 11, 2011 at the age of 91. Her work is fully deserving of respect and after a period of dormancy is undergoing a revival.
If ONLY the LOA had picked a book like, say, HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING -- which presents film reviews in the context of essays (which digress, but still come back to the original point) about society and America -- that would have been SO much more entertaining and enlightening! This lady doesn't even dig Hitchcock enough to afford him much attention. How she became so revered in her time is (as they say in a refrain from "Shakespeare in Love") a mystery.
Among critics, it's generally said that favorable reviews are harder to write than unfavorable ones, and Kael was particularly gifted at the rave. So all in all this isn't a bad selection and editor Sanford Schwartz has done a good job, and taken an interesting approach, in the space he was given.
As other reviewers have said, the binding is cheap and bad (FOR KEEPS' binding is just as bad and works out even worse, because it has more bulk). But the pages and design here are good, and it's nice to have THE KAEL OF POSITIVE THINKING. Even at that, enough negativity remains to keep everything spicy. The book includes, for example, "Why are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers," and her review of MAGNUM FORCE, which begins, "Clint Eastwood isn't offensive; he isn't an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor."