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All Hail Kael 

A film series remembers the uncompromising New Yorker critic Pauline Kael

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
"I regard criticism as an art." With this simple declaration, the film critic Pauline Kael, who died this September at age 82 of Parkinson's disease, summed up the raison d'être of her distinguished, 40-plus-year career with characteristic self-confidence, panache, and candor. Famously outspoken and provocative, the longtime pundit for The New Yorker was an enthusiast of both B-movies and classics, a true movie buff unafraid to put art-house snobs in their place. Whether railing against the film industry in her famous diatribe "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers" or panning such blockbusters as The Sound of Music, Kael's uncompromising opinions and brutal barbs earned her both staunch supporters and bitter opponents. In honor of the queen of critique, the Pacific Film Archive screens "Finding It at the Movies: We Remember Pauline Kael," a series of films that the Bay Area native championed when she was director of the Berkeley Cinema Guild from 1955 to 1960. (Her original short program notes, which paved the way for her longer essays in The New Yorker, accompany the films.)

The homage kicks off with Edward Cline's The Bank Dick (Nov. 23), a W.C. Fields slapstick comedy about a town drunk turned bank security guard that Kael flippantly advised "respectable people" to avoid. She described Fields as an "unregenerate individualist [who] shakes the whole barrelful of middle class virtues, and says, "Look, this barrel's full of stinking fish.'" Though she had a reputation for ranting, Kael wasn't all piss and vinegar. When she fell in love with a movie, she fell hard. She credited Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando with "alter[ing] the face of an art form" with Last Tango in Paris, for example. The same has been said of Kael: She transformed the field of criticism, inspiring countless imitators -- dubbed the "Paulettes" -- with her sharp tongue and fiercely independent stance.

As a programmer, she unapologetically repeated her favorites until they also became audience favorites. One such darling: Preston Sturges' romantic farce Unfaithfully Yours (Nov. 23), starring Rex Harrison as a jealous symphony conductor. "What is it, anyway, that scares you off -- the stupid title? ... Have you no courage or, even worse, have you no taste?" she wrote in her program notes. Taste was always a matter of principle with Kael, and "Finding It at the Movies" provides a glimpse of her eclectic preferences during the early years of her career. Highlights include a reissued print of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (Nov. 24), a stunning film noir starring Welles as a corrupt police captain who frames his suspect, with Marlene Dietrich, Charlton Heston, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a pre-Psycho Janet Leigh; Jean Renoir's masterpiece Grand Illusion (Nov. 25); and Ingmar Bergman's sexy morality tale Smiles of a Summer Night (Dec. 7). Such an across-the-board bill was typical of Kael. Whether you agreed with her or not, she still made you want to go to the cinema.

About The Author

Lisa Hom


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