Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rereading Pauline Kael

I own seven collections of Pauline Kael's movie reviews that first appeared in The New Yorker. Every so often I take down one of these books with titles like When the Lights Go Down and I Lost It at the Movies and reread some of her reviews with pleasure.

Kael usually seemed to praise the movies I disliked and pan those I loved, so I'm not entirely sure why I enjoy reading her as much as I do. Perhaps it's just that she was a terrific writer who had a passion for films and who noticed things in them that I missed completely.

Recently I have been leafing through State of the Art, a book published in the mid-1980s. I see that Kael loved The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, a movie I still think about from time to time but didn't particularly enjoy the one time I watched it. Rereading Kael's review from 1984 makes me want to give it a second chance.

"I didn't find it hard to accept the uninflected, deadpan tone, and to enjoy Buckaroo Banzai for its inventiveness and the gags that bounce off other adventure movies, other comedies," she wrote. "The picture's sense of fun carried me along."

"Mostly," she added, "I laughed at John Lithgow, who brings the movie the anchor it needs. ... His scenes can make you crazy with happiness."

Then there is "Places in the Heart," a film I have watched numerous times with pleasure. Kael's review had little positive to say about it. She complained about the dinner-table grace that opens the movie, the too-white sheets worn by the Klan, Sally Field's performance and just about everything else, including the title. (I, too, have always disliked the title, which makes it sounds like a Hallmark Channel movie.)
I think Kael missed much that is good about Places in the Heart, including the terrific ending, but I have to admit that some of her nit-picking makes me like it just a little bit less than I once did.

Good writing doesn't always reinforce one's biases. Sometimes it challenges them. That's something Pauline Kael did every week in The New Yorker.

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