Ten Books in Ten Days: Day Seven – Reeling by Pauline Kael


I’ve excluded books of history or theory from this list that have to do with work even though some (Marx, Benedict Anderson, Harold Innis, Barthes, Sontag) had an influence on my thinking that exceeded the boundaries of my job – always and at best uncertain, elastic, permeable — and seeped into shaping an understanding of life and the ways the world works. But I can’t refrain from including Pauline Kael here: she was my introduction to films and film criticism. In the mid-late 70s there were very few film books in the second-hand bookshops I trawled through and worked at in Montreal but Going SteadyKiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I Lost it at the Movies could usually be found there along with Bazin, V.F. Perkins, Paul Rotha, John Grierson, maybe a collection of Agee.

The problem with those and with other film books then available was that one was usually reading on films that were not available to see; one was reading …but in the dark. This changed for me when Reeling was published and was available at every corner bookshop in paperback: I bought my copy at Classics. In Reeling she was writing about some films I’d already seen or would soon see on television, and one could have a conversation with her views, and as one grew up and social circles expanded, one could also have a conversation about her work with others. It was almost de rigueur at a certain period. I saved my money and bought The New Yorkeronly to read her: I could barely understand the rest of the magazine. The weeks she wasn’t in it, I didn’t buy.

Anyway this is turning into a thesis, suffice to say that I’ve read her all my life and continue to dip into it occasionally, that no one’s writing on film entertains me more, that she’s endlessly interesting as a figure and despite her unarguable historical importance has still not received the attention that is her due (why do David Thomson, James Wolcot and all the other major figures she helped have such a tortuous relationship with her legacy – each expression of gratitude is a sting; what does it say that the person who did most damage to her reputation was a fellow female critic, Renata Adler?). I miss her irreverence, that thirties unsentimental funniness, those marvellous jazzy sentences, her fearlessness (she was banned from screenings several times). No one now exercises a similar centrality in the current culture, and that’s probably a good thing. But it does seems to me that no established popular critic now dares call out and poke fun at those in power like she did with Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, calling him ‘Feather in Brains’, one of many of her jokes that still make me chuckle over thirty years later , and largely because it hits its target so accurately. See the film. That’s what Kael always made you feel like doing.

José Arroyo

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