A new collection of the writings of Pauline Kael has come out and, as one might expect, has gotten a lot of commentary from film critics remembering why she was so important in her 1970s heyday. They also remember all the things they hated about her. Reading the commentary on The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael reminds me of how Jane Jacobs, the great urban planner, was discussed on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
To the best of my knowledge, Jacobs and Kael never met, even though they were almost exactly the same age (Jacobs was born in 1916, Kael in 1919). If they had met, they would have had a lot to talk about.
Both worked in fields in which the popular posed a problem. Moviegoers never attended the right movies, and city dwellers preferred haphazard cities. Both groups regarded experts with suspicion. Throughout their careers Jacobs (at left) and Kael bridged the popular and the elite, and they did it with the same way. They were described writers first and experts second. Their authority came from their unruly and confrontational prose styles. They were often described as passionate, which was never meant entirely as a compliment. Their detractors never hesitated to point out when Jacobs and Kael fudged the technical details of their fields.
Jacobs and Kael also worked in fields dominated by men. Jacobs in particular didn’t have a significant female colleague or rival. Furthermore, film and urban planning were afflicted with a mastery syndrome, with one genius male overseeing a large and diverse team of artisans. But where is the trace of the artist in a neighborhood or a Hollywood melodrama? Painters have brush strokes, writers have sentences. Both the auteur theory of cinema and the master urban planner rely on a bit of mystification. Jacobs and Kael knew their fields were ripe for demythologizing.
The battle lines between Jacobs and Robert Moses, the impresario of the highway, were clear, and Jacobs’ position never wavered. Kael also engaged in a famous battle, in her case with Andrew Sarris, the primary American advocate of the auteur theory. Kael criticized the gender bias in the theory, yet she navigated the movie world using the landmarks of great directors. The enduring image of her is a dominative woman sitting in a movie theater shouting instructions at the screen, yelling at the director to place the camera elsewhere, to rewrite the leading man’s dialog, to slow down the pace of the story. When the director pleased her, she would cheer loudly.
The directors didn’t always appreciate the advice, and she spoke too loudly for her fellow critics. It was always fun to read her account of her dialog with the director. She taught us how to talk back to the movies.