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Commentary

Documentary looks at Pauline Kael, the greatest American film critic

Jeff Simon

Pauline Kael was the greatest American film critic who has ever been.

What has to be understood now in the era of mob reviewing in Rotten Tomatoes is that when Kael started in the 1960s, that wasn't even a foreseeable category. It would never even have occurred to readers to consider a film critic "the greatest" in her trade. It wasn't enough of a respectable trade yet.

There were some who had worked, died and been revered – James Agee, the little known Otis Ferguson. And there was the country's most powerful practitioner of the trade, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times who also happened to be among the worst ever. My inspiration, Dwight Macdonald, was still around but was seldom writing about film.

Judith Crist of the Herald Tribune , opened television to the occupation on "Today" when it was still addicted to the printed word from its father Sylvester "Pat" Weaver (father of Sigourney). Gene Shalit kept it going by marrying the role with "staff humorist." Joel Siegel took that as a template over to "Good Morning, America."

But at the same time that Kael at the New Republic, the New Yorker and miscellaneous slicks was establishing a beachhead for movie criticism somewhere between middlebrow and highbrow, Siskel and Ebert became a syndicated smash hit on TV. Never mind that only one of them – Ebert – seemed at all credible to others in the trade, their squabbling public pillow fight became a successful TV act wherever it played, i.e. Dweeb Vaudeville.

As a writer, Ebert could be good. He didn't deserve the Pulitzer when he won it but by the time the ravages of cancer ended his TV career and his ability to speak, his written work about movies and his struggling profession seemed worthy of the first Pulitzer ever given for a man's life work, if they'd ever deigned to give such a Nobel or Hollywoodian thing.

Meanwhile, over in the part of the room where influence was vastly more interesting than thick-headed power, Kael was the critic America's elite read and learned from.

Which, I suppose, included me, beginning as a writer at The Buffalo News in 1969.

I was never even close to the kind of critic who came to be known as a "Paulette" (David Edelstein wittily calls himself a "Paulinista"), but it was a rude fact about journalism in the late 1960s and early '70s that Kael had a lot to teach every gainfully employed critical journalist.

She was where American discussion about movies started, for good or for ill.

Usually that was for good. But I was, at the time, one of the few who was happy to say so when it was for ill. I thought it was almost comic hyperbole when Kael compared Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" to the Parisian advent of Stravinky's "Rite of Spring" (which I wrote, for the first of several times, was an example of "Aunt Pauline Going Off Her Head.")

I thought her power-mongering on behalf of Robert Altman's "Nashville" was absurd. Her insistence that Brian DePalma was one of the greats of his filmmaking era was nonsense to me and often lead to trickle-down acclaim from others with quite painful results. (DePalma's "Wise Guys" without the Kael Effect, didn't even deserve going direct to video.)

But I was still among those who hung on every electrified word she wrote for more than 10 years. It was a great time to love and talk about movies because of her and her bete noire Andrew Sarris. (And despite the miniaturizing thumb-wrestling of Siskel and Ebert.)

There seems almost nothing good about this era. It is not only death, illness and economic devastation that staggers and threatens, it is the temporary smothering of movies, one of America's greatest and liveliest arts.

But wait. There's something interesting going on after all in the margins.

You can't kill great American art forms. Pave them over with concrete and you'll soon see splendid weeds growing through the cracks. Jazz has been living that way for decades. Movies – which involve infinitely more money – are just waiting to burst again into the sun.

In the meantime, area theaters have figured out a delightful way to keep movie people well supplied. Dipson Theatres, the Aurora Theatre, North Park Theatre and Screening Room Cinema Cafe are all taking part in virtual cinema presentations for audiences. Go to their websites where you'll find a list of movies you can rent; half of the proceeds will benefit that theater. In the same way, the documentary "What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael" is also available to rent ($12) online at paulinekaelmovie.com. Select Buffalo International Film Festival site to have part of your ticket price benefit the festival.

Additionally, director Rob Garver will be participating in a Facebook Live Q&A at 8 p.m. May 26 with members of BIFF.

If ever there were a woman who deserved her story told attentively on film it's Kael.

Poor Gay Talese, the seminal "new journalist" who, in his 80s, was asked and couldn't think of a single female writer who influenced him. In my generation, a critic who wasn't reading Kael and Susan Sontag was out to lunch without a credit card.

Kudos to Garver for being right there in his title exactly as he should have been. Calling his a film about "The Art of Pauline Kael" seems to me exactly right. Her career as a critic described the tumultuous arc of an artist, full of breathtaking brilliance and almost equally breathtaking calamity.

Which is to say that she failed often but, for the longest time, never stopped trying, even when what she was endeavoring to do was decimating her  reputation.

That described her ignominious career end when she was seduced and abandoned by Warren Beatty to become something on the order of a film producer and godmother to filmmaker James Toback, a later "me too" target who didn't begin to deserve her.

What Garver's film makes clear that was hidden for so many years is that Kael's power-mongering on behalf of her views and friends and reputation was so bold that she was often a bully.

Years after it happened, I read about her bullying of director David Lean at a private dinner of the New York Film Critics Circle. It was all supposed to be chummy and secret socializing with newsmaking filmmakers and critics. In this case, it was with the stately dramatic pictorialist Lean, whose last hit had been "Doctor Zhivago."

His new film in 1970, "Ryan's Daughter," was about to be released. Led on by Kael and the group's president, Richard Schickel (who, to Lean's face, pronounced "Ryan's Daughter" to be "B.S."), the New York critics, in their cups, were so savage that they were thought to have been responsible for Lean's ensuing 14 years of occupational silence, before he was able to make one final film, an adaptation of Forster's "A Passage to India" with all of his accustomed virtues.

I must confess to being a little shocked when I later heard about the treatment of Lean. As overrated as I always thought "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia" were, I admired their size and seriousness and power. They were like cinematic luxury ocean liners.

But unfortunately that meant some critics were on the side of the liner and some were on the side of the icebergs.

Kael's review of "Ryan's Daughter" is not reprinted in either of the two massive collections of her life work, including an obvious attempt at a definitive one from the Library of America. You have to search out the review in the book that originally housed it "Deeper Into Movies." It's a brilliant review – savage and dismissive but fair. That it is now so hard to find meant that Kael may have had second thoughts on that review's cruel afterlife.

I love the idea that we can watch the Kael film online and that the Buffalo International Film Festival will host a discussion with the filmmaker.

I certainly prefer movies, all movies, to be shown on the screens they were originally intended for. But when you're staring starvation in the face, a fast food cheeseburger hits the spot.

We live in a world of excess – too much inane and stupid commentary online, way too much inane content too to be evaluated by informed, smart and sensitive assayers.

So every new avenue for exhibition is precious – especially when it brings with it the possibility of things very much worth seeing when you just might be starving for anything at all.

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