Before she became a famous film critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote about movies out in San Francisco. She also offered her opinions on radio station KPFA. I Lost It at the Movies includes selections from her criticism between 1955 and 1964.
The single word that best describes her writing is “provocative”. She slams a number of movies generally considered classics (West Side Story, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, This Sporting Life). She also strongly criticizes other film critics, especially Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and the group of critics who subscribed to the auteur theory (film is all about the director). Her favorite films from this period include Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (“perfect”). She loves Antonioni’s L’Avventura but hates his La Notte.
Kael appreciates many popular American classics but thinks the films of the 50s and 60s that have mass appeal tend to be formulaic. She loves a number of movies that appealed to “art house” audiences but makes fun of art house patrons who take obscurity and complexity to be artistic or “deep”. Here she is on her chosen profession:
The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others .
I disagreed with a number of her opinions (in some cases, she seems to think a movie misfires because she would have preferred it to be about someone else), but she certainly communicated her enthusiasm to me. So far, I’ve watched a relatively obscure Japanese film she recommended, Kagi or Odd Obsession, about a husband who tries to regain his sexual powers by getting his wife to have sex with their prospective son-in-law, and I’m planning to watch another one, Fires on the Plain. The latter is about Japanese soldiers undergoing pain and privation and doing horrible things in the Philippines at the end of World War 2. She called it a “masterpiece”, writing that “it has the disturbing power of great art: it doesn’t leave you quite the same”.
After watching Odd Obsession, I read her review again. She did indeed see more in the movie than I did (not a surprise). If I make it through Fires on the Plain, I’ll see if she saw more in that one too.
Note: Someone identified as “Not Pauline Kael” has posted what certainly seem to be Kael’s reviews from I Lost It at the Movies, including the ones for Odd Obsession and Fires on the Plain. They are worth reading.