Monday, June 1, 2009

Announcing Pauline Kael Week: June 15-19

[Update: Pauline Kael Week is under way, here!]

Though she lived long enough to see the blogosphere named in 1999, Pauline Kael stopped being a professional critic too soon to join the online circus of words and opinions that the term represents. Kael retired in 1991 after 40 years of celebrated (and sometimes resented) criticism, most famously at The New Yorker. In her wake, she left us with more than a dozen books anthologizing her criticism. She left us with “Paulettes,” critics who purposefully and devotedly seek to emulate her brand of criticism. And, to some degree, without ever trying, she left us with the blogosphere, which is largely populated by the kind of passionate, unbound, emotional writing that was at the core of Kael’s style.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that most bloggers rival Kael. Not even close. But it isn’t ridiculous to suggest that most movie bloggers are influenced by Kael, even if they don’t realize it, even if they’ve never read a single thing she wrote. Her impact is hard to nail down (who hasn’t been labeled a Paulette, at this point?), but it’s also difficult to exaggerate. Kael wrote fervent essays that, instead of reading like term papers, sounded like the transcribed mad ramblings of a cinema diehard holding court in the theater lobby, challenging all-comers. Sound familiar? Kael did what most movie bloggers attempt to do; she just did it better. The shame of it is that she didn’t do it with us. On that note, not wanting to further bury the lead, I’d like to offer an opportunity to rectify that on a small scale:

I’m now announcing Pauline Kael Week, to unfold here at The Cooler from June 15-19, leading up to what would have been Kael’s 90th birthday. (Kael died in 2001.) What will Pauline Kael Week entail? The two main ingredients are Kael and you. Over the course of the five-day event (and we’ll spill into the following weekend, if everyone is having fun), I’ll post excerpts of Classic Kael. All you have to do is show up at The Cooler, read the excerpts and then react in the comments section. In some instances I might frame the excerpts with some questions to spark the discussion – but somehow I don’t think that will be necessary. This is Pauline Kael we’re talking about. One doesn’t need to fan the flames of an inferno.

Think of this as a five-day book club – the book in question being Kael’s For Keeps, from which I’ll draw excerpts. That said, I’m happy to also treat this as a traditional blog-a-thon. If you’d like to write a piece on Kael – about her career or influence, about her ethics, or about some essay she wrote decades ago that’s you’ve never forgotten (or forgiven) – do so! Pass me the link and I’ll feature it at The Cooler.

I think this has the potential to be an engaging event. Of course, if no one shows up, it’ll be an extremely lame party. So I’m asking you to please help spread the word (Web banner below), and then to participate enthusiastically over the course of the week. No preparation required. Just show up and be ready to argue about the critic who raved about Bonnie And Clyde, Nashville and Last Tango In Paris, and who took down West Side Story, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, A Clockwork Orange and movies on television. Be there!


The Film Doctor said...

Nice idea, Jason. I once met Ms. Kael when she visited SIU-C in Carbondale, Illinois for a reading. She was tiny, but brilliant. I've heard that major actors and film directors have wanted to beat her up due to her reviews, but were disarmed when they saw how small she was. I look forward to your blog-a-thon.

Anonymous said...

Great idea, and look forward to it. One thing I would be curious to have some discussion on is her consistency, or perhaps lack thereof, over her history of criticism. Each of her reviews (and sometimes lengthy essays) had a sort of self-contained logic (that you could either agree or disagree with). Over her body of work, it seemed pretty difficult to get a complete handle on her; as I read For Keeps one thing I tried to do was anticipate whether net-net she would favorably or unfavorably review a movie, and oftentimes would find myself wrong.

Ed Howard said...

Great idea, Jason, I'm looking forward to it. I've read most of For Keeps over the years, and often return to it to see what Kael has to say about a favorite or something I've just seen. As much as I frequently disagree with her, sometimes very strongly, she's always entertaining. I'm looking forward to this!

Joel Bocko said...

Oh God, what a fantastic idea! I'll be involved somehow (probably both in comments and a relate post). Perfect timing, too, as I've been reading her books religiously for the past month or two (so far I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and most of Going Steady, which I'm nearly finished with now). I'd read probably all of For Keeps by this point, but it's interesting to read the older books and see her reviews in an even wider context.

I've also been reading all the Sarris books I could find, and it's interesting how their viewpoints overlap. Both dismissed an awful lot of classic films in their day - Lawrence, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Graduate, 2001 (though Sarris partially recanted on that last film). Both valued acting and were perceptive in their analysis of it; both rejected overtly "stylish" films; both dug for treasures in what had been dismissed as trash (the difference being that Kael continued to label it as "trash"), and so on.

Heck, maybe I should do a piece on Kael & Sarris, intertwined, as a complement! Anyway, I really can't wait for this event. Can you make it two weeks instead of one? Or at least a full week instead of five days!? No, on second thought, leave us wanting more...did I mention I can't wait?

Joel Bocko said...

Anon, great point. Kael is usually quite consistent - even when she risks incoherency - within a single piece, if for no other reason than the headlong rush of her prose. But one minute she's knocking the auteur theory, the next she's celebrating an auteurist reading of a work; one moment she's ripping apart the big-screen musical, the next she's singing the praises of Oliver!; amoral violence is thrilling in Bonnie & Clyde but outrageous in Clockwork Orange. I value this unpredictability and think there's a weird sort of consistency there even if she can't quite articulate it. Also, to be fair, I think some of it has to do with her development over the years. Reading her chronologically I can see that she tended to drift away from certain forcefully-held opinions, though she stubbornly would refuse to admit it (something that drove her more apologetic and reflective rival, Sarris of course, nuts.)

Jason Bellamy said...

MovieMan: Glad you're excited. I hope it spills out into a full week. But I didn't want to demand too much of folks. My hope is that, within the short time frame, multiple bloggers will enjoy spending lots of time hashing things out in the comments section. If it goes well, we'll keep it going. And, hey, who says this has to be the only year we do Pauline Kael week? For now, I'll be happy if we have an awesome five days! Looking forward to seeing you in the comments. The Kael-Sarris post sounds like a great one!

Patricia Perry said...

What a great idea!!! I'll be checking in regularly that week.

Kael was a huge influence on me. I started reading her as a teenager in the '70s. I actually used to buy The New Yorker at the corner drugstore in the little farm town where I grew up just to read her reviews.

Craig said...

Unfortunately I'll be out of town for two of the days, but I'm looking forward to this and will comment when and if I can.

Martin said...

Pauline Kael was special. If you're looking for someone writing in a first-person way, with humor and passion and big opinions, there just aren't that many people who compare with her. I'm looking forward to the week!