And as easy as it was to assume how established and fine a writer she was, Pauline Kæl’s greatness came in the fact that she’s not just possibly the best, most expressive film critic ever; she was far and away the bravest. Naming off some classics which Kæl panned: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Blood Simple,” “Chinatown,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Hiroshima mon amour,” “Ordinary People,” “Raging Bull,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Rain Man,” “The Shining” (she pretty much hated all Kubrick post-“Dr. Strangelove”), “The Sound of Music,” “Star Wars”-but did anyone ever think that Kæl’s work was somehow lacking because it was missing a grade assessment? She frequently stood alone, in praise and damnation. And usually, posterity found her out. Take a movie released after her retirement: “Forrest Gump.” In an Entertainment Weekly interview, she off-handily complained of its “‘Reagan-era’ view of counter-culture.” Now look at most of the DVD reviews coming these last two week upon its release…
What Pauline Kæl represented was that the critic is indeed an artist, but most critics are too embarrassed and harangued by public distaste to assert them into that position. Subjectivity is the key to criticism as art though; everyone has it, and therefore, criticism is the articulate representation of an individual audience member. If an artist takes an intangible ideal in their head and works their best to bring it into a tangible reality, then for a critic, that tangible reality creates an all new intangible ideal (in the audience’s/critic’s head), and the critic’s/artist’s job is turn that into a new tangible. The best artists are always the brave, who take the world as they perceive it (that includes two hours in a dark room with a solitary light shining), the ones who put it all forward, who accept that they will offend people, but at least can leave something smart or heartfelt on their tombstone. Kæl fought for that with the autonomy and bravery that an artist fights with, all in the advertising ad-nauseum hell of print media. She broke out of conventions of criticism, and with the freedom the Internet should allot; her legacy has an open medium to expand in. For every movie “Internet spy” who chimes in with an early consumer guide, taster’s choice review, it will still pale in comparison with Kæl’s early reviews of “Last Tango in Paris,” “Mean Streets,” or “Nashville;” but it should have that potential. Think of the simplicity and dullness of print media “reviewing.” Then think of it with no regulations. Think of it in no way placating to your reader. Think of it as an art.
And every writer who’s ever tried to describe a frame of celluloid, his or her talents have turned to Kæl in the days following her death, and will continue to for at least a few more weeks (at least, that’s the cycle of these tributes). Me? I wrote her this really inept, awkward letter a few months ago, asking for some kind of interview. I even offered to drive up to Massachusetts. I just wanted to talk to the woman, but I was such an amiable kid in tone, I kept getting this image of her scoffing at the letter. I was going through the daily ritual of telling myself, “You should write it again,” to which I never did. So I continued to pour over every book of hers I could find, and figured that the upcoming publication of Susie Linfield’s biography She Found It at the Movies: The Work and Life of Pauline Kæl would suffice until I could make it as a real critic or filmmaker to warrant her attention. And then I found out she had died.
But if I admit that she’s an artist, in that school of Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist,” then I must admit another Wilde maxim: that the artist should be dull in life, lively in art. According to almost every personal remembrance made about Kæl, she was anything but dull in life; but I’ll never know that. For posterity and immortality, the more successful the artist, the more posterity and immortality will come their way. Even if I never was able to talk to her, I should have the comfort of her what she wrote representing who she was. Perhaps for her towering artistic achievement, Pauline Kæl will live forever. (How’s that for sanctimony?)
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