A Time to Miss

By Douglas Lobo

Once upon a time there were persons who could think and even write about films. They were called movie critics. They used to be read by a legion of followers, who had as much fun with the critic as with the movie itself (sometimes more with the critic). They even dared, believe it or not, to write with personal judgment and style, without being afraid of disagreements or breaking the decorum.

Unfortunately, they’re now extinct. The last ones resisted bravely, but even they couldn’t resist the internet, where a lot of sites and blogs, in order to get ads, focus almost solely on commercial movies reviewed poorly by low-paid – or no-paid at all – collaborators. If you want to know more about this once powerful but now extinct species, I strongly recommend the book “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark”, by Brian Kellow.

It’s the biography of Pauline Kael, the most famous American movie critic. It tells her life story from the early years to her death, in 2001. Kellow goes deeply into her public and private life, by interviewing people whom she had met, old adversaries, ex-workmates and parents. Moreover, he had access to her private letters and the notes she used to make before writing a critique. He even read the screenplays and plays Kael wrote before deciding, after failing as creative writer, to become a movie critic.

A young reader may ask: “why read this book? Movie criticism is a dull job, after all”.

He would have some reason to think this. Unlike other people from show business, Kael’s life wasn’t full of sex and drugs (actually she never used drugs and her sexual life was a rather conventional one); she didn’t come from a disturbed family, so she had no father issues; she never had tons of money, being a middle-classer her entire life; she lived in NYC, but she was always a provincial mid-westerner. Her life would have been a normal one, if she hadn’t been the most famous movie critic in the history of the United States. So, the book shows a kind of ordinary life but of an extraordinary person. It’s always good to discover a life which is similar to ours, but better. It gives us hope that we can achieve more goals just by adding commitment and passion to the common life we already have.

The author distinctly knows we don’t read the book to know him, but Kael. Kellow plainly doens’t want to draw attention to himself. We don’t see him giving strong opinions. He writes in a plain east-coast English markedly different from the highly personal one used by Kael herself. That’s effective, because when he transcribes Kael’s excerpts we can hear contrastingly her characteristic voice, expressed in a English alternately svelte and slangy.

The book shows how passionate Pauline Kael was about movies. She watched them intensely and, despite never seeing the same one twice, could memorize entire lines. At the end of the sixties, when the New Hollywood emerged, she began to believe that the cinema would soon be the only art of our time capable of connecting with the people, especially because the more established arts had become theoretical and academic. In order to have this strong connection with the audience, Kael said, films should avoid the pretentiousness that so often had been associated with hermetic language. That didn’t mean films should be stupid: on the contrary, Kael had no patience with films that didn’t respect the intelligence of the audience.

Superb at noticing trends, Kael astonishingly didn’t realize that her expectations concerning a soon-to-be golden age of movies would end in 1975, after Jaws – ironically, directed by one of her favorite directors, Steven Spielberg – achieved a huge success at box office. From now on, blockbusters would be the new product of Hollywood. Films would be targeted at a worldwide young audience who supposedly had no interest in more meaningful stories. Executives would become as important as ever in the business, choosing what to produce based chiefly on the demands of profit. When she announced her retirement, in 1991, Kael was staggeringly disappointed with the path American cinema had followed. The film criticism itself didn’t escape from the business-oriented scenario. The critics would be replaced by the reviewers, who appreciated a movie like a customer values a pair of shoes or a refrigerator. The interned would finish the job. Since then, life has became boring for movie-goers.

Today, Kael’s writings are an old-fashioned enjoyment, recalling a time unknown to an entire generation who have never really been challenged to think about movies, just watching them. Reading Pauline Kael: a Life in the Dark is to travel to a time when the film critics, as the movies themselves, had a huge impact that they presumably will never have again.

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