At one artistically glorious time beginning in the late 60s, a group of film critics were household names (and famous enough to be parodied on SCTV). Critics like Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, Judith Crist of TV Guide (known by many as the first movie critic on TV), Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice, and Dwight McDonald of Esquire had highly original voices and helped elevate film criticism to a more sophisticated level of analysis.
The most unique and fearless of them all was Pauline Kael. In contrast to her dowdy middle-aged appearance and voice which resembled Madge Blake (Aunt Harriet of Batman) and Marion Lorne (Aunt Clara of Bewitched), her colorful writing had a distinctively erotic quality as she was always enraptured with the filmgoing experience regardless to whether she loved or hated the film.
She was an outsider in many ways in terms of her highly subjective first-person aesthetic and in many of the movies (the only term she used, as she felt all other terms like “films” or “motion pictures” were pretentious) she gravitated towards, a position I think she enjoyed. Never one to mince words, Kael butted heads with academic critics, particularly Sarris, whose preferences she felt tended towards esoteric arty farty material.
She also sparred with the more traditional critics, namely Crowther, the eminent critic at the time whom she singled out for scorn on multiple occasions. They were suckers for “respectable” films with an important social message (a la Stanley Kramer, whose oeuvre she gloriously ripped apart in an essay entitled “The Intentions of Stanley Kramer”). Her praise for “trash” melodramas and blockbusters raised eyebrows and derision from both the traditional and academic camps.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a collection of Kael’s reviews and essays from 1965 to 1967, at the tail end of her freelancing period. Right after this, she became a national cultural icon with her stint as the critic for The New Yorker from 1967-1991. She rose to prominence with her 7000-word impassioned defense for the then-maligned Bonnie and Clyde (this piece is included in this book). Endorsing the controversial film placed her on the right side of history as this visceral, edgier type of counterculture filmmaking became the future and the old establishment, particularly Crowther, fell out of public favor, and in Crowther’s case, practically overnight after his moralistic (and very square) review of Bonnie and Clyde.
Her analysis of Bonnie and Clyde is probably her most famous work due to its historical significance (not to mention that it’s a damn good essay too).
My favorite piece in this book is her detailed account of behind-the-scenes access of the filming of the 1966 Sidney Lumet drama The Group, based off a novel by Mary McCarthy about the trials and tribulations of eight Vassar graduates.
Considering how opinionated and blunt she was in her writing, Kael was an interesting choice by Lumet and writer-producer Sidney Buchman to be on the set. She was definitely not an impartial visitor. For example, she harangued Lumet about an actress who misread the line “the whole class was for Roosevelt” instead of “the whole group was for Roosevelt” on multiple occasions. After he and the producer brushed her off, she confronted the crew members about this continuity error; by that time Lumet was already directing his next film.
Very unusual for professional critics, Kael watched films with average movie-goers and fed off of their energy. For example, much of her disdain for the film The Shameless Old Lady, which she thought was “pleasant enough,” was the arty hype from other critics and the audience who consequently was “so audibly pleased with its capacity to respond.”
Many professional critics have veered away from Kael’s provocatively subjective prose in favor of a more objective, less controversial delivery. This is precisely one of the major reasons nobody gives a damn about contemporary criticism. In spite of the obstacles, Kael persisted in genuine honesty and has consequently delivered an output of provocative, engaging criticism (and dare I say art) to the literate public.