Review: For Keeps – Pauline Kael

For Keeps: 9thirty Years at the MoviesFor Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies by Pauline Kael

This isn’t really the kind of book you’d sit and read cover to cover. Like, I did, but I’m not really a role model for how people should live their lives. I loved it, though.

What For Keeps is, is a collection of essays written for magazines (largely the New Yorker, but elsewhere too), generally reviewing then-current films. They were written back before screeners and largely before VHS/Beta allowed people to take movies into their homes, so a lot of her reviews try to capture her emotions after a screening or two.

Generally, when I read a collection of this sheer size and scope – it’s well over a thousand pages and over an inch thick – I find the essays all kind of bleed into each other and it’s hard to pick moments out of the pack. Fortunately, it’s not the case here. Although there are plenty of reviews for movies I’ve never seen (and probably never will), her prose, insight and instincts generally stand out well after I’ve read them. For example, when she writes about “Last Tango in Paris,” she carves into the raw sexuality of Brando. Elsewhere, she gets into the madness of Nicolas Cage, the way Paul Newman can make his characters appealing and looks at what made Cary Grant so good at what he did.

Similarly, taking her essays all in order lets you see how her judgment evolved, changed and focused over the years. For example, when she rips into “Full Metal Jacket,” it isn’t just a broadside against the movie, but a part of a long-running antagonistic relationship with Kubrick, who she feels lost himself when he moved to England and started taking himself too seriously. Or her long-running dislike for Clint Eastwood, where her arguments about violence in movies – particularly in how it rationalizes the violence viewers are supposed to embrace – sound as fresh as anything you’d read on AV Club, Grantland or New Yorker.

Still, there are moments which sound dated. Kael is probably best remembered for her insight or wit, but she also had a real nasty streak. When I read her calling someone a fatty, I wonder what’d she say about Melissa McCarthy. And her defence of a movie like “Driving Miss Daisy” seems a little reactionary, particularly since I’d read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist almost in tandem with For Keeps, and Gay’s approach to a movie like that comes off far better (to again make a modern parallel: would Kael have liked “The Help” or would she have seen through that, too?).

Probably the weakest moment in the book is her book-length essay “Raising Cain,” which is collected here in full. At the time, it was an incendiary shot at Orson Welles and Auteur Theory, arguing “Citizen Kane” was more the work of Herman Mankiewicz than Welles. Although it has it’s moments, particularly when dealing with Hollywood in the 30s, the essay is problematic: there are attribution issues where Kael claimed others work as her own; there are factual errors by Kael, too. I like the style and her essay is readable, but I also skimmed over it.

It’s a little hard to recommend a book of this scale and size. It’s a little unwieldy to carry around and the reviews are both too long and too few to really make it worthwhile as a companion to, say, Leonard Maltin’s books. (Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies might be a better choice there). But I’d still recommend it for anyone who enjoys reading good criticism, is interested in film or in writing their own criticism. For me, it has a nice spot next to Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the Finest Writing From a Century of Film.

The thing about Kael isn’t her wit (although it’s nice), but the way poked into and at movies. I don’t think it’s a cliché to say she loved film, since it so vividly comes through with her writing, in the way she could enjoy both pulpy fare like “The Re-Animator” and high-class works like “The Dead.” But her love wasn’t uncritical: if a movie had holes, she’d poke at them: why was a character motiviated? What did the lighting do for a scene? Does a script take the time to explain a character? Etc, etc, etc.

These days, movie criticism is largely left to the specialists who work off in a corner that nobody really reads. Wesley Morris won a Pulitzer for his work, but Grantland struggled to find an audience. Instead, people gravitate towards people like Ebert, who would sum a movie with a hand gesture, or TV critics who award flicks on a sliding scale of three to five stars. It’s kind of funny when some of the best criticism comes from Gregg Turkington and Tim Hidecker’s funny web series “On Cinema at the Cinema.” So go back to Kael, go back and read about some movies you’ve forgotten or never seen, and enjoy yourself. I certainly did.



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