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Book Review: The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael edited by Sanford Schwartz

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Even more than Roger Ebert is today, Pauline Kael was once the Dean of American movie reviewers. Whether you agreed or disagreed with her, what she wrote about movies could not be easily dismissed. But does her sexiness as cultural critic and prose stylist still hold its allure? The most curious thing about her work was the titles she gave to anthologies. I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Going Steady, all made the movie going experience a thoroughly sexual one. But her prose was not exactly sensual and was certainly more critical than you’d want from a bedroom companion. Kael’s declarations were clear and she had a gift for the bon mot, but faced with this much of her work, it seems like a hard slog to find the stuff that is as pleasant to read as it is provocative. 

With The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael, edited by Kael’s friend Sanford Schwartz, the film critic enters the literary canon that is the Library of America. For space reasons, the Modern Library edition of her selected writings omits her most famous essay. Raising Kane is left for further research. Which is too bad — it’s probably her most riveting piece, as much detective story as criticism as it traces the factors —  of the Hollywood culture of the time, of the principal artists —  that shaped this masterpiece. It has been revealed that much of the research came from a colleague, but he certainly could not have written it the way Kael does.

Raising Kane can be found in the out of print collection For Keeps. What’s left here is no less than a highly selective and opinionated history of the movies, in which she skewers art-house trends like Last Year at Marienbad and the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, laments at the wrong career turns taken by geniuses like Orson Welles and Marlon Brando, and revels in cinematic milestones like Bonnie and Clyde and Last Tango in Paris. She has strange blind spots – her championing of James Toback’s repulsive Fingers, of the career of Brian DePalma, but the world of movie criticism may never again meet such a formidable adversary —  or such frustrating bathroom reading.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.