Pauline Kael Left Jewish Imprint on Criticism

Famed Film Critic Held Movies Up to Highest Standard

By Benjamin Ivry

Published November 09, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
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A chapter by critic Ed Sikov from the 2001 book “Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic: Essays in Honor of Andrew Sarris” attacked Kael in return. “The bile aimed at Molly Picon,” Sikov wrote, “is predictable, since Picon’s enormous popularity in the Yiddish theater, frequented as it was by uneducated immigrants who didn’t care if they were being ‘too Jewish’ for the gentiles, makes her a safe target for ridicule and scorn in the pages of The New Yorker.”

This criticism of Kael betrays ignorance of her own immigrant family background. Kael’s sometimes harsh-seeming attitudes about Jews and other subjects were based on life experience, not merely on above-it-all prejudice. Similarly, Kael ran up against howls of outrage that only last year inspired Richard Brody in The New Yorker to explicitly decry Kael’s “grotesque… misunderstandings” of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film “Shoah.”

Despite its notoriety, Kael’s “Shoah” review is omitted from “The Age of Movies,” although it remains an interesting take on the film as a film. Kael as critic reserved the right to like or dislike a film independently of its subject. She praised “Fiddler on the Roof” for “[treating] the Jews as an oppressed people — no better, no worse than others,” which she saw as a “sensible attitude.” She selectively praised films by such directors as Paul Mazursky, Woody Allen, and Barbra Streisand (“Yentl” was a special favorite). Lanzmann, by contrast, lacks nuance, opting for sledgehammer effect over artistry, and even the most devout admirer of “Shoah” can hardly claim it is strong on subtlety. “The Age of Movies” does contain a rave review of Marcel Ophul’s 1969 “The Sorrow and the Pity,” a film with many voices and approaches to the same period of historical tragedy. Kael was possibly right: “Sorrow and the Pity” may indeed be a better-made film than “Shoah,” strictly as a film and not in terms of content, and the Library of America should have made her essay available again. For now, used copies of the out-of-print “Hooked: Film Writings 1985–1988” with the “Shoah” review can still be found online.

Admittedly, sometimes Kael’s sharpest-tongue-in-the-class persona can grate, as in her “5001 Nights at the Movies Review” of “The Poseidon Adventure,” which meanly slates Shelley Winters as “so enormously fat she goes way beyond the intention to create a warm, sympathetic Jewish character. It’s like having a whale tell you you should love her because she’s Jewish.” Kael’s prose can certainly be offensive at times, but it always remains lively and is in places endearingly human, which is why it lasts and is still highly readable today. Examples of arts criticism that survive for generations, even after the subject addressed is no longer of primary interest, are rare indeed. But, to a handful of exceptions including the works of Sainte-Beuve and George Bernard Shaw, we need to add the incandescent writing of Pauline Kael.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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