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Critic Kael saw where movies were headed

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Pauline Kael was often referred to as the "dean of American film criticism." She probably would have preferred " . . . movie criticism."

Pretentiousness was something that, by all accounts, she disdained, although some would argue that she frequently demonstrated it.

Kael, who died last week at the age of 82, was the movie critic for New Yorker magazine for 22 years and other venues before that (she retired a decade ago).

And her many books of collected reviews are on the shelves of any critic worth his or her salt.

Kael's writing was always quite instructive . . . but not necessarily for her opinions. In fact, you could read some of her movie reviews and come away unsure about whether or not she was recommending them. She seemed to have any number of strong complaints even about the films she most enjoyed.

I never had the privilege of meeting Ms. Kael, but as with most movie critics of my generation, I was certainly influenced by her. Her writing style set a very high bar for the rest of us, primarily because of her passion for the medium . . . even though she was more brave and perhaps reckless than the rest of us.

Her intricately detailed, reactionary rants are highly entertaining, though I must confess that I seldom found myself in agreement with her. And I wasn't the only one. Kael was a Grand Master at going against the grain and going over the top.

She is widely recognized as the first to hail the mastery of "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Nashville" and the '70s as a time of personal filmmaking, but she also wildly overrated some of her favorites, such as Brian De Palma. She called his 1981 thriller "Blow Out" "a great movie (and probably the best of all American conspiracy movies)," comparing its star, John Travolta, to "the very young Brando."

Although a Steven Spielberg champion for his first two features, "The Sugarland Express" and "Jaws," she dismissed "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as having "no exhilaration," adding, "It seems to have been edited for the maximum number of showings per day." Of "Star Wars," she said, "The film is enjoyable in its own terms, but it's exhausting, too; like taking a pack of kids to the circus." "The Sting" was, in her view, "visually claustrophobic, mechanically plotted."

Often, Kael's reviews were filled with caustic or oddball observations, most famously when she said that in "Dances With Wolves," Kevin Costner had "feathers in his hair and feathers in his head." She noted that Redford and Newman, after "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "swapped mustaches" for "The Sting." And her review of the 1970 farce "There's a Girl in My Soup" describes Goldie Hawn as having "goldfish eyes, but she seems to have a hook in her mouth."

Sometimes Kael would invoke references so obscure that even the literati had to look them up. But she wasn't above using such descriptive terms as "loony" or "icky."

In every instance, Kael formulated her thoughts — as tough as they could sometimes be — in a way that was remarkable and enviable.

She could also see where the movie business was going long before the rest of us.

While recently re-reading Kael's "Reeling," I found her 1974 essay "The Future of the Movies" incredibly relevant 27 years later.

In it, she laments that in the incestuous battle between movie art and commerce, commerce seemed to be winning and noted that a number of people had said to her that movies just didn't seem worth attending anymore. She surmised that visceral pummeling of the audience was taking a toll.

Kael suggested that filmmakers reach out to the potential audience, to bring them back to meaningful movies.

Sadly, by the time Kael retired, filmmakers had instead adapted their work to a younger audience that wants only the visceral.


E-mail: hicks@desnews.com