By Brian Kellow
Pauline Kael reveled in the notion that movies had a subtext and were more than entertainments. The years she wrote reviews in The New Yorker began during a golden age of moviemaking. She continued on through the era of blockbusters and the beginning of the dominance of CGI over other methods of storytelling.
And although she reveled in strong film storytelling that included nuance, she did not celebrate shades of grey in her own life. Biographer Brian Kellow shows, rather than merely tells, how her world view of pro and con shaped the major relationships in her life. Those included her daughter, her grandson, her boss William Shawn and her acolytes, the Paulettes. For the last group, if you didn't take her advice, you were cast out. For her daughter, it meant years of being the practical one who took care of mundane arrangements. For her grandson, who has since died, it mean pure love. And for Mr. Shawn, it meant constant poking and no support, although she certainly sought his recommendations whenever it could help her.
There isn't much actual drama to Kael's life, and Kellow acknowledges this. He gives a great deal of space in his biography to quoting Kael's reviews. And this is fitting. Because the movies were her life. The scope and sweep of an era when movies came of age, when the blockbuster mentality took over and when movie critics had an influential voice in championing films, are the story of Kael's life.
The reviews themselves hold up well. The reviews provide a window into the passionate viewing experience of someone who took each film on its own merits even while upholding overall high standards that art be accomplished. Agreeing or disagreeing with a Kael review remains rewarding, for it engages the reader in reasoned decisions, based on reactions from the heart and the head, on whether the film delivered a rewarding viewing experience.
The value of this biography may not be in recounting the life of its subject, but rather in giving voice once again to its subject as she writes about what she loved most. The reviews quoted are both a history of that time in movie-making and a vibrant demonstration of honest reaction to a work of art that connects that work to its value in the viewer's life. Kellow shows how criticism can be enriching and, in doing that, pays honor to his subject.
©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission