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The Conservatism of Film Critic Pauline Kael


The Library of America’s new selection of film critic Pauline Kael’s writings showcases her liberalism; in it, we have her castigation of Clint Eastwood’s “Magnum Force” (“the liberalized ideology is just window dressing”), while praising “Julia,” a film based on Stalinist Lillian Hellman’s memoirs and starring fist-clencher Jane Fonda.

This, coupled with Kael’s oft-quoted confusion about President Nixon winning re-election in 1972 because “everyone I know voted for McGovern” gives us the impression of a limousine radical.

But what was omitted from “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael” would have balanced this portrait; it might even have showed some conservative sentiments on Kael’s part. The omission of her celebrated essay on “Citizen Kane” – done so because of suspicions it was plagiarized – would have revealed her to be in the Ninotchka (a 1939 film that hit Stalinism where it was weakest: in the funny bone) school of anti-communism.

In the essay, she argues that it was the joyless jargon merchants of American Stalinism that destroyed the screwball genre (“the Algonquin group’s own style was lost as their voice blended into the preachy, self-righteous chorus”).

She was even open-minded enough to understand the appeal of such vigilante films as “Walking Tall;” she admitted that such fantasies tapped into fears for her own safety in Warren Court America. Reviewing anti-blacklist “The Way We Were,” she lambasted the film’s message of there being only one alternative to the blacklisters: “ghastly” Stalinism.

Kael herself had briefly flirted with Stalinism while in college, but soon rejected it because of her lifelong aversion to dogma. She tried its leftist alternative of Trotskyism but this, too, failed her. In the new biography, close friends are quoted as seeing her as an “Adlai Stevenson liberal,” in love with the establishment.

Her writings certainly bears this out, but the editing of “Selected Writings” fails to bring her pioneering of political incorrectness to the fore.


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