Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Pauline Kael

American Film Critic for The New Yorker Magazine, Writer for City Lights, McCall's and The New Republic

"The first prerogative of an artist in any medium is to make a fool of himself."

"I see little of more importance to the future of our country and of civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him."

"In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."

"One of the surest signs of the Philistine is his reverence for the superior tastes of those who put him down."

"Trash has given us an appetite for art."

"How completely has mass culture subverted even the role of the critic when listeners suggest that because the movies a critic reviews favorably are unpopular and hard to find, that the critic must be playing some snobbish game with himself and the public?"

"It seems to me that the critic's task should be to help people see more in the work than they might see without him. That's a modest function, and you don't need a big theory for it."

"A mistake in judgment isn't fatal, but too much anxiety about judgment is."

"A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense."

"Our emotions rise to meet the force coming from the screen, and they go on rising throughout our movie-going lives."

"There are so many kinds of innocence to be lost at the movies. [about the title of her book, I Lost It At The Movies]"

"If there is any test that can be applied to movies, it's that the good ones never make you feel virtuous. [writing about Stand by Me]"

"In this country we encourage "creativity" among the mediocre, but real bursting creativity appalls us. We put it down as undisciplined, as somehow "too much.""

"Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize."

"McLuhanism and the media have broken the back of the book business; they've freed people from the shame of not reading. They've rationalized becoming stupid and watching television."

"People are cynical about advertising, of course, but their cynicism is so all-inclusive now that they're indifferent, and so they're more susceptible to advertising than ever."

"If you can't make fun of bad movies on serious subjects what's the point?"

"I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses "art" films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood "product," finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism."

"The words "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," which I saw on an Italian movie poster, are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this."

"A book might be written on the injustice of the just."

"A movie without actors is not, generally, a very compelling or memorable movie. There are great documentarians, of course, and directors who can make movies where we're fascinated by the whole look and feel of things, but generally we need an actor, or a group of actors, to involve us emotionally."

"A guy gets shot with a penis."

"After one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, "Well I don't see what was so special about that movie." I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?... Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings."

"Alienation is the most common state of the knowledgeable movie audience, and though it has the peculiar rewards of low connoisseurship, a miser?s delight in small favors, we long to be surprised out of it ? not to suspension of disbelief nor to a Brechtian kind of alienation, but to pleasure, something a man can call good without self-disgust."

"Art doesn't come in measured quantities: it's got to be too much or it's not enough."

"And for the greatest movie artists where there is a unity of technique and subject, one doesn?t need to talk about technique much because it has been subsumed in the art. One doesn?t want to talk about how Tolstoy got his effects but about the work itself. One doesn?t want to talk about how Jean Renoir does it; one wants to talk about what he has done. One can try to separate it all out, of course, distinguish form and content for purposes of analysis. But that is a secondary, analytic function, a scholarly function, and hardly needs to be done explicitly in criticism. Taking it apart is far less important than trying to see it whole. The critic shouldn?t need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together. The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made ? which is more or less implicit."

"An artist must either give up art or develop. There are, of course, two ways of giving up: stopping altogether or taking the familiar Hollywood course - making tricks out of what was once done for love."

"Citizen Kane is perhaps the one American talking picture that seems as fresh now as the day it opened. It may seem even fresher."

"At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don't have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact desensitizing us. They are saying that everyone is brutal, and the heroes must be as brutal as the villains or they turn into fools. There seems to be an assumption that if you're offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don't believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there's anything conceivably damaging in these films ? the freedom to analyze their implications. If we don't use this critical freedom, we are implicitly saying that no brutality is too much for us ? that only squares and people who believe in censorship are concerned with brutality. Actually, those who believe in censorship are primarily concerned with sex, and they generally worry about violence only when it's eroticized. This means that practically no one raises the issue of the possible cumulative effects of movie brutality. Yet surely, when night after night atrocities are served up to us as entertainment, it's worth some anxiety. We become clockwork oranges if we accept all this pop culture without asking what's in it. How can people go on talking about the dazzling brilliance of movies and not notice that the directors are sucking up to the thugs in the audience?"

"Before seeing Truffaut's Small Change, I was afraid it was going to be one of those simple, natural films about childhood which I generally try to avoid ? I'm just not good enough to go to them. But this series of sketches on the general theme of the resilience of children turns out to be that rarity ? a poetic comedy that's really funny."

"Audiences who have been forced to wade through the thick middle-class padding of more expensively made movies to get to the action enjoy the nose-thumbing at good taste of cheap movies that stick to the raw materials. At some basic level they like the pictures to be cheaply done, they enjoy the crudeness; it?s a breather, a vacation from proper behavior and good taste and required responses. Patrons of burlesque applaud politely for the graceful erotic dancer but go wild for the lewd lummox who bangs her big hips around. That?s what they go to burlesque for."

"De Niro's inflamed, brimming eyes are the focal point of the compositions. He's Travis Bickle, an outsider who can't find any point of entry into human society. He drives nights because he can't sleep anyway; surrounded by the night world of the uprooted ? whores, pimps, transients ? he hates New York with a Biblical fury, and its filth and smut obsess him. This ferociously powerful film is like a raw, tabloid version of Notes from the Underground. Martin Scorsese achieves the quality of trance in some scenes, and the whole movie has a sense of vertigo. The cinematographer, Michael Chapman, gives the street life a seamy, rich pulpiness."

"De Mille's bang-them-on-the-head-with-wild-orgies-and-imperiled-virginity style is at its ripest; the film is just about irresistible."

"Genre movies are often just what we want and all we want."

"Earlier generations went to see what was forbidden in life and developed a real excitement about the movies. Today?s rating system keeps kids out of the good ones. I wouldn?t want them to see movies like Natural Born Killers, but my tendency is you?re better off seeing things than not. That glazed indifference kids develop can be worse than over-excitement."

"I believe that we respond most and best to work in any art form (and to other experience as well) if we are pluralistic, flexible, relative in our judgments, if we are eclectic."

"Her only flair is in her nostrils."

"Goodman: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

"For some strange reason we don?t go to charming, light movies anymore. People expect a movie to be heavy and turgid, like American Beauty. We?ve become a heavy-handed society."

"Her [Marilyn Monroe] mixture of wide-eyed wonder and cuddly drugged sexiness seemed to get to just about every male; she turned on even homosexual men. And women couldn't take her seriously enough to be indignant; she was funny and impulsive in a way that made people feel protective. She was a little knocked out; her face looked as if, when nobody was paying attention to her, it would go utterly slack -- as if she died between wolf calls."

"I didn't dislikeÿAmerican Beautyÿ-- I hated it. It's not that it's badly made -- it isn't. It has snappy rhythms and Kevin Spacey's line readings are very smart, and Annette Bening is skillful in the scene where she beats up on herself. But the picture is a con. It buries us under the same load of attitudes that were tried out inÿCarnal KnowledgeÿandÿThe Ice Storm, with the nice trustworthy young dope-dealers ofÿEasy Rider. Maybe audiences are so familiar with this set of anti-suburbia attitudes that it's developed into its own movie genre."

"I loved writing about things when I was excited about them. It's not fun writing about bad movies. I used to think it was bad for my skin. It's painful writing about the bad things in an art form, particularly when young kids are going to be enthusiastic about those things, because they haven't seen anything better, or anything different."

"I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."

"I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets."

"I still don't look at movies twice. It's funny, I just feel I got it the first time. With music it's different. People respond so differently to the whole issue of seeing a movie many times. I'm astonished when I talk to really good critics, who know their stuff and will see a film eight or ten or twelve times. I don't see how they can do it without hating the movie. I would."

"I started to write, and everything snapped together in my life when I wrote about movies."

"I try not to waste air time discussing obviously bad movies ? popular though they may be; and I don?t discuss unpopular bad movies because you?re not going to see them anyway; and there wouldn?t be much point or sport in hitting people who are already down. I do think it?s important to take time on movies which are inflated by critical acclaim and which some of you might assume to be the films to see."

"If I never saw another fistfight or car chase or Doberman attack, I wouldn't have any feeling of loss. And that goes for Rottweilers, too."

"In movies, the balance between art and business has always been precarious, with business outweighing art, but the business was, at least, in the hands of businessmen who loved movies. As popular entertainment, movies need something of what the vulgarian moguls had ? zest, a belief in their own instincts, a sentimental dedication to producing pictures that would make their country proud of their contribution, a respect for quality, and the biggest thing: a willingness to take chances. The cool managerial sharks don?t have that; neither do the academics. But the vulgarians also did more than their share of damage, and they?re gone forever anyway. They were part of a different America. They were, more often than not, men who paid only lip service to high ideals, while gouging everyone for profits. The big change in the country is reflected in the fact that people in the movie business no longer feel it necessary to talk about principles at all."

"If we make any kind of decent, useful life for ourselves we have less need to run from it to those diminishing pleasures of the movies. When we go to the movies we want something good, something sustained, we don?t want to settle for just a bit of something, because we have other things to do. If life at home is more interesting, why go to the movies? And the theatres frequented by true moviegoers ? those perennial displaced persons in each city, the loners and the losers ? depress us. Listening to them ? and they are often more audible than the sound track ? as they cheer the cons and jeer the cops, we may still share their disaffection, but it?s not enough to keep us interested in cops and robbers. A little nose-thumbing isn?t enough. If we?ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art."