Forget the salacious book titles (Taking It All In, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I Lost It at the Movies) and the salty vocabulary – ‘soft’, ‘whorey’, ‘pulpy’ – Pauline Kael was a devoted mother and grandmother who spent the bulk of her life doing nothing more exciting than watching, talking and writing about films. Which means Brian Kellow’s biography is largely given over not to synopses of movie plots but to synopses of synopses of movie plots. The pages blur as you read about Kael’s dismissal of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or her rapture over Barbra Streisand’s turn in Yentl, not because what Kael had to say was otiose or dull, but because nine of the ten books in which she collected pretty much all her pieces are still in print. If you don’t want to go to the expense of buying them all, incidentally, the Library of America has just published The Age of Movies, an 854-page selection of her work that – with one striking exception – contains everything the non-movie buff might need. Even if Kellow’s style matched that of his subject – and it doesn’t – this would be the place to start.
Hemingway once said that all American literature came out of Twain. Certainly Kael’s criticism did. Though her heroes growing up were R P Blackmur, Kenneth Burke and Lionel Trilling (about whom, one learns from Kellow, she wrote an early, unpublished essay), her slangy, off-the-cuff rhythms grew out of her loathing