Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark Review
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In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, dreams of traveling back to a classic time in Parisian history—a romantic era of artists and writers and legendary figures. I’ve often felt the same way. Sometimes, as I write reviews of brainless slacker comedies or overstuffed blockbusters, I dream of traveling back to a bygone time in the world of film—a time of renowned directors and debonair movie stars, of classic films and, yes, even celebrated critics, in the days before big-budget popcorn flicks and 3D gimmicks and frantic fanboy buzz. Thanks to author Brian Kellow, I’ve been able to do just that—through the eyes of legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.

Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark explores the legendary critic’s entire life—from her rural California upbringing to her celebrated (and often controversial) career as a critic for The New Yorker. Using excerpts of Kael’s reviews and the observations of those who knew her best, Kellow digs into her inspiration, her motivation, and what it was that made her such a fascinating—yet often polarizing—figure.

In the process, Kellow also takes a look at the world of film during Kael’s time—a time before the kind of big-budget blockbusters that hit theaters each summer. Kael’s was a time of smaller films, whose success often depended on the assessment of critics. And instead of a plethora of magazines and newspapers—of online critics and bloggers and podcasts—moviegoers had just a handful of professional critics (whether local or national) to choose from. It was a difficult industry for a hopeful young writer to break into—but it helped if Pauline Kael was on your side.

Obviously thoroughly researched and carefully assembled, Pauline Kael is a fascinating—though not always flattering—biography of the legendary critic. Kellow clearly respects Kael’s work, meticulously detailing her life and work. Still, he doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t avoid the more difficult aspects of her personality: her favoritism, her brusqueness, her competitive nature, even her difficult relationship with her daughter. At times, he even (rather awkwardly) steps out of his role as impartial biographer to offer his own assessment of her behavior or work (pointing out which pieces, in his opinion, weren’t her best—and where she excelled).

Kellow’s style, meanwhile, is fairly academic, not to mention rather choppy and episodic, often offering glimpses of Kael’s life through short anecdotes and observations that don’t necessarily flow into one another. At other times, however, Kellow wanders off on tangents, going into great detail about certain historical points—or the history and production of specific films. He seems to have a difficult time deciding which films need just a short, simple reference (apparently assuming that readers already know about them) and which need (or deserve) more space.

For me, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark was a mesmerizing look at the history of my chosen profession—and a detailed depiction of the life and career of a respected figure in the field. But you don’t have to be a film critic (or even a film student) to enjoy this in-depth introduction to a classic character in film criticism. It may be a bit academic—and it doesn’t have the same easy-going flow of your favorite novel—but, in reading it, you’re sure to learn more about both the world (and the art) of film and the life of one of the art form’s most respected critics.

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