Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark

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by Brian Kellow
     
 

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The first biography of The New Yorker's influential, powerful, and controversial film critic.

A decade after her death, Pauline Kael remains the most important figure in film criticism today, in part due to her own inimitable style and power within the film community and in part due to the enormous influence she has exerted over an entire

Overview

The first biography of The New Yorker's influential, powerful, and controversial film critic.

A decade after her death, Pauline Kael remains the most important figure in film criticism today, in part due to her own inimitable style and power within the film community and in part due to the enormous influence she has exerted over an entire subsequent generation of film critics. During her tenure at the New Yorker from 1967 to 1991 she was a tastemaker, a career maker, and a career breaker. Her brash, vernacular writing style often made for an odd fit at the stately New Yorker.

Brian Kellow gives us a richly detailed look at one of the most astonishing bursts of creativity in film history and a rounded portrait of this remarkable (and often relentlessly driven) woman. Pauline Kael is a book that will be welcomed by the same audience that made Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution and Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls bestsellers, and by anyone who is curious about the power of criticism in the arts.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Relentlessly outspoken, unafraid of challenging idols and embracing the lowbrow and the overlooked, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who died in 2001, proves a formidable, however natural, subject for Opera News columnist Kellow (Ethel Merman). He handles this difficult, unsympathetic personality with an admirable evenhandedness, considering that Kael cultivated as many detractors as admirers with her honest, gut-provoked reviewing. Born in 19TK to Polish Jewish immigrants who tried their luck running a chicken farm in Petaluma, Calif., before moving to San Francisco, Pauline was a crack student, deep reader, and eventual philosophy student at Berkeley, her early critical skills honed in the fledgling Berkeley Renaissance of the 1940s, with critics R.P. Blackmur and James Agee as early influences. From a stint as codirector of the Berkeley Cinema Guild with her then husband, Edward Landberg, Kael segued naturally into radio (KPFA) and freelance journalism, championing the New Wave and attacking the fashionable “auteur theory.” Her first book, I Lost It at the Movies (1965), established her reputation as the “saltiest” reviewer around, leading to her opening salvo at the New Yorker with an enthusiastic review of Bonnie and Clyde (1968). The old guard, like editor William Shawn, never warmed to her, but the young and iconoclastic loved her. In his fluent, immensely readable study, Kellow fairly represents Kael’s tendency to hyperbole (writing of Barbra Streisand or Last Tango in Paris) as well as hurtful ad hominem (George Cukor’s Rich and Famous; Shoah). (Oct.)
www.Redroom.com
“[Pauline Kael is an] entertaining and insightful biography.”
www.TheHumanist.org
“[Pauline Kael is an] excellent Biography.”
Todd McCarthy
"Kellow, an erudite movie lover...writes beautifully and dexterously interweaves the story of a career long-thwarted with a sensitive reading o his subject's youthful enthusiasm and intellectual growth."
Ben Brantley
“[Pauline Kael] got into my bloodstream more than any other critic. So I have been waiting most of my life for a smart, insightful biography like [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] to take me beyond and beneath the hypnotic thrill of her prose.”
Elaine Showalter
“[An] entertaining and insightful biography, as much a study of her criticism as a narrative of her life. . . . [Pauline] Kael emerges from [Kellow’s] biography as a great cinematic character, a kind of Citizen Kane, with a life lived and shaped by the dark.”
Ploughshares
“Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark wisely charts Kael’s life by focusing on her writing.”
Sense of Cinema
“[An] excellent new biography.”
American Spectator
“Yet Kael often reveled in movies she thought were a mess, just as anyone who reads Brian Kellow’s incisive, detailed biography of America’s most impassioned and influential movie critic, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, is sure to be absorbed, sucked in, by Kael’s cluttered hodge-podge of a life—personally, professionally, emotionally, aesthetically….There is so much packed into Kellow’s rich book…that her life story seems an epic script.”
Library Journal
Features editor of Opera News, Kellow is also author of Ethel Merman: A Life and The Bennetts: An Acting Family, an interesting background for someone writing about one of the most influential film critics ever. Note that the Library of America will simultaneously publish The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (750p. ISBN 9781598531091. $35).
Kirkus Reviews
The first biography of arguably the most influential and controversial film critic at a turning point in cinema history. Pauline Kael (1919–2001) was a study in contradictions: a farm girl (albeit from an unusual community of Eastern European Jews in Petaluma, Calif.) and proud Westerner who became film critic for the most urbane of Eastern magazines, the New Yorker; an outspoken critic of the auteur theory who faithfully championed several auteurs of the 1970s, including Peckinpah, Altman, Scorsese, Coppola and de Palma; and an acolyte of high art who wrote most passionately about "trash" that hit her in the gut. A generous nurturer of younger writers, she could turn cold or even brutal if they didn't act according to her plans for them. With her daughter Gina (who declined to participate in the book), Kael was dependent to the point of being an obstacle to her career and romances. But Kael's life outside of the movies is background to the narrative, as it seems to have been for Kael herself as she lived it. "For Pauline," writes Opera News features editor Kellow (Ethel Merman: A Life, 2007 etc.) writes, "being a spectator continued to be the best thing life could offer." She first came to some prominence as a movie maven in San Francisco, where she selected programs for an art house and opined on films for listener-supported radio. She was already 50 when she began writing for the New Yorker, but those two decades of her life take up roughly 75 percent of Kellow's book. Her influence owes probably most to her intensely personal writing style and her identification with and advocacy for the movie audience. Kellow performs biographical magic, telling her story mostly through her most famous (and notorious) reviews of some of the landmark films of the '60s and '70s: Bonnie and Clyde, M*A*S*H, Last Tango in Paris, Nashville, Jaws and Star Wars to name a few. Like Kael's own books, this bio is a page-turner.
Janet Maslin
…a smart and incisive biography…Mr. Kellow's clear, independent view of his subject is his book's most valuable surprise…It is possible to be dazzled by the bravura authority of [Kael's] writing without remotely agreeing with her, and this biography fully captures such contradictions. Kael liked to disparage what she called "saphead objectivity." But Mr. Kellow is no saphead, and he makes objectivity a great virtue.
—The New York Times
Frank Rich
…fair-minded and deeply reported…
—The New York Times Book Review
Louis Bayard
…Kellow's admiring but even-handed approach in Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark…neatly captures the unruly emotions his subject provoked.
—The Washington Post
Celluloid Void
“[Brian] Kellow finds the emotional core of [Pauline] Kael’s persona….Kellow is quickly becoming a film fan’s dream biographer…. That Kellow chooses to write in calm, unshowy prose is both astute as a journalistic technique and integral to the book’s aesthetic success….Kellow’s Kael transcends mere artistic contrarianism and resembles a sort of impassioned duelist.”
The New Yorker (Reviewers' favorites)
“Illuminating.”
Ben Brandtley
“[Pauline Kael] got into my bloodstream more than any other critic. So I have been waiting most of my life for a smart, insightful biography like [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] to take me beyond and beneath the hypnotic thrill of her prose.”
Scott Eyman
"Mr. Kellow’s even-handed treatment gives us [Kael] in all her maddening overconfidence.”
The Wall Street Journal (Recommended Gift)
“This affectionate biography makes [Kael's] life and her passion for movies inseparable.”

Mary Pols
“I fell on Kellow’s book like a teenage girl on a lost volume of the Twilight saga and found it quite as riveting as teens find anything to do with Bella.”
Entertainment Weekly (Best Nonfictions Books of 2011)
“[A] rich, thorough, and admirably fair biography.”
Leonard Maltin
“The fact that most of us know little about [Kael's ] upbringing of her private life makes this an especially intriguing biography.”
Los Angeles Magazine (Critic's Picks
"Kellow has reconstructed Kael's 'life in the dark'....The result is a joy to read....[I]t's a fascinating book."
Howard Kissel
“[E]xhaustively researched, beautifully written….Kellow has told [Kael's] life in incredible detail….I found [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] enthralling because it vividly recreates a world I was part of, which seems now very distant. It is also because Kellow has been generous in quoting [Kael's] sensuous, percussive, often wise prose….Pauline was a galvanizing presence, and Kellow has brought her back with overwhelming intensity.”
Richard Schickel
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark is a very good biography."
Philip French
“The [present] I hope someone will send me is Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark.”
Booklist (Top 10 Arts Books 2011)
“Kellow matches extensive research with acute perception in his sensitive and definitive biography of Pauline Kael, America’s foremost, and most controversial, movie critic.”
David Finkle
“Throws radiant light on the renowned movie critic.”
Laurie Winer
"[A] fascinating new biography….[Kellow] captures [Kael's] best passages and most heartless insults and puts them in context.”
From the Publisher
“Illuminating.”
The New Yorker
 
“This affectionate biography makes her life and her passion for movies inseparable—and she could be difficult in both arenas.”
The Wall Street Journal (The Short List)
 
“[A] convincing narrative of how a brazen woman with a basically unattractive but flagrantly domineering personality molded herself into a writer who could not be ignored. . . . Mr. Kellow’s even-handed treatment gives us the woman in all her maddening overconfidence.”
—Scott Eyman, The Wall Street Journal (Recommended Gift)
 
“To appreciate Kael’s trailblazing, you have to see it in its broader context. Luckily, that backdrop is filled in with surefooted sophistication by Brian Kellow in Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, a fair-minded and deeply reported Kael biography.”
—Frank Rich, The New York Times Book Review
 
“[A] smart and incisive biography. . . . [Moviegoers] are in for a colossal eye-opening. [Kael’s] love for film has no present-day counterpart. . . . Mr. Kellow’s clear, independent view of his subject is his book’s most valuable surprise. . . . Kael liked to disparage what she called ‘saphead objectivity.’ Bur Mr. Kellow is no saphead, and he makes objectivity a great virtue.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
 
“[Pauline Kael] got into my bloodstream more than any other critic. So I have been waiting most of my life for a smart, insightful biography like [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] to take me beyond and beneath the hypnotic thrill of her prose.”
—Ben Brantley, The New York Times (Critic’s Pick)
 
“[Brian] Kellow has written a fair-minded and deeply reported biography of the provocative, brilliant and maddening writer whose essays about movies transformed American pop-culture criticism.”
The New York Times (Editors’ Choice blurb)
 
“[A] fascinating new biography. . . . [Kellow] captures her best passages and most heartless insults and puts them in context.”
—Richard Schickel and Laurie Winer, Los Angeles Review of Books
 
“A smart and eminently readable examination of the life and career of one of the twentieth century’s most influential movie critics.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“[Kellow] brings a wise and sweeping vision to her artistic mentality and her enduring legacy.”
The Washington Times
 
“[An] entertaining and insightful biography, as much a study of her criticism as a narrative of her life. . . . [Pauline] Kael emerges from [Kellow’s] biography as a great cinematic character, a kind of Citizen Kane, with a life lived and shaped by the dark.”
—Elaine Showalter, The Times Literary Supplement
 
“Engrossing and thoroughly researched.”
Entertainment Weekly
 
“Kellow has reconstructed Kael’s ‘life in the dark’. . . . The result is a joy to read. . . . it’s a fascinating book.”
Los Angeles Magazine
 
“[E]xhaustively researched, beautifully written. . . . Kellow has told [Kael’s] life in incredible detail. . . . I found the book enthralling because it vividly recreates a world I was part of, which seems now very distant. It is also because Kellow has been generous in quoting her sensuous, percussive, often wise prose. . . . Pauline was a galvanizing presence, and Kellow has brought her back with overwhelming intensity.”
—Howard Kissel, Huffington Post
 
“Absorbing.”
The Toronto Star
 
“Kellow, an erudite movie lover . . . writes beautifully and dexterously interweaves the story of a career long-thwarted with a sensitive reading of [Kael’s] youthful enthusiasm and intellectual growth. To an impressive degree, he gets inside the head of a precocious, fearsomely smart young woman from small-town California and is able to describe what drove her, which authors turned her on (James, Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Woolf, Proust), her love of jazz and her distaste for aesthetic, religious and political dogma. So thoroughly does he portray the development of Pauline’s character and passionate engagement with matters aesthetic that it comes as no surprise she was able to burst onto the scene, at the relatively advanced age of 48, as one of the most dynamic cultural arbiters of the past century. . . . Kellow admirably brings Pauline’s wit, insight and passion to life on the page and has made at least one critic nostalgic for the days when heavyweight critical battles raged and at least one of us lived a life worthy of a biography. . . . [An] excellent biography.”
—Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
 
“I fell on Kellow’s book like a teenage girl on a lost volume of the Twilight saga and found it quite as riveting as teens find anything to do with Bella.”
—Mary Pols, San Francisco Chronicle
 
“At last, a biography of the highly influential New Yorker film critic.”
San Francisco Chronicle (Holiday Gift Guide)

 
“Brian Kellow’s biography of [Pauline Kael] is a fascinating and enlightening read. . . . I’m savoring every page.”
—Whitney Matheson, USA Today
 
“The [present] I hope someone will send me is Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark.”
—Philip French, The Observer (UK) (Christmas 2011 Gift Guide)
 
“Compelling.”
The Onion A.V. Club
 
“[A] rich, thorough, and admirably fair biography.”
Entertainment Weekly, (Best Nonfictions Books of 2011)
 
“Kael was the Elvis Presley of movie criticism.”
The Boston Globe
 
“[A] smashing first biography of the famed New Yorker critic.”
The Buffalo News
 
“[A] richly detailed biography.”
Maclean’s
 
“Throws radiant light on the renowned movie critic . . . though and well-written”
—David Finkle, Huffington Post
 
“[M]eticulously researched.”
Slate.com
 
“[A] terrific new biography . . . [Her early life ] was a revelation to me, thanks to Kellow’s ace research.”
Salon.com
 
“[A] finely balanced biography. . . . not only will you not be disappointed with Kellow’s intrepid research, you’ll also be rewarded by his rich, close reading of her reviews (and the stories behind the writing of them) that does marvelous justice to Pauline Kael’s exhilarating gift for writing on the movies. Both her admirers and her detractors could not have asked for a more satisfying biography.”
The Hindu
 
“Fun, fair, and fluently written, [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] is an edifying read.”
The Dallas Morning News
 
“Mr. Kellow throws a great deal of light on the famous critic’s heretofore mysterious ways.”
The Portland Mercury
 
“In Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, author Brian Kellow offers a making-of story as engaging as her criticism. It’s not easy feat—what’s less dramatic than scribbling into the night?—but Kellow tapped her friends and foes and her writing while developing a colorful, even handed appreciation of one of film’s most influential critics. . . . [An] eye-opening biography.”
—Associated Press
 
“Kael was a master at interpretation, and [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] is a highly successful interpretation of the storied critic. . . . A must-read for any devotee of film; compellingly written and recommended for all libraries.”
Library Journal (Starred Review)
 
“In his fluent, immensely readable study, Kellow fairly represents Kael’s tendency to hyperbole (writing of Barbra Streisand or Last Tango in Paris) as well as hurtful ad hominem (George Cukor’s Rich and Famous; Shoah).”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
 
“Kellow performs biographical magic, telling [Kael’s] story mostly through her most famous (and notorious) reviews of some of the landmark films of the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Kirkus (Starred Review)
 
“For a biography to do justice to a complex personality and a great mind such as Kael’s, extensive research must be matched by acute perception. That requirement is fully, even joyously, met here. . . . Kellow fleshes out these major stags as well as formative minor ones in a greatly revelatory portrait that will stand as the definitive one.”
Booklist (Starred Review)
 
“Kellow matches extensive research with acute perception in his sensitive and definitive biography of Pauline Kael, America’s foremost, and most controversial, movie critic.”
Booklist (Top 10 Arts Books of 2011)
 
“The fact that most of us know little about [Kael’s] upbringing of her private life makes this an especially intriguing biography.”
—Leonard Maltin, Movie Crazy
 
“Compelling . . . thrillingly written and exhaustively researched. . . . genius.”
—Drew Taylor, The Playlist
 
“Kellow evocatively captures the blooming of film culture in the early 1960s, and the sobriety with which Kael took over the critical pulpit. . . . Kellow not only grasps the significance of his subject, but invokes the pace and energy of [Kael’s] singular style. . . . good, dishy fun.”
Village Voice
 
“[An] excellent new biography.”
Sense of Cinema
 
“Kael often reveled in movies she thought were a mess, just as anyone who reads Brian Kellow’s incisive, detailed biography of America’s most impassioned and influential movie critic, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, is sure to be absorbed, sucked in, by Kael’s cluttered hodge-podge of a life—personally, professionally, emotionally, aesthetically. . . . There is so much packed into Kellow’s rich book . . . that her life story seems an epic script.”
American Spectator
 
“Perhaps the most valuable thing about Brian Kellow’s fine new book about [Pauline] Kael, A Life in the Dark, is that, aside from its virtues as a sympathetic, clear-eyed and sharp biography, is that it’s a really fine cultural and social document of a turning point in movie history.”
Special Broadcasting Service (Australia)
 
“Brian Kellow’s biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark wisely charts Kael’s life by focusing on her writing.”
Ploughshares
 
“[Pauline Kael is an] entertaining and insightful biography.”
—Redroom.com
 
“[Pauline Kael is an] excellent Biography.”
—TheHumanist.org
 
“[Brian] Kellow finds the emotional core of [Pauline] Kael’s persona. . . . Kellow is quickly becoming a film fan’s dream biographer. . . . That Kellow chooses to write in calm, unshowy prose is both astute as a journalistic technique and integral to the book’s aesthetic success. . . . Kellow’s Kael transcends mere artistic contrarianism and resembles a sort of impassioned duelist.”
Celluloid Void
Whitney Matheson
“Brian Kellow’s biography of [Pauline Kael] is a fascinating and enlightening read.”
The New Yorker
Illuminating.
The Wall Street Journal
This affectionate biography makes [Kael's] life and her passion for movies inseparable.
Booklist
"For a biography to do justice to a complex personality and a great mind such as Kael’s, extensive research must be matched by acute perception. That requirement is fully, even joyously, met here."
 
Los Angeles Times.com
“A smart and eminently readable examination of the life and career of one of the 20th century’s most influential movie critics.”
The Washington Times
“[Kellow] brings a wise and sweeping vision to [Kael's] artistic mentality and her enduring legacy.”
Slate.com
“[M]eticulously researched.”
The Dallas Morning News
“Fun, fair, and fluently written, [Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark] is an edifying read.”
The Portland Mercury
“Mr. Kellow throws a great deal of light on the famous critic’s heretofore mysterious ways.”
Associated Press Staff
“In Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, author Brian Kellow offers a making-of story as engaging as her criticism. It’s not easy feat—what’s less dramatic than scribbling into the night?—but Kellow tapped [Kael's] friends and foes and her writing while developing a colorful, even handed appreciation of one of film’s most influential critics….[An] eye-opening biography.”
The Playlist
“Compelling…thrillingly written and exhaustively researched….Genius.”
The Village Voice
“Kellow evocatively captures the blooming of film culture in the early 1960s, and the sobriety with which Kael took over the critical pulpit….Kellow not only grasps the significance of his subject, but invokes the pace and energy of [Kael's] singular style….good, dishy fun.”
San Francisco Chronicle
"At last, a biography of the highly influential New Yorker film critic."
Entertainment Weekly
“[A] rich, thorough, and admirably fair biography.”
The Hindu
“[A] finely balanced biography…[N]ot only will you not be disappointed with Kellow’s intrepid research, you’ll also be rewarded by his rich, close reading of her reviews (and the stories behind the writing of them) that does marvelous justice to Pauline Kael’s exhilarating gift for writing on the movies. Both, her admirers and her detractors could not have asked for a more satisfying biography.”
Toronto Star
“Absorbing.”
The Buffalo News
“[A] smashing first biography of the famed New Yorker critic.”
The Onion A.V. Club
“Compelling.”
Maclean's
“[A] richly detailed biography.”
Salon.com
“[A] terrific new biography… [Kael's early life ] was a revelation to me, thanks to Kellow’s ace research.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670023127
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/27/2011
Pages:
432
Product dimensions:
9.54(w) x 6.48(h) x 1.42(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Brian Kellow is the features editor of Opera News, where his column "On the Beat" appears monthly. He is the author of Ethel Merman: A Life and The Bennetts: An Acting Family and coauthor of Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. He has also written for Opera, Playbill, and Travel & Leisure among others. He lives in New York City.

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