The upcoming release of Alain Resnais’s classic Last Year at Marienbad on Blu-ray DVD reminds us that Marienbad was one of the many formally ambitious films released in the 1960s that popular critic Pauline Kael simply didn’t “get.” Blind to its visual beauties, indifferent to its innovative stylistic strategies, she dismissed Resnais’s masterwork as pretentious drivel.
She also didn’t “get” Antonioni’s Blow-up.
And she didn’t “get” Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In short, Kael didn’t “get” the ’60s.
Kael began the decade by pissing on the auteur theory (a theory she later embraced in practice, if not in name, by championing such ’70s auteurs as Altman, De Palma, and Spielberg). She ended the decade with a book-length monograph, Raising Kane, based on the ridiculous premise that the primary source of Citizen Kane‘s lasting greatness was the talent of screenwriter-for-hire, Herman J. Mankiewicz.
It’s not difficult to understand Kael’s appeal. She was a lively writer, and some of her insights were on the mark. (Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.) In opposition to gender stereotypes, she liked films that were sexual or violent or some combination thereof. She made it OK for New Yorker-reading intellectual wannabes to like “popcorn movies” so long as they didn’t take such “trash” seriously.
America has had a long tradition of populist anti-intellectualism, and Kael was very much a part of that tradition, arguably one of its finest flowers. Her entire career was based on the false dichotomy between popular entertainment and art. She never seemed to realize that one could like both, or how frequently the two categories overlapped.