Pauline Kael’s I Lost it at the Movies (1965) marked the emergence of a major modern critic: fearless, impassioned, caustically funny, alert to the nuance of the smallest detail. “Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply,” she observed, “just because you must use everything you are and everything you know.” Between 1968 and 1991, as regular film reviewer for The New Yorker, Kael used those formidable tools to shape the tastes of a generation, enthralling readers with her gift for capturing, with force and fluency, the essence of an actor’s gesture or the full implication of a cinematic image. Kael called movies “the most total and encompassing art form we have,” and she made her reviews a platform for considering both film and the worlds it engages, crafting in the process a prose style of extraordinary wit, precision, and improvisatory grace.
To read The Age of Movies is to be swept up into an endlessly revealing and entertaining dialogue with Kael at her witty, exhilarating, and opinionated best. She was, in the words of editor Sanford Schwartz, “a romantic and a visionary” who “believed that movies could feed our imaginations in intimate and immediate—and liberating, even subversive—ways that literature and plays and other arts could not.” Coming into her own as a writer during a time of cultural turmoil and remarkable cinematic accomplishment, she became one of the great chroniclers of that time and of the movies that were so central to it.
Her ability to evoke the essence of a great artist—an Orson Welles or a Robert Altman—or to celebrate the way even seeming trash could tap deeply into our emotions was matched by her unwavering eye for the scams and self-deceptions of a corrupt movie industry. Here are her appraisals of the films that defined an era—among them Breathless, Bonnie and Clyde, The Leopard,The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, Nashville—along with many others, some awaiting rediscovery, all providing the occasion for masterpieces of observation and insight, alive on every page.