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Film Critic Pauline Kael Dead At 82

Film critic Pauline Kael died Monday at her home in Great Barrington, Mass. Kael, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, was 82.

Kael was among the most influential film critics of the 20th century, helping to establish the reputations of such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Steven Spielberg from her lofty perch at The New Yorker.

Kael was a brash champion of artistic quality, panning both facile commercialism and self-indulgent pretense. Her writing was punchy, conversational, sometimes slangy.

"What she said seemed to matter," said film critic Leonard Maltin. "She provoked response, discussion, arguments. She was so passionate."

In her 38-year career, Kael was a consistent defender of artistic creativity, subtlety and refined craftsmanship — qualities she worried were endangered.

In a 1980 essay, "Why are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers," she wrote that "The studios no longer make movies primarily to attract and please moviegoers; they make movies in such a way as to get as much as possible for the prearranged and anticipated deals."

In an Associated Press interview in 1989, she lamented, "You can't get college kids interested in going to any sort of daring movie now. They're perfectly willing to sit through the same old crap, a larger version of what they've seen on television all their lives. They may even resent it if they go to a film that has subtitles, or that has any kind of complexity."

Physically petite but mighty in her opinions, she became one of the 20th century's most important and recognizable film critics. She called the movies "our national theater."

Her 1969 essay "Trash, Art and the Movies," written for Harper's magazine, was named in 1999 as No. 42 on a New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century.

David Remnick, The New Yorker's editor, said Kael broke down barriers between low and high cinema in her reviews, delighting in both the sublime and the profane.

"She shaped American film criticism for generations to come and, more important, the national understanding of the movies," Remnick said.

She wrote her first review in 1953 for a San Francisco magazine, panning Charlie Chaplin's "Limelight" as "Slimelight." Over the years, her work appeared in Film Quarterly, Mademoiselle, Vogue, the New Republic, and McCall's.

Writer Martin Knelman once said she packed such diverse personal, social, commercial and artistic insights into her writings that they were often more entertaining than the movies she reviewed. Kael was endowed with a prodigious memory and knowledge of cinema, able to accurately report plot and dialogue despite not taking notes during screenings.

Her views often defied popular taste. She thought "Rain Man" a "wet piece of kitsch." She dismissed "Dances With Wolves" as a "nature-boy movie" and famously mocked director-star Kevin Costner as "having feathers in his hair and feathers in his head."

"She could be dogmatic, f course and Lord help you if you disagreed — that was the tone of many of her reviews," Maltin said. "But she spoke with great authority and great love. She loved movies and that was crystal clear every time you read her."

She admired films such as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Weekend," "The Godfather," "MASH," "The Garden of the Finzi Continis," and "Mean Streets." She likened "Last Tango in Paris" to "Rite of Spring," calling it "the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made."

Although she ridiculed the auteur theory of film, which exalted a director's stylistic and thematic fixations, she was a longtime admirer of many directors, including Altman, Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard and Satyajit Ray. Marlon Brando, James Mason, Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda were among her favorite actors.

Kael also loved the films of Orson Welles, but she enraged the director by writing that he had contributed little to the Oscar-winning screenplay for "Citizen Kane" and plotted to receive sole credit at the expense of collaborator Herman J. Mankiewicz. Welles denied her allegations, and several friends and admirers defended him.

She wrote more than 10 books, including her breakthrough 1965 work of collected reviews, "I Lost It at the Movies," and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Her "Deeper Into Movies" won a National Book Award in 1974. In 2000, she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle.

Born in Petaluma, Calif., on June 19, 1919, she lived on a farm during her early years. Her father was a movie fan, and she developed into an avid reader and movie enthusiast.

She studied at the University of California at Berkeley from 1936 to 1940 but did not earn her degree at the time. Later in life, she was granted an honorary doctorate.

During Kael's career, her personal life sometimes suffered. She had multiple marriages and divorces.

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