Essay: Misquoting Pauline Kael

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Pauline Kael

It’s election time, and with it comes the periodic return of one of my least favorite political talking points. It’s the notion that film critic Pauline Kael, in 1972 or at some indeterminate time afterwards, said that she couldn’t believe or understand how Richard Nixon won the election, because “no one I know voted for him.”

Now, I understand that a big part of the Republican political arsenal is to depict liberals and Democrats as elitist and out of touch, and one of the most efficient ways of doing so is by bashing Hollywood. Hollywood actors have a tendency to make statements about politics that are simultaneously lefty and snooty, and the right certainly loves to jump on it. During the early Bush Administration, Hollywood-bashing, in some quarters, was the primary argument for the war in Iraq.

In keeping with that, the supposed Kael quote is often trotted out, even as recently as this week.

But I have a huge problem with it, for several reasons: First, Kael never said it. Second, Kael is a giant of the form, one of the greatest writers on film in history. Her tremendous legacy is way, way bigger than one silly non-comment. Third, I’d venture to guess that there are as many Republicans as Democrats whose friends all voted for the same candidate. And fourth, I think history has shown that the friends of Kael’s who didn’t vote for Nixon had the right idea after all.

The real quote comes from a speech Kael delivered at the Modern Language Association, on Dec. 28, 1972, as cited by the New York Times (Via Wikipedia):

“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

Rather than showing out-of-touch insularity on Kael’s part, the quote actually shows Kael is perfectly aware of that insularity and is in fact making light of it. It also shows she’s perfectly aware that there are people out there in the world who don’t share her views, as if she hadn’t yet gleaned that when she was 53 years old in 1972. Or for that matter in the previous election, which was also won by Nixon.

Sure, Kael espoused liberal political views. But to accuse Pauline Kael, who was as known for her iconoclastic, against-the-grain takes on the world of film as she was for anything else, was some kind of down-the-line conformist is the height of absurdity.

Kael enjoyed a 40-year run, at the New Republic, the New Yorker, and other publications, and also authored 13 books on film, including such classics as “I Lost It at the Movies,” “5001 Nights at the Movies” and “For Keeps.” She also mentored a virtual who’s-who of critics who are prominent today. from A.O. Scott to David Edelstein to Armond White. If Kael wasn’t the most influential film critic of the 20th century, she’s on the list of three or four. To reduce her entire career to an innocuous political comment- especially one she didn’t actually say- is as absurd as it is unfair.

And who says it’s only liberals who are provincial when it comes to politics? I live in a big city in a blue state, and most of the people I know are voting for Barack Obama. But not everyone- it’s rare for a day to pass when at least one of my Facebook friends doesn’t “like” Mitt Romney- and I’d imagine that most people in America have the same political views as the majority of their friends. Is the guy in rural Nebraska “elitist” and “insular” if 95 percent of the people he knows are voting for Mitt Romney?

And once again, if voting against Richard Nixon was wrong, I’d much prefer to denounce the people who were right.

Pauline Kael died in 2001, about a decade after retiring from day-to-day film writing; I only really became aware of her when I started taking film classes in college in the late ’90s and read a few of her books. I hate to think future generations will only know the name “Pauline Kael” as that highfalutin’ film critic lady, who didn’t know any Nixon voters.

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