I can remember the first Pauline Kael review I ever read—for Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973), probably the film that made the strongest impression on me as a teenage film enthusiast. Kael was lukewarm about the film, but even her relatively polite criticisms took me aback. My own response to a film had never really been challenged in such a way before; it was unsettling, and the forcefulness of her points put me on the defensive. It wasn’t until later, after I’d matured considerably as a film watcher and as a person, that I came around to her. I got a copy of For Keeps as a Christmas present my senior year in high school and I’ve been a die-hard “Paulette” ever since.
That doesn’t mean that I always agree with her pronouncements, and it still hurts to read her attacks on films that mean something to me. But one thing I’ve grown to love about Kael’s approach was her unflagging ability to sniff out cliché, to call lazy filmmaking when she saw it, and not to get blinded by hype or groupthink. A particularly strident example is her review of Salt of the Earth (dir. Herbert Biberman, 1953), a neo-realist film about a miner’s strike in New Mexico, made largely by filmmakers who had been blacklisted in Hollywood for their leftist political views. She wrote a take-down of the film—which had been praised elsewhere for its emotional and political power—in a 1954 article called “Morality Plays Right and Left” that compared its cheap leftist moralizing to the simplistic right-wing platitudes of anti-Communist thrillers.
Her objections to Salt of the Earth are characteristic of her sensibilities as a critic. She hated “message movies,” with their didacticism and lack of humor. “Social realism has never been able to pass up an opportunity for instruction,” she bemoaned, writing about the film’s “pedagogical tone.” She also objected to the reduction of the film’s characters—most of them Mexican-American miners and their wives—to convenient symbols for working-class resilience and solidarity, against which the mean Anglo bosses are pitted in what she felt was a cheap, simplistic conflict: “the proletarian morality play is a strict form: the heroes and villains illustrate a lesson.” Her panning of the film boils down to her strict aestheticism, her valuing of an artistic cinema over a political one. It bugged her that the medium of cinema had been used as a kind of pamphleteering, that a film could be boiled down to a set of argumentative bullet points, regardless whether or not she agreed with the message.
Her remarks about Salt of the Earth would likely generate controversy even today, because it’s still unfashionable to criticize an overtly political movie without being accused of criticizing the politics themselves (“Salt wasn’t a strike, it was a movie; but the confusion goes to the heart of the propagandistic aesthetic—you’re considered a strike breaker if you didn’t like it,” Kael wrote in response to angry letters she received for her review.) Salt of the Earth was propaganda, and in Kael’s eyes that meant it couldn’t be great art.