In the recent discussions of issues raised by the Eddie Campbell essay “The Literaries,” the subject of the auteur theory of film has come up. I thought it would be of interest for people to hear what Pauline Kael (1919-2001), arguably the United States’ most prominent film critic, had to say about it.
In the Spring 1963 issue of Film Quarterly, Kael published a lengthy, detailed attack on auteurism and its proponents titled “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris.” The essay was primarily a rebuttal of the Andrew Sarris article “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” which had appeared in the Winter 1962 issue of Film Culture. Kael also took on a number of other peers who reflected Sarris’ thinking and articulated her views on criticism in general. The essay was reprinted in her 1965 collection I Lost It at the Movies. Truncated versions of the piece have also been published in a number of film-criticism anthologies. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in film criticism, and I personally think it’s one of the key pieces of English-language arts criticism of the last century.
Unfortunately, the full essay is not particularly easy to come by these days. I Lost It at the Movies has long been out of print in the United States. (A British edition is occasionally available, although usually at a premium. [Note: The British publisher, Marion Boyars, went out of business in 2009, but not before their backlist inventory was purchased for distribution. Copies, for a time, are more or less in print in the U. S. right now. See comments.]) The article was not included in either of the two career anthologies to date of Kael’s work, For Keeps (1994) and The Age of Movies (2011). It may have been omitted out of deference to Sarris. Kael didn’t meet him until a few years after the essay was published. She found that he carried a grudge over it and didn’t want anything to do with her personally. They were able to come together on some professional matters–among other things, they helped co-found the National Society of Film Critics in 1966–but they never reconciled. This reportedly bothered Kael a good deal. When asked about him in interviews, her practice became to say that while they had different tastes and disagreed about many things, she enjoyed his writing and greatly respected his passion and perceptions. She also chose not to reprint the essay in the For Keeps collection. Whether the editor of The Age of Movies left it out to respect her wishes, I do not know.
The audiofile below, which runs almost 55 minutes, is a recording of a lecture Kael gave at San Fernando Valley State College in 1963. After some introductory statements, the speech is a reading of the complete “Circles and Squares” essay.