I Lost It at the Movies

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First UK edition (Jonathan Cape)

I Lost It at the Movies (1965) is Pauline Kael's first collection of reviews, covering the years 1954–1965, which was published prior to her long stint at The New Yorker. As a result, the pieces in the book are culled from radio broadcasts that she did while she was at KPFA, as well as numerous periodicals, including Moviegoer, the Massachusetts Review, Sight and Sound, Film Culture, Film Quarterly and Partisan Review. It contains her negative review of the then widely acclaimed West Side Story, glowing reviews of other movies such as The Golden Coach and Seven Samurai, as well as longer polemical essays such as her largely negative critical responses to Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film and Andrew Sarris's Film Culture essay Notes on the Auteur Theory, 1962. The book was a bestseller upon its first release, and is now published by Marion Boyars Publishers.

Kael's first book is characterized by an approach where she would often quote contemporary critics such as Bosley Crowther and Dwight Macdonald as a springboard to debunk their assertions while advancing her own ideas. This approach was later abandoned in her subsequent reviews, but is notably referred to in Macdonald's book, Dwight Macdonald On Movies (1969).

When an interviewer asked her in later years as to what she had "lost", as indicated in the title, Kael averred: "There are so many kinds of innocence to be lost at the movies.[1]" It is the first in a series of titles of books that would have a deliberately erotic connotation, typifying the sensual relation Kael perceived herself as having with the movies, as opposed to the theoretical bent that some among her colleagues had.


The book is divided into an introduction, and four sections. These sections are entitled as such: I) Broadsides; II) Retrospective Reviews: Movies Remembered with Pleasure; III) Broadcasts and Reviews, 1961–1963; and IV) Polemics.

The introduction is entitled "Zeitgeist and Poltergeist; Or, Are Movies Going to Pieces?"

The contents of Section One (Broadsides):

  • Fantasies of the Art-House Audience
  • The Glamour of Delinquency
  • Commitment and the Straitjacket
  • Hud, Deep in the Divided Heart of Hollywood

Movies reviewed in Section Two (Retrospective Reviews):

Movies reviewed and titles of articles in Section Three (Broadcasts and Reviews):

Contents of Section Four (Polemics):

  • Is There a Cure for Film Criticism? Or, Some Unhappy Thoughts on Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality
  • Circles and Squares
  • Morality Plays Right and Left

Critical responses[edit]

In Dwight Macdonald On Movies, Macdonald includes a brief five-page review of I Lost It at the Movies. While he states in the beginning of his review that he has, on the whole, favorable sentiments towards the book, he nevertheless criticizes Kael for being "stronger on the intellectual side than on the aesthetic side"[2] as well as her persistence in quoting other critics out of context. In the process, Macdonald confutes some of the assertions Kael makes about his own opinions regarding certain movies.

Dwight Macdonald writes:

What I like especially about Miss Kael's book is that it is written from the outside. The trouble with most film criticism today is that it isn't criticism. It is, rather, appreciation, celebration, information, and it is written by intellectuals who have come to be "insiders" in the sense that they are able to discourse learnedly about almost any movie without thinking much about whether it's any good - the very question must strike them as a little naive, and irrelevant - because they see it as a greater, or lesser, manifestation of the mystery, the godhead of Cinema.

Nevertheless, Macdonald goes on to say that some of the quotes that Kael utilizes in her reviews are often used incorrectly especially in regards to him, creating a distorted view of the opinions he had on certain movies such as Jules and Jim. He also questions the validity of some of her assessments of a few movies, including Hiroshima Mon Amour, , and Last Year in Marienbad, stating that she is "perversely literal-minded" and comments upon "her ascetic insensibility to the sensual pleasures of cinema...when she dislikes the literary content."[2] When Kael ponders in the book "it [is] difficult to understand why Dwight Macdonald with his dedication to high art sacrifices his time to them," Macdonald contends that he has always considered movies to be a high art. This, in a way, highlights the differences in their perspectives on movies: Pauline Kael sees movies as a fusion of pop and art elements (a mixture of lowbrow and highbrow), while Macdonald sees it in more highbrow terms. On the whole, Macdonald seems to respect her critical acumen, but not her methods.

A more adverse reaction comes from the auteurist Andrew Sarris, mainly as a result of the essay '"Circles and Squares", which was originally published in Film Quarterly. Sarris's reaction was in response to Kael's denunciation of the Auteur theory's merits, and has, in later years, occasionally jabbed at Kael's work. Examples of his critical observations are available in his books, e.g., The Primal Screen and Politics and Cinema. With the exception of "Circles and Squares", Kael has rarely responded. Notwithstanding Kael's unresponsive silence, this has gone down in film lore as the Sarris-Kael feud.

Further reading[edit]

The book actually does not contain the full range of Kael's writings published in magazines from this period. From 1962-64, Kael had written for a short-lived section of Film Quarterly entitled Films of the Quarter, alongside other critics such as Stanley Kauffmann and the screenwriter Gavin Lambert. Some, but not all, of these writings are included in this book.


In reference to the title of the book, the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an article entitled "I Missed It at the Movies: Objections to Raising Kane" as a rebuttal to Kael's essay on Citizen Kane, which had been entitled "Raising Kane".

In Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, the book is referenced under the parody title I Lost Something at the Movies, and a short snippet of the made-up book is included, where the author theorizes (correctly) that the (fictional) film titled Zombies in the Snow awkward dialogue is actually written as such in order to pass on messages in a secret code. The name of the fictional author given, "Lena Pukalie", is also an anagram of Pauline Kael.


  • I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses "art" films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood "product," finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and liberalism.[3] - Fantasies of the Art-house Audience
  • Siegfried Kracauer is the sort of man who can't say "It's a lovely day" without first establishing that it is day, that the term "day" is meaningless without the dialectical concept of "night," that both these terms have no meaning unless there is a world in which day and night alternate, and so forth. By the time he has established an epistemological system to support his right to observe that it's a lovely day, our day has been spoiled. - Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?
  • When a really attractive Easterner said to me, "I don't generally like musicals, but have you seen West Side Story? It's really great," I felt a kind of gnawing discomfort. I love musicals and so I couldn't help being suspicious of the greatness of a musical that would be so overwhelming to somebody who didn't like musicals. - Kael on West Side Story
  • There is a standard answer to this old idiocy of if-you-know-so-much-about-the-art-of-the-film-why-don't-you-make-movies. You don't have to lay an egg to know if it tastes good. - Replying to Listeners
  • Can we conclude that, in England and the United States, the auteur theory is an attempt by adult males to justify staying inside the small range of experience of their boyhood and adolescence - that period when masculinity looked so great and important but art was something talked about by poseurs and phonies and sensitive-feminine types? - Circles and Squares
  • When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, "Well I don't see what was so special about that movie." I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel? My identification with those two lost boys had become so strong that I did not feel simply a mixture of pity and disgust toward this dissatisfied customer but an intensified hopelessness about everything. - Kael on Shoeshine


  1. ^ Alpert, Hollis, Raising Kael, The Saturday Review, 24 April 1971
  2. ^ a b Macdonald, Dwight, Dwight Macdonald on the Movies, (Prentice-Hall, 1969), 471-473
  3. ^ I Lost It at the Movies, 31

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